Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Norman Clyde

The WSJ covers a new exhibit at Eastern California Museum dedicated to Norman Clyde. I encountered his legend early and often during two years of working at the White Mountain Research Station and climbing around in the Eastern Sierra. At that time I had an eight-day on/six-day off schedule, and would spend the six days climbing a lot of peaks with Norman Clyde first ascents. I obviously couldn't emulate him, but I was camping in a lot of the same spots, taking some of the same routes, and even reading a few of the same books (albeit in translation) - so perhaps I could at least share in part of his experience.

The thing that made Clyde a hero to me is that he really didn't do much that the average trained mountaineer couldn't do, but he performed his accomplishments at a time when no one else had committed to doing them. In other words, he was a visionary rather than a mere athlete. He went out into the Sierras to see them and experience them (and to get some quiet time to read Latin and Greek), and ended up with 130 first ascents. He wasn't really selling anything, except what he needed to fund more time in the mountains.

I hope they didn't spiff up the materials at the museum too much. When I went there in 2001 to learn more about Clyde, there were a lot of photo albums of his (and others') climbs to flip through, and the place generally had a well-loved but comfortably-forgotten feel. I'm picturing a modern NPS visitor center, and that wouldn't suit Clyde at all.

I left the Sierras having climbed only a tiny fraction of the peaks I wanted to climb. I certainly don't regret leaving; one of Clyde's lessons is the pervading sense of loneliness that shows in his interviews and photos. He loved the Sierra, but of course the Sierra can't love back.

1 comment:

catherinekleier said...

I really like the last part. It's true, the mountains (and the plants) can't love back. They can provide a lot of comfort sometimes, like old friends, but it's not like getting a hug.