The Pioneer Climber Who Led in Tennis Shoes

Glen Dawson, who passed away in 2016 at 103 years old, was born to a life of mountains. His father, Ernest Dawson, a rare book dealer from Pasadena, California, was rabidly passionate about scrambling peaks all over the world and was a member, director, and later president of the Sierra Club. Glen was given his name to reflect a connection to the outdoors, as were his siblings Muir, Fern, and June. At age nine, he was bestowed lifetime membership in the Sierra Club. At age 15, he went for a climb with family friend and Sierra pioneer Norman Clyde, and at 16 he climbed the Matterhorn with his father.

The path was obvious. He just had to follow it.

Dawson came of age as Sierra climbing was exploding in popularity. The early years in California’s biggest range were characterized by visionary individuals: John Muir, Norman Clyde, a handful of others. But in 1901, Sierra Club president William Colby began organizing four-week “High Trips” that led groups deep into the peaks for exploration and first ascents, and by the time Dawson was in his late teens, Sierra climbing was becoming a movement.

In 1931, he wasn’t just a part of it-he became a leader. That summer, Norman Clyde invited Robert Underhill to join a trip on Mt. Whitney. Underhill had recently returned from the Swiss Alps, where he learned how to use ropes to protect the lead climber, a technique that wasn’t yet being used in the West. These were heavy, static manila ropes, not the stretchy dynamic marvels of today, and lead falling was something you absolutely did not want to do. But still, the use of protection opened up a world of possibilities.

That August climb Dawson, fellow 19-year-old Jules Eichorn, Clyde, and Underhill started up the east face of Mt. Whitney at noon, a face that even Clyde, a veteran of more than a hundred Sierra first ascents, called “pretty sheer.” But to a young climber, it was nothing but an adventure, and Dawson wasn’t daunted.

“I was just interested in going up,” he said in 2005. “Sometimes you really can’t tell whether a face can be climbed until you go rub your nose in it.”

Less than four hours later, the group stood atop the highest point in the Lower 48, opening minds to the new potential of steeper pitches and introducing the use of ropes to the west. It changed everything.

Glen Dawson on summit of Fountain Peak in 1938
Glen Dawson on summit of Fountain Peak in 1938

Dawson continued to push the limits of climbing over the next decade. In the early 30s he put up new routes throughout his home range, including the first up Mammoth Mountain, and he traveled extensively to climb, scaling peaks in Canada, Mexico, the U.K., the Dolomites, Russia, and Japan. In the later part of the decade, he turned to more technical climbing, and in 1937 put one of the first 5.8 routes in the States, the Mechanic’s Route at Tahquitz Rock in Southern California.

That was the last of Dawson’s time on the sharpest end of the rope. He continued to climb, but also devoted himself to skiing. He served in the famed 10th Mountain Division in World War II, earning a Bronze Star, and then came home to start a family and help with Dawson’s Books.

His love for the mountains didn’t end with new responsibility. Dawson served as a director of the Sierra Club until 1951, and he was passionate about getting his brood outside.

“We were a camping family,” his son Keith told Alpinist. “The reason we couldn’t have a TV or an extra car was that we devoted our time and resources to the outdoors. We camped in state parks throughout California. My father was a Scoutmaster and planned trips. In 1956, on Easter, we camped off the coast of Ensenada. We were on an uninhabited island for a week. The next year at Easter we rafted the Lower Colorado River for a week. We went from Hoover Dam and camped along the river as we went down. The next year we went to an oasis of palm trees in Baja North, right in the middle of the two coasts.”

Despite being lauded for his work in the 1930s (and winning the Sierra Club’s prestigious Francis P. Farquhar Mountaineering Award, Dawson remained modest about his place in the annals of mountaineering. He wrote in the forward to Climbing Mt. Whitney, “I am notable only as an historical curiosity or perhaps as a living fossil. My career as a rock climber spanned the years 1927 to about 1938. During my lifetime I have been an antiquarian bookseller and publisher but that one event of August 16, 1931 is my footnote in climbing history.”

A footnote maybe. But an important one.

Top photo: Jules Eichorn, Norman Clyde, Robert L. M. Underhill, and Glen Dawson the day after the first ascent of Mt. Whitney’s east face, photo by Francis Farquhar.

For a closer look at Dawson’s life, pick up Glen Dawson: Mountaineer and Bookman. It’s out of print and hard to find, but there’s one here for $50.



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