People

Norman Clyde

Norman Clyde

John Muir, Clarence King, Royal Robbins. The history of Sierra Nevada mountaineering and rock climbing is filled with legendary names and legendary feats.

But when stories get passed around a campfire on cold nights at high elevations, one name towers above them all: Norman Clyde.

Simply put, anyone who stands atop a Sierra peak is following in Clyde’s footsteps, whether they realize it or not.

In a mountaineering career that spanned several decades, Clyde is credited with roughly 130 first ascents — far more than anyone else — and pioneered just as many new routes on peaks that had already been climbed.

But because Clyde was a recluse, had a gruff demeanor and didn’t trumpet his own accomplishments, much less is known about him than other mountaineers of his stature. Nearly 40 years after his death, he remains a bit of a mystery.

“Norman Clyde was without question the most prolific climber in Sierra history,” said Andy Selters, a Bishop-based climber, author and photographer who curated the exhibit.

“He climbed everything. It’s fair to say that he climbed every significant peak in the Sierra, and some that aren’t so significant.”

Just as notable as the number of peaks Clyde climbed is the manner in which he climbed them.

Clyde’s customary 90-pound backpacks, stuffed with cast-iron skillets, canned food, fishing reels and hardcover volumes of classic literature, written in Greek and Latin, are as legendary as his climbs.

We’re not talking about backpacks with fitted internal frames, foam-padded hip belts and load compression straps. The kind of pack Clyde lugged around was basically a wooden board with a duffel bag lashed to it.

He became known as “the pack that walks like a man.”

“He was like a traveling Winnebago,” Selters said.

Clyde spent his first summer in the Sierra in 1914 — the same year Muir died. Following his wife’s death in 1919 of tuberculosis, Clyde threw himself into mountaineering. To get nearer to the peaks he loved, he became principal of Owens Valley School in Independence.

In 1925 alone, Clyde recorded 48 climbs, 22 of which were first ascents. But while he felt at home in the mountains, he didn’t fare as well in general society. On Halloween night 1928, Clyde fired a shot from his Colt .45 into the car of a local teenager who Clyde had reason to believe was on his way to vandalize the school. Under pressure, he resigned as principal and never again held a full-time job.

Included in the exhibit are articles from the local newspaper and minutes of the school board meeting that followed the shooting incident.

“They didn’t file charges against him as long as he quit,” Selters said. “He had a temper. That’s pretty clear.”

Clyde typically spent his summers at a high-elevation base camp in order to be closer to the peaks he loved. In winter, he found work as a caretaker of summer lodges and explored the snow-covered wilderness on skis.

Although Clyde was well known during his lifetime, he refused to capitalize on his fame by writing personal accounts of his climbs that surely would’ve sold well. Instead, his published works are focused entirely on mountains, their individual characteristics and the views afforded from their summits.

“It was very intentional,” Selters said. “He did not want to write his story into the mountains, and it’s not entirely clear why. I guess he felt the mountains were the story, and his personal recollections shouldn’t detract from that.”

Photographs of Clyde taken in his 70s show him with a straight back and crystal clear eyes. Even some of the surliness of his younger years is said to have faded.

When Clyde died in 1972 at age 87, just two years beyond his last climb, friends quietly scattered his ashes across the summit of an unnamed peak that Clyde used to gaze upon from his ranch outside Big Pine.

Later, it was christened Norman Clyde Peak. A fitting tribute for a man who dedicated his life to mountains as few have or ever will.

Wikipedia article on Norman Clyde (good links)

Owens Valley article on Norman Clyde

Some of Norman Clyde’s First Ascents:

Electra Pk. (12 442)
Parker Pk. (12,537)
Mt. Huxley (13,117)
Dragon Pk. (12,995)
Triple Divide Pk. (11,561)
Peak 12,415
Peak 11,920+
Diamond Pk. (13,126)
Mt. Lippencott (12,260)
Mt. McAdie-no.pk. (13,680)
Gray Kaweah (13,680)
Mt. Irvine (13,770)
Mt. Le Conte (13,960)
Mt. Mallory (13,850)
North Guard (13,327)
Mt. Genevra (13,055)
Mt. Jordon (13,344)
The Hermit (12,360)
Emerald Pk. (12,543)
Peak 11,775
Mt. Agassiz (13,091)
Giraud Pk. (12,565)
Peak 12,861
Mt. Carillon (13,552)
Mt. Lamarck (13,417)
Lone Pine Pk. (12,944)
Kearsarge Pk. (12,598)
Peak 12,000+
Peak 12,400+
Peak 12,720+
Peak 13,040
Peak 13,231
Peak 13,360
Peak 12,320
Candlelight Pk.
Peak 1 13,840+
Mt. Russell (14,086)
Trojan Pk. (13,950)
Point 13,920+
Mt. Emerson (13,225)
Mt. Goethe (13,200+)
Peak 12,112
West Spur Pk. (12,240+)
Peak 12,225
Laurel Mtn. (11,812)
Peak 13,165
Independence Pk. (11,744)
Lookout Pt. (10,144)
Mt. Gayley (13,510)
Inconsolable Range (13,501)
Deerhorn Mtn. (13,265)
Piute Crags No.5 (12,480+)
Peak 12,666
Mt. McAdie middle pk. (13,680)
Mt. Morrison (12,268)
Clyde Minaret (12,261)
Mt. Baldwin (12,614)
Bloody Mtn. (12,544)
Mt. Gilbert (13,103)
Mt. Rogers (12,800)
Peak 13,917
Peak 13,520+
Peak 12,840+
North Palisade – nw.pk. (14,160)
1914
1914
August 1920
1920
1920
July 1922
8-9-22
August 1922
1922
1922
1922
June 1925
June 1925
June 1925
7-12-25
7-15-25
7-15-25
8-2-25
6-8-25
8-8-25
8-30-25
9-1-25
11-22-25
1925
1925
1925
1925
1925
1925
1925
1925
1925
1925
4-4-26
June 1926
6-22-26
6-24-26
6-26-26
6-27-26
7-3-26
7-5-26
7-7-26
9-19-26
9-19-26
9-25-26
11-14-26
1926
1926
6-10-27
6-15-27
7-8-27
1927
1927
June 1928
6-22-28
6-27-28
7-2-28
7-3-28
9-15-28
7-6-29
6-9-30
6-14-30
7-4-30
7-9-30
Mt. Gilbert (13,103)
Mt. Rogers (12,800)
Peak 13,917
Peak 13,520+
Peak 12,840+
North Palisade- nw.pk. (14,160)
Basin Mtn. – w.pk. (13,240)
Basin Mtn. – e.pk. (12,880+)
Peak 13,120+
Peak 13,090
Echo Peaks, No.3 (10,960+)
Peak 13,355
Echo Peaks -highest (11,040+)
Thunderbolt Pk. (14,040)
Peak 13,323
Peak 12,571
Table Mtn. (11,653)
Peak 11,936
Four Gables (12,825)
Slide Mtn. (11,120+)
Pinnacle Ridge (13,040)
Peak 12,640
Peak 12,893
Mt. Stewart (12,205)
Mt. Hutchings (10,785)
Clyde Spires – n.pk. (13,267)
Clyde Spires – s.pk. (12,960+)
Kehrlein Minaret (11,440+)
Wotan’s Throne (11,858)
Devil’s Crags #10 (11,950)
Devil’s Crags #11 (11,950)
Devil’s Crags #3 (12,350)
Devil’s Crags #4 (12 250)
Devil’s Crags #5 (12,250)
Devil’s Crags #6 (12 250)
Devil’s Crags #7 (12,250)
Devil’s Crags #8 (11,250)
Morgan (13,005)
Mt. Huntington (12,405)
Peak 12,318 Peak 12,408
Mt. Hopkins (12,302)
Peak 12,880+
Peak 12,691
Mono Rock (11,555)
Peak 12,804
Peak 12,852
Peak 13,183
Peak 12,372
Peak 12,400+
Peak 13,045
Peak 11,844
Peak 11,719
Peak 12,916
Inconsolable Range (13,278)
Mt. Izaak Walton (12,099)
Peak 12,563
Goodale Mtn. (12,790)
Kid Mtn. (11,896)
Birch Mtn. (13,665)
Cardinal Mtn. (13,397)
Mt. Johnson (12,868)
Thor Pk. (12,300)
9-15-26
7-6-29
6-9-30
6-14-30
7-4-30
7-9-30
11-8-30
11-9-30
6-27-31
7-5-31
7-7-31
7-16-31
7-31-31
8-13-31
9-6-31
9-29-31
10-24-31
11-7-31
1931
1931
4-4-32
5-26-32
7-17-32
8-14-32
1933
7-22-33
7-22-33
8-23-33
1933
6-23-34
6-23-34
6-24-34
6-25-34
6-25-34
6-25-34
6-25-34
6-25-34
7-9-34
7-14-34
7-14-34
7-16-34
7-16-34
7-18-34
7-18-34
July 1935
July 1935
July 1955
8-25-35
9-4-35
9-14-35
9-16-35
9-16-35
6-13-36
6-15-37
7-20-38
1938
7-23-39
7-2-40
?
’20s
before 1939
?
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2 thoughts on “Norman Clyde

  1. I have done a little climbing myself and have a friend who died on a climbing trip in Washington, so Mr. Clyde’s accomplishments are not lost on me. There is also something to be said for his humble nature…thanks for sharing!

  2. My pleasure, Amanda… Norman Clyde must have been quite a guy.

    I dismissed Washington’s mountains myself until a trip with my brother opened my eyes a little (He lives in Washington). There are some pretty serious mountains there.

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