Rowell Garage


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Peter Haan

Trad climber
San Francisco, CA
Topic Author's Original Post - Mar 15, 2011 - 11:06am PT
This is where Galen Rowell had his auto garage in the sixties. I happened to be driving by a few days ago and took this HDR shot with my phone.

It is located on San Pablo Avenue in Albany, Ca. It was called Rowell Garage, as I remember, and he was a Chevy specialist. It was the scene of many misadventure and the generator of much lore even for decades later. Some real characters emerged from that work environment too whom Galen would actually get into climbing. The garage has even come up every now and then here on Supertopo.

Although Galen’s real life work is thought to have been his photography and general, vigorous alpinism, he was in his heart of hearts, still a Chevy Boy and knew a great deal about them. When I first met him in 1963 this was a great deal of what Galen was about and he was always in uniform greaser-style, despite his being raised by an erudite Berkeley family. Skintight stretch Levi’s and white skintight t-shirts with the short sleeves always rolled up. I think he was very much his own person growing up.

I remember most clearly the black and white special Chevy Nomad he had still in the seventies. It was a Chevy station wagon but the Nomad was a special edition which had a lowered height to the cab, making it look “bad” and “cruiser”. He had reconfigured the manual transmission so somehow it had something like 8-12 gears...?? It had of course, gobs of horsepower. And had attached irrevocably to the floor in the back, sat a steel locking case for his photographic equipment. His other thrill was of course Corvettes. There was a period too when he was “away for awhile” due to stolen auto parts marketing. All this long before the very much more cultured last half of his life.

An example very similar to Galen's ride:


Trad climber
Ouray, Colorado
Mar 15, 2011 - 11:09am PT
Nice remebrance Peter, those are some classic cars!

Trad climber
sorry, just posting out loud.
Mar 15, 2011 - 11:33am PT
cool insight, didn't know. The Chevy Nomad is a classic. My grandfather had one that he kept. Baby blue, all the trim still intact until he moved just a decade or so ago. Wish I had the chance to work on that chevy. Alas, I had a Ford Torino (not the boss) 71. Something visceral about a V8 with gobs of horsepower. thx for the post
Doug Robinson

Trad climber
Santa Cruz
Mar 15, 2011 - 11:50am PT
Thanks, Peter. That brings it rolling right back.

I once rebuilt my VW bug in the yard out back. Galen had kindly driven up to Sacramento and towed my dead car clear back to his shop. Maybe, though, he didn't want a VW messing with his image as a red-blooded Chevy mechanic; in any case, he offered the outback for my rebuild. I gratefully accepted.

That was maybe '72 and Galen's transformation was already in evidence. His desk in the little office in back held a typewriter, and every chance he got Galen worked out stories on it for Ascent, and beyond.
Eric Beck

Sport climber
Bishop, California
Mar 15, 2011 - 12:24pm PT
I sometimes cycled over to Galen's shop where we talked about climbing and did pullups on the ceiling pipes. Once he asked me if I wanted to go with him to look at an engine. I said ok and off we went to west Oakland, an all black area. After circling the block looking for the address a garage door opened, the person inside saying, "I think you're looking for me." The engine was a 283 sitting on two 4x4s. Galen asked if he could remove a valve cover, the guy said okay. The engine was very clean. Galen extracted the payment in cash; apparently they had previously discussed the price. We all loaded it into Galen's truck. Their parting words, "I don't know you, you don't know me".

Mar 15, 2011 - 01:02pm PT
Eric's post reminds me of a few tales surrounding Galen - cars and question marks. The "salvaged" Corvette. I don't like to speak ill of the dead, but maybe Guido will.

Mountain climber
Okinawa, Japan
Mar 15, 2011 - 02:16pm PT
The last time I ever saw Galen was at that garage in his greaser look.
His wife who also had the full '50's look with a teased up boufant hairdo,
(this was Berkeley 1968) was explaining to me how she was 10 months
pregnant but afraid to go to the doctor because he'd get mad and force a
Caesarean. Shortly after that we left for Europe. I always wondered about her
and the baby.

Imagine my surprise when I read about Galen's photography skills years later.
I think he had a new wife by then too.

Mountain climber
Okinawa, Japan
Mar 15, 2011 - 02:21pm PT
One other story told that day was Galen recounting how he and the son
of Earnest Lawrence of Lawrence Rad Lab fame had rigged up an electrical
wire on their window sill to zap birds that landed there.

I was horrified at the idea but got a glimmer just then of a different social
background for Galen than I had ever imagined. I later heard that his father
was a professor. I always wondered what became of Lawrence's son also.

Mar 15, 2011 - 03:25pm PT
I like the story where he went on a climbing trip to Tibet, and knowing full well that one of the many freedoms which the unwelcome Chinese overloads of that country had effected was a total ban on pictures of the Dali Lama. So Galen brought a stack of Dali Lama pictures to hand out to Tibetans. They evidently were very grateful, but eventually the authorities figured it out and once they caught on kicked him out of the country permanently. It was a very brave act on his part given what is known about Chinese justice.
Sam R

Mammoth Lakes, CA
Mar 15, 2011 - 03:40pm PT
I remember driving up to the Buttermilk from Bishop in the late 70's sitting in the backseat of that souped up Chevy station wagon. Of course, Galen was flying up the road, and instead of looking in the mirror and talking to me he would turn around and face me! I'll never forget the terrified look on the guys face in the passenger seat as Galen barely kept the thing on the road. He made me sit in front on the way down...

I also remember that story about his employee becoming a manager for Santana.

Peter Haan

Trad climber
San Francisco, CA
Topic Author's Reply - Mar 15, 2011 - 04:36pm PT
Other names connected to the place I recall:
Joe Faint
Scott Walker
Tom Fender
Did Warren buy cars from Galen?

Mountain climber
Okinawa, Japan
Mar 15, 2011 - 04:44pm PT
Tom Fender had a kind of shady past too as I recall.

He was incredibly strong though and I was always grateful that
he was in the Valley in the summer of 1965 and was able to climb
up a rope hand over hand for about 50 feet to help get Rodger and
I sorted out after the fall that left me with a broken wrist.

Trad climber
Santa Cruz/New Zealand/South Pacific
Mar 15, 2011 - 04:53pm PT
Great slice of Bay Area climbing history there Peter.

I think the first EL Bravo was a 1955 Nomad. Black was always the color of choice. Really fits with the levis and white T's. Galen use to tear up the Berkeley Hills with that machine. Offroad to the max, especially along Grizzly Peak and the backside of Tilden Park. Not unknown for him to venture onto the turf even in the Park. Big contrast to the Galen of later years, but such is youth.

Lawrence's son was a good friend of Galen and they use to have some wild parties accessible only by El Bravo. Seclusion of the Berkeley hills, generator, keg and some chicks, what else do you need as the Checkered Demon would say.

Sort of a "catch me if you can" approach. Bad boy Jimmy Dean could have learned a few tricks.

I will have to hold off on stories that delve into the less honorable past until that day in the future when the records can be unsealed. Just kidding. Sort of.

Some photos of 1955 Nomads that have not been Rowellized. Paint it black, max out the rear end and transmission to optimun, put all the door knobs on backwards and give it the most powerful chev 283 and later 327 engine you can build. Then drive it like a demon.

Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Mar 15, 2011 - 05:11pm PT
Great thread Peter!

More tales of mechanized madness at:
Wade Icey

Trad climber
Mar 15, 2011 - 05:59pm PT
doorknobs on backwards?
Mighty Hiker

Vancouver, B.C.
Mar 15, 2011 - 06:47pm PT
Well, that's rather interesting. A flash from Galen's past. Perhaps climbing gave him an outlet for his energies? Not the first time that climbing, and a bit of maturing, diverted someone from wayward paths. Anyway, I'd heard stories about his cars and driving, but no more. And he did become quite a respectable citizen.

Didn't he start by doing Sierra Club trips with his father, who was quite a bit older, and some sort of professor? (Hence the name Galen - classical physician.) What next?

Gym climber
It's not rocket surgery
Mar 15, 2011 - 07:18pm PT
I can imagine that beauty flying up old 120. Horsepower and tight suspension, must've been a gas. Thanks P.H.

Social climber
Telluride, CO
Mar 15, 2011 - 08:52pm PT
It was August 1978 in the Valley. I was in my last few months as a park ranger and was the Mall foot patrol supervisory ranger. I lived about a block from the Administration buildings and the Visitor Center. Chuck Kroger was visiting me for that month. Two other friends had come up to see him. They were going on a long hike. I would go to work and take dinner at 7 pm and they would cook after the hike.

I went to shift briefing at 4 pm. the shift supervisor announced that Galen Rowell was in the Valley. I am thinking: cool - I like his photos and books so much. The supervisor continues with "He is driving a 1955 black Chevy Nomad. Do not give him any leeway on speeding or driving the wrong way on the valley loop. Try to give him a ticket or arrest him." I am amazed but show no emotion - ask no questions. 7pm comes and I walk home and suddenly see the black Chevy Nomad parked in front of my apartment. I think "Oh! Maybe he is visiting the Parkers - Lucy and Virginia's parents lived in the house next to my apartment building.

I walk in my apartment and Chuck kisses me and then says - "Look Galen is here for dinner. We were hitching back from our hike and he picked us up. His car is so cool and it has 18 gears including 4 gears in reverse." I smile sweetly at Galen and warn him that every ranger is under orders to bust him for driving infractions or anything they could. He laughs. We had a great and fun dinner. I went back to work and never discussed who I had dinner with that night.

Later, we would see Galen and Barbara in Telluride when they would come for Mountain Film. Chuck and Galen loved to talk about the climbs they had done together BITD and about vehicles. Chuck was so in awe of Galen's ability as a mechanic. Chuck was no slouch as a mechanic either.

Sad that they are all dead now - Galen, Barbara and Chuck would be fun as 90 year olds. I flash on my first encounter with Galen every time I see a Nomad - especially if it is black. Chuck always thought Galen was on the Yosemite NPS hit list because he discovered how many bears the park was killing and wrote a story about it. I have never seen that story.

Mighty Hiker

Vancouver, B.C.
Mar 15, 2011 - 08:57pm PT
Thanks, #310! Did you know a Camp 4 ranger named John Calkins? A chess player, with beard? If so, what became of him? JB thought that he left the NPS in the late 1970s.

I've heard the bear story elsewhere, long ago.

beneath the valley of ultravegans
Mar 15, 2011 - 09:04pm PT
Driving with Galen as retold by Jerry Dodrill:

So Galen's screaming along some mountain highway with Vern Clevenger and Dick Dorworth on board. Dorworth had received notoriety for his Fitzroy climb, ventures into Tibet, and skiing down Everest but at the moment was starting to freak at the speeds with which Galen was punching in and out of turns. Without missing a beat Rowell replies, "What are you worried about Dick? You've been faster than this on skis!"

More full throttle tales are needed. Post up!
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