Ax Nelson's Letter of Advice to a Young Climber, 1976


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Boulder climber
Topic Author's Original Post - Nov 21, 2009 - 11:09pm PT
I thought you all might appreciate this.

In 1976, I was thirteen and had been doing a bit of climbing for about a year and a lot of obsessing about it for at least five years. In those days, my father worked as Finance Secretary (soliciting donations) for the San Francisco office of the American Friends Service Committee. Through these Quaker channels, he ran into Anton "Ax" Nelson. Learning somehow of his climbing reputation, my father asked him if he would write a letter of advice for his son just starting out in climbing. By this time, I had practically memorized The Vertical World of Yosemite, so I knew very well who this was from.

Unfortunately, I don't have a scanner. But here is the text:

13 Aug '76

Dear Randy


I understand you are into your first interests in mountaineering and it is my pleasure to greet you with the mountain climber's special word (above); Bergheil means "Hail the Mountains."

A Swiss climbing partner (John Salathe of the early LOST Arrow ascents) alway referred to our relationship to the peak we were out to bag as a "friend-ship," thus "Our Grand Friend," a rather Quakerly attitude toward life. Surely not "the conquest" of a northwall or a glacial ascent of Kilimanjaro. Indeed, I've always felt much like the philosopher William James about climbing as "a moral equivalent for war." In fact in my teens, facing military conscription as a C/O, I deliberately made my love of the mountains take the place of the risky military life – with my own response to danger with courage and "giving the best account of one's self."

In fact my first trio of Arrow comrades were a fighter-pilot and a bomber-pilot from WWII and Jack Arnold, another military pilot has been in (and escaped from!) THREE Luftstalag or prisoner-of-war camps in Germany! Surely their training for the venturesomeness of climbing was as good or better than mine.

The kids on the Berkeley rocks are doing some mighty fancy acrobatics compared to what we used to do 30 years or so ago. On the Yosemite walls and far ranges of the earth they exceed anything I ever dared dream of doing – or that I could afford to do in my youth.

My formula for satisfying and safe climbing is to trust one's common sense (never be led into stupid situations by other guys or gals) and thoroughly train oneself in all the techniques in advance. Learn your ropes thoroughly, starting with the easiest things and never going ahead until you are master of each new stunt. This means choosing one's climbing partners carefully. After all their life (lives) is in your hands, and yours dependent on their good sense and strength.

By experience I learned to avoid those who need the stimulus of tobbacco [sic] or alcohol. A slightly intoxicated climber makes mistakes too easily. A hung-over guy is a threat to one's life as well as his own.

If one meets "that of God in every man," as Quakers are expected to, one can also find "that of God" in that wonderful "world of stone and space and sky," as my old friend Ansel Adams calls it. I hope you will do so – not as an escape from work or study, but as a re-creation that refreshes your mind, body and spirit for everything else.

Welcome to that world of the mountains and rocks.

Ax Nelson
Sierra Club
Kilimanjaro Mtn Club
American Alpine Club

Trad climber
Pasadena, CA
Nov 21, 2009 - 11:15pm PT
That's awesome!
Lynne Leichtfuss

Sport climber
Will know soon
Nov 21, 2009 - 11:18pm PT
Agree Eric,

What gems are out there !!!! Thanks to All who take the time to share the ones they have. Peace, lynne

Trad climber
Santa Cruz/New Zealand/South Pacific
Nov 21, 2009 - 11:30pm PT

What a treasure.

Classic Nelson, please get someone to scan that for you and post it up. There are enough "old boys" on here that spent time with him and it would be a treat to hear more of the man.
Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Nov 22, 2009 - 12:39am PT
Very special letter indeed! Your dad is a bright guy to make such a request. I would also like to see a scan and you might consider an archival sleeve for that letter if you haven't been storing it flat.

What is the Kilimanjaro Mountain Club connection about?

Social climber
Nov 22, 2009 - 12:44am PT
hey there say, randisi... what a wonderful peice of history, thanks so very kindly for sharing this...

kind of like a treasure map from part of one's soul...

leading another onward...

thanks again... :)

Boulder climber
Topic Author's Reply - Nov 22, 2009 - 07:22am PT
I'll try to get a scan of it some time soon.

Guido, do you or anyone else know how Anton acquired the sobriquet "Ax"? I've always been curious about this.

Trad climber
Slartibartfasts Newest Fjiord
Nov 22, 2009 - 08:53am PT
Yo Randisi! Thanks for sharing that letter. When are you going to be in Boulder? Mix

Trad climber
Santa Cruz/New Zealand/South Pacific
Nov 22, 2009 - 01:58pm PT
Nelson lived in Kenya for many years after his Valley days.

On return to Berkeley he worked as a Contractor and built a number of houses. Harper worked with him for a spell on some new houses near Tilden Park and always had tales to share.

Ax? Don't really know the origin. Perhaps if Lauria would return in earnest to ST we could find out?

Of course Roper would know, but he is most likely off bird watching.

Social climber
Wolf City, Wyoming
Nov 22, 2009 - 02:14pm PT

Social climber
Flatland, Ca
Nov 22, 2009 - 02:50pm PT
Very Thoughtful letter to get....

True advise

Thanks for the nostalgia!!!
Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Nov 22, 2009 - 02:59pm PT
Birdwatching!?! There goes his Zone 10 status...LOL

Social climber
Sierra Eastside
Nov 22, 2009 - 07:48pm PT
I had the good fortune to accompany Ax on a Sierra Club outing as a teenager. My memory is of driving with him in his old pickup, up the Kings River Road above Pine Flat Resrvoir. He drove that twisty road with his torso hunched over the steering wheel - forearms in full contact with the upper half of the wheel - And talking the whole time! I wish I could remember the stories, I just remember the man...nobody else like him!

Boulder climber
Nov 22, 2009 - 09:06pm PT

Shame on you, Randisi, for keeping this to yourself for so long. We could have died!

Bruce A.

Poway Mountaineers
Quakers Anonymous
Ray Olson

Trad climber
Imperial Beach, California
Nov 22, 2009 - 09:37pm PT
that is a really neat thing Randisi - thanks for posting

Boulder climber
Topic Author's Reply - Nov 23, 2009 - 08:20am PT
Quakers Anonymous, Bruno?

For recovering Quakers?

(Hey, Cruella d'Evel. Kind of stuck here in central PA. You know the feeling! I hope all is well in 'Slartibarfasts,' CO!)

Mountain climber
San Francisco, CA
Feb 27, 2010 - 06:39pm PT
Heh - I was in that pickup with you Urmas, on that trip...! : ) And what I really remember about Ax, aside from his super-human endurance and incredible energy is that old Ax almost gave me a heart attack several times the way he drove that truck on that road. : ) lol

I think he was telling us about his (the) first ascent of Lost Arrow Spire... and about climbing Spanish Mountain all the way from the bottom at the Kings river? Something about 8,000-12,000 feet of lose shale, and of course probably many other tales.. an amazing time that was.


Trad climber
Hagerman, ID
Feb 27, 2010 - 08:16pm PT
Randisi and all: Great stories. Very Cool stuff, you don't see in the books or mags. Thank you!

Boulder climber
East Side
Topic Author's Reply - Dec 3, 2010 - 05:47pm PT
I'll try to get a scan of it some time soon.

Does a year qualify as "some time soon"?

Anyway, Guido, here are the scans:

Credit: Randisi
Credit: Randisi

The envelope is deteriorating:
Credit: Randisi

Dec 3, 2010 - 05:49pm PT
Does a year qualify as "some time soon"?

You betcha!


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