John Salathé: A Brief History of Yosemite’s First Climbing Legend: The Early Years
For anyone who becomes interested in the history of climbing in America, it won’t be long before they come across the name John Salathé. Certainly, anyone who considers themselves a serious climber or an armchair student of climbing history will have heard the name, even if it’s only from the namesake wall making up the Southwest face of El Capitan. But how much do we know about the eccentric Swiss, John Salathé? (Salathé, pictured left, with Yvon Chouinard, photo by Tom Frost.) The answer depends on your source. To the best of my knowledge, there is no official extant biography detailing his entire life, as there is of other historical figures such as John Muir, or Frederick Law Olmstead, of whom we know a great deal. Only a handful of books on climbing mention him in any detail, while others often repeat the same anecdotal evidence; and not all the sources agree on all the details. What we know? He was Swiss; he was eccentric; he talked to angels (schizophrenia?); he invented the modern piton; he made the original piton from a Ford axel (though not all sources agree); he became a vegetarian in middle life and he pioneered some great climbs—notably, The Lost Arrow Spire, The Southwest Face of Halfdome and The Northwest Face of Sentinel Rock. The last of which has had perhaps the most profound impact on the direction climbing would take in years to come. What we don’t know? A lot. Including his precise whereabouts before arriving in Yosemite Valley. Until now. Thanks to documents published here for the first time, we can more precisely locate Salathé in history before arriving in California. There is still much to be learned, but this essay adds a few more pieces to the puzzle.
John Salathé was born in Neider-Schöntal, Switzerland on 14 June, 1899 to Emil Salathé and Rosa Dieboldswyler. He was one of six children: Frederick (b. 1900), Ernest (b. 1905), Kleiret, Emil Jr., and Max. Dates of birth and death for the last children are either unknown or not listed publicly. One thing every author agrees on is that Salathé was a blacksmith and apprenticed in that field before leaving Switzerland. According to the Federal Census from 1940, filled out by his wife Ida, Salathé had an eighth-grade education, which would have put him somewhere around the age of thirteen or fourteen when he may have begun blacksmithing. This is essentially everything we know for now about his early life.
His life comes into only slightly better focus after he leaves his native Switzerland. According to Steve Roper’s magnificent Camp 4, “Salathé left home in his early twenties, apprenticed as a blacksmith, and then, at the age of twenty-three, made his way westward, working as a merchant seaman in the Atlantic for four years” (31). There are two clarifications regarding Roper’s account that I believe need attention. First, whether he understands “westward” as including Salathé’s stay in France; or, whether he means, more strictly, Salathé’s arrival in Canada and the United States. Based on what I present below, I believe it’s the former. The second uncertainty in Roper’s account relates to chronology. It’s uncertain if Roper’s intent is to list Salathé’s movements and doings in chronological order, or simply to provide an itemized list of doings regardless of the order in which they took place. For instance, Roper’s list suggests that Salathé left home first, then started an apprenticeship. Perhaps this is an oversight; or maybe this is how Roper heard it from the man himself. But grammar matters. You may want to help your uncle Jack, off a horse; but you wouldn’t want to help your uncle jack off a horse. See? Whatever Roper’s intent, however, it is most probable that Salathé completed his primary school education through eighth grade, apprenticed as a blacksmith, and then headed west. His apprenticeship would likely have taken anywhere from four to eight years, putting Salathé somewhere between seventeen and twenty-two upon completion of his apprenticeship; and which is totally in the ballpark for Roper’s retelling. Why does this matter? Because we know for a fact that Salathé left Bordeaux for Nova Scotia at the age of twenty-six. Allen Steck’s online biographical sketch does not provide an age at which Salathé left home like Roper’s, but Steck does tell us that Salathé arrived in Canada in 1925. We can confirm Steck’s account, thanks to the shipping manifest from the S.S. Chicago, that Salathé left Bordeaux, France on 26 September and arrived in Halifax, Nova Scotia on 6 October, 1925. If Roper is correct in stating that Salathé worked as a merchant seaman for four years (31), this means that heading west means leaving Switzerland, not France, as Salathé would have been either twenty-one or twenty-two depending on the month of his departure. This also suggests, though doesn’t prove, an eight-year apprenticeship beginning at the age of fourteen. Of course, it’s also possible that his apprenticeship was slightly shorter and that he kicked around his home town or other parts of Switzerland before landing in France. Until more becomes known, other documents discovered, I think this is our most accurate guess.
(By visiting my Ocular Odyssey page, you can download, view and zoom in on the three documents included in this article.)
The Chicago shipping manifest provides us with more information than just his whereabouts though. Salathé’s first language was German, and all sources agree on this. In fact, Steck documents his accent phonetically. It’s also clear that Salathé spoke French, if not fluently, at least enough to get by in a foreign country; but more than likely he was fluent. All his whereabouts are unclear, but Allen Steck writes that upon Salathé’s arrival in Paris, he rented a cheap room, had a terrible episode with bedbugs, left abruptly, and ended up in Le Havre. Neider-Schöntal, Salathé’s hometown, borders France and lies only miles from the French-speaking part of Switzerland. Additionally, French is one of four official languages of Switzerland; the others are German, Italian and Romansh. I’m not certain if that was true in the early part of the twentieth century when Salathé was born, but the Swiss Federation dates back to before Salathé’s birth and neither the first nor the second World War had much, if at all, effected the political organization of the country. Just ten days before boarding the Chicago for Canada, on September 16th, 1925, Salathé was issued a French passport in Paris; he signed his name “Jean”. Clearly, he was he using a Francophone version of his given name to get by in France. Besides the anecdotal evidence, though, is the fact that the shipping manifest lists both French and German as the languages he spoke.
From Halifax, Nova Scotia he ended up in Montreal. Both Steve Roper and Allen Steck write that he married Ida Schenk sometime around 1927 or 1928; Schenck worked a professional cook and, remarkably, was also from Neider-Schöntal and born in 1899. A striking coincidence. Roper mentions that Salathé was twenty-nine at the time of his marriage. Allen Steck, meanwhile, puts the birth of their first son, John Salathé Jr., in 1928, but doesn’t provide a date for that life-event. I confirmed, via email with a direct descendant of Salathé’s, that Ida Schenk gave birth to John Salathé Jr. (who is still alive) on 25 September, 1928 in Montreal. Though, if paper or digital records exist, I was not able to track them down during my digital excavation. If Roper is correct in relating Salathé’s age of twenty-nine at the time of his marriage , and given Salathé’s date of birth as 14 June, 1899, this would mean that Salathé would have to have married after June 14th, and that Salathé Jr. was conceived out of wedlock. In the biographic materials that have come down to us from extant sources, we know that Salathé often raved against the Catholic Church in his later years. Was the conception of their son out of wedlock a reason for their leaving Catholic Montreal? Whatever the case may be, the family was not long to remain in Canada.
Coming to America
The Salathés crossed into the United States on 7 March, 1930 through Rouses Point, N.Y., a Canadian border town. For the second time in the historical record, his name is given as “Jean”, although, John is typed in parentheses; his place of birth is given as “Aridorf”, a corruption of Arisdorf, which is the district in which Neider-Schöntal is located. Salathé was thirty years old. Shortly, or perhaps immediately, thereafter, Salathé and family made their way to San Mateo, California, some miles south of San Francisco, where, in 1932, he founded the Peninsula Wrought Iron Works. Did he spend two years in New York? Or Vermont, which would have had a sizeable German-speaking population? Did he make his way immediately to California only to putter around for a couple years before setting up shop? In all likelihood the transcontinental journey from Vermont or New York to California would not have taken more than a week in the 1930s, as a liberal estimate. Where was he and what was he doing? As of the writing of this article, it’s unclear. However, by 1940, he shows up in the Federal Census. According to the census he had lived at 229 22nd Avenue in San Mateo since at least 1935 and the home was worth $5,500 according to Schenck, who filled out the form. In terms of wealth, and adjusted for inflation, that amount of money would be equal to a little under 100k in 2018 dollars. So, Salathé and family were certainly of modest means.
Salathé registered for the draft on 15 February, 1942 at the age of forty-two. I was unable to obtain a digital copy of the draft card, but I was able to gather its details from Ancestry.com. According to those details he was 5’6”, weighed 165 pounds and had a ruddy complexion with hazel eyes and brown hair. So Salathé was short and of average build at that time. Toward the end of the war, sometime in 1945, Salathé became ill, and for the first time on record begins conversations with his angels. As Roper relates the story he heard first-hand: ‘John, look at those healthy animals. They eat grass, not meat. You eat meat and you are always feeling sick’ (Roper, 32). Steck’s account differs only slightly: “Look John, that horse and those other animals are quite healthy and strong and what are they eating? Grass! And what do you eat?” “I eat meat”. There’s probably a bit of creative non-fiction at work here, or Salathé himself gave slightly different accounts on two occasions, but both authors consistently make the same point: Salathé looked to nature and its example as a way of life from then on and became a vegetarian. Doctors told him the Sierra air would be good for him and he eventually found his way to a Sierra Club meeting and Yosemite shortly thereafter. And whether it was the air, the exercise or the diet, Salathé’s health improved. According to the most credible published sources on the subject and this newly published historical data, this is essentially what we know about his life up until the time he came to Yosemite.
Salathé’s arrival in Yosemite in 1945 or ’46 would change the course of climbing in America and establish rock climbing as an elite sport, where once it had been considered only practice for the more “serious” alpine climbing.
Part two of this essay will cover Salathé’s impact on climbing in America.
Roper, Steve. Camp 4: Recollections of a Yosemite Rock Climber. The Mountaineers: 1994
Steck, Allen. “Who was John Salathé?”
Library and Archives Canada; Ottawa, Ontario, Canada; Series: RG 76-C; Roll: T-14803 The invention of the Piton.
The National Archives in St. Louis, Missouri; St. Louis, Missouri; Record Group: Records of the Selective Service System, 147; Box: 1580
“Vermont, St. Albans Canadian Border Crossings, 1895-1954,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:QK3R-XHCG : 16 March 2018), Jean Or John Salathe, 1924-1952; citing M1463, Soundex Index to Canadian Border Entries through the St. Albans, Vermont, District, 1895-1924, 85, NARA microfilm publications M1461, M1463, M1464, and M1465 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration)