Lauria's Clyde Story


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Don Lauria

Trad climber
Bishop, CA
Topic Author's Original Post - Nov 3, 2008 - 03:53pm PT
First the prologue.
Spire Repair – An Explanation
On afternoon circa 1966, a young Jim Bridwell accompanied by a young, but already bald, Chris Fredericks, came rushing up to me to announce he and Chris and others had just done a first ascent. It’s only 5.7 (Yeah, sure. It’s really 5.8) and it’s an incredible climb. You gotta do it. We named it “The Braille Book”.
Well, we sat down at a table broke out some beers and began chatting about life in general around the Valley. Jim said he was sick and tired of the incessant queries from tourists who would walk up to him and ask if he was a rock climber. This, while he was standing there with a huge hardware rack and two ropes draped over his shoulders. He and Chris were getting some tee shirts made up that stated plainly on front and back, “High Country Spire Repair Service”. They hoped that this would eliminate any further inquiries.
I have used the label “Spire Repair Service” innumerable times since in formulating answers to the inevitable questions from the uninitiated tourist. I have chosen to use “Spire Repair” as the descriptor of my life in the climbing world.
Don Lauria

Trad climber
Bishop, CA
Topic Author's Reply - Nov 3, 2008 - 03:54pm PT
My Life in Spire Repair

Act I - Norman Clyde’s Favorite Story

It was August in the late 50s. My brother-n-law, Bob, and I were hiking up the north fork of Big Pine Creek on my second backpacking trip- ever. We came upon a strange procession descending the trail. A group of eight military men, Marines as I recall, in fatigue uniforms were bearing a litter with a black plastic bag – a bag we realized probably contained a human body.

One of the litter bearers with three stripes on his sleeve asked as we approached, “You guys going as far as Third Lake?” We replied in the affirmative and he asked if we would be willing to share some of our food with a guide that was camped there. Sure we would! He then explained that, yes, indeed, they were carrying a body - a person who had been missing for a week and had just been found the day before by the guide camped at Third Lake. The deceased had been discovered in a couloir near the base of Temple Crag. The sergeant threw in a little aside that sort of caught our attention – the guide found the body by listening for the buzzing of flies.

As Bob and I approached our proposed campsite at Third Lake an old man wearing a funny hat - an old campaign hat – came bounding out to the trail. “Would you fellas be willing to share some food with me?,” he asked. Realizing this must be the sergeant’s “guide”, we said we’d be happy to. He explained that he was expecting an air drop that afternoon, but if it didn’t happen he would be hard pressed for food. We reassured him and he disappeared back to his campsite.

We set up our camp just above him, just off the trail, next to Third Lake. We had camped in this same spot the prior year on our first Sierra backpack trip. We liked the site because it was next to a rock outcrop that jutted out into the lake allowing one to sit on its top, thirty feet above the lake’s surface, and stare directly across at Temple Crag’s north face.

Late that afternoon, we heard the drone of an airplane ascending the canyon. A single-engine Cessna appeared in front of Temple Crag. We figured this must be the old guide’s airdrop coming up. We stood on top of the rock outcrop and watched as the plane circled in front of Temple Crag and then, quite abruptly, turned and headed straight toward us. The pilot had descended to about 100 feet off the lake’s surface and as he reached our perch, he cut the engine, opened his door and yelled at us, restarted the engine and banked around - headed back to the other end of the lake. I didn’t quite get it all, but Bob figured he had yelled, “Did they get the body out?”

Okay, they did, but how the hell do we tell the pilot? He headed back straight at us again. This time he cut the engine, opened the door and flipped a piece of paper out.

Now, get this. It was an 8 ½ by 11 sheet folded in fourths and it fluttered down directly into Bob’s hands. Again, the plane restarted and retreated to the end of the lake. The note read, “If they got the body out, hold hands, if they didn’t, wave.” As the plane approached us on its third pass we were holding hands and the pilot waggled his wings indicating he understood. Now what?

Here he came again. This time quite a bit higher off the lake and he kicked out a small red parachute with a pack dangling from its shrouds. Down it came directly into the top of the highest pine tree in sight, right next to the trail. As we stood staring up at it, our brains still a little rattled from all the aerobatics, when up the trail at an accelerated pace came the old guide. “Hey, that’s my food! One of you young fellas want to scramble up there and get it?”

Bob was already checking out the lower branches and immediately started up. He cut the shrouds and the pack dropped to the trail. “That pilot was Bob Symons, a superb bush pilot, thanks boys” the old guide yelled over his shoulder as he hustled back down to his camp. I stood staring up at the chute, still draped over the top of the tree, and decided that it would be a great souvenir. So up I went. After a long struggle, I managed to untangle the shrouds and returned to the ground with my red nylon/silk trophy and enough pine sap to last Mickey Mantle two seasons.

We didn’t see the old guide again that day and he was gone the following morning before we had our campfire lit. Remember those days, when you could have a campfire at Third Lake?

In 1963, after having been introduced to mountaineering and having read everything I could on the subject,
I realized “the old guide” was the legendary Norman Clyde.

Thirty years later, having moved to Bishop, California, I attended the first annual Norman Clyde birthday gathering at Bishop’s Mill Pond Park . These were potluck affairs to honor the memory of Norman Clyde. At this first meeting, of the only three we held, the custom developed for those with fond memories to stand up before the crowd and relate their favorite Norman Clyde stories.

It was at this first gathering that I told my airdrop story—my favorite and my only Norman Clyde story - and after the telling, a young man walked up to me and asked if I knew the name of that bush pilot – I hadn’t mentioned his name in this first telling. I told him, yes, it was Bob Symons. He blurted out, “I thought so. He was my grandfather!”

I told my favorite story again the following year at the second Norman Clyde birthday gathering, and again, as I finished, I was approached - this time by a fellow high school teacher. He said, “You know I used to invite Norman over for dinner about once a year in his later years when he was barely existing at Baker Creek. He really appreciated those dinners and he loved to tell stories. In fact, the one you just told was his favorite! He would chuckle throughout especially when telling about the tree climbing. He was 73 years old when that took place. He couldn’t have climbed that tree to save his soul. Thank God for the boys.

At the third gathering, and regretfully, the last, I stood up when my turn came up and announced, “I’m not going to tell MY favorite Norman Clyde story this year. I’m going to tell NORMAN CLYDE’S favorite Norman Clyde story.” And then proceed to tell the airdrop story again.

Years later, another colleague at the high school asked if I would help his wife with a computer installation. I taught computer science at Bishop Union High School and was often asked to help people with computer problems. I agreed and when I entered their apartment I was astonished by the plethora of airplane photos that papered the walls. I asked if she was a pilot. “No, but my father was”, she answered, “He was a well known bush pilot around here.”

“His name wasn't Bob Symons was it?” I asked in disbelief. “As a matter of fact, yes it was”, she answered. That initiated an immediate retelling of the 1958 airdrop. She was not at all surprised by the engine cutting and yelling at us. She said when she was about nine years old she used to fly with him and he would often use that tactic to communicate with the ground. She said it used to scare her the hell out of her.

Bob Symons was killed in a glider accident only a few years after he dropped that pack for Norman.
Don Lauria

Trad climber
Bishop, CA
Topic Author's Reply - Nov 3, 2008 - 03:58pm PT
Sheridan really nailed it!

Don Lauria

Trad climber
Bishop, CA
Topic Author's Reply - Nov 3, 2008 - 04:00pm PT
Epilogue to Act I and Prologue to Act II

Well, three years after the Norman Clyde incident, I was sitting at my aerospace desk wondering what I was going to do with my three weeks vacation this year, when it hit me that I hadn’t been in the Sierra since ’58. Why don’t I ask my brother-in-law, Bob, if he would like to do it again?

He agreed and we took a short weekend trip up to Bishop Pass early in the spring of ’61 to get in shape. On that trip I had brought a topo map and while camped near the pass I spied an interesting peak - Mt. Agassiz loomed over us. Interesting I thought.

Back home, I went to the only one of two shops in the Los Angeles area that carried mountaineer stuff (Jonas Ski Chalet in Inglewood – the other was way out in La Canada, Sport Chalet) and bought a Guide to the Sierra Nevada. Mt. Agassiz was now in my sights and the guide book was encouraging. Easy to climb – you can do it by moonlight. So the planning began. Would Bob be interested in climbing a mountain? He was a little hesitant, but after I related the supposed ease of the ascent, he caved.

On my previous two trips to the Sierra I carried a little Brownie box camera and took some very forgettable black and white photos of Palisade Glacier and Temple Crag. This time I borrowed a 35mm Kodak Retina IIIc from an engineer friend and took along a few rolls of Kodachrome slide film.

Well, we scrambled up the peak and were appropriately awed with the view from the summit. I had no idea of the expanse of the Sierra nor the thrill of climbing a Sierra peak. Now I was stoked – about hiking up peaks.

Back at work I proudly showed my boxes of slides to my engineering buddies and Act II of “My Life in Spire Repair” began. See “John Hansen – The Original Vulgarian”.
ß Î Ø T Ç H

I Last >>
Nov 3, 2008 - 04:46pm PT
W o o t !
Doug Robinson

Trad climber
Santa Cruz
Nov 3, 2008 - 04:48pm PT
Thanks, Don -- made my day.

Not only my favorite Norman Clyde story, but my favorite photo of him as well. You nailed it! Almost every shot of Norman is so sever and dour looking -- Victorian mountaineer poses for portrait -- that you get fully blindsided by this big smile.

Sheridan got it right too. When I first came to Bishop in 1967 Sheridan dragged me over to meet Smoke Blanchard, and Smoke introduced me to Norman.

Sheridan threw down the gauntlet, "If you want to do some real 5.10, write about Norman Clyde." But I'm afraid I was a little too awestruck to get down his stories. I could reconstruct his gruff voice, the piercing look he would shoot you, and the way one yarn suggested another until he had five stories going, all those balls in the air. The way people started backing away then, figuring he was senile. Then how he would finish off the last story, move back to tie up the fourth, and so on until it was an hour later and a neatly dressed covey of stories hung in the air.

Thank you for giving us the actual meat of a Clyde story.

Trad climber
My Inner Nut
Nov 3, 2008 - 04:56pm PT
I could read this stuff all day. Really excellent stories, Don!
Jerry Dodrill

Sebastopol, CA
Nov 3, 2008 - 05:08pm PT
Excellent, Don. Thanks for sharing. I remember Galen telling stories of Norman on Sierra Club outings. He was awed by this old guy who would only bring a blanket, then come out of the woods dragging huge logs that would burn all night and keep him warm; A resourceful minimalist.
Don Lauria

Trad climber
Bishop, CA
Topic Author's Reply - Nov 3, 2008 - 05:26pm PT
DR, More for your perusal. I have one on my wall - huge. I shoot it and post it later.

College Grad

Ignoring the kids

His Usual Pose

Trad climber
Lee, NH
Nov 3, 2008 - 05:34pm PT
Don, I haven't been able to read them all yet, but I'm lovin' your stories. Thanks for sharing.

Trad climber
sorry, just posting out loud.
Nov 3, 2008 - 06:20pm PT
So excellent a story!


Social climber
wuz real!
Nov 3, 2008 - 06:21pm PT
Man! this is the stuff!
Mighty Hiker

Social climber
Vancouver, B.C.
Nov 3, 2008 - 06:24pm PT
A delightful encounter, and story. Thanks!

There's a thread all about Norman Clyde of the Sierra Nevada, at
looking sketchy there...

Social climber
Latitute 33
Nov 3, 2008 - 06:37pm PT

Thank you for sharing these great stories. It has been a wonderful pleasure to read them.


Social climber
Nov 3, 2008 - 07:01pm PT
hey there don.. say, this is great stuff here... really wonderful to hear... you got a "knack" there, don... :)

say, i dont rightly know anything about norman... but now i have learned of his name AND profession---and the stuff that made the man... say, and the pilot, as well...

thanks so very much for making history this kind of history live on...

sure LOVE them stories... REAL stories... not just ~~~storiessss~~~~ if you get my drift...

edit: thank you very kindly for the sharing..

Trad climber
Nov 3, 2008 - 09:31pm PT

Stoked OW climber
San Jose, CA
Nov 3, 2008 - 10:00pm PT
very nice stories!
dee ee

Mountain climber
citizen of planet Earth
Nov 4, 2008 - 06:41pm PT
Thanks Don, feel free to relate some more tales from your life of spire repair.

Mountain climber
Nov 4, 2008 - 06:55pm PT
Thanks Don. Mas por favor!
Norman was the real deal. I never met him. Stories like these are as close a most of us will get.
Thanks again,
Don Lauria

Trad climber
Bishop, CA
Topic Author's Reply - Nov 14, 2008 - 05:27pm PT
Act-II My LIfe in Spire Repair

The Original Vulgarian
John Hansen

By Don Lauria

I met John Hansen in the fall of 1961. We were both working as engineers at North American Aviation in El Segundo, California. I had just returned from vacation and my first excursion to the summit of a Sierra peak. The traditional routine was to pass around any photos from one’s trip for all to see. One of my colleagues, upon returning my box of slides, mentioned he knew a guy in the Computer Department who was an avid mountaineer and asked if he could show the slides to him. I said okay and a little later he returned with John Hansen.

Hansen was not too tall, maybe 5’ 9”, but very wide, very fit, built like an ape. He had a New York accent, a cauliflower ear, a mischievous laugh, and a great gift of gab. He immediately needed to know of my entire personal mountaineering history (which at that moment involved a single non-technical Sierra peak). He asked if I was interested in learning to climb. I asked if he meant with ropes and stuff. He answered that, of course, ropes, pitons, ice axes, crampons - all that stuff! I replied that he must be kidding – I was definitely not interested. He insisted I go with him to Stoney Point and do some bouldering. Bouldering? I politely said no. He insisted. I said no again. He questioned my sense of adventure and suggested the coming weekend would be ideal for my introduction to rock climbing. For more than 15 minutes he parried my refusals. His persistence won out. That weekend would change my life.

I drove 35 miles to the San Fernando Valley where John lived with his wife and infant son and arrived at 7:00 AM, as agreed, to find him still in bed. He came to the door naked. “Oh man, sorry. I overslept. Come on in. I’ll be ready in a minute.” He returned to the bedroom. I could hear an infant crying and his wife’s complaining. He had obviously forgotten to tell her of his plans. He immerged from the bedroom wearing a beige wool sweater, brown corduroy knickers, mountain boots, and a navy blue beret. “Come on, let’s get something to eat.”

We stopped at an IHOP for pancakes. John’s beret and knickers got a few looks as we entered, but I was so absorbed in interesting and enthusiastic conversation about rock climbing, I soon forgot the stares.

I spent the entire Saturday climbing at Stoney in a pair of John’s mountain boots two sizes too small for me. He took me around the entire area, climbing everything in sight. By the end of the day I could barely lift my arms. I was exhausted - but was I stoked!

That evening at John’s apartment, he found a “not-so-dear-John” note from his wife – she had packed up and left with child. Seemingly unperturbed, John filled me with Gerwurztraminer and tales from his Vulgarian Shawangunks days. Well into the evening he talked about mountaineering – famous European and American climbers and climbing history. He pulled six mountaineering books off his shelf and insisted I take them home and read them. By the time I got home I was already planning my next weekend at Stoney Point.

I climbed four more times with John at Stoney Point, and then, on New Year’s Day 1962, he took me out to the Devil’s Backbone on Mt. San Antonio with my brand-new boots, brand-new ice axe, and brand-new crampons. He tied me into a 9mm rope and told me to take a running leap off the ridge down the steep north face to practice a self-arrest. My first attempt ended abruptly at the end of the rope. I had not only failed to slow my descent, I had forgotten to put on my brand-new leather gloves which left all the knuckles on both my hands bereft of skin. My second descent, with gloves, was successful and I figured that I had mastered the art – no need to do that again. My life as a mountaineer had begun.

John was a gregarious sort and he introduced me to many well known climbers including Yvon Chouinard, Bob Kamps, and several of his Vulgarian buddies like Jim McCarthy and Art Gran.

One November evening in 1961, we visited Chouinard in his little room in back of his parent’s home in Burbank. It was Yvon’s 23rd birthday. The evening could have been a bit more cheerful, but Yvon was due to report for his pre-induction physical the next morning and was not happy about it. However, Yvon had a plan. He heard that a sufficient amount of soy sauce consumed prior to a physical exam could raise one’s blood pressure to 4F levels. So John and I went out and bought a six pack of eight-ounce bottles of soy sauce and returned to watch Chouinard down as many as he could stand. The birthday party ended and later that week a very sick Yvon was inducted into the U.S. Army. The experiment had failed and Yvon ended up in Korea for two years. Yvon mentions this happening in his new book Let My People Go Surfing.

John and I climbed together just a few more times at Tahquitz Rock and in Yosemite through 1964 and then saw each other on mostly social occasions, some of which were memorable - and somewhat Vulgarian. Like the night he and Dave Huntsman went out in Dave’s VW to try out John’s new small caliber pistol. After attempting to shoot out a few street lights, John accidentally fired a round into his calf and refused to go to the emergency hospital fearing the required police report. Later, Dave forced him to seek treatment. Then there was the night at a small gathering in Dave’s home. John was challenged to an arm wrestling contest with a complete stranger at the kitchen table. After many seated minutes of stress and strain without an apparent winner, the two adversaries, still locked in combat, rose to their feet and fell across the kitchen table breaking the table’s legs and careened into the matching chairs doing irreparable damage to them also. It took three of us to pry them apart and three years for Mary Huntsman to forgive him.

It was in the early 70s that John’s profession became more important than his passion and after his second marriage to an assistant district attorney, he quit engineering and the sciences to become lawyer himself. A few years of individual practice tending to needy clientele and he realized he could not afford the profession. He quit law and returned to science. We remained distant friends for the next 41 years until his death in 2005.

Though not an exceptional climber, John was an exceptional person. He was an engineering physics graduate from Columbia University, a champion collegiate Greco-Roman wrestler, and a fierce liberal - politically and socially. He had the strength of an ox and intelligence bordering on genius. He could overhaul automobile engines as casually as he discussed celestial mechanics. He was conversant in the calculus of variations, a connoisseur of fine wines, and generous to a fault.

I’m relating this to you because, although few people have heard the name John (Jack) Hansen in connection with climbing or mountaineering, after all these years, I discovered something about John that he never shared with me – something that should be known. Something that should be part of climbing history.

Most of us that climb, or have climbed, have heard of the “Vulgarians” – the outrageous Shawangunk climbing cabal of the late 50s and early 60s. Here’s a little history from the website - an excerpt from a conversation in August of 2004 with Dick Williams, one of the early Vulgarians and one of the many reputable climbers to come out of the Gunks:

Dick Williams - So, that particular morning we were all at the base of Never Never Land and [Jim] McCarthy is trying to do the direct finish. So anyway he’s up there - I don’t think I’d ever belayed anybody before - it was my first time, so I’d been watching some people belay and they’d belay over the shoulder with the rope under your armpit, like this, you know.

Interviewer - Wow.

Dick Williams - And Jim’s about to do this final bit and he looks down and he sees how I’m belaying. And he says, “You don’t belay someone my weight like that.” I said, “Ok.” and just dropped the rope. “If you don’t like it, get somebody else to do it.” Everyone goes racing to the rope. Jack Hansen gets a hold of the rope and puts him on belay. Jack Hansen was the guy who coined the phrase, “the Vulgarians” - he gave us that name.

Interviewer- He puts him on hip belay, right?

Dick Williams - Body belay, yeah. So Jim goes up, sure enough he falls and that big tree that’s there now was just a little sapling and the rope was behind it and it really broke the thing. John didn’t let any rope go through his hand - he probably [held] about a 30-footer.

So now you know what it took me 41 years to find out. Not only was Hansen a Vulgarian, John Hansen was the “original” Vulgarian.

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