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Book Review: Close-Ups of The High Sierra

Close-Ups of The High Sierra

By Norman Clyde

(1998: Spotted Dog Press, Bishop, California; Edited & Designed by Wynne Benti)

Reviewed by Mike McDermitt December, 2001 

On my week in the mountains this past summer, I took a couple of layover
days in the Owens Valley, resting blistered feet and rearranging plans. 
Stopping by Wilsonís Eastside I happened to look at the book section and
among other things picked up this book, curious about the legendary Norman
Clyde, about whom I knew very little.  He was born in 1885, he died in
1972.  He was the most prolific Sierra Nevada peakbagger of his day and
still one of the 3-4 most prolific of all time; his Sierra first ascents
outnumber those of all but one other climber.  His initial first ascent
was Electra Peak in Yosemite in 1914; his final first ascent was Kid Peak
in Kings Canyon in 1940.  He climbed Mt. Whitney 50 times.  He continued
climbing into his 80s.

The book is a slim 170-page paperback.  It begins with a forward which
provides an historical background on the book itself (which was originally
published in 1928 by the Auto Club) then an introduction which provides an
excellent short biography of the author (in contradiction to the
once-prevailing view, he was once married, briefly but happily), then a
recollection by Glen Dawson.  At the end is a closing, a list of Clydeís
first ascents (actually a useful reference although a portion of the list
consists of citations like ëPeak 12,415í which is who knows what peak) and
a selected list of Clydeís other writings.

The book itself consists of 21 short chapters.  Occasional photos (new and
old) are interspersed along with old hand-drawn maps.  The first four
chapters describe noteworthy peaks grouped by elevation (fourteeners,
peaks over 13,500, etc.) and a fifth, peaks of Yosemite.  The rest of the
chapters consist of essays, most being essentially short reports of
various trips and climbs, including rather noteworthy first ascents (east
face of Mt. Whitney, Clyde Minaret, Mt. Russell).  There are also a few
chapters on general climbing topics such as thunderstorms and avalanches. 
Clyde has a writing style that manages to squeeze out florid almost
contorted phrasings about the repetitive observations characteristic of
climbing (views, views, views); it makes the reading more interesting for
sure.  Everything about the climbs is, of course, understated.  Things get
strenuous but never out of hand.  Solo unroped fourth class climbs,
thousands of vertical feet, all compressed to a jump or a hop or a walk. 
It is amazing that he survived his career.

I read the introductions then skipped to the penultimate chapter and read
the vignettes back to front, lastly reading the sections on peaks, then
closing with the last chapter (a sad story).  It let me get a sense of the
man first and I would suggest that approach to anyone reading it.  For
those comparatively few peaks that I personally have climbed, it was fun
to compare his impressions to mine.  I felt that the book does convey a
sense that us avid peak climbers are following in his footsteps (since
mountains erode quite slowly, of course, this is literally true but still
enjoyable), that his climbing experiences were not that different from
ours.  There is ample opportunity for Sierra travelers to find personal
common ground.  For me it happened when he related a scene in Desolation
Basin in the early summer when snow cover was virtually continuous; a tiny
patch of grass is uncovered and some tiny yellow flowers (Draba) are
blooming.  I have only camped in Desolation Basin once; it was an early
summer in identical snow-bound conditions; the only time I have ever
attempted a close-up photo of flowers in the Sierra, was exactly that shot
(it turned out nicely).  Finally, the closing essay describes a trip gone
awry in a snowstorm; his hiking partner dies in the cold.  He describes it
as an unfortunate but freak occurrence, caused by that individualís
quirkiness.  I read it and saw a clear-cut case of hypothermia (I would be
interested to hear if others agree or disagree).  In closing, this book is
an easy, quick and entertaining read, one which I highly recommend to any
Sierra Nevada peak climber.