Historical Badass: Climber David Brower

Before developers knew him as a major pain in the ass and environmentalists knew him as a hero, David Brower, the Archdruid, was simply a climbing bum.

Brower grew up playing in and around Strawberry Creek, which flows down through the Berkeley Hills and empties into the San Francisco Bay. He spent his childhood exploring the creek and the hills, hiking, biking, and catching butterflies. “He who follows a Brower never follows a trail,” his childhood friends said.

David Brower

When he was eight, his mother suffered a brain tumor and went blind. Afterward, Brower would take her for walks into the hills as her guide. They started out close to home but soon they were venturing further afield:

Then she got bold, and I got bold, and together we walked from our house, about 200 feet above sea level, to Grizzly Peak-at 1,759 feet, it was the second-highest point in our Berkeley Hills… At the top, I described the vista for her: the hills; the galaxy of wild flowers; the few new houses; a red-tailed hawk floating on the wind, looking for field mice; the fog coming over San Francisco Bay; the glimpse of the open sea through the Golden Gate.

After enrolling at UC Berkeley when he was 16, and dropping out the next year, Brower worked at a concession stand in Yosemite. The job gave him plenty of time to explore the Sierra Nevada. Over the next decade, he’d take several jobs-clerk at Echo Lake Camp, publicity manager for Yosemite National Park-in the “outdoor industry”, before that term existed.


In 1933, Brower spent seven weeks exploring the High Sierra, where he learned to climb. The next summer, he returned for 10 weeks, summitting 63 peaks, with 32 first ascents. He joined the Sierra Club, which was then mostly a hiking and climbing group for people who loved the mountains. Brower would later change it into the environmental group we know today.

In 1935, Brower attempted British Columbia’s snowy Mt. Waddington. He failed, as had 25 others. It didn’t get him down. Failure for Brower was simply motivation to try harder. After returning from Mt. Waddington, he started making winter ascents in the High Sierra.

In 1939, Brower and a team of climbers set their sights on Shiprock, in the New Mexico desert. Known at the time as “the last great American climbing problem,” Shiprock had been attempted 12 times without success. Brower’s team summited, using, for the first time, expansion bolts for protection.

David Brower, undated, by Kaiser Graphic Arts

All told, Brower put up 70 first ascents in the Sierra Nevada, Canada, and the Southwest. During World War II, he put his climbing skills to use as part of the famed 10th Mountain Division. He also edited the Manual of Ski Mountaineering, the book used to train Allied troops headed for the Alps.

Brower later regretted dropping out of college, though he would sometimes tell people he was a “graduate of the University of the Colorado River.” Somehow, his dropout status from UC Berkeley never seemed to hurt his professional aspirations. After the war, he was an editor at the University of California Press, which published his mountaineering manual and other classics. He also edited the Sierra Club Bulletin.

In 1952, Brower became the first-ever Executive Director of the Sierra Club. From 1952 until his departure in 1969, the Club grew from a regional outings group of a few thousand people into a national environmental organization of 70,000.

David Brower

Brower led-and won-the fight to save Dinosaur National Monument from a proposed dam. He then famously failed to protect Glen Canyon, in Southern Utah, from the same fate. As with his failure to summit Mt. Waddington, Brower’s failure to protect Glen Canyon led to more action-he returned stronger to fight a thousand other fights.

Brower’s touch was felt on many of the great conservation victories of the second half of the twentieth century: Port Reyes National Seashore, North Cascades National Park, the Wilderness Act, greater protection for the Grand Canyon, and Redwoods National Park.

Portrait of David Brower; notebooks and map.

For some, Brower’s life as a climber and mountaineer might be no more than a footnote to the life of a great conservationist. We beg to differ.

Everything Brower accomplished as a conservationist-work he continued until his death in 2000-began with a boy exploring his backyard, then guiding his mother into the hills beyond, then venturing further still, into the highest mountains of his home state.

Brower lived for a while as a climbing bum. Maybe he never really gave it up, even after he traded the bum’s life for full-time work as a conservationist. Someone who spends weeks or months or years dedicating themselves to learning the secrets of the natural world isn’t just adding footnotes to their real life-you know, the stuff that comes later, the substance. Maybe all that time in the wild is the crucial part of the story. Maybe everything that came later was just Brower trying to explain to all of us what he learned out there in the mountains.


Photos: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (featured); William Hail, Cedric Wright, courtesy of the Colby Memorial Library, Sierra Club. 


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