Smoke Blanchard

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Doug Robinson

Trad climber
Santa Cruz
Topic Author's Original Post - Jan 17, 2011 - 12:39pm PT
Smoke Blanchard well deserves his own thread. Here is the Foreword I wrote for his book, Walking Up and Down in the World: Memories of a Mountain Rambler. It came out in 1985 and is out of print but worth tracking down. (OT, but my favorite source for used books is alibris.com -- supporting independent bookstores.)

Foreword to Smoke’s Book
Walking Up and Down in the World
Doug Robinson ©1985

The temptation is to lie. The question comes up innocently enough, but it always comes up. I could say that I make a living rewinding videotape, or starting out a window at the Rand Corporation, anything. Instead, I usually tell the truth: that I’m a professional climber. Guiding, writing, designing equipment, giving slide shows – anything to grubstake the next trip back over timberline. But it’s a good bet that my admission has let me in for explaining everything my new acquaintance suddenly wants to know about climbing, even if he had never thought about it before. The list of questions is predictable too, starting with “How does the rope get up there?”

Smoke Blanchard, one of the finest mountain guides I know, has been carrying the sharp end of the rope up there for half a century now. In this book he sets out to answer, once and for all, those inevitable questions. I suppose he’s hoping to buy time for himself and the rest of us to circulate a little, maybe find out what a hang-glider pilot on his way to an altitude record thinks as he eases his kite up into the jet lanes. In the process, Smoke has come perilously close to letting the cat out of the bag. I hurriedly turned to the chapter on “Guiding Secrets” to see which ones he was giving away. What I found, there and elsewhere, makes this, among its other virtues, the book to recommend to apprentice guides.

But guiding is only part of Smoke’s story. We first come upon him as a young climber escaping Portland and the Depression on the back of a motorcycle. He is bound for Mount Hood, which he will climb repeatedly: twice one day, in record time another, up by new routes, down on skis. Venturing afield, he rebounds from Yosemite to land in the Owens Valley, east of the Sierra Nevada, and stay. We share the maturing mountaineer’s inevitable challenging of the great northern ranges, with early climbs on Mt. McKinley and first ascents in the Yukon. But just when one would expect a climber’s reminiscences to begin snuggling into hearth and home hills, we instead find Smoke walking the Pacific shoreline of two states, or across California, or bicycling in the footsteps of the Buddha, or wandering the mountains of Nepal, Japan, or China with the correct local dialect on the tip of his tongue. He’s hardly ever home anymore.

I met Smoke the same summer I began to guide, in 1966. We were introduced by Sheridan Anderson, the alpine cartoonist and timberline bon vivant, who took me by Smoke’s house in the high desert town of Bishop, at the foot of the eastern wall of the Sierra. Smoke was not a professional guide then – not full-time, anyway. He was a truck driver by trade, hauling propane all winter to keep his summers free for mountains. But he was the only Buddhist truck driver I had ever met who memorized poetry to recite to himself on the road. I think he liked driving trucks partly because it was the perfect cover (smokescreen?) for a climber.

Smoke learned early the art of downplaying mountaineering, and he got so good at it that sometimes he even fooled his family. When I met him, the tale of a conversation with his son Bob was already an old story. It seems he was returning from a Sunday excursion back when Bob was young and Smoke still smoked (no, that’s not where his name came from…)

“Where have you been?” Bob asked.

“Up the Little Pinnacle,” replied Smoke.

“Oh yeah – smoking pipes and reading books,” Bob figured, easily imagining a little pinnacle to be at the limit of his father’s ambition.
Actually, Smoke’s “Little Pinnacle” is a looming hulk of granite well over a thousand feet high, little only by comparison to the enormity of the Wheeler Crest rising 7000 feet behind it. Climbing it is no small feat either. Most people would want a rope, at least, to get up it. Smoke soloes, unroped, and the name he has chosen for this formation perfectly reflects his sense of humor. He has routes like that tucked up every canyon above Bishop.

Smoke always returns to his favorite spot – the Buttermilk rocks just outside of town – so it wasn’t long before I found myself lacing on shoes at the foot of a maze of rocks that would do credit to a head-em-off-at-the-pass Western movie set. Smoke’s Rock Course is the key to this maze, a subtle line that winds through subterranean passageways en route to a dozen summits. Fresh from years of training in Yosemite, I followed. Soon, however, I found myself high-stepping moves and panting hard just to keep up. The full course took all day, with no time spared to learn the route; in fact, Smoke is still the only person who can lead the whole thing. This conqueror of little pinnacles, though disguised in trucker’s clothes and veiled by Buddhist self-effacement, was no mean rock climber.

So you have to read between the lines a bit in these pages. Smoke has perfected an “aw, shucks” style that is the absolute antithesis of Victorian climbing prose, where every casual scramble takes on heroic proportions. The well-turned phrases here bespeak a lot of work, yet Smoke put this book together in a hurry, between trips to the Orient. As I read, some of the stories began to have a familiar ring, and I realized that I’ve been hearing him polish them around campfires and across the kitchen table ever since we met. Now they can be shared by all.

On the other hand, when Smoke speaks of “mild mountaineering” he really means it as an invitation. Over the years he has introduced hundreds of people to climbing, more of them for love than money, even after he began buying groceries by guiding. In the early days he recruited friends, or eve strangers off the street – who probably thought at first that they were going for a “stroll.” Smoke’s approach is mild mountaineering in the sense that none of them ever got hurt, and most came home ecstatic at mastering new and difficult terrain.

And difficult it becomes. Though they may start out “just scrambling,” followers along the Buttermilk Rock Course soon find themselves thirty feet above the ground, wedged between the walls of a two-foot-wide chimney. The technique is completely foreign, the means of staying wedged while moving up a mystery. Yet, just above, the master is absently clinging to the stone and giving advice, seemingly as a reluctant aside to the story he is telling about the time Bob Thayer offered Smoke his Mercedes (but balked at the suggestion of throwing in his beautiful wife) as an inducement to get himself lowered from the summit of the outcrop they had just climbed. Smoke not only figured a way down from that first ascent, but named their climb the “Mercedes Boulder.”

Meanwhile, the follower, having become so caught up in the story that he forgot his fear and chimneyed right on up in imitation of the master, has arrived at the top of another pinnacle and the apex of his hours-old climbing career. Coming along behind, I can’t help but notice that the ascent is pretty difficult. But Smoke’s teaching technique is so smooth that he regularly gets unathletic beginners up difficult rock and into the ranks of budding mountaineers.

In developing this strategy, Smoke was among the first to show his fellow guides that students could be propelled straight onto difficult climbing and into an immediate sense of accomplishment and confidence. That sort of gentle sandbagging has become a cornerstone of my own rockclimbing instruction. When the American Mountain Guides Association was being formed recently, we couldn’t interest Smoke in being “grandfathered” in as a charter member until we pleaded that young guides deserve a chance to learn from his teaching methods.

It was at Smoke’s house that I had the privilege of meeting Norman Clyde, John Muir’s successor as Grand Old Man of the Sierra. Ensconced on the couch, surrounded by books and yarning at anyone who came within range, he seemed like any old man beginning to come apart at the seams – until you noticed the gleam of alpine light in his eyes. Smoke was the closest friend of Clyde’s final thirty years, and since Clyde wrote so sparingly, the portrait Smoke draws of him here is to be treasured.

I met Jules Eichorn at Smoke’s place too. Eichorn had been with Clyde on the first ascent of Mount Whitney’s east face, and it dawned on me that Smoke’s friendships spanned the entire history of roped climbing in the Sierra. His perspective, that of the bemused soloist who nonetheless appreciates hard climbing, is a unique vantage on California’s rise during that fifty years into the foremost venues of world mountaineering.
Because he is out there so often, Smoke runs into the modern climbers as well. He tells of meeting Galen Rowell one day at the foot of the Lemon Lichen Boulder in the Peabodies, a realm of the Buttermilk favored by the young and agile for its consistently hard climbing. Smoke was soon guiding Galen to an owl’s nest he knew of on a nearby cliffside. The resulting photos have been widely published. But I’ve often wondered how Smoke, who publicly eschews the cult of difficult climbing, happened to be wandering around the Peabodies that morning in his climbing boots.

Later, Smoke took Galen and me on a climb up on the Wheeler Crest, a 7000-foot hillside bristling with exposed granite buttresses, like the Little Pinnacle. We went to Wells Peak, which turned out to be fine white granite, its summit guarded by a sequence of airy ridge moves that were only climbable as if riding horseback.

Maybe it was going there first with Smoke – casually scrambling over breathtaking terrain without a break in the running commentary – that led us to underestimate the place. But when we went back up later, the smooth granite of the buttress turned us back after only 200 feet. Returning again with hardware and greater respect, we did eventually climb that thousand-foot tower flanking Wells Peak and named it the Smokestack in his honor. Purity of line and difficult climbing have made it a modern classic among the scores of technical routes now found along the Wheeler Crest, thanks to Smoke’s lead.

In 1979 I went on expedition to Nepal. I was crossing a bridge over the Dudh Khosi one day, filled with a sense of the remoteness, the esoteric adventure of it all, when I looked up to see Smoke coming down the trail. These days, you’re more likely to run into him in Asia than in the Sierra. Leading treks or poking around on his own, Smoke is at home in Nepal, China, Tibet, Bhutan, Sikkim, and Japan. Every year he’s gone longer; this year he’ll be home only three months. “Uphill or down, it’s all the same now,” he said one afternoon. It’s not surprising that the Sherpas have grown so fond of Gaga Esmoke, or that his friends there include Tenzing Norgay, who shared the first ascent of Mount Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary. Smoke says his favorite famous climber is Nawang Gombu, who has climbed Everest twice and narrowly missed a third ascent. Together they’ve been mild mountaineering in Bhutan and India, with what even Smoke calls “a very rough storm on one trip and a difficult rescue on another.”

I won’t be surprised if one day Smoke just quits coming home. I can see him fixing up an old stone hut in the Himalayan backcountry, one that the Sherpas consider too high for anything except summer herding. But Smoke would move right in, a blue-eyed Buddhist with odd cheekbones living high on a mountainside – but not a hermit. No, he’d want to be able to walk down the hill to joke with Tenzing, stop in to a tea house for a ration of local homebrew, and cruise the bazaar with an eye for the younger women.

How many can say that they have fully inhabited their fondest dreams? We’ll miss Smoke in the Sierra, in his absence valuing this book all the more.
jstan

climber
Jan 17, 2011 - 12:49pm PT
I read Smoke's book. It was very enjoyable. About the same time I came onto a book titled Into a Desert Place. About a 3000 mile circumferential hike around the Baja Peninsula. Also very interesting. If the world were different I would think that also to be a great ocean kayak adventure. Just too adventurous as it is now.
Jaybro

Social climber
Wolf City, Wyoming
Jan 17, 2011 - 12:55pm PT
The only part of that book I've read is that intro that Doug posted. Read it at Em's before we went climbing some day last summer. Gotta read the rest.

scuffy b

climber
Three feet higher
Jan 17, 2011 - 01:03pm PT
Smoke's writing about the rock course is really wonderful.
The human side of climbing. Not just the moves, not just the views.
Takes a couple gentle pokes at Doug, too.
jstan

climber
Jan 17, 2011 - 01:08pm PT
What Tami asks, Tami receives.


Amazon books
Doug Robinson

Trad climber
Santa Cruz
Topic Author's Reply - Jan 17, 2011 - 01:42pm PT
Tami,

Glad you're intrigued. Smoke is worth it, and Jaybro's photo is a clue. Only a few months old, and that whole crew was out searching for Smoke's Rock Course. It had been nearly lost, but five days of searching over the last year with a cast of seasoned climbers that eventually totaled thirty, and I'm pleased to announce that all twelve of the pinnacles have now been re-located, in order.

It's a long story, and I have just finished a 6000-word rundown on that effort with a bunch more photos, and more Smoke stories, of course. It is being edited right now...

More tease, I know.

jstan,

You got the book, but I'll mention again a venue I like better, because it supports struggling independent and used booksellers. They need all the help they can get! They have pooled their resources, so now you can search the entire country with one click, and yes they will ship: alibris.com
ß Î Ø T Ç H

Boulder climber
bouldering
Jan 17, 2011 - 02:29pm PT
In the summer of 1967 he walked across the state of California, from White Mountain Peak to the Pacific Ocean. The hike was to commemorate his thirty years in California and he called it "the best trip I ever made."
I remember this chapter. Impressive cuz he climbed peaks all the way, not just hiking it.
GnomicMaster

Mountain climber
Ventana Wilderness
Jan 18, 2011 - 11:22pm PT
I want to add to the discussions about Smoke and Old Norman, both who I knew briefly during my Bishop days of 1971/72.

Smoke intro'd me to the Buttermilk and to Old Norman, the latter who was on his last leg. Clyde told me about how he had rocked Starr's body in on Michael Minaret. It became a 20-year obsession for me to go find Starr's bones but I never managed to interest any of my climbing mates to join me.

In addition to these two characters I want to say there are two other old Yosemite/Sierra mountaineers/climbers I had the honor of knowing briefly: Fred Beckey and Bob "Monkey Man" Kamps, the latter who I used to boulder with at Stoney Point circa late-1960s.

And whatever became of Barry Bates, probably the best free climber in the Valley in the late-60s/early-70s?
Mighty Hiker

climber
Vancouver, B.C.
Jan 18, 2011 - 11:25pm PT
Barry Bates sometimes posts here, most recently in December.
http://www.supertopo.com/climbing/thread.php?topic_id=1344465&msg=1345567#msg1345567

You could probably PM him through his SuperTopo contact.

And see http://www.supertopo.com/climbers-forum/654801/Barry-Bates-and-Mark-Klemens-Valley-free-climbing
Mighty Hiker

climber
Vancouver, B.C.
Jan 18, 2011 - 11:40pm PT
A fascinating character, one of the quiet breed of mountain men. His 'proper' names were William Earl, and he lived from 1915 - 89, dying as a result of injuries from a car crash. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smoke_Blanchard (Nothing about the origin of his nickname, fittingly.)

His book, Walking Up and Down in the World, is available through Abe Books (www.abebooks.com).
GnomicMaster

Mountain climber
Ventana Wilderness
Jan 19, 2011 - 05:23pm PT
I think I might have a clue how Smoke came by that moniker. How I met Smoke was through another old-timer Bishop guy name Bob "Cap" Caplinger, a fire captain for the CDF. "Cap" was my fire captain for the few months I did a gig with CDF in Bishop in '71/'72. Cap and Smoke were pals, which was an oddity because Cap was not a mountaineer and he was quite the Owens Valley redneck. Nice guy, but a real redneck. Smoke never struck me as a redneck. But when one lives in little incestuous out-back towns like Bishop one develops interesting alliances.

Perhaps Smoke got that nickname because maybe he fought wild fires at some point in his life and somebody tagged him with that name. Maybe Cap gave it to him?
GnomicMaster

Mountain climber
Ventana Wilderness
Jan 19, 2011 - 05:34pm PT
Speaking of Sierra characters, anyone here ever know Emmitt Dahl, the miner who used to live in the Emigrant Wilderness Basin just below Bigelow Peak at the northern most boundary of YNP? There was a salty-dog crusty old-timer for you. Used to see him every few years when I'd be soloing peaks in that area. He'd always have me into his rustic cabin for coffee, bacon, eggs, toast. He was mining for tungsten and moly -- or so he says, but I suspect it was that there yeller stuff -- and he was always being harassed by Union-Carbide that wanted his claim.

The Sierra has known some of the most colorful characters. I think that the "Sierra Guru" (aka DR) is equally one of them, and maybe someday someone will be waxing nostalgic about him.
Peter Haan

Trad climber
San Francisco, CA
Jan 19, 2011 - 05:51pm PT
Thanks Dougie! Great writing.
GnomicMaster

Mountain climber
Ventana Wilderness
Jan 19, 2011 - 07:30pm PT
Thank you, Mighty Hiker, for referring me to the older posts about Barry Bates. The things I saw Bates do in the early-1970s were nothing short of phenomenal. Why Barry never got the publicity that so many of the other glory hounds garnered back in the day is probably testimony to Barry's low-key self-effacing character.

I saw Barry crank one-arm pull-ups and then snap a dyno mantle move from that one-arm pull-up. The shoulder and arm power he had innately could never be nurtured in the average human body. I know, I tried and tried and tried for years to develop such power and it was never to be because I was not designed by Mother Nature in that way. Barry was a fluke, and very fun to watch climb.

I recall the first time I "met" him was standing in line at the college bookstore. His face and Beatles-style mop-top black hair with those orangutan shoulders were bugging my memory. I knew I had seen him somewhere but I could not put it together. Finally I said "You look familiar. For some reason I put your face in Yosemite. Do you climb and what's your name." He said, "Yeah, I climb a little, and my name is Barry Bates." My mind went numb! He asked if I climbed, to which I embarrassingly replied in absolute humbled modesty, "Oh, not much, just a little bit." What I wanted to say was "Compared to you, no!!"

I hope his heart isn't too bad. What a bummer that a guy my age -- 62 -- who was such a phenomenal athlete has a bad heart now. Life ain't fair, huh?

Peter Haan

Trad climber
San Francisco, CA
Jan 19, 2011 - 08:04pm PT
Gnomic, seeing that you care about BB, you should know he is doing well, now that his condition was understood and brought under control. It is not so much a "bad" heart as the sucker had such a low heart rate. He told me he was passing out occasionally when he stood up, for example. People with this sort of condition are not doing too badly. His attitude was excellent last time I saw him and his manner of interacting had changed too; much more outgoing.
Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Jan 22, 2011 - 09:19pm PT
This classic Galen Rowell article appeared in the March 1973 issue of Summit. This was the first time that the Eastside scene came to my attention as a climber. Doug was out as point man for the clean climbing revolution and the Sierras were Area 51!

One of my all-time favorite covers for openers!








You Canmore lurkers, tell the Warden up the road that he's famous again and simply must join us!
Peter Haan

Trad climber
San Francisco, CA
Jan 22, 2011 - 09:43pm PT
thanks a lot for this scan-up and post Stevie. Perfect addition for the discussion!
Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Jan 23, 2011 - 01:13pm PT
It was also the first time that I can recall reading anything about Smoke as a climber beyond his taking care of Norman Clyde.
Jaybro

Social climber
Wolf City, Wyoming
Jan 23, 2011 - 01:39pm PT
When is next rock course outing? I'm in SLC but headed west soon, could swing by tomorrow haha ... But I would!
wildone

climber
Troy, MT
Jan 23, 2011 - 01:40pm PT
THIS is why I spend so much time lurking around here. Doug, one of my dreams, if we ever have the time, is to be shown "Buttermilking", smoke's course by you. I could die a happy climber after that.

And Summit! A little before my time, but damn, what a fine publication! You would be a rich man, if you had a tome of those things. Really.
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