John Salathé, the Mystic Swiss Climber Who Changed Yosemite Forever

John Salathé, the first real icon of Yosemite climbing, didn’t see the valley for the first time until he was 46 years old. He’d just started climbing the year before, at a crag in the Bay Area foothills. Within a couple climbing seasons the short-statured but lithe man from Switzerland made sport-changing contributions to climbing. A little more than a decade later, however, he’d left climbing (and his family) behind for an ascetic lifestyle of cave-dwelling, desert drifting, and mysticism. 

Though born near Basel, at the doorstep of the mighty Swiss Alps, as a youngster Salathé gave no indications he was destined for climbing royalty. He trained as an apprentice blacksmith, moved to France to take a job as a merchant seaman, and otherwise moved around, trying out a series of jobs working with his hands. By 1932, Salathé had a wife and an itch for America. The two moved to San Mateo, California, a suburb of San Francisco, and opened Peninsula Wrought Iron Works, his own smithing shop. Eventually, the two had a son, John Salathé Jr.

Toward the end of World War II, Salathé apparently had some sort of mystical experience. Cracks in his marriage had developed, he perhaps suffered from a dissatisfaction with workaday life in the suburbs. He converted to vegetarianism, the strict practice of which he’d maintain all his life, and started hanging out with a crew of climbers from the Stanford Alpine Club. At age 45 he joined a crew that taught him the basics of climbing on a rock face in the Berkeley hills. A year later, Salathé made his first journey to the granite cliffs of Yosemite. 

Didn’t take him long to get settled in. After only a year of climbing under his belt, Salathé and his partner Ax Nelson climbed the southwest face of Half Dome, today rated a 5.10 climb. They bivvied midway up, marking the first known bivouac on a rock climb in the valley; reportedly they were forced to stand all night, so sheer was the wall. Though Salathé wasn’t known for first ascents, in 1950 he and partner Allen Steck made the pioneering climb of Sentinel Rock. It took the pair five days and they endured brutal heat. Steck said later:

The awful thirst.  The overpowering heat cannot be described in simple words.  Once on top we could see the thin foam line of the stream down in the gorge.  We were on top, sure, but the ordeal wasn’t over.  We had yet to get down to the water that was staring us in the face.

Early on in his Yosemite experience, Salathé realized the pitons he’d been using, a soft iron common to climbers in Europe at the time, was ill-suited for Yosemite granite; they would lose their shape, and become mangled when he tried to remove them. Back at his foundry, he started forging pitons from high carbon chrome and vanadium steel. These were much harder and wouldn’t deform when hammered. He called the pitons Lost Arrows, and they quickly became the go-to for big-wall climbers. (Black Diamond still sells a Lost Arrow model today.) Some claim Salathé pounded out the first few from old Ford truck axles lying around; some  argue he bought the alloy. Either way, it was a crucial contribution to the climbing world. 

Salathé’s pitons. Photo:

Others credit Salathé for showing later climbers like Royal Robbins the possibilities of single push climbing. While most of his fellow climbers in the ‘40s were still biting off sections of wall at a time, returning to camp, then climbing again the next day, Salathé carried everything he needed for a day or two on his back and did the climb all at once. He looked at his climbs as vertical treks, rather than preparation for serious mountaineering. 

By 1953, however, something had changed in Salathé’s mind. He became convinced his wife was trying to poison him. Climbing friends encouraged him to return to Switzerland, where he might be more comfortable. Salathé wound up living simply, sleeping on the dirt floor of a rock cavern above Lake Maggiore, where he fell in with a Christian cult. He was occasionally visited by climbers from the US, whom he’d ply with strange herbal drinks he’d make. In 1958 he joined a climb of the Matterhorn, which he summited, then quit climbing altogether. 

A decade later, Salathé, subsisting on his Swiss pension, returned to the US, where he spent the remaining years of his life living in vans and trailers. He camped in Yosemite for a time, until park rangers began turning out the dirtbags in Camp Four and Bridalveil campgrounds. Eventually, Salathé found his way to Slab City, near the Salton Sea in the Southern California desert, an unincorporated, off-the-grid community of wanderers, seekers, and snow bird retirees. He’d entertain the occasional visitor from his climbing past, always passing around an herbal drink, or a jar of pinto beans that he subsisted on. He did seem to find peace later in life, happy to be outside, in the view of low but dramatic mountains, in the company of fellow mystics and misfits. 

Salathé died in August, 1992. A climbing route on the southwest face of Yosemite’s El Capitan monolith was named Salathé’s Wall by Yvon Chouinard, in honor of John. 

At the end of his Matterhorn adventure, Salathé knew he wouldn’t climb again. He’d been joined by young men from a nearby hostel in Zermatt, and once they’d come off the mountain he gave all his climbing gear to them. Not so much the passing of a torch, but the closing of a chapter in his life. He told them: “Yesterday you started up the Matterhorn as boys, but you have passed the test. You are now young men. I am very proud of you. This was my last climb. I am just too old to go to the top anymore. But learn to love the mountains as I do. God bless you.”



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