Norman Clyde: Legendary Mountaineer of California's Sierra Nevada Paperback – Oct 1 2008
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Norman Asa Clyde (8 Apr 1885 - 23 Dec 1972) was well educated (BA 1909, English, Honorary D. Sci (1939) Geneva College; and only lacked a thesis for an MA but he refused to participate in "dramas of the romance languages." He read in six different languages, including French, Italian and English. He was a teacher and principal for 18 years in places including North Dakota, Utah, Florence AZ, San Francisco and Independence CA.
Clyde married Winifred May Bolster (b. 1 May 1890, New York) on 15 June 1915 in Pasadena CA while Clyde was a student at UC Berkeley and Winifred was in nursing school in Oakland. Winifred suffered from tuberculosis for four years and died at age 29 on Valentine's Day, 14 February 1919. Clyde never spoke of his wife, even to close friends.
Clyde served as teacher (English, history, science, Latin) and Principal at Independence High School beginning in 1924, the same year local citizens seized control of the LA Aqueduct floodgates near the Alabama Hills in Owens Valley. A 1928 Halloween incident with students and a gun resulted in Clyde's resignation and freedom to embark upon a life lived in the open.
Some referred to him as "filthy McNasty" because he tended not to wash. Clyde lived at the mercy of the seasons, changing weather and his own rigorous schedule, equally at home on rock or skis. He preferred the higher peaks in the southern Sierra Nevada away from Yosemite Valley with "too many damned people." Clyde said, "mountains are more than a spectacle. For there seems always to issue from their summits a challenge to scale them." Clyde spent 1920 - 1946 climbing throughout the Sierra Nevada. He wrote over 1,467 articles on many subjects. Phil Hanna, longtime editor of AAA's Touring Topics, noted "this chap flits about the Sierra as nonchalantly as most of us walk about our own homes." Clyde worked on the High Sierra Trail across Sequoia National Park in 1932.
Clyde (age 48) assisted in the search for Walter A. "Pete" Star (JD, Stanford, 1926) in August 1933 (age 30). (Starr's Guide to the John Muir Trail and High Sierra Region, still in print) After others left, Clyde continued to search in the Minarets and found Pete. Pete was interred in near where he fell in a cleft in the rock on the narrow ledge near Michael's Notch in the Minarets, on 30 August by Jules Eichorn, Ranger Benjamin Mace, Lilburn Norris, Douglas Robinson, Jr., Walter A. Starr Sr. and Clyde (W. Alsup, 2005. Missing in the Minarets, The Search for Walter A. Starr, Jr.). Clyde received a stipend from the Starrs for the rest of his life.
Normally "aloof" and quiet, Clyde enjoyed a good friendship with Scottish artist Robert Clunie beginning in 1930 and continuing until the late 1960s. The two shared a love of the mountains. Clyde wrote about his summertime high country companion, lavishing him with praise - something that Clyde rarely did. Clunie stated, "I've analyzed Norman's beefs against humanity, and I've found that he's always basically right. He's a perfectionist, a dreamer. He's a great mountaineer."
Chris Jones (1976), "The Sierrans," Climbing in North America, describes Clyde as "the dean of Sierra Club climbers" in 1931. Glen Dawson, Robert Underhill, Jules Eichorn and Clyde made the first ascent of the east face of Mount Whitney (4421 m) on 16 August 1931. Pavlick includes a photograph of "the pack that walks like a man." The packs Clyde carried are legendary: pots, pans, a cast iron skillet, several pairs of boots, boot lasts, an axe, a few pistols, a couple of fishing rods, up to five cameras and a small library of classics in the original German, French, Spanish and Greek. He particularly favored the Greek, because he was a bit rusty in it and the books lasted longer.
David Gilligan's (2000) The Secret Sierra, The Alpine World Above the Trees, gives a glimpse of Clyde's world and states Clyde had "inexhaustible physical stamina, and was known to be a proud and sensitive man, unable to grasp modern thinking. . . . He was said to be the last of his kind, a dying breed, and as such, he left no heirs."
He spent 20 winters as a caretaker of Glacier Lodge courtesy of Bertha Horine and 20 winters at Baker Ranch above Big Pine. He also used Lon Chaney's cabin. There were always conflicts with owners when it came time to vacate each spring. Scrimshaw Press published a limited edition of "Norman Clyde of the Sierra Nevada: Rambles through the Range of Light" in November 1971. A cancerous (genetic) left eye was removed in 1969.
As time caught up with his body, he split his time between Baker Creek Ranch and the Inyo County Sanitorium. Clyde's last mountain outing was in Fourth Recess at 3000 meters on Mono Creek on the western slope in the summer of 1970 at age 85. He died on 23 December 1972 (87) from metastatic melanoma - primarily in the left eye. Because of legal restrictions at the time, Clyde was "officially" buried in Tonopah Cemetary in Nevada. Clyde's friends Smoke Blanchard, Bob Blanchard, Jules Eichorn and North Blenner took turns hurling handfuls of Clyde' ashes out onto the rocks and glaciers above North Clyde Peak (37.04° N, -118.28° W, 4223 m) and North Clyde Glacier.
Norman Clyde Peak was officially recognized by the US Board of Geographic Names in 1974. First ascent by Norman Clyde, 9 June 1930. To more fully appreciate the peak and the climb, see R.J. Secor's (2009) The High Sierra, Peaks, Passes and Trails, pages 230-234. Google Earth does not do the Peak or the climb justice.
Pavlick's treatment of Norman Clyde is only a beginning. There is a wealth of reading and climbing in the High Sierra you need to do in order to see things from Norman Clyde's perspective.
To get a real feel for the man, search out the chapter on Norman Clyde in "Walking Up and Down in the World" by Smoke Blanchard, which includes the priceless from-the-heart letter by Smoke written for the collection of Clyde writings "Norman Clyde of the Sierra Nevada: Rambles through the Range of Light". This letter is a classic of mountaineering literature.
Norman Clyde was a peculiar cross between a powerful and resourceful 19th century mountain man, a John Muir type devotee and scholar of the Sierra, and an obssessive 20th century peak bagger. For first ascents and focus he is exceeded only by the likes of Fred Beckey. Yet he was already 45 by 1930, before the era of technical climbing, so a majority of his first ascents were done solo with hobnailed shoes and gigantic ice axe, requiring remarkable skill, judgment, adaptability, strength, and nerves of steel. His 100 pound packs were legendary in themselves.
So what was it like for a rugged individual to roam the mountains in the 1920s? Pavlik gives us only glimpses. I'd like to see vivid, in-depth vignettes.
I grew up within walking distance of the mountains that Clyde knew so well, but rarely took advantage of the opportunity to hike; I believe that my life would have taken me down some very different paths if I had known about Norman Clyde 40 years ago. And I just might have been a better student of Latin and Greek, too. . . One of Clyde's poems is reproduced in the book. It begins as one might expect from a student of Homer--with a "rosy morn." But rather than detailing the life of a man of "twists and turns," the poem is a Wordsworth-like celebration of nature. Pavlik's book includes many choice passages from Clyde's own books and articles.
Clyde continued to trek and climb into his 80s. Perhaps there is hope for me yet. One thing is certain--it would be impossible to read Pavlik's "Norman Clyde" and not be inspired to climb your own mountains, whether they be real or figurative.