Friday, June 29, 2012


Photos this week are some of my earliest, taken by me and my friends during the years that I write about in this blog

As a flat-land Kansas boy, hills and high places had a special draw for me.  When I moved to California at the age of 11, it was my Uncle John that introduced me to the High Sierras.  When he visited, he would sometimes take me meandering, often going where there was no trail along a watershed or a mountain slope,  not fixed on reaching a destination, but enjoying the experiences along the way.  From Uncle John I learned the names of many wild plants and rocks.  I learned the principles of “dead reckoning” and how to find my way through the forest and find my way out again.  At a critical time in my life, after my father had died, he played a pivotal role in my growing up.

Resting - Planning the next move

The morning I turned 16 years old I was in line at the local DMV to get my license to drive.  Soon after I took my summer earnings from doing farm work to buy my first car; a blue behemoth of an old Dodge!  Gasoline cost 26 cents a gallon... and the world of new adventures was open before me.  I lived in Visalia, “The Gateway to Sequoia Park”, and it was possible to be at 6000 ft. within 45 minutes from home.  Thus began my love affair with the high mountains. 
One of my early cars - unpacking before the hike

My buddies and I must have been blessed with special guardian angels with some of the harebrained things we did!  At first it was all quiet innocent – just going to the mountains and hiking familiar trails and back the same day... Then we graduated to car camping – going up Friday night after school or after work, hiking during the day, and camping in one of the campgrounds.  But we encountered people who were backpacking. It sounded like such fun!

One of my climbing buddies, Charlie

Having very limited budgets, we went to the local army surplus stores and bought used military issue packframes, sleeping bags, and minimal cooking gear.  Since we had no real teachers on “how to backpack” it was largely trial and error... I remember carrying a cast iron skillet on one of the first excursions, something I quickly eliminated from the list. In later years we became minimalists , reducing the weight of our loads as much as possible.  

Sierra rock is mostly hard light colored granite – hence  the name “ Range of Light”.

Much of the higher rock has been shaped by recent glaciers (in geologic terms).   As we hiked into higher elevations we encountered rock systems that just invited young adventurers to climb to the top... And then I was really hooked.  I connected with the natural beauty of this land.  I felt its poetry. I could hear its music... this land  above the forests.  It is a land of ice-sculpted rocks, flower filled pocket meadows, flowing and falling water, and light.  Once in my blood, it has never left.

Me with rucksack

Along the way my friends and I decided that we really needed climbing equipment- but we didn’t know the first thing about rock climbing... I discovered a fledgling company in Seattle called REI – a mountaineer cooperative that only sold a small range of climbing equipment.  From them I purchased two books – both printed in England that described basic technique... 
Charlie and me after climbing this pinnacle
From the books I learned  what equipment we needed; rope, pitons, carabineers...  Rope was expensive – but I bought 120 ft. of 5/8” hemp rope for the climbing rope (this was before the age of nylon climbing rope) .  Then we sat about learning how to climb.  We learned the technique of using a rope to belay the lead man, using a hammer to drive a series of pitons into a vertical crack system, hanging slings to hold our weight, reaching a safe place and then belaying the persons below as they ascended. (Last person removed the pitons).

Packframe, rope, pitons & carabineers, piton hammer

Coming down over a cliff or steep slope involved using the rope to rappel down. ( Rope through the legs, over the shoulder, and hanging down the back. then lean into the rope and hold tight! ) .   We learned how to descend rapidly through a field of loose scree by glissading, and the art of using a minimum effort to cross a field of larger rocks by jumping from one high rocky point to the next high point – With practice and luck this allows quite rapid movement.  In high elevations we struggled with the oxygen poor air - making progress  slow and painful.  But the exhilaration of standing on the peak is grand!

A chimney maneuver

Along the way I sometimes had opportunities to travel with more experienced climbers – from whom I learned a great deal.  My sister arranged for me to climb with the Fresno State University mountain group.  I recall that climbing a  particularly fine pinnacle with them was some of the most exposed climbing I ever did -  but I felt like I was  in competent  hands.

Limestone cave - W. side of Sierras

On one trip I spent about 12 hours underground with a caving group that had to employ various climbing techniques. One caving experience was enough for me – There was a lot of crawling through very confined spaces, and swinging across vertical holes  –  I prefer sunlight to carbide lanterns.
A good part of mountaineering was the time spent pouring over maps, closing routes, destinations, planning supplies.  
After I went away to college and getting settled in my career I was pretty much away from my beloved mountains for a number of years. And when I fell in love with Judy and learned that she to had a love for the mountains, our mountain adventures have continued ever since.

Judy - on a mountain top

At this point in my life I feel like I have come full circle – back to enjoying quieter rambles through the high rocks and meadows. We still reach some dramatic high country – but no more ropes and climbing.  Like Uncle John “it is the journey” rather than the “destination” that draws me now.  I still get very excited by the sight of a pika or a water ouzel... by a miniature Sierra Columbine or a Sticky Monkey flower... by the water flowing out of an ice cave and the clean rarified air at 12000 ft.

August at 12000 ft.

Here is a poem I wrote to the mountains a few years ago...

Hello, Old Friend

Those were crystal mornings
When my levis
Soaked with dew
Crossed your green bladed meadows
Laughing as my rucksack rode strong and balanced on my back
With audacity
I believed that I mastered your granite faces and spires,
With unmeasured certainty
I accepted noon and twilight
Within your glades and talus fields.
Now you remind me
Of companion faces long unremembered
Bits of conversation still linger in your twilight air
Like eagle feathers stuck into a broken straw hat.
I believed that I could conquer your every aspect

But I didn't see your patient smile
It has taken me all these years to understand.
“Hello, old friend
Why have I changed and not you?”

The backside of "Sawtooth" in Mineral King

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