The man that walked like a pack, Norman Clyde stories with Andy Selters [EP 226]

Andy Selters and I got together at the Mountain Rambler Brewery here in Bishop awhile back and Andy entertained me with Stories about Norman Clyde and his Eastern Sierra backcountry hiking and exploring adventures.

Introduction to the Outdoors

I went to college and, and like three days into college at Humboldt state, I went to a meeting of the outdoor club and they were going to do a winter ascent of Mount Shasta. I'd seen snow once in my life before, and I had done a lot of hiking in Southern California that year so they helped me go. I'd never experienced cold or snow or anything like that. And I came real close to the summit. I turned around right near the top, but basically I went back next year and did another winter ascent, this time it was successful and I was like, yeah, I was ready to do it.

Things we talked about

Norman Clyde

Eastern California Museum

Spotted Dog Press


Eastern California Museum Exhibit

Adventure Journal Historical Badass

Norman Clyde: Legendary Mountaineer of California's Sierra Nevada by Rober C. Pavlik

Norman Clyde of the Sierra Nevada; Rambles through the range of light; 29 essays on the mountains, by Norman Clyde

Connect with Andy



Norman Clyde, the man who walked like a pack.

Mt. Tom sunset, Rick Saez
Bishop climber author and photographer Andy Selters has become the local Norman Clyde expert. On Episode 226 of The Outdoor Biz Podcast Andy tells us Norman Clyde Climbing stories and how he first heard about Norman and learned so much about him.

How did you first find out about Norman Clyde?

Well, if you're at least of a certain age it seemed like you would know Norman Clyde. If you climb high Sierra peaks and you haven't noticed his name in the guidebook somewhere, you're blind or something, he’s a legend. He died in 1972, somebody showed me an old climbing magazine from two or three years earlier, when he was pretty old. They'd interviewed him and it was pretty superficial, but you started seeing the numbers of peaks that he was said to have climbed, and you look in the guidebook and add it up, he was prolific. It is somewhere in the realm of 130 to 150 peak first ascents he made. He also had some really quirky things that made him recognizable. For example, he’d carry these huge packs and was always out by himself usually, and he'd carry books of Greek literature and stuff.
I got into mountaineering history when the American Alpine club invited me to write a book on mountaineering history for the whole continent of North America. Then a couple of years after that, the museum in Independence, the Eastern California Museum, and Jon Klusmire invited me to put together an exhibit on Norman Clyde. So I spent a fair bit of time specifically researching him for that project and got to learn more about him.
There was a fellow who was one of his last friends, a guy that lived here at Keough's. He had moved here to climb and teach English and got to know Norman in his last couple of years. This guy's name was Norman Milleron. And he just was fascinated with the whole legend. Norman was barely able to hike at that time and Milleron did take him up to glacier lodge. Probably Norman Clyde's last visit to the Palisades was with this guy, Norman Milleron. So Norman Milleron hired me to take down his stories and compile them into a little book. Norman Milleron's stories are written up and he only knew Norman Clyde long after he was able to climb anything, but he got stories and a feel for who Clyde was, and the stories are amazing. His exploits are amazing too. They're phenomenal. Most people don't even know a quarter of them. But Clyde was a character. I compiled a timeline and tried to put in as many of the peaks that he'd climbed and I think it’s somewhere in the realm of 130 to 150 peak first ascents he made. You look at this list every year and, during his peak years, he would be climbing 50 or 60 Sierra peaks a year.
When the museum asked me to build an exhibit on Clyde, I knew enough about him from Norm Milleron. And I wanted to expand on the whole idea of just the guy who climbed a lot of the Sierra peaks. It's pretty two dimensional. I knew there had to be more to it. I heard anecdotes from Glen Dawson, for instance, for my North America book. I interviewed Glen Dawson down in Pasadena while he was still alive. And, he had of course climbed with Norman and had lots of anecdotes. I talked to several other people who knew him and at least briefly, or even a fair bit. And, and one of the things that always came out was that he was not always a nice personality to be with, he was cranky. He had that side to him. So I knew I needed to dig into that a little bit.
His background was literature, classical literature. So I'm just digging into wherever I could find material on his life. And there was another book of his letters that came out of the Bancroft Library. I got ahold of that rare book and basically found out that Clyde was married. Nobody knew when he moved to the Sierra that he'd been married. Everyone thought or assumed he was the eternal Mountaineer legend bachelor.
Norman Clyde is from back East, from Pennsylvania. He got a degree back there in literature and came out here to go to the University of California, Berkeley to get a master's degree in literature. He went to school there for a semester or two, and they were teaching the classics, Homer, and all the classic ancient literature in English and translation. And he said this is BS, man. You don't do that. Norman Clyde was not going to tolerate that. Here he was a non-conformist and he said this just ain't right. It would be great if we had more antidotes to back that up, but that's what I read. He also wrote a postcard to that effect. So he quit. And he met somebody in the Sierra Club or heard the Sierra Club was having a group outing. He made his way to Yosemite Valley in the early summer of 1914 and went off with them and made some first peak ascents. Which of course practically everything in 1914 was first ascents, most of the peaks were unclimbed in 1914.
He climbed Electra Peak and Parker Peak in Northern Yosemite then decided he was going to hike the entire Sierra Nevada. So he just stayed in the backcountry. Right from that trip, he became famous for carrying these big packs. When some of the Sierra club people were going back out, they were done with the trip and they had extra food, he just piled it on and he made his way down the entire Sierra that summer. He made his first climb of Mount Whitney and made the first ascent of Mount Huxley along the way and then hiked all the way out to Visalia. So he had a big summer, he just dove right in.
Tunnel View after a Storm, Yosemite, Rick Saez
After he hiked from Yosemite to Vasilia via Mount Whitney he went over to the coast and basically within a year or two got married. He met this woman Winnie, she was a teacher down near Pasadena. So they went down there and very soon after she got tuberculosis and died. So very early on, he was a widower and we only found this out in the 1970s after looking at wedding and marriage records. In the wedding records, a marriage license showed up in the museum in Independence.
In the time after she died there were a few years where he was sort of footloose and realized he wanted to be a climber. He had occasional teaching jobs, but he did some amazing traverses in the ranges above Los Angeles, the San Gabriels, San Bernardinos, and the Angeles Crest.
He started doing climbs in the Sierra and traveling around and about nine or ten years after his wife passed. There's one thing Norman Clyde had better than maybe anybody will ever know, he had an eye for the terrain. You just read his stuff and realize he is focused on the terrain.
He got the teaching job in 1924 here in Independence. And I never read about it, but I can't imagine that he intended to come here. He'd been traveling around and must've been looking for somewhere to settle. He knew about mountains enough in North America, that this is the untapped place to be right there. The Bay Area Sierra Club and the LA Sierra Club, they knew about Yosemite and maybe knew about Mt. Whitney, but you just look along here, go along highway 395 and you've got one of the biggest, most impressive escarpments in the lower 48. He was the first person to move here to climb.
He approached the peaks the way he approached ancient literature. He always referred to peaks by their full name, such as the North Palisade, people said North Pal and he'd correct them and go, no, that's the North Palisade. He had this high regard for the peaks. So he became the first to really climb peaks and the Sierra from the East Side, it's obvious that everything is steeper from the East Side.
I’m guessing that he looked at all these steep faces and say “ridges like this, this needs to be here, I must go up”. He must have gone into the backcountry for weeks to hang out and climb. And since he was a teacher he would go every weekend and could do lots of stuff in the summer.
So it all turned, that whole little life went from about as near a perfect fit between the summers and teaching as could be. It changed on a Halloween night in 1927. I think he was both principal and a teacher because I've seen both in some writings.
He had heard that some of the kids played a prank on Halloween. What they liked to do was to vandalize the school. So he was ready. He didn't want that to happen to his school. And when they showed up, he was awake, he was there waiting with a gun and he chased them off. And according to the newspaper of the day, bullets were fired into the car.
I don't know where, the trunk, or whatever, I don't know. But that's what it said in the newspaper of the day. So everybody knew what happened pretty quickly in a small town. And the sheriff was brought in and said, you know, some of the parents wanted to get him for attempted murder. The sheriff said, well if it was Norman Clyde shooting and he wanted to kill them, he would've hit them. Cause they knew he was a crack shot. So basically they negotiated, and it sounds like the negotiations basically said we're letting you out of this job. And if you go, you're out of this town, you're out of this job and we won't file charges.
He lived in town for a bit then he moved to the mountains. And in 1927 you started getting more people moving to the Sierra. We had cars coming up and he figured out that these lodges that were popping up, Parchers, Glacier Lodge, the lodge at Glacier Point in Yosemite. He would winter in those places and in turn for odd jobs, he’d get lodging and some stipend. So he moved.
One of the things he did was, I can't remember exactly when this started, but he was hired by the California Academy of Sciences over in San Francisco to gather information on wildlife. And he would file a report every year on seeing Bighorn sheep on deer and animals like that.
He also documented peaks and he documented his camps. I think he had a photographic memory partly because he did document and take notes on stuff. But he had a photographic memory of terrain. This guy nor Milleron talked about wanting to climb University Peak. This is in the late seventies and Norman Clyde was in a rest home in Big Pine. Norman Milleron says, Hey, I want to go climb University Peak. And Clyde draws this diagram of the route from memory. Milleron went up North University Peak, and remember, Clyde was there 50 years earlier. Milleron said the map was exactly correct. 40, 50 years later. So he had his eye for terrain is sort of a connection to the terrain that was I would say profound.
He still made some first ascents into the fifties. The last one, I think over near Kings Canyon on some rock towers over there. He was everywhere, South to North. His last trip was over Mono Pass out of Rock Creek into the recesses in 1970. He was about 83 or something like that.
He passed away at 87 or 88 years old at a rest home in Big Pine. He had eye cancer and they removed one of his eyes. The last couple of years the cancer of the eye that spread and he passed away.
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