John Salathé: A Brief History of Yosemite’s First Climbing Legend: The Later Years
In my previous post on John Salathé, I covered the “early years”. That period of his life covered pretty much all that we know up until he arrived in Yosemite. He would have been forty-six when he strolled into the valley. The reason I included so much in that first post is because this is the period of which we know so little. Also, readers may have noticed that I made no mention of Salathé’s climbing prowess or history during those years. The reason being that so far as we know Salathé never climbed until he came into Yosemite in the mid-40s, after the war.
The post-war years in Yosemite saw the greatest innovation in climbing up to that point. Partly, this came because new materials available through army surplus made more and better gear available to a wider range of consumers; also, because during the war no one had the energy to worry about making great advances in the craft, or to worry about what those who came before them had done. That all changed once the war was over. Joseph Taylor III, in his book Pilgrims of the Vertical, writes about this period of Yosemite climbing history:
Postwar climbers not only attained new heights but reshaped climbing culture. In twos, threes, and fours the individuals fanned across Yosemite and the world. By 1946 ascents of the Cathedral Spires were related as though they were nothing special. Private trips were the preferred way to put up new routes on Pulpit Rock, Watkins Pinnacle, Rixon’s Pinnacle, Phantom Pinnacle, Sugar Loaf, and El Capitan. Most pushed the limits of free and aid climbing, or their location and length were serious. Three ascents stood out for all these factors: the southwest face of Half Dome, the Lost Arrow Chimney and Lost Arrow, and the north face of Sentinel Rock. (125)
Guess what else they had in common? John Salathé.
By virtually all accounts, Salathé seems not to have been a particularly gifted climber. In fact, he never touched a rock while he was in Europe and didn’t start climbing in the U.S. until he was forty-six years old. Nor was he a climber who logged many first ascents, as is so often prized—then, as now—in the climbing community. What he was, was daring, fearless and innovative. In fact, the innovations Salathé contributed to big wall climbing would change the sport and cement his legacy more than any number of first ascents ever could. Everything we associate with big wall climbing today—self-contained climbs, completing a climb in a single push, advancing up a climb using bolts and pitons—Salathé pioneered in the postwar years.
Before the Stone Monkeys and Stone Masters, before Jim Bridwell, before Royal Robbins and Warren Harding, there was John Salathé. But these early days of Yosemite rock climbing were very different from the sport we know today. Climbing, in the early days, was far from an elite sport. “Back then, rock climbing was seen as practice for mountaineering, with a conservative focus on safety” (Valley Uprising). It’s true that men such as Yvonne Chouinard, Royal Robbins, Chuck Pratt and Warren Harding pioneered an attitude that helped to define a climbing ethic and propel the sport forward toward what we know it to be today, but attitudes toward climbing have never been homogenous. Perhaps the rivalry between Harding and Robbins is the best example of that. Claire Engel, author of A History of Mountaineering in the Alps, wryly observes that, “‘one of the striking aspects of mountaineering’ is that ‘one can hardly find two climbers who indulge in it for identical reasons,’’” (qtd. in Taylor 13). Robbins climbed with a strict ethic: minimal bolts, no fixed ropes, take what you need and do it in a single push. Harding didn’t care how he got to the top, even if he had to ferry supplies and climbers up and down a wall, drilling a thousand and one bolts to do it. Salathé seems to have been an interesting mix of these two ethics. It’s almost as if the rivalry between Harding and Robbins deconstructed Salathé’s ethic and style and each followed a divergent path.
By the mid-40s, after a series of accidents, the RCS (Rock Climbing Sections, a division of the Sierra Club) and the National Park Service attempted to regulate climbing for safety purposes. During the debate of how this should be done, Salathé was overhead in frustration, “Vhy can’t ve chust go out und climb?” (Taylor 126). He was responding to what he saw as an overcomplicated and unnecessary system of rules being put in place primarily because an unusual number of accidents were incurred by the Stanford Alpine Club, which, euphemistically, “lacked experience”. Salathé was having none of it. Thus, he might be said to be the first climber to make (even implicitly) the argument that climbing is worth it for its own sake.
As to Salathé’s second major contribution to the sport, he created new gear and innovated its use. Of the oft-repeated myths surrounding Salathé’s name and the invention of the piton is the story of how he used a Ford Model A axel that he happened to have in his shop as the source material for his new gear. As the story has it, he cut the axel up and refashioned it into pitons, reasoning that if it was tough enough to be used on automobile axels, it had to be tough enough to be pounded into Yosemite granite. However, Steve Roper makes a convincing case against this. It’s more likely that the type of metal used in Ford axels, a 40/60 carbon steel containing Vanadium, was readily available on the market. “Axels being difficult to work with, it would seem more plausible that Salathé simply used bars of the 40/60 alloy, which he could have obtained easily and cheaply” (Roper 33). Allen Steck’s account of the invention of the piton contains both scenarios, although, he quotes Salathé who himself claims it was in fact the ford axel that provided the metal. Perhaps, later, to make more pitons he purchased the compound metal. Whatever the case, his new pitons allowed for longer, more sustained and daring climbs that were previously unattainable.
He was also the first to use a bolt for upward progress. Salathé, it seems, would have been more at home in Harding’s Lower Sierra “Eating, Drinking and Farcing Society”, than with Robbins’ “Valley Christians”! He did, however, have his limits. For instance, on two separate attempts he assailed Lost Arrow: once solo, and then a week later with John Thune. On the second attempt with Thune in 1946, only twelve meters from the top, “darkness forced them to turn back”. Hearing about this feat, four climbers—Anton “Ax” Nelson, Fritz Lippmann, Jack Arnold and Robin Hansen—
[S]pent a whole day launching a rope over the top of the Lost Arrow Spire, which reached all the way down the other side to the Salathé Ledge. The next day, Nelson and Arnold abseiled into the notch and attempted the twenty-five-meter pitch to the Salathé Ledge. Lacking the hard pitons, they failed where Salathé had succeeded single-handedly. After a night spent in the notch, a further rope was slung to help them over the missing ten metres [sic] to the Salathé Ledge. They reached the top hanging over the summit and with that, the route to the top was clear. Jack Arnold made it first to the tip of Lost Arrow Spire on 2 September using prusik loops. (Huber 36)
Salathé regarded this as a “cheap rope trick”, and Nelson himself, with whom Salathé later climbed the Southwest Face of Half Dome as well as completing a proper ascent of the Arrow, conceded guilt: it was ‘an admission of the Arrow’s unclimbability’ (qtd. in Roper 39). The second, proper, assault on Lost Arrow required extensive bolting and the use of gear. In fact, according to Taylor, Salathé and Nelson “used an unprecedented number of pitons and bolts. Never had climbers used so much direct aid…” (Taylor 126). Quite simply, if climbers were going to break new ground and push the limits of the possible, using new gear and techniques to climb was a necessity. So, like Harding, Salathé had no problem in using an excessive amount of aid in ascending a climb; but, like Robbins, it was also clear that he believed a climber had to rely on natural or honed skill, using bolts or pitons only when upward progress proved otherwise impossible.
The final innovation Salathé introduced to the sport would have to be self-contained, multi-day climbs, along with suffering for the prize. He was the first to move up a wall or climb in a single push while carrying all the food and water he or his team might need during the ascent: the itinerary did not include a retreat. Here, he differed from Warren Harding, whose assault on the Dawn Wall (1969-1970) used fixed ropes and a pulley system to move up and down the wall during the eighteen-month epic first attempt—at least, at first. After the failed attempt on, and “theft” of, Lost Arrow, Salathé enlisted Ax Nelson, one of the men who originally stole the first ascent of Lost Arrow from him, and together they tackled the Southwest face of Half Dome, during which they became the first climbers to bivouac (which they did standing up on the face of the rock). They would then go back and climb Lost Arrow “properly” in 1947, As Alexander Huber tells it, carrying with them “18 pitons, 12 karabiners, 18 bolts, a climbing rope, a haul rope, 4 kilos of food and 6 litres of water. And that was for two people in five days!” (Huber 38). Then, in the summer of 1950, a twenty-something Allen Steck reached out to the fifty-one-year-old Salathé. Steck had something new in mind: Sentinel Rock. Salathé and Steck would end up spending five days, from 30 June to 4 July, climbing and conquering Sentinel Rock to the point of exhaustion and hallucination. They took with them “18 pitons, 15 karabiners, 12 bolts, 10 litres of water and minimal provisions.” By the end of the afternoon the rock face was a “veritable furnace”, with temperatures reaching above 100° F. Steck describes the end of the ordeal:
The awful thirst. The overpowering heat cannot be described in simple words. Once on top we could see the thin foam line of the stream down in the gorge. We were on top, sure, but the ordeal wasn’t over. We had yet to get down to the water that was staring us in the face.
For readers familiar with the exploits of Alex Honnold and Cedar Wright, it might be fair to make the argument that the original “sufferfest” was accomplished by Salathé and Steck.
However, Sentinel Rock would mark the end of Salathé’s climbing career in America. He would go on to climb the Matterhorn some years later with John Thune, but mostly he would spend the rest of his life bouncing around Europe and California. Later, he would succumb to his delusions and claim that his wife was trying to poison him. On 21 March, 1953, He boarded the S.S Queen Elizabeth heading for Cherbourg, France, on his way back to Switzerland for an “indefinite” stay. Here he would join a cult, rail against the Catholic Church and become ever more withdrawn. Salathé eventually returned to California and spent his remaining years living in trailers, and eventually various nursing facilities. He passed away on 30 August, 1992 in Holtville, CA.
From pioneering a unique, self-contained method of climbing, to creating new gear and using that gear to advance up a wall, Salathé’s impact on climbing resonates today, almost eighty years later. Yet, in some respects it’s difficult not to think of his life as a sad one. He lived much of his later life in seclusion and paranoia. We should not overlook the fact that Salathé suffered from mental illness and that he abandoned his family. Ida Schenck, his wife, never really talked about him much, and his son, John Salathé Jr., hardly mentioned him at all, according to my source. One might imagine the emotions of a child who feels abandoned by an absent father. That being said, someone may someday write a more complete biography of Salathé and include more of a psychological profile. This essay was not an attempt to gloss over or ignore those facts; those facts simply lie outside the scope of what I was trying to accomplish here. I wrote and researched this piece because I wanted to learn something about the history of climbing in Yosemite and Salathé’s contribution to it. Whatever the impact of his personal life on his wife, children, and living descendants, which we should be mindful of, his impact on Yosemite rock climbing reverberates today.
Huber, Alexander. Yosemite. Menasha Ridge Press, 2003
Roper, Steve. Camp 4: Recollections of a Yosemite Rock Climber. The Mountaineers: 1994
Steck, Allen. “Who Was John Salathé.” http://www.supertopo.com/climbers-forum/2652220/Who-was-John-Salath-Previously-Unpublished-Story-by-Allen-Steck
Taylor, Joseph E. III. Pilgrims of the Vertical. Harvard UP, Cambridge: 2010
I cropped Halfdome, Lost Arrow, Harding and Robbins from Wikipedia. The cover photo of Salathé with his dog came from Steck’s story on Supertopo. The image of Sentinel Rock with routes came from Mountainproject.com and Salathé handing his gear off to John Thune Jr. was found at gripped.com.