Despite a nickname that makes it seem diminutive, Hidden Peak soars to over 26,500 feet the Karakoram range in northeast Pakistan. It is the world’s 11th tallest mountain. You may know it as Gasherbrum I. It was first climbed in 1958; at the time, it was the second-highest unclimbed mountain on earth after just slightly taller Dhaulagiri, in Nepal, at 26,800 feet. It’s also the only 8,000-meter peak with a first ascent nabbed by an American climbing team.
Like many other grand, supremely uncomfortable adventures, that first ascent of Hidden Peak started with a casual challenge thrown down among mountaineers in a warm room, bellies full, bottles of wine opened, when all things seem possible, and very, very far from the frozen roof of the world
“Who wants to climb Hidden Peak?” asked a gangly, bespectacled 20-something year old climber named Nicholas Clinch, after a dinner of pasta among climbing buddies in a California home in 1955. There was some laughter. Two of the men at the dinner agreed. They, along with Clinch, went on to make history.
He was a man who clearly enjoyed the absurdities of life and whose light-hearted approach to hard things would have been incredibly welcome while picking one’s way up the side of a frozen mountain, death a mere footfall away.
Clinch was born in the flatlands of Evanston, Illinois, in 1930. His father was a colonel in the U.S Army Air Force, and the family moved around a little. He lived in Dallas for a time, then the family moved to Roswell, New Mexico, where Clinch attended a military academy. Far more important for our story was that Clinch spent his teenaged summers in Colorado at a kind of outdoors camp, where he met and befriended Tom Hornbein, who would eventually become a decorated alpinist.
The long-limbed Clinch was hooked on the mountains from his Colorado days and later, as a student at Stanford University, in oak-carpeted Palo Alto, he joined the Stanford Alpine Club. The club explored the Sierra Nevadas, and climbed the granite walls of Yosemite Valley. Clinch eventually earned a law degree from Stanford and joined the Air Force, serving as legal counsel. He was once posted in Iceland, not a bad place for a bookish alpinist.
After Clinch casually challenged some of his fellow climbers to scale Hidden Peak on that California evening in 1955, he went to work piecing together logistics. He was a careful, patient planner, aware that the greatest challenge to scaling such high peaks was not entirely physical; meticulous care and strategy were just as important as strong legs and steel cables for arms. Important, considering Clinch didn’t much resemble an athlete with his thin build and asthmatic wheezing.
“The mountains don’t care who you are,” Clinch once told his nephew, Richard Kylberg. “He saw the mountains as a great human equalizer,” Kylberg said.
“Nick was not lacking in drive,” remarked friend and climbing partner Hornbein.
That drive got two men to the top of Hidden Peak in the spring of 1958, before anyone else: Pete Schoening and Andy Kauffman. They were part of a team led by Clinch, though Clinch himself did not summit. It was the only American team to make the first ascent of one of the world’s 8,000-meter mountains.
“Through the years as we had clung to ice and rock, chopped steps, and dangled from pitons, we had dreamed of climbing an Eight Thousander,” Clinch wrote in A Walk in the Sky. “Now the culmination of our mountaineering careers was going to be a trudge through soft snow with heavy packs. Just a walk – a walk in the sky. It seemed ridiculously simple. Yet we could barely move . . ..”
Clinch led another Karakoram expedition in 1960, this time to the summit of Masherbrum, again his team made the first ascent, with Clinch providing calm, upbeat leadership and his careful steady hand of planning. Though Clinch was not among the initial party to reach the summit, this time he did trudge to the top of the peak, a reward for his foundational logistical work.
Though Clinch made many memorable climbs and planned expeditions around the world, his team’s first ascent of Antarctica’s Mount Vinson, the continent’s highest peak at 16,000 feet, may be his most impressive work. All ten members of the expedition safely made the summit in terrific cold. The American Alpine Club was so moved by the success, they awarded Clinch the club’s Gold Medal, only given five times over the past 120 years.
Clinch was the president of the American Alpine Club from 1968 to 1970. He also served as the Sierra Club’s Executive Director from 1975 to 1981. Professionally, he worked as an attorney for a handful of different organizations; at one point, he was counsel for Lincoln Savings and Loan, famous as the institution that saw Charles Keating jailed for fraud, the headline case of the Savings and Loan Crisis of the 1980s and 90s.
He married his wife Betsy in 1964, after meeting her on assignment with National Geographic, where she worked as a researcher. The couple together wrote Through a Land of Extremes: The Littledales of Central Asia, chronicling the adventures of a real-life husband and wife expedition team.
To read about Clinch from those who knew him is to be charmed by a man who clearly enjoyed the absurdities of life and whose light-hearted approach to hard things would have been incredibly welcome while picking one’s way up the side of a frozen mountain, death a mere footfall away.
As Clinch’s friend wrote upon his passing, in a Rock and Ice magazine obituary:
If you were really lucky, you might be the recipient of his annual Christmas cards. Some people saved entire collections of them from over the decades. I remember choice morsels: Nick talking about nearly blowing up a hotel room in London by trying to use the wrong adapter; Nick unable to decide between two queues while entering a lift line with his daughter, and ending up flat on the ground with a ski hooked in each; Nick and Betsy, suffering squirrels in their attic, hiring an exterminator, being shocked at the price of $50 per squirrel, and turning that into a unit of commerce. As in: “The plane ticket cost me five squirrels.”
In 2006, a peak near Mount Vinson, reaching 15,900 feet into the sky was named Clinch Peak.
You can still find copies of Clinch’s account of the Hidden Peak climb, A Walk in the Sky: Climbing Hidden Peak.
Top photo: Nicholas Clinch standing, middle of back row. American Antarctic Mountaineering Expedition, via AAC.