Who was John Salathé? Previously Unpublished Story by Allen Steck

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Chris McNamara

SuperTopo staff member
Topic Author's Original Post - Jul 7, 2015 - 09:08am PT
Hi SuperTopo Forum,
Allen Steck is gathering stories for a potential book project. He's generously sharing 1 or 2 of the stories here to gauge interest and get feedback. If you enjoy this, please share far and wide by emailing a link to this page, or sharing this Facebook Post or Twitter Tweet
Thanks in advance for sharing!
Chris


Who was John Salathé? Yosemite’s Original Big Wall Climber
[1899-1992]
by Allen Steck
© copyright Allen Steck 2015.
For SuperTopo.
Edited by Kit Duane, May 2015
with permission of Allen Steck.

John Salathé. Photo by Allen Steck.
John Salathé. Photo by Allen Steck.
Credit: Allen Steck

Today John Salathé’s name marks some of Yosemite’s greatest climbing routes, but not many remember the man himself. And who would have imagined in 1946, that this stocky, barrel chested blacksmith, who spoke with a heavy Swiss accent, would soon become involved in some of the boldest and greatest aid climbing adventures in Yosemite’s Golden Age?

“He was not an easy person to know,” wrote Salathé’s climbing partner Ax Nelson in 1975, “He was not very tall either, but John Salathé cast one of the longest shadows across the cliffs of technical climbing in Yosemite since George Anderson drilled the first bolt into Half Dome just one century ago.”
From Switzerland to California
Salathé was born near Basel, Switzerland, in June of 1899. He grew up in a farming family, along with four brothers and a sister, and decided to study blacksmithing. We assume that life in the village, with such a large family, became claustrophobic for young John, and he soon decided seek his fortune in more distant places. He first went to Paris, but a terrible experience with bedbugs in his meager lodging forced him to flee in the middle of the night and he ended up in Le Havre. Here he took on a job as a fireman on a coastal steamer, eventually becoming an oiler on a bigger ship based in Hamburg, occasionally having duties above deck, which took him to distant places for several years, such as the coast of Africa and Rio de Janeiro. Finally, around 1925, he ended up in Montreal. Subsisting on odd jobs, he happened to meet a professional cook, Ida Schenk. Salathé and Ida decided to marry and eventually a son, John Salathé Jr. was born in 1928. Around 1930, they immigrated to California, settling in the small town of San Mateo some 20 miles south of San Francisco, where John opened up a blacksmith shop. By the 1940s his marriage was disintegrating and he suffered some sort of health problem that, since he didn’t trust doctors (“dey chust take your money und sell you pills”) led him to seek solace in the mountains. One day, walking in Yosemite’s Tuolumne Meadows, he happened upon the Sierra Club’s Parson’s Lodge and began talking with the lady caretaker there who told him about the Sierra Club and the fact that they promoted climbing. Her husband was out climbing that very day. John had never heard of climbing or the Sierra Club, but that would soon change.

Salathé returned to San Mateo and decided that changing his diet might solve his health problem. One day, as he was standing by his forge, he happened to look out onto a grassy field behind his blacksmith shop and saw a horse and some other farm animals eating the grass. Suddenly a voice behind him (he would later say it was an angel) said, “Look John, that horse and those other animals are quite healthy and strong and what are they eating? Grass! And what do you eat?” “I eat meat,” said John despondently. After that day, Salathé followed a diet of vegetables, fruits, dates and nuts and eventually his health improved, though his aura of eccentricity, which would lead eventually to paranoia, remained.

Lost Arrow Spire
Salathé’s first visit to a Sunday gathering of the Sierra Club’s rock climbing section was at Cragmont Rock in the Berkeley hills. The year was 1946. John liked the group dynamics at Cragmont and he quickly began to learn about climbing methods: the placement of pitons, rope management and the extremely important technique for descending, the rappel.

About this time some of the leading Sierra Club climbers of the day became interested in the possibility of climbing the Lost Arrow Spire, a rounded pinnacle that rose up majestically some 175 feet from a notch in the massive granite wall to the right of upper Yosemite Fall. Salathé knew of these plans and in August of the same year that he began climbing he agreed to meet some of these climbers on the rim above the Lost Arrow to make an attempt. Either through a misunderstanding, or perhaps because the other climbers didn’t trust the inexperienced Swiss climber, nobody appeared. Not to be deterred, Salathé decided to make a solo attempt, and, after a good bit of reconnaissance, he rappelled to the notch. There, he faced the enormous problem getting onto the spire. This was difficult for he had only soft iron pitons, though he did have a bolt kit. Possibly it was here that he realized that hard steel pitons were necessary for use in granite, since the soft iron ones were unsuitable for repeated placements. He did manage to reach a ledge, which now bears his name, on the Valley side of the spire, before he retreated. This unprecedented attempt was an extremely bold act and Salathé did receive some criticism for it. But he could have cared less. He knew his craft well and he had the mind-set for such climbing. He would soon become known for his fierce passion for direct-aid climbing. When he decided to return for another attempt, he wanted a belayer.

About this time Salathé made some of his soon to be famous hard steel pitons on his forge at Peninsula Wrought Iron Works. It has always been said that Salathé made these pitons from Ford axles, but my friend Steve Roper, in his book Camp 4, suggests that such tough 40/60 carbon steel with vanadium in it, surely was already available in the marketplace. After all, Ford had to have access to it for use in its cars.

Salathé had met a climber, the 29-year-old John Thune, during that first visit at Cragmont. Thune was also a beginner, but nonetheless, Salathé asked him if he would mind coming with him to try the Spire the following weekend. “Its an easy vun,” Salathé said. Thune was skeptical, knowing full well that if the climb were easy, it would have been climbed. Nevertheless he agreed. Thune later described the scene:
“Down we went to the notch. Salathé took the lead out to the face using the special wafer-thin pitons he had made particularly for this occasion, to hopefully secure him to the almost nonexistent cracks. Wham! The rope grew taught. One of his pitons pulled out. With a howling wind setting up a roar and Salathé out of sight, verbal communication was impossible. Slowly John worked his way back up to the notch and said with a smile, “Vell, ve start again.”

Salathé eventually climbed up to his ledge and after belaying Thune up to his stance, began working up the discontinuous crack system above leading some hundred feet to the summit. This effort took most of the day and in the late afternoon, Salathé called down to Thune to advise him that he had reached the end of the crack system and that his drill bits were too dull to continue. Unfortunately, Salathé had to retreat. He was only 30 feet from the summit. And, even more astounding, only five months had passed since he had learned to climb. Something very interesting happened now. As mentioned above, others were thinking about getting to the top of the spire. However, this group decided that this time it would be easier simply to throw a rope over the summit from the rim and prusik up. Robin Hansen, Anton “Ax” Nelson, Jack Arnold and Fritz Lippmann, all friends of Salathé, did just this only a few days after Salathé and Thune nearly climbed the spire. A light rope was successfully thrown over the top and one of the group, Arnold, rappelled to the notch, climbed up to Salathé Ledge, reached the light line and pulled a climbing rope over to his stance, this rope was then anchored to the rim. Hansen, Nelson and Lippmann rappelled to the notch and prusiked up to the top belayed by Arnold who had already reached the summit. The prusik knot, developed by the Austrian Dr. Karl Prusik, was the only way we had in these early days of ascending a fixed rope. Steve Roper describes it so well in his book, Camp 4: after three of these knots were tied onto the rope:
“The upper one was then affixed to a chest loop, the others to foot slings. Each knot would be slid up the fixed rope with a bit of effort, but when body weight was applied, the knot would tighten and jam tightly onto the rope. One progressed slowly upward, moving the unweighted knots up one by one, with the weight mostly on one foot sling.”

Naturally, Salathé, and others, scoffed at this ascent, calling it a rope trick, which it indeed was. Salathé knew he could climb the spire, but it would be a year before he came back to this magnificent formation.

Half Dome, First Ascent of the Southwest Face
Salathé next teamed up with Ax Nelson in October of the same year, 1946, to make the first ascent of the southwest face of Half Dome. It was a bold ascent, over featureless terrain, but it was the harrowing nighttime descent that caused them the most anxiety. During one rappel, Nelson ended about twenty feet above a belay anchor. Much yelling and some very innovative rope work allowed Ax to reach the anchor and let his partner come down to his stance. Obviously, Salathé was obsessed with climbing and this ascent was another example of his great passion. Salathé took a liking to his new friend, and in early September 1947 he and Ax finally made the first ascent of the Lost Arrow Spire, not from the notch, but via the infamous Arrow Chimney which started from the Valley far below. It would be John’s most famous climb.

First Ascent of Lost Arrow Spire, 1947
The Arrow Chimney was a huge, horrifying gash in the massive wall to the right of upper Yosemite Fall that led up more than a thousand feet directly to the notch that separates the Lost Arrow Spire from the cliff face. It was difficult even to contemplate climbing it, but there were several climbers working on its defenses, specifically two from Southern California, Chuck Wilts and Spencer Austin. After several attempts, this talented pair had managed more than half of the route when they were stopped by an un-climbable chimney and bottoming cracks in the rotten granite some 400 feet below the notch which their soft iron pitons couldn’t handle. It was about this time that John and Ax began their final attempt in the monster chimney. When they reached the rotten section, Salathé’s carbon steel pitons penetrated the decomposed granite enough to allow him to surmount this portion and, after placing three bolts in the difficult section above he reached a belay stance. The rest of the climb went somewhat more easily, and soon they stood on top of the Spire, after five and a half days of intense effort.

This magnificent ascent was groundbreaking in many ways. It was the first big wall ever done in Yosemite Valley, requiring multiple, usually uncomfortable, bivouacs. It was the first done using high carbon steel pitons and the first using bolts for upward progress. It was the hardest climb yet accomplished in North America. Nelson’s insightful article in the 1948 Sierra Club Bulletin, besides describing the ascent and the equipment used, discussed much of interest regarding motivation in climbing. “One cannot climb at all,” he wrote, “unless he has sufficient urge to do so. Danger must be met—indeed , it must be used—to an extent beyond that incurred in normal life. That is one reason men climb; for only in response to challenge does a man become his best.”

Salathé Stories
Many Salathé stories, some of them quite humorous, help us to understand his character a little better.

The Hand
The earliest story concerned his remarkable first ascent of the Hand, a spectacular formation in Pinnacles National Monument in February 1947. The volcanic rock is composed of small rocks imbedded in a fine-grained matrix. Some of these can be loose, but generally they are solid enough to hold one’s weight. Salathé started the climb, belayed by Robin Hansen. Soon it became apparent that piton cracks were not only poor, but they were scarce as well. John got out to a spot from which a fall would be fatal and Hansen got his friend Dick Houston to take over the belay. The two exchanged the belay frequently since no one wanted to hold a fatal fall. At one point, John lost his balance slightly and he cried out, “Oops, I almost schlipped.” But he persevered and soon reached a good anchor to belay his friends. Salathé’s route is popular even today, but several bolts have been placed to reduce the possibility of a fatal fall.

New Route on Washington Column
Another story, both humorous and illustrative of Salathé’s courage and skill in handling a tough situation, happened on an attempt to find a new route on Washington Column a little right of the Direct Route. He was climbing with Phil Bettler, who was an able climber but who was also hard of hearing. This meant that once 50 feet out on a lead, communication would be difficult. They failed to find a route and as the day came to a close the rappels began. As darkness settled in, Salathé thought it would be possible to head directly for the Valley floor and he started down. Soon the angle of the granite changed and he slipped, swinging out into an enormous void. He could tell from the lights of the cars below that his ropes would never reach the ground. He knew what to do. Luckily, he had a knife and after pulling up the ends of his manila rappel rope, he cut off some lengths to make prusik slings so he could get back up the rope to tell Phil the bad news. It was nasty work, particularly in the dark. The pair later returned to the Valley to the cheers of those of us who witnessed this great adventure.

Lower Brother in Yosemite, Southwest Arete
Nick Clinch tells another delightful story about his climb with Salathé on the southwest arete of the Lower Brother in Yosemite. At lunchtime John had given an apple to Nick saying, “all vot you need is in dis apple, Nick.” Nick then starts the next lead and he is quite high up when he hears the distinctive, melodic, sound of a piton being removed: ching, ching ching, ching. Nick realizes his rope has run out and that Salathé is getting ready to climb. The only problem: John had forgotten to tell Nick what was happening. Nick quickly descended a few feet to a niche in the rock and started belaying since there was no time to set up a proper anchor. Salathé arrives and observes the belay, “Nick,” he says, “you don’t haf an anchor.” “That’s right,” John, “there’s no anchor.” “Dot’s not safe,” says John, “you should always haf an anchor.”

Steck Salathé, North Face of Sentinel Rock
In 1950, Salathé joined me for the impressive first ascent of the north face of Sentinel Rock. Not only was it a first ascent of the face, but it would be Salathé’s last climb on the cliffs of Yosemite Valley, or anywhere else in North America for that matter. For me it was an honor to be climbing with the legendary Swiss.

Salathé’s Later Years
Salathé’s paranoia became alarmingly evident when he drove the twenty-five miles from his home in San Mateo to Dick Leonard’s home in Berkeley one evening around dinnertime in 1954. Leonard, an attorney, and president of the Sierra Club at the time, was a member of the group that had made the first ascent of Yosemite’s Higher Cathedral Spire in 1934, one of the first technical rock climbs ever done in Yosemite. The agitated Salathé produced a paper bag full of prunes, which he claimed had been injected with cobra venom by his wife and he asked Leonard if he could have them examined by a chemist. “Deek,” Salathé said, “my vife eez going to keel me, but I vill get her first.” It just so happened that a psychiatrist friend of Leonard’s lived nearby and Dick invited him to come over and talk with Salathé. Dick’s friend said that Salathé was dangerous enough to be locked up, but as there was no proof of his wife’s intentions, they simply told John that it would be best for him if he left the States and moved back to Switzerland. After Salathé left for San Mateo the Leonards called his wife and warned her, suggesting that she leave the house and spend the night with neighbors.

Salathé returns to Switzerland, 1950s
John eventually closed his shop and moved to Switzerland where he lived in a small stone hut, accessible only by a rustic path, high in the hills above Lago Maggiore close to the Italian border. Salathé then found peace and contentment through a religious sect he belonged to called The Spiritual Lodge, located in Zürich. The publication of the Lodge, “The Spiritual World” was printed in both English and German, and John always sent copies in English to his various friends. He spoke often of the Lodge and its medium Beatrice, adding that angels were always nearby to protect him from the Devil. His existence was austere: he grazed in the nearby woods and meadows for wild herbs, fruits, nuts, and edible plants. He also grew some vegetables in a garden plot near the hut. His Swiss pension of about $400 dollars a year allowed him to buy certain necessities that weren’t available in the forest.

Around 1957, John Thune happened to be in Italy and decided to visit Salathé. He and a friend hiked up the long mountain trail and eventually came upon a stone hut. There was a bearded man standing in the doorway holding a basket. “Chon,” the man said, “did you haf a nice hike?” It was Salathé. They stayed for a couple of days, sleeping on straw matting on the stone floor and sharing his simple fare. It was a marvelous reunion. John later told me that when Salathé wasn’t looking they threw the boiled herbs and grass in their mugs out the window since the brew didn’t rest well in their stomachs. Thune returned a couple years later with a group from the Oakland YMCA, intending to climb the Matterhorn. Thune invited Salathé to join them. The climb was successful and later, as the group assembled in front of the youth hostel in Zermatt, Salathé, who had given all his climbing equipment to the boys, told them: “Yesterday you started up the Matterhorn as boys, but you haf passed de test. You are now yung men. I am very proud of you. Dis vas my last climb. I am chust too old to go to de edop anymore. But learn to luff de mountains as I do. Gott bless you.”

Salathé Returns to California
Salathé returned to California in 1963, living in a VW bus and moving to various campgrounds as the seasons dictated. Life was a little more comfortable since, shortly after his return, he applied for and received Social Security benefits. He often stayed in Bridalveil Campground in Yosemite and some of us met him there once. But, as the park service began imposing camping limits Salathé moved to sites on the western slope of the Sierra where such restrictions did not exist. In the winter he liked to stay down near the Mexican border in a place known as Slab City. Not a town, but a complex of concrete slabs left after all the buildings of an abandoned Marine Corps base were removed, Slab City was home to all sorts of wanderers, hippies, people escaping the harsher winters farther north, even retired middle class folks. There were no fees to stay there; knowledge of the City was passed on by word of mouth and ads placed in RV magazines. Salathé called it home for several winters and I visited him there in the spring of 1981. I arrived in the late afternoon and found John parked near the Coachella Canal that brings water to the Imperial Valley from the Colorado River. This water was used by all the inhabitants of the city for cooking and washing, but drinking water had to be brought in from the nearby town of Niland. The interior of his bus was crowded beyond belief. Stuff was hanging from the ceiling: bags of nuts, toilet paper, darned sox, brushes etc. The sleeping area was in the back and the stove rested on its support behind the driver’s seat. Jars of various things, barley, wheat, pinto beans, lentils, nuts, corn, rice, were neatly lined up on a shelf. Every five days or so, Salathé brewed up a concoction of these, enough to fill five jars, one of which he ate each evening until they were gone and he had to brew again. Unfortunately, I arrived toward the end of his collection of jars. John offered me dinner from jar No. 4 and I soon noticed that fermentation had begun, but it tasted moderately good, especially when covered with canned applesauce. But the tea was something else. The weird, unpleasant flavor luckily was enhanced by a couple of tablespoons of burgundy. Salathé was happy to see me and I found it most pleasant to be with him in his Slab City surroundings. He was now 82.

A dog tied up to the bus was Mackie, John told me, and was eleven years old.
“Mackie vas in de devil’s hands some time ago,” John told me, “alvays running around to fight de bones and hassle de womans. A neighbor came by und told me Mackie vas bodering his dog und I should tie him up. So I did. I giff Mackie de same food I eat und dere is no more troubles. Al, it vas de devil’s work dat got me de troubles. In de old days I vas eating all dat meat, God, de food vas goot. But de devil gets the human beanings und de animals und dey got no defense. It’s de meat dat cause all de problems and makes us vant de womans. Look at me, I don’t eat de meat and I don’t need de womans no more. Look at Mackie now vidout meat, the devil no more makes him vant de womans. Und he’s happy now.”
I look at Mackie and wonder. When Salathé talked to him Mackie began to howl softly with the wistful look of a dog missing something. The poor dog, who had to eat Salathé’s food, and be on a leash for the rest of his life.

Last Visit to Salathé
My last visit with Salathé was in February of 1991 when he was living in a nursing home in Holtville, California just at the border with Mexico. Steve Roper and I, along with fellow camper Martha Roos, spent about an hour with John. As expected, when asked about the past he rarely would stay on the subject more than a sentence or two before talking about medium Beatrice, his hatred of the Catholics or the angels who awaited him in heaven. Martha took notes. John walked with ease, though with a cane, and he spoke well and clearly, though we did not always understand much of what he said. Martha’s notes show one very interesting segment when we asked about his hard steel pitons:
“Of course, I don’t tink it vas my invention. I tink it vas inspired by…I had ford axle lying dere…und 35 pound trip-hammer…dat fellow [Chouinard] now millionaire, he copied my pitons and made money. Dat’s all vot you had, pitons, all guided by heaven.”
Maybe Salathé did make his pitons from Ford axles. This was the last we saw of Salathé, for he died in August of 1992.

John Salathé &#40;L&#41; and Allen Steck &#40;R&#41;.
John Salathé (L) and Allen Steck (R).
Credit: Chris McNamara
Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Jul 7, 2015 - 09:22am PT
Superb post Chris!

Many thanks for sharing it with us.

I will be sitting with Al in a month to get his life story recorded and we will doubtless spend a bit of time talking about John who is easily the most influential Yosemite climber having set the stage for the greatest generation that followed with his visionary style and sterling accomplishments.

Some other great threads about John and his adventures.

John Salathe- Yosemite Climber by Chris Jones

http://www.supertopo.com/climbing/thread.php?topic_id=452074

Five days and Nights on the Lost Arrow by Anton Nelson.

http://www.supertopo.com/climbers-forum/1915049/Five-Days-Nights-on-the-Lost-Arrow-Anton-Nelson-SCB-1948

Second Up the Arrow Chimney by Bob Swift.

http://www.supertopo.com/climbers-forum/2235834/Second-up-the-Arrow-Chmney-Bob-Swift-SCB-1955

Ordeal by Piton by Allen Steck.

http://www.supertopo.com/climbers-forum/1547377/Ordeal-By-Piton-Classic-FA-Steck-Salath-Sentinel-Rock-1950
Dingus Milktoast

Gym climber
Maestro, Ecosystem Ministry, Fatcrackistan
Jul 7, 2015 - 09:31am PT
Just beautiful.

More, please!

DMT
steelmnkey

climber
Vision man...ya gotta have vision...
Jul 7, 2015 - 10:01am PT
Awesome!
Good to see Allen getting some of his amazing life down on paper!
Thanks!
Mike Bolte

Trad climber
Planet Earth
Jul 7, 2015 - 10:27am PT
fabulous!
steveA

Trad climber
Wolfeboro, NH
Jul 7, 2015 - 10:28am PT
This is very important stuff to the future generation of climbers, who have an interest in the history of the sport. Bravo!!

Thank you Allen Steck
guido

Trad climber
Santa Cruz/New Zealand/South Pacific
Jul 7, 2015 - 10:38am PT
History on ST-Who would have thunk?

couchmaster

climber
Jul 7, 2015 - 10:52am PT

That's a real good read, thanks for sharing it. Great stuff. Good luck with the story collection and the book.

JEleazarian

Trad climber
Fresno CA
Jul 7, 2015 - 11:14am PT
Bump for a wonderful story. Thanks, Al, for writing this, and Chris for sharing it.

John
skcreidc

Social climber
SD, CA
Jul 7, 2015 - 11:54am PT
Beautiful history! Very interesting and insightful. Thanks for posting it up!!
Roots

Mountain climber
Tustin, CA
Jul 7, 2015 - 12:11pm PT
Very interested!
rolo

climber
Jul 7, 2015 - 12:22pm PT
What a great piece of writing. Thanks to Allen and Chris for sharing.
Mark Force

Trad climber
Ashland, Oregon
Jul 7, 2015 - 12:24pm PT
Many thanks for sharing such a rich story, Allen Steck!!

Thanks for posting, Chris.
Marlow

Sport climber
OSLO
Jul 7, 2015 - 12:28pm PT

What a story... TFPU!
The Wretch

Trad climber
Forest Knolls, CA
Jul 7, 2015 - 12:39pm PT
I love the stories of the old days. Never climbed with Salathe but have with Allan many times. When they say there are no old bold climbers Fred Beckey is often cited as an exception. Allen is as well. Some fifteen years younger than Allan, I once backed off following him on Fantasia at Lover's Leap. He was leading 5.9, his current climbing limit. But 5.9 R or X? More Allen, more. And more of your own stories.
Larry

Trad climber
Bisbee
Jul 7, 2015 - 01:27pm PT
Interested? Yes!!
Mungeclimber

Trad climber
Nothing creative to say
Jul 7, 2015 - 01:33pm PT
YES PLEASE PUBLISH!!!

I WILL BUY IT!
yo-so-mighty

Big Wall climber
salinas, ca
Jul 7, 2015 - 01:42pm PT
Even for such a well known name, it's amazing what a little color commentary will do. I find this to be a great read, and would be interested in a book. It does re-affirm my love for meat, because I still "vant de womans".
Spider Savage

Mountain climber
The shaggy fringe of Los Angeles
Jul 7, 2015 - 01:48pm PT
I'm down for this book. Willing to prepay before it's published.
Ward Trotter

Trad climber
Jul 7, 2015 - 02:02pm PT
What an interesting,enigmatic, and unconventional individual was Salathe, a perfect storm of contradictions--- and yet it took this precise collection of absolutely unique attributes and characteristics to form ,at the right moment in time, a true pioneer of American climbing.

And the photo. There they are : Steck-Salathe .
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