Palisades School of Mountaineering


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Patrick Sawyer

Originally California now Ireland
Topic Author's Original Post - Jan 25, 2009 - 05:10am PT
When it looked like I was getting more involved in climbing after a couple of years, my mom insisted that I get 'proper' training by pros.

So in the summer of 1971 I went to Smoke Blanchard's Palisades School of Mountaineering.

Any other Supertopians go there? I know that Doug Robinson guided for Smoke.
Doug Robinson

Trad climber
Santa Cruz
Jan 25, 2009 - 05:21am PT
So tell us more Patrick.

Who else was teaching? Pratt? John Fischer? Gordon Wiltsie? Jay Jensen? Was Jan Tiura cooking? (She's a tugboat captain now.)

Didja climb Temple Crag? The Swiss Arete? Get drunk Friday night and jump over the campfire?

Have fun? Fulfill your parents expectations? Yours?

Patrick Sawyer

Originally California now Ireland
Topic Author's Reply - Jan 25, 2009 - 06:10am PT
Hi Doug

I did the Swiss Arete, my first mountain climb, with John Fischer and Chris Fredericks. Also did Polemonium Peak via the V-Notch after that.

Smoke was a real nice bloke and very interesting man. I was sad when I heard about his death.

I am trying to recall who was there the week I attended. The cook was some gal, so it could have been Jan. Pratt wasn't there (I think he wasn't), not sure about Don Jensen. Jeez that was only 38 years ago, you'd think I would remember ;-) , especially since it was an experience.

I was only 15 and my mom had to sign a waiver since I was a minor. I got a lift from the Bay Area from some guy who was also taking the week course.
east side underground

Trad climber
Hilton crk,ca
Jan 25, 2009 - 11:59am PT
back in early nineties on the 4th of july, we were climbing and partying in the palisades and blew up a large quantity of fireworks, guess smoke blanchard and other old school guys were at the palisade mountaineering camp, heard later that they were pretty bent with our party. I guess we were a little out of hand!whoooops!
Roger Breedlove

Cleveland Heights, Ohio
Jan 25, 2009 - 12:24pm PT
I was enlisted to guide at the Palisades School, probably about 1973, I think (Doug may remember better than me.) My name was included in the brochure and I was looking forward to it, both for the money and the change of pace. But as low man on the totem pole at Palisades, I didn't get any guiding time. It turned out okay as my weeklong private clients kept coming back each summer. I think I spent a few days in the Palisades with one of those clients that year or the next. I remember running in to John Fisher (if I remember correctly). He was on one side of a creek and I was on the other. He just walked across, up to his ankles in his waterproof and seasoned mountain boots, hand out stretched and a big smile. I crossed the creek a bit later, tip toeing across the exposed rocks in my hiking boots. The Palisades are very pretty.

Trad climber
the campfire just a ways past Chris' Taco stand
Jan 25, 2009 - 12:28pm PT
Interesting remembrances.

I too had a somewhat parallel experience.. sorta kinda.

When I was starting out, my mom decided I needed more formal instruction too (ok, not really, I was in my early 30's at the time), so I signed up for a four or five day mountaineering class in the Palisades with Sierra Wilderness Seminars. There was some 13 year old kid from New York who was taking it too. So they asked me to pick him up in Tracy (from his aunt/uncle's) on my way from the Bay Area.

I remember that kid had some kind of giant traditional shitkicker boots, something like the old REI Montagnes. Being a teenager, he was a master of the shuffle-footed adolescent foot drag. Kicked up a giant dust storm on the hike in and out. I'd be ahead of him and he'd pass me on the trail and then slow down just in front of me, leaving me eatin' dust. No matter what I tried, we always ended up in this configuration. Eventually, I took a half hour break and let him get way ahead of me.

I think he was paying me back for making him listen to Mile Davis on the ride up. But he was a good kid really, very enthusiastic about climbing. Took a lot of initiative to do what he did.

Speaking of boots, as a member of the New Noob Norm, I was using a pair of Vasque Sundowners. My crampons kicked the ca-ca out of them. I may have almost ripped the soles off. But I kinda new that going in. My days of backpacking only were numbered.

The leader was the owner of SWS, a funny guy named Tim. I remember he had these butt-ugly orange boots he got on closeout at Sierra Trading Post. Seemed very proud of those.

That was only 15 odd years ago and I can't remember anyone's name but Tim's. So don't feel bad about 38 years!

Patrick Sawyer

Originally California now Ireland
Topic Author's Reply - Jan 25, 2009 - 12:58pm PT
Is the PSOM of still going? I've googled it and can't find any recent mention.
Doug Robinson

Trad climber
Santa Cruz
Jan 25, 2009 - 02:13pm PT
Nope, PSOM has been gone for 20 years. Had to double-take on the date -- longer than I thought.

Here's the "official" version from R.J. Secor's The High Sierra: Peaks, Passes, and Trails:

"Unfortunately, PSOM stopped operation in 1989, the victim of rogue guides who operated without permits."

Umm.... that would be me. Among others. Fischer was clearly his source, and John's alcoholic self had it in for me by then. Even got a Federal warrant out for me. I eventually went before the Magistrate and paid a fine.

I thought it was rude, 20+ years after I got John his first guiding job there. My private clients wouldn't have signed up with PSOM anyway. They wanted to climb with me. Even though one of them, in particular, came to me as a student at PSOM.

It gets complicated, no? I can see Fischer feeling proprietary about "his" clients. On the other hand, clients are forever "imprinting" on whichever guide first holds that bubble of safety around them in the mountains. That particular guy climbed and skied with me for over twenty years. Bought me tickets to the Alps. We became lifelong friends, even after he was too old to climb.

Other guides who had worked there, like Allan Bard, started rival schools, with permits, and marketed themselves far more directly in competition with PSOM.

I would say that John drank PSOM into the ground. Just my point of view, take it for what it's worth.

John has been clean and sober now for many years, and he's been quite friendly when I run into him. Which is nice, since we were first serious climbing partners in High School.

The Palisade School of Mountaineering seemed to me a really excellent school. So many great climbers taught and guided there over the decades going clear back to its beginnings as Mountaineering Guide Service in 1959. The first commercial climbing school in California.

The curriculum was hammered out over many years, its safety record was envious, and we really cared about our students. Even the weak and clumsy ones got inspired, and did a lot of fine mountaineering. Smoke, especially, went out of his way to create easy routes on minor peaks just so everyone could feel success and make a summit with a grand view.
Tan Slacks

Social climber
Joshua Tree
Jan 25, 2009 - 06:30pm PT
I am going to be guessing here a bit, but I believe it was around 1979 that I was living in my Van, passing through the east side. There were huge drifts of snow and I was freezing every night in my VW bus. I met John at Lee vining ice climbing and he was kind enough to let me park in his driveway and plug my extension cord into his home fro heat. I think he may have let me sleep in the house one or two nights. Did he have a house at Toms place? That's what I remember. He was very cool, gave me all sorts of ice beta and took me to a place near June lake I had never been to before.

I did a quick look and found these two shots of him from that day. He kicked my @ss cross country. I am sorry to hear about the bitter stuff. Seemed like a nice guy.


Mountain climber
Jan 25, 2009 - 10:45pm PT
I've got an old flyer of sorts for PSOM. As soon as I can find it i'll post it up. I think Fisher was director at the point this flyer was out. I remember meeting a bunch from PSOM one night around '77-'79. I stumbled out of the night upon a well lit Chaney's cabin with an even well'er "lit" group in and outside. Turns out it was a birthday party of sorts for the late Allan Bard. They welcomed me right in and sometime the next day, I crawled back to my tent up at Sam Mack Meadow. Wow. Never forget that one. Didn't feel like climbing for two days.
Oh, to be young.....

Trad climber
Jan 25, 2009 - 11:16pm PT
funny, I was kind of wondering if you would touch on the whole snarl of personalities, Doug.

I've lived in Bishop for a little over 5 years now, long enough to have watched a few soap operas unfold and to have learned about some ancient ones. I knew Fischer just as "John" for a couple of years before I learned his last name and matched the FAs with the man. The people who live in Smoke's house now are good friends, one of the other "rogue guides" is a friend and coworker, and I am lucky enough to count Pietrasanta and Lauria as football-watching buddies. The history is all around us here, walking around on two feet and flapping its gums extensively (especially after a few bottles of wine have been emptied).

With all that, people's reactions to that old situation vary widely. From the stories and all the times I have spoken with John, it is pretty easy to see that a few demons used to swirl around him. He seems largely at peace with them now, but even as a casual acquaintance, it has been clear to me that certain memories can still heat up his blood. Other folk seem much more eager to point out the error of one person or another's ways from those long-ago days.

John has never been anything but completely friendly and a total gentleman around me, although I recognize some strong strands of misanthropy. He is still out exploring the few parts of the Sierra that he does not know like the back of his hand, and looking for new rock routes to put up. I am happy to hear that he can let those bygones be bygones when you guys see each other. Such powerful personalities are bound to clash after so many years, but it would be unfortunate if anyone were to spend decades carrying the bitterness of the clash rather than the joy of all the good times.

It seems to me that the Palisades School was a big part of separating Sierra climbing from the Sierra Club. The RCS blazed so many trails for all of us, but at some point things needed to open up and Smoke, John and Bardini were big parts of that opening.

Nice that one of them is still with us and kicking, and seems to have lived long enough to mellow and gain some wisdom.
Scott Cole

Trad climber
Jackson, WY^
Jan 31, 2009 - 06:23pm PT

I guided for P.S.O.M.when it was owned by John Fisher in the mid eighties, with Alan Bard and Mike Graber to name a couple. P.S.O.M. had the best H.C. setup anywhere. Third lake was an awesome place to live and work with great climbing, rock and alpine, everywhere.

Scott Cole

Trad climber
Jackson, WY^
Jan 31, 2009 - 06:39pm PT
I remember a day guiding on Temple Crag. Another guide and I (I temporarily forget his name)parallel guided Moon Goddess and Sun Ribbion Aretes. My client was a pain in the ass kid who wouldn't shut up.

We were sitting on the summit of Temple Crag enjoying the view, when we heard a small plane flying up the canyon way below. I could hear the engine pushed to the limit as the pilot tried to clear the pass. I spotted the plane below us just as it stalled. The sound of wind screaming across the fuselage was exactly like the sound of Zeros dive bombing ships in the movie Tora Tora. The plane augered in to a peak just south of Temple Crag and exploded in a ball of flames.

We got the group to the base of the climb and I ran to the road and drove to the sheriff station in Bishopto report the crash.
I walked into dispatch and a Deputy walked up to the counter which was a glass case filled with bongs and pipes. The deputy was wearing a Hawaian shirt and had nostrils which could only be described as pig like. I tried hard to keep from mlaughing as I reported the crash, which Porky swore had never happened.

I finally got the Sheriff and convinced him that there actually had been a plane crash. He called up a helicopter and we flew to the site of the crash, where a tangled mess of smoking metal convinced him that I was not lying.

We recovered the pilots body and flew back to Bishop. I drove back to the trail, hiked back to camp, mand guided N. Palisade the next day. The kid didn't say another word.

Scott Cole

Ice climber
the sads
Feb 1, 2009 - 01:15am PT
I took a climbing course from PSOM back in 1980. John, was one of the guides. Super nice guy. I saw him at the trailhead in LVC a few(five or six) winters back. He was selling gear. He looked down on his luck. Saw him again in T-meadows two years ago. Seems like he had gotten his life back together

right here, right now
Feb 1, 2009 - 11:00am PT
quite a story there scott c!
Doug Robinson

Trad climber
Santa Cruz
Feb 1, 2009 - 03:35pm PT
Yeah, amazing story Scott C. You don't see that every day.

We used to get regular air deliveries in the canyon though. A DC3 from the Department of Fish and Game would do bombing runs over the lakes at about 300 feet and drop hundreds, maybe thousands, of fingerling trout. Happened all the time, but we always had to stop and stare as that relatively big plane maneuvered among the steep walls.

dmalloy, I'm still pondering your response to my story about John. Slightly surprised that it's still a topic after all these years -- but only slightly. It's a small town and you've gotta talk about something while hanging out.

For me, though, it's one of those little peeks under the veil of what other people really think about you. I know I left a ragged trajectory in the OV in a lot of ways, and my relationship with John was just one of the more high-profile episodes. It's valuable to hear your measured view of it when I get to wondering just who the hell I was back then. Beyond the worn stories I tell myself about it, others' views can be startling and often lend unexpected perspective, y'know? Sometimes it's the most valuable kind.

Trad climber
san diego
Jun 5, 2010 - 06:46pm PT
dmalloy- "Nice that one of them is still with us and kicking, and seems to have lived long enough to mellow and gain some wisdom."

R.I.P. John Fischer!!

Social climber
Jun 5, 2010 - 10:02pm PT
hey thre say, ec (of don's post on the motorcycle accident)---thank you very kindly for leading me here so i could learn...

god blesss... my condolences once again to john's family...
he sounded like such a wonderful and fine man...

Patrick Sawyer

Originally California now Ireland
Topic Author's Reply - Jun 7, 2010 - 10:01am PT
Further to my post on the thread about John's death, again RIP John, I learned a lot from Smoke yourself and the other guides.

Trad climber
San Francisco, CA
Feb 15, 2012 - 10:51pm PT
Anyone know what year the school started?
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