On its way to becoming the nation's largest
grassroots conservation organization, the Sierra Club made its mark in
the annals of mountaineering.
by Jennifer Hattam
When the Sierra Club was formed in 1892, the natural world was a less charted place. It was still easy to blaze a new trail, map an unnamed valley, or summit a mountain not already visited by previous expeditions. In its articles of incorporation, the nascent Club declared its intention to "explore, enjoy, and render accessible the mountain regions of the Pacific Coast"; in so doing, early members became an integral part of the history of the wilderness they loved. (In 1951, after new roads had been proposed for some of the Sierra Nevada's wildest areas, the Club revised its statement of purpose to "explore, enjoy, and preserve the Sierra Nevada and other scenic resources of the United States.")
Reflecting John Muir's belief that taking people into the wilderness was the best way to increase the number of nature defenders, the Club led mass ascents of Mts. Whitney and Rainier. Women were included on many early climbs, on the condition, in some cases, that "no skirts were to be worn." (In September 1903, the San Francisco Chronicle heralded a Club outing that brought the first women up 14,375-foot Mt. Williamson, the second-highest peak in California.)
The most adventurous Sierra Club members set off on their own or in small groups, before the advent of now-standard climbing equipment such as ropes, carabiners, and pitons, and made it into the history books with these and other first ascents of peaks throughout the Sierra Nevada and beyond. In lauding these accomplishments, the February 1941 Sierra Club Bulletin notes the exclusion of John Muir himself, "who, leaving no records on the summits that he visited, must have anticipated more than one 'first ascent.'" (The peakbagging described here occurred in the Sierra Nevada unless otherwise noted.)
1895-Arrow Peak (Bolton Coit Brown)
1896-Mt. Gardiner (Brown, Joseph N. LeConte)
1896-Center Peak (Cornelius Beach Bradley)
1896-University Peak (Helen Gompertz, LeConte, Belle
Miller, Estelle Miller)
1896-Mt. Clarence King (Brown)
1896-Mt. Stanford (Brown)
1902-Split Mountain (Helen M. LeConte, LeConte, Curtis
1903-Mt. Sill (James S. Hutchinson, LeConte, James K.
Moffitt, Robert D. Pike)
1935-Northwest face of Lower Cathedral Rock (Doris
Leonard, Leonard, Robinson). Of this climb, Richard
M. Leonard wrote, "The problem consists in working
out from under a massive overhang on a 70-degree
face 1,100 feet above the valley floor. Although the
difficult portion is only 150 feet high, the piton
technique is as intricate as anything yet accom-
plished by our group."
1936-Mt. Waddington, British Columbia (Bill House, Fritz
1937-East Temple, Zion National Park, Utah (Dawson,
Homer Fuller, Wayland Gilbert, Dick Jones)
1939-Shiprock, New Mexico (Raffi Bedayan, David R.
Brower, John Dyer, Robinson). Climbers had been
daunted by this 1,700-foot volcanic neck for years;
at least one had died trying to reach the top. The
threat to life and limb wasn't just from falling. As
his group prepared to finally summit, Robinson
called down to his wife, Florence, "to inquire how
she had survived the night. 'Splendid,' she replied,
'only I had to kill two rattlers that insisted the camp
1940-Leaning Chimney (Kenneth D. Adam, Brower, Morgan
Harris, Leonard, Carl Rosberg)
1940-Kat Pinnacle (DeWitt Allen, Torcom Bedayan,
1940-Snowpatch Spire, British Columbia (Jack Arnold,
1946-Lost Arrow (Arnold, Hansen, Fritz Lippmann, Anton
1947-Mt. Confederation, Alberta (John D.
Mendenhall, Ruth Mendenhall)
1950-Castle Rock Spire (Philip C. Bettler, Jim Wilson)
1950-North face of Sentinel Rock (John Salath‚, Allen P.
1951-Mt. Bear, Alaska (Alfred W. Baxter Jr., Rupert Gates,
Jon Lindberg, Lippmann)
1951-Mt. Jordan, Alaska (Gates, Lindberg)
1952-East peak of Huandoy, Peru (William Siri, Steck)
1953-East buttress of El Capitan (William Long, Siri,
Steck, Willi Unsoeld)
1956-Arrowhead Arˆte (William Feuerer, Mark Powell)
1956-Spider Rock, Canyon de Chelly, Arizona (Jerry
Gallwas, Powell, Don Wilson)
1957-East ridge of Mt. Logan, Yukon (Dave Collins, Don
Monk, Cecil Ouellette, Gil Roberts, K. F. Ross)
1957-Northwest face of Half Dome (Gallwas, Royal
Robbins, Mike Sherrick)
1958-South buttress of El Capitan (Warren Harding,
Wayne Merry, George Whitmore). This ascent took
"45 days spread over a period of 18 months; a total
of 675 pitons and 125 expansion bolts were used."
1958-Hidden Peak, Pakistan (Nick Clinch, Dick Irvin,
Roberts, Bob Swift)
1960-The Diamond, Longs Peak, Colorado (Robert
Kamps, David Rearick)
1960-Masherbrum, Pakistan (Clinch, Dick Emerson, Tom
1963-West ridge of Mt. Everest, Nepal/Tibet (first
American team) (Hornbein, Unsoeld)
1965-South ridge of Mt. Logan, Yukon (Steck, Paul
Bacon, Frank Coale, John Evans, Richard Long,
In 1932, Richard M. Leonard formed the Cragmont Climbing Club (later the Rock Climbing Section of the San Francisco Bay Chapter) to hone techniques on Berkeley's Cragmont Rock and other local sites. The group eventually developed strategies that would change the sport forever, opening up more summits to more people, more safely, than ever before.
The Dynamic Belay
Before the 1930s, climbers just hoped they wouldn't fall. If a person fell, the belayer (a companion holding the safety rope) would "lock down," or grab the rope tightly, stopping the climber's downward motion at all costs. This "static belay" transferred the force of the fall to the equipment, a dangerous proposition since the hemp ropes used at the time were weaker than today's nylon ropes, and more prone to break under stress. To address this problem, Leonard introduced the "dynamic belay," a method in which the belayer allows some of the rope to slide out of his or her hands, reducing the shock of the fall and creating a softer "landing" for the climber.
The Carabiner Technique
Rappelling a mountain can be an exhilarating way to descend, but in the early days it was more often an awkward, painful experience. Climbers wrapped the ropes around their bodies, a friction-intensive method that was difficult to control. The Rock Climbing Section minimized rope burn while rappelling (then called "roping down") by feeding the rope through a carabiner, a metal link attached to their gear.
The Expansion Knee or Human Piton
Early climbers made their way up to the summit by following the cracks in the mountain. These openings in the rock were an ideal place to hammer in "pitons," spikes or pegs used for safety and sometimes support. But early pitons were too small to anchor well in larger cracks. In 1940, Sierra Club member Art Argiewicz began using his own body as the anchor, wedging his knee and other appendages into the openings. This technique became known as the "expansion knee" (for the way the human knee expands when bent) or the "human piton."
In 1896, Sierra Club members Walter A. Starr and Allen Chickering hiked 278 miles in 27 days, completing a portion of the high-mountain route between Yosemite and Kings Canyon now known as the John Muir Trail.
Sierra Club members originated the Ski Mountaineering Test, which became the established measure of skill for the U.S. Ski Association.
When Sierra Club climbers-among them David Brower-went to Europe to fight in the 10th Mountain Division in World War II, their experience became the basis for the U.S. Army's Mountain Operations manual.