Norman Clyde Peak SPS / WSC

Fri, Aug 15, 2003
Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Map Profile

Norman Clyde Peak (13,855 ft.)

Named by Hervey Voge in 1939

Also Glacier, Minaret

"Named for Norman Clyde, one of America's leading mountaineers. In 1930 he traversed the glacier and made the first ascent of the peak. (BGN decisions in 1973 and 1974.) Hervey Voge first proposed the name for the peak in 1939. (SC papers in BL.) The BGN does not approve place names for living persons, and thus could not make this one official until after Clyde died in 1972. The features are not named on the Big Pine 15' quad. The peak is on the crest, 0.4 mile northwest of Middle Palisade, and the glacier is just north of the peak."
- Peter Browning, Place Names of the Sierra Nevada

"Norman Clyde, a name as legendary as that of Fremont or Muir. Norman Clyde, a man to whom the entire High Sierra was as familiar as ones own back yard. Norman Clyde, whose own life is much less known than that of the Greek heroes whose sagas he carried in his pack.

And how did this come about? For Clyde was a quiet, sometimes taciturn man, who often failed to leave a record of his achievements, and never boasted about his fabulous ascents. Yet, since he made his first trip to the top of Mt. Whitney, almost a half century ago, climbers have been finding his records on remote summits. A strong team of skilled rockclimbers will conquer a lonely spire, using the most modern of climbing gear and techniques and will summit with well-coordinated teamwork, only to find on a faded Kodak box, the record of a solo climb of more than six decades ago. Or, at the high point of a distant ridge will be found a small cairn, with no written record -- obviously the work of man -- and a climber will turn to his companion with, 'Well, it looks like ours would have been a first ascent, if not for Norman Clyde.' Later, upon discussing the route with him, Clyde would ponder a bit, ask a couple of questions about some difficult pitch encountered on the ascent, then admit he had been there scores of years ago.

Clyde was never one to bring up these mountaineering achievements. He would often sidestep them, or respond with his dry sense of humor, mentioning that he was in fact '350 years old,' but he was never known to make a false statement when talking seriously. It was easy to tell the difference between his banter and his true accounts of his life and work. Research completely verifies the data and dates that he supplied.

Clyde's father, Charles Clyde was born in Antrim County in the north of Ireland in 1854. He migrated to this country at the age of seven. Clyde's mother, born Belle (Isabel) Purvis, was a native of Butler, a small city about thirty miles north of Pittsburgh. Charles and Belle were married at Butler and took up residence in Philadelphia, where Norman Asa Clyde, the first of nine children, was born the following year, on April 8, 1885. His father was a self-taught clergyman of the Covenanter sect of the Presbyterian faith.

When Clyde was three, the family moved to Ohio. His father served at a number of small churches, seldom staying more than a year at any one parsonage. Apparently the independence of thought that was later to dictate Clyde's flight to the mountains was honestly inherited. Eventually, his family moved to Glengarry County, near Ottawa, and Clyde remembered arriving there on the Queen's Jubilee (May 24, 1897).

Clyde lived there from the time he was twelve until he was seventeen. He could fish and hunt, practically in his own backyard, and soon became expert in both. His father, being self-taught and an avid student of the classics, took care of his son's schooling at home. Subsequently, Clyde learned Latin and Greek almost as early as he did his native tongue.

His father was stricken with pneumonia and passed away at the age of 46. His mother gathered up her flock and returned to western Pennsylvania. Clyde enrolled in Geneva College at Beaver Falls, but as he had no formal schooling, he had several deficiencies to make up at the prep level. Graduating with a degree in Classic Literature from Geneva in June, 1909, he immediately started west. He taught at several small rural schools across the country, including Fargo, North Dakota, and Mt. Pleasant, Utah. One summer was spent at the University of Wisconsin, John Muir's alma mater; another on a cattle spread in Utah.

Deciding that he needed more education to progress in the teaching field, he enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley in 1911. Summers were spent in the mountains and in teaching at summer schools. One was at Elko, Nevada, where he spent his spare time climbing the Humbolt Range.

At the end of two years at the university, Clyde found that he still lacked one course in Romance Drama and his thesis. He balked at the drama course, maintaining that Italian plays should be read in Italian, French dramas in French -- neither in English. He could see no sense in struggling with a thesis which no one would ever read, so he quietly left the university without completing his master's degree.

During the next dozen years, the details of Clyde's life are rather sketchy, both in and out of the mountains. We know that he taught in a number of small schools in central and northern California. He remembered teaching near Stockton, and he spent a year each at Mt. Shasta and Weaverville. From his mountaineering notes, he must have spent some time in Arizona. Sometime during this period, he married a young lady from Pasadena. This is one part of his life that he refused to discuss. It is known that they lived together for three years and that she passed away from tuberculosis. It is apparent that he felt a deep love for his bride, and undoubtedly her passing was a strong factor in shaping his character.

In the field of mountaineering, we have a few more records. He was in Yosemite in 1914, where he first met up with the Sierra Club, joining with them on a trip to Tuolumne. Clyde became a member of the Club that year. After leading the annual Club outing, he traveled south along the backbone of the Sierra with a packtrain run by Charley Robinson, an old-time Sierra packer. The trip ended at Lone Pine, and Clyde made the first of his fifty ascents of Mt. Whitney at this time. Another page of his notes lists seven ascents of Weaver Bally in the Trinity country of northern California.

Clyde accompanied the Sierra Club on their trip from Yosemite through Evolution Valley in 1920, during which which time he made several first ascents. It was on this trip that he carried the first of his famous big packs. Leaving the Valley a couple of days behind the Sierra Club and not knowing for sure whether he could catch up with the group, he took along sufficient food. As he swung by Camp Curry, he noticed a platform scale, and weighed his pack in at seventy-five pounds. The next night was spent with a survey crew that he had met on the trail. They seemed amazed at the size of the pack (at the time Clyde weighed 140 pounds) and kept commenting about it. In the morning, one of the crew suggested that he might have trouble finding the packtrain and suggested that he take along a few extra cans of food that they had. Another offered a couple of other items. As later companions were to find out, Clyde never turned down free supplies. The group kept offering him more, while relating the dangers of being caught in the wilderness without food. After they had loaded him down with an additional twenty pounds, he was allowed to go his way. It was not until the next day that Clyde realized it had all been a gag to see how much he could carry, but it is still a question as to which side came out ahead with the gag.

In the fall of 1924, Clyde was appointed principal of the high school at Independence in Owens Valley. Situated at the foot of Mt. Williamson, probably the most magnificent of all the 14,000-footers, it was within easy driving distance of most of the approaches to the High Sierra. Every weekend, he would lock up his school and dash off for the peaks. The record for 1925 shows that he logged 48 climbs, of which exactly half were first ascents. Only on six of the total number did he have a climbing companion. The following year, the number of ascents was boosted to sixty -- that is sixty that have been recorded. Clyde was exploring the range at a rate that far surpassed the records of Brewer, Clarence King, or John Muir.

However, a number of the townspeople were not so impressed by this record. Certainly Clyde was an excellent instructor and he controlled the wild youths of this mountain valley like they had never been controlled before. But a school teacher, especially a principal, was supposed to be an important man in the social and cultural life of the community. On Sunday, he should be attending on of the local churches. On Friday night, if there was a school social function, the principal was an honored, if captive, guest. Many of the neighbors were openly stating that Independence High needed a principal that would act as a principal should, rather than a crazy mountain climber.

Then came Halloween of 1927. Rumor had it that the boys were going to play many a prank on the school facilities and it seemed that these were not to be harmless pranks. Clyde stationed himself nearby, armed with a .38-caliber revolver. As a carload of youths drove onto the school grounds, he challenged them. They refused to stop, so he fired a warning shot. Apparently the rowdies believed that Clyde could be bluffed and kept on. He fired a second shot, which ricocheted fragments of lead onto the car. The hoodlums left and soon were telling the story all over the town, taking the whole thing as a huge joke.

Not so the parents -- they waited upon the sheriff and demanded a warrant for attempted murder. The sheriff turned down this request, saying that if Clyde had attempted murder, it would have been murder, as he was the best pistol shot in the county. Next a request was made for a complaint charging illegal use of firearms. After a few days, Clyde resigned; all charges were dropped and Independence had traded its most colorful principal for a teacher that would act as a teacher should act.

No longer tied to regular employment, he plunged into a full-time study of the High Sierra. Within the next year a large number of articles poured from his pen, including the well-known series 'Close Ups' of Our High Sierra that first appeared in Touring Topics (the predecessor to Westways) in the spring and summer of 1928.

His summers were spent climbing in the backcountry. At times Clyde would guide parties to the summit of difficult peaks and it made no difference if the climbers were a USGS party attempting to place a benchmark on an 'unscaleable' summit or a lady peak-bagger; they made their peaks with Norman Clyde.

His winters were usually spent as a caretaker at a mountain resort. Thus, he was able to hole-in at such places as Glacier Point at Yosemite, Giant Forest at Sequoia, Parcher and Andrews camps on Bishop Creek, Glacier Lodge above Big Pine, and at Whitney Portal. Many were the times that Clyde rescued lost or snowbound climbers, or if not called in time, located their bodies. His ability to locate wrecked planes had been the subject of numerous Magazine stories. In 1939, his alma mater, Geneva College, awarded him a degree of Doctor of Science in appreciation of his mountain writings.

Well into his late seventies, Clyde still spent his summers acting as a guide on Sierra Club Base Camp trips and continued to lead private parties into his beloved Sierra. Much of the gruffness of his earlier years had disapperared, and his clear light blue eyes and pink, freshly shaven face gave him the appearance of an alpine gnome. He used to say that he would continue to climb the Sierra until the day he would just forget to come back.

During his last years, Clyde spent most of his time living at his old ranch house on Baker Creek, near Big Pine, California -- a primitive three-room place with no electricity or plumbing. He used kerosene lanterns and the running water of a stream which flowed through a spring house. His home and adjoining arbor were covered with a canopy of grape vines and climbing roses.

Clyde spent part of each summer at Sierra Club base camps, where he would entertain at campfires with tales of his earlier years. He was always available to chat with those who wished to hear directly from him about those magnificent and legendary days in the Range of Light.

In his mid-eighties, Clyde was found to be suffering from an enlarged heart, and it became obvious that he would require more attention. So his last few years were spent in a rest home in Big Pine -- until he set out for his final ascent on the twenty-third day of December, 1972.

Various newspaper accounts reported that Clyde had been buried in Tonopah, Nevada. Yet a final resting place in a mining town located in central Nevada seemed strange to those who knew him, in part because he rarely left the east side of the Sierra. Actually, a small party of mountaineers, namely Jules Eichorn, Smoke Blanchard with son Bob, and Nort Benner, quiely carried Clyde's ashes up Big Pine Creek to the peak that Norman Clyde looked out upon from his ranch window in Baker Creek. It was on the jagged crest of that peak, which would later bear his name, that Clyde's ashes were scattered in full view of the magnificent Sierra Nevada."
-Walt Wheelock, in the Introduction to Norman Clyde's Close Ups of the High Sierra

"I was a young boy when I first met Norman Clyde. Though I don't remember exactly when I met him, I do know that on the Sierra Club High Trip of 1926 to Yellowstone National Park, my father left me in the care of Dr. Vernon Bailey and went off with Norman Clyde and others to climb the Grand Teton.

Norman Clyde lived much of his life in the Owens Valley and the Sierra Nevada. He came to Los Angeles once or twice a year and would use Dawson's Book Shop as his post office, bank, library and storage facility. He was about three years younger than my father, Ernest.

During the summer of 1927, I was again on the Sierra Club High Trip where I made my first High Sierra climb, an ascent of Table Mountain led by Norman Clyde, who at the time was still a high school principal in Independence.

On some of the High Trips, Norman was paid to assist on mountain climbs. Jules Eichorn and I usually preferred to climb on our own at our own pace, but Norman made himself available to us for advice and suggestions.

In 1931, Francis Farquhar invited me and Jules Eichorn to be part of the Palisades Climbing School with Norman Clyde and Robert Underhill. Norman was our guide in the ascents of what are now known as Starlight and Thunderbolt. Following the Palisades, five of us went to Mt. Whitney. Jules roped up with Norman and I with Robert Underhill. On August 16, 1931, we climbed the East Face of Mt. Whitney.

In 1932, Bestor Robinson organized a climb of El Picacho del Diablo, the highest peak in Baja California. Norman Clyde, Dick Jones, Walter Brem, Nathan Clark and I were invited to participate.

In 1933, Jules Eichorn, Dick Jones, and I were asked to join the search for Walter Starr Jr. We found indications of his being on Michael Minaret. After the search was called off and most of us had to leave, it was Norman who stayed on and found Starr's body, which he interred in a great cairn of granite.

I always had to reduce my load of equipment to the bare minimum to keep up with Norman. He could carry monumental loads which included such items as a pistol, a shoe cobbler's outfit, sewing equipment, books, tools and kitchenware. Much of this seemed unnecessary to me.

Once he visited us at our home in Los Angeles. The back end of his car was piled high with camping gear and Norman admitted there was a mouse living in the back of his automobile. He wasn't able to catch the mouse although his experiences trapping martens in the High Sierra during the dead of winter were quite successful.

Norman was always very polite and cooperative with me, perhaps because I was one of Ernest's sons. However, on occasion, Norman could be very persistent, stubborn, and unyielding. His published writings gave elegant details of his prodigious mountain climbing feats, while his personal letters expressed his opinions colorfully and definitely.

Norman wrote, rewrote and recycled his submissions to a wide variety of mostly obscure periodicals, but he had one good paying customer, Phil Townsend Hanna of Touring Topics, the Automobile Club of Southern California's original monthly magazine, and predecessor to Westways and Avenues. A bibliography or checklist of Clyde's published writings would certainly be a challenge to anyone willing to take on the task. One of my own most treasured items, is a four page off-print from the 1931 American Alpine Journal's 'Difficult Peaks of the Sierra Nevada,' which Norman inscribed to me.

There has been an increasing interest in the life and exploits of Norman Clyde. No one has had a closer identification with the summits of the High Sierra than Norman Clyde and no one will ever duplicate what he accomplished in his lifetime."
-Glen Dawson, "Recollections" in Norman Clyde's Close Ups of the High Sierra

"Many people have come to the Sierra Nevada to explore and to climb. Some of these individuals are John Muir, Clarence King, David Brower, and Joseph N. LeConte. These people were originally climbers who later became famous for their exploits other than those endured on these high peaks. Throughout the research for this book, one individual stood apart from all the rest: Norman Clyde. Clyde's legacy began and ended in the Sierra Nevada. There are many books and texts that discuss his remarkable personality, his literary exploits, or even the incredible mass of his mammoth packs. This book is not the time or place to discuss these things. Instead, we mention that it was on these big peaks that Clyde left his mark.

On these mountains and others throughout the range, Clyde amassed a list of adventurous first ascents that borders on legendary status today. The routes, the first ascents, or in some cases the first descents on these high mountains, many times solo, are to this day still looked upon with awe and trepidation. Clyde pushed human endurance and climbing skill to a level that many advanced mountaineers and climbers still cannot match today. Interestingly, you will never find a quote or passage of Clyde's that alludes to any type of fear, loneliness, or self-doubt during his vagabond climbing life. Rather, he was solid and purposeful, and he was as much a part of these mountains as they were of him. Norman Clyde and this range of rock and light were and perhaps still are one and the same."
- Stephen F. Porcella and Cameron M. Burns Climbing California's Fourteeners

More on Norman Clyde:

  • Clyde Papers University of California's Bancroft Library
    References to can also be found in these files:

  • More of Bob's Trip Reports

    For more information see these SummitPost pages: Norman Clyde Peak

    This page last updated: Sat Apr 7 17:02:15 2007
    For corrections or comments, please send feedback to: snwbord@hotmail.com