Originally from Philadelphia, Norman Clyde migrated to California to become a schoolteacher in his mid-20s. After the sudden death of his wife in 1919, he went to live alone in the Eastern Sierras and became wedded instead to the mountains, devoting most of the rest of his long life to pioneering climbs there. Renowned for his fitness and stamina – his peer David Brower dubbed him, “the pack who walks like a man” – Clyde threw himself into extended mountaineering journeys, once climbing 36 peaks in 36 days, many of them first ascents. During the 1920s he would make as many as 160 first ascents, many climbed solo. Fittingly, in 1931, he ascended the last unclimbed 14,000-foot (4,268m) mountain in the Sierras, Thunderbird Peak, so named after an electrical storm engulfed his summit party.
Clyde was far more than a peak-bagger, however. His participation in the first ascent of the East Face of Mount Whitney, for example, was one of the first big walls to be climbed in the range and pointed the way toward higher technical standards in Californian rock climbing. Other advanced climbs by Clyde included the U-Notch Couloir, Clyde Couloir on East Palisade, and the East ArÃªte of Mount Humphreys in 1935. In this rather painful-looking portrait Clyde performs a dulfersitz rappel before the waiting camera, some way above Hamilton Lake, deep in Sequoia National Park.
Usually sporting a wide-brimmed “campaign hat,” Clyde became a notably eccentric character of the region. His famed rucksack was described by a contemporary as an “especially picturesque enormity of skyscraper architecture.” This was because it often contained many items including as many as five cameras and, when guiding a client, a hammer and cobbler’s anvil in order to make repairs to boots while on the move.
His legacy is literally writ large across the Sierras with landmarks such as the Clyde Minaret, Norman Clyde Peak, and the Clyde Spires. In addition, he was a prolific writer with more than 30 articles published recounting his climbs and travels. A true mountain man and always a fresh-air fiend, he still often slept outside his ranch house in a sleeping bag when over 80 years old. He said that to be closer to nature was to be closer to the meaning of everything.
This Historical Badass is excerpted from the book Mountain Heroes: Portraits of Adventure, by Huw Lewis-Jones. For more information and to purchase signed copies, See polarworld.co.uk. To follow Lewis-Jones on Twitte check out @Polarworld.
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