Don Jensen


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Doug Robinson

Trad climber
Santa Cruz
Topic Author's Original Post - Mar 26, 2009 - 11:36am PT

Friend, mentor, creative gear designer, and the driving force of Palisades climbing in the Sixties. Which, now that I think of it, made him the dominant High Sierra climber of that era, the era that ushered in a flowering of new technical routes that peaked in the Seventies.

Hard to believe he was barely thirty when that patch of black ice took him out. He was already the leading Alaskan climber of his generation when a post-doc appointment in mathematics invited him to Scotland that winter. He was on his bicycle on his way to school and the ice patch sent him head-first into a stone wall.

When I met him, '66 or '67, he already had an odd puffy spot on one lip where it was torn falling into an Alaskan crevasse far beyond the help of stitching, and sometimes a little mustache. It didn't detract, though, from that boyish enthusiasm. Don was wiry and powerful with big shoulders, and he always seemed to be bursting out of his knickers with sheer physical energy. Something innocent about that energy too. Coming from Yosemite, Don’s style seemed to me distinctly different from the Camp 4 mainstream -- barely emerged from provincialism at that point to even be seen as a mainstream. It wasn't until 1969, after all, that Mountain 4 published a Yosemite issue.

It's odd, maybe, but I don't recall Don ever going to the Valley. He grew up in the Bay Area, Walnut Creek, and I know he got as close as Fresno, because it was after he gave a slide show there about Alaska that Joan came up to talk to him. They were married in the Palisades and had a wedding feast on the Banquet Boulder, a fine block of erratic granite off the trail in the idyllic meadow of Cienega Mirth just below Lon Chaney's old stone cabin.

But then again avoiding the Valley had been something of a pattern among Eastside alpinists. Norman Clyde did it, kind of gruffly disdaining the place, and so had Smoke Blanchard.

On the other hand, climbers who started out in the Valley had always come up to the high country, beginning with John Muir and the boys from the Whitney Survey, and notably the crew in 1931 who first wielded the rope in California: Eichorn and Dawson and Brower and Richard Leonard. When they stormed into the Palisades that August on Clyde’s heels it was obvious what peaks had been bugging them, like Thunderbolt, just beyond what they might solo. Later Harding broke out of the Gulch to climb Conness and the epic 8000 vertical of that NE ridge on Williamson.

Further out on this tangent, I notice strong skiers in that progression, from David Brower to Allen Steck. Don Jensen had skis in the Palisades too, though his rig was far out of the mainstream. Three feet long, a crampon-style binding I think, and permanent skins. Pretty utilitarian, but they gave him full freedom of the place when he roamed the range during the late spring, quite alone.

Don's Twilight Pillar goes right up the center of Clyde Peak, surely the standout climb of the South Fork

Yes, on one level he was just training for Alaska. But it was quickly obvious that he loved the Palisades for themselves. Built paper-mache relief models of both the Palisades and the Alaska Range. And he made up a second pair of those unique skis to take clients in for big climbs like the Twilight Pillar on Clyde Peak -- probably the most outstanding climb in the entire South Fork -- and even bigger traverses. He had spotted several bivouac caches just down off the backside of the crest in Kings Canyon NP. It's more than a day's stout travel just to get to those spots, and there he was setting them up with a pair of sleeping bags to be able to drop off the ridge with a client. No one since has done that level of guiding, let alone climbing, in the remote South Fork, and the location of his caches vanished with him, not to mention a lot of his lore of the climbs themselves.

If Don had survived, I venture to say that the tone of that Golden Age of High Sierra development that germinated from his Palisades era in the Sixties until it flowered up and down the Sierra Crest into the Seventies would have ended up with more of an alpine flavor than the mood of pure rock climbing in an alpine setting that actually developed. More winter ascents of the hard climbs, just for starters.

Don set a vigorous tone at the Palisades School of Mountaineering. He put up many of the FAs of the Celestial Aretes on Temple Crag, for instance, with a hand-picked client out of the weekly classes. And the Celestial Aretes -- his name, his vision -- have to stand out as the most prominent centerpiece of the Sierra part of his legacy.

A toast to Don and his Celestial Aretes on Temple Crag

Now that Bob Swift -- Swifty -- has joined our campfire, I hope he will fill in some of the transition at the Palisades climbing school, then known by its original name Mountaineering Guide Service. Larry Williams started it in I think 1958, and it was the first, and for over a decade the only, commercial climbing school in California. The Sierra Club's Rock Climbing Section, where I learned to tie-in that same year, was the other big venue. I missed by two weeks the chance to meet Larry before he augered in off the Bishop runway, trying to bump start the second engine of his twin-engine plane. Bob Swift was the bridge from Larry Williams to Don Jensen. He was Chief Guide when I showed up, and I vividly recall leading a second rope behind Bob in my apprenticeship, including the East Face of Whitney.

It would be interesting to hear more about the early tone set by Larry Williams, who was a school teacher in the winter. Swift himself, who had been on the FA with Harding of the East Buttress of Middle in 1954 and of YPB with Steck in '52 -- not to mention the first American FA of an 8000-meter summit,, Hidden Peak, in 1958 -- was a classically calm and steadying influence to balance Don Jensen's energy and enthusiasm, as he burned onto new ground.

You can glimpse the man partly by his tools. Those skis, more like literal snow-shoes. A stiff pair of LePhoque boots, advanced alpine footwear with plastic midsoles and distinctive rubber spats sewn on, sleek and hiding the speed-lacing. He never wore rock shoes. I can see him still, miming the crux move in the firelight, as he pulled over a small ceiling with those fine boots poised on tiny edges. It’s the 26th of July Arete, named in honor of his and Joan’s wedding anniversary, one of his small gems of a route now rarely repeated. That move is a classic sandbag. Don had no idea how much his rock climbing, even in mountain boots, had improved during those years of working over Temple Crag. It got to be a running joke, “Don Jensen 5.8.”

The Jensen Pack evolved into this Ultima Thule

And let’s mention for a moment the Jensen Pack. Fine few ounces of light nylon, form fitting what little he carried every day to guide Temple Crag or North Pal. Imagine a wraparound belt bag clinging nicely to your hips, with two vertical compartments mounted on top, like tubes running up both sides of your back. Gone was the sway of a normal sausage pack that got more unstable the tighter you stuffed it -- rolling sideways on your back and trying to upset the alpine edge of your balance. I ballooned out the basic genius of Don’s layout into a 17-ounce version that would carry 70 pounds while skiing the John Muir Trail for 36 days in the spring of 1970. I so admired his design that I passed on Don’s patterns to Larry Horton at the Rivendell Mountain Works, who produced a thousand of them over the next decade. And then I couldn’t resist refining the cut into the Ultima Thule at Chouinard Equipment. All of it was inspired by Don’s breakthrough design.

The MacInnes North Wall Hammer

Then there was the MacInnes North Wall Hammer. It was his only tool, and I've always been amazed at what he did with it. Not water ice -- given the straight, fat pick, he wisely stayed away from that -- but with nothing more for purchase than that 50 cm shaft plunged in, he down-soloed the FA of the V-Notch in snow conditions. No one for miles around if he got in trouble. It had a hammer face for rock, and he wore it in a holster on his belt.
The thing was absolutely indestructible, which turned out to be good, and not just for pounding pins. Don did a certain amount of sculpting on sharp arêtes, wailing away with it powerfully held in both hands. You might be tempted to call it chipping, but you would be wrong. No climbing holds ever got improved, that’s for sure. But once in awhile, where the rope would fall over a sharp piece of the arête and there was no avoiding the spot, Don would round the edge a little. It was purely a safety move, and knowing how easily a taut rope will cut over a sharp flake, Don protected his clients coming along behind and all of us climbing along after, by taking the edge off. Many of you have trailed a rope over just those spots along the Celestial Aretes and never noticed. Once in awhile I’ll come across one of those subtle traces of Don’s legacy, and smile in thanks.

So I just had to get one of those MacInnes ice hammers too, in total imitation of Don Jensen. I was a puppy, an apprentice guide. He was not only Chief Guide in the Palisades, and later owner of PSOM, but he was the real deal cutting-edge alpine climber. His West Face of Mt. Huntington from '65 or so was the Alaskan climb of the decade. (Can't recall if the Cassin Ridge was done in the Sixties too, but anyway it was easier.) He trained for all his Alaskan climbs in the spring in the Palisades, and down-soloing the V-Notch was just one snapshot out of weeks of soloing around up there, all alone. Not only is 50 cm a pretty small shaft to anchor a self-belay while kicking steps downward, but in spring conditions I always worry about how bonded the snowpack is, really, to the burnished green ice below.

Let’s take another look at that studly photo of Don

He's up a steep arête in his winter double boots. Don is in his favorite basin, the South Fork; you can tell by that striking arête in the background, the Mahogany Wall he called it, on The Thumb. The arête he’s climbing is really just a bit of practice, a few hundred feet of fun in the afternoon after reaching the high camp at Merlin’s Well. But the photo is in obvious imitation of one in Gaston Rebuffat’s book On Snow and Rock, which inspired us all when it came out in 1960. More than inspired, we were awed by it really, especially this shot.

Gaston Rebuffat

It’s no wonder, then, that Don set up one so frankly in homage, and put it straight onto the cover of the brochure for the Mountaineering Guide Service. Nice little piece of alpine legacy, bumped over from Chamonix to the Palisades, with its vision carried onward from here to the cutting edge of alpinism in the Alaska Range. Pure Don Jensen.
Ed Hartouni

Trad climber
Livermore, CA
Mar 26, 2009 - 12:01pm PT
wow, thanks DJ, now that I have my ride back I'm itching to get over to the Eastside this year!

Trad climber
Mar 26, 2009 - 12:02pm PT
Good post,

Way to keep it real !!
Doug Robinson

Trad climber
Santa Cruz
Topic Author's Reply - Mar 26, 2009 - 12:14pm PT
Yes, a spiritual nexus.

I think immediately of Norman Clyde's favorite Norman Clyde story, which Don Lauria laid out for us recently. That was at Third lake in 1952.

And back in the Thirties when Clyde lived at Glacier Lodge every winter, he used to ski up the canyon most every day. I like to think of him lingering in that little crows-nest-like spot nestled in the rocks on top of the peninsula jutting into the lake. I'm sure you know it. I slept up in that sandy nook scores of nights, because of course it had the perfect backrest for drinking in the view of Temple Crag in the morning.

And yes, those boulder problems. Some outstanding ones on a granite edge right next to the trail. Don put up the most obvious hand crack going through a ceiling at its top. Actually a top rope, it was the only thing I ever recall him rating 5.9. Yeah, right. "Don Jensen 5.9."

I spent all summer, '71 I think, working a double crack further right. More like twin seams, overhanging gently. Finally got it on top rope late in August. I named it in honor of the breakthrough climb in the Valley at the time. Called it Few Dimensions.

I had a vision once -- actually I was on DMT -- of a spiritual progression of Palisades climbers, and it was set at Third Lake. I was lying on the sand there, the way I have slept countless hundreds of nights. But I was dead, just a skeleton with cold breeze running right through my ribs. Behind me I could feel the spiritual mentors who had come before, Clyde and Jensen and Smoke Blanchard. And out of the loins of my skeleton there was a long line of climbers stretching into the future.

And yes, Walleye, of course it's gin.
The Wedge

Boulder climber
Bishop, CA
Mar 26, 2009 - 12:20pm PT
If im back in the south fork working this summer I may have to try to duplicate that photo. Thanks Doug -eric

A long way from where I started
Mar 26, 2009 - 12:23pm PT
Great post. And brings back a lot of memories. I never met Don, but I sure did love the pack he designed.
Joe Metz

Trad climber
Bay Area
Mar 26, 2009 - 12:26pm PT
Nice post, Doug. I've long admired Don Jensen from a distance. Never had the privilege of meeting him. And I second DMT's comment - there's a presence in the Palisades, to me a sort of melancholy feeling of great times that have since blown away with the wind...
Doug Robinson

Trad climber
Santa Cruz
Topic Author's Reply - Mar 26, 2009 - 12:35pm PT
Hi Eric,

If you know the South Fork you've likely already come upon the timberline tarn we called Merlin's Well. It would be up and left climbing out of Finger Lake. The grain of the pluton and a faint climber trail lead you that way. It's just the most lush little paradise ringed by glaciated dome rocks with a short margin of meadow between. The cliff Don was on is to your right, toward Disappointment Peak. Another spiritual nexus, so we had to name it in honor of a Medieval Wizard.

Maybe I'll see you up there. It's time to climb that stellar third class face on Middle again. One of the very best of its grade in the Sierra. And of course the Twilight Pillar too.

Mar 26, 2009 - 12:47pm PT
very glad to be let in on your remembrances of don jensen. i carried one of the rivendell edition of his pack and was always eager to credit him with the design because i admired it so much. nobody who gave me an opening got away without a full and enthusiastic explanation of it's elegant simplicity. i would cheerfully tailor the load to fit the pack. on many a ski tour in the interior of alaska, and most especially for thousands and thousands of hitch hiking miles i was acompanied by his pack. in a sports car for instance, inverting the bulb to sit on the floorboard, the narrows between the legs and the wrap around waist compartment as arm rest in front of my belly, the efficient package just rang true.
i more than admired the profile of mt. deborah for years, inspired me to learn to fly, appreciated the humilty and ambition described in "mountain of my fear." might have had something to do with my never becoming an alaska mountaineer. huntington says all one needs to say in one word.
but back to that pack. fabric and stitches, or i guess material and seams. that's what you see, but the intelligence is imbedded in the pattern and that makes all the difference. i've used that metaphor more than once to remind myself about the essence of things. reductionism by jensen. thanks for letting me "meet the man" so to speak

Trad climber
Quartz Hill, California
Mar 26, 2009 - 12:49pm PT

Please keep writing and sharing! If you remember, you came to my middle school some years back and presented a slideshow/lecture. You then met with my GATE Language Arts students after school to talk about writing. I want to tell you that I recently had a visit from one of those students, and she told me that one of the most memorable experiences she recalls from middle school was when Doug Robinson came and talked to us. She is currently attending UCLA as a Journalism major. You are a teacher Mr. Robinson, and don't ever forget it!!!!


Trad climber
Mar 26, 2009 - 12:50pm PT
great post. i especially love the photos and design history woven into the narrative.

in fact, i'd like to hear more about the design history.

right here, right now
Mar 26, 2009 - 01:22pm PT
Nice to see you put this one out, just as promised Doug!
1958: I didn't know the Palisades school went back that far...
(you probably noted this in an earlier thread)

Fun reading it; also interesting to note some of us in Southern California were inspired quite a lot by this whole approach of climbing alpine rock in the Sierra and intentionally avoiding Yosemite. (I can't say we abstained too long though)

We also climbed strictly in our leather mountaineering boots; typically up to about 5.8. No doubt we got all of that from reading you, from Jensen, from Clyde et al.
We climbed the Thunderbird Wall; I remember a nearly perfect mantle right on to the summit. So Jensen's Twilight Pillar awaits a return...
Doug Robinson

Trad climber
Santa Cruz
Topic Author's Reply - Mar 26, 2009 - 01:22pm PT
Hi Cracko,

Great to hear from you. I am so honored to be remembered by your student. As you know so well, those moments are the one true reward from teaching and mentoring. And so often when we've touched someone, we never hear about it. Which is fine, of course, just the way of the world. Publish a major article and get one or two passing comments. Actually, I've gotta say that the Taco format here is really an improvement that way, hearing so many things back and joining the conversation.

Anyway, it means a lot to occasionally catch a story like yours. So thanks. Next time you see her, tell her hi and congratulations and pass on my email.

I tried to email you soon after I joined the Taco and recognized you, but it bounced back. So this is a belated hello!

Doug Robinson

Trad climber
Santa Cruz
Topic Author's Reply - Mar 26, 2009 - 01:57pm PT

I veered away from posting more about the design history, afraid I would bore some people who don't roll that way. But since you ask, I'll go on a little more. Some of this was posted on an equipment thread awhile back, with parts of Don's alpine climbing history woven in from a slightly different tack.

When I was preparing to ski the Muir Trail -- as I mentioned -- in the spring of 1970, I was lucky to have both Don's patterns and an eager sewer, my ski partner P-Nut McCoy's girlfriend Claudia Axcell. (A few years later Claudia and I were married briefly. But that's another story.) We made two Jensen Packs and a Jensen Bombshelter tent. The total weight of all three was five pounds. Incredibly efficient.

The Bombshelter tent was a refined A-Frame, with batwing side pullouts and a ridgepole. It's pretty tiny, and I modified our ski poles to form the A-shaped ends so the only extra pole we carried was the ridgepole. I have no photos of either those Jensen Packs or the Bombshelter. I did snag a photo of the Rivendell Bombshelter off the internet, but I can't find it this morning. There's a guy in Oregon whose website includes a shrine to Rivendell. You can Google it.

A bit more on the heritage of the Jensen Pack:

You’ve spurred me to think again about this ingenious contraption for hauling our sheer pile of “stuff” around the mountains. A remarkable breakthrough, considering the beasts of burden of the times. Packframes were it then, and the external frame had reached the height of its development.
The Kelty Pack, TIG-welded aluminum tubing bent into the shape of a human back, was the state of the art. Lesser models had canvas fittings, but the Kelty was snappy with olive green nylon shoulder straps and a packbag that even had an aluminum spreader-bar to hold it open. It was all the more remarkable against the backdrop of straight, wood-framed “Trapper Nelson” packs. A lot of those still around then, which made the Kelty look aerospace futuristic.

There was another way, though, more directly in line of the alpine tradition. Recall that Rebuffat’s book On Snow and Rock was freshly translated in 1960. It swept me away with alpine inspiration while still in high school. Gaston in the frontispiece with a hemp rope coiled on his back. And inside we see him packing a canvas and leather alpine sack with twin oak stays. My climbing partner John Fischer got one, giving me a first glimpse of the beginnings of an internal frame pack. That was a bigger and heftier model than the classic, frameless Rebuffat “Guide” packs that made their way into the Valley.

When I met Don Jensen he was working on his Doctorate in Math. In the last half of the Sixties Don was living in an apartment near UCLA with his new wife Joan. His big Alaskan climbs were behind him, but hardly forgotten. In 1963 his fledgling trip to Denali (well, it was still “McKinley” then) -- the Harvard Mountaineering Club trip -- had blazed a new route up the Wickersham Wall on the north side of the peak. Not to mention walking in all the way from the highway, carrying huge loads through bogs and over muskeg. Call it Don’s “Freshman Orientation.”

Then there was Huntington. I’ll say it was the state-of-the-art alpine climb in the world then. But I don’t feel expert on that, so maybe someone with more of a global view can step in here to confirm or deny. We know a lot about that trip too, thanks to the early and prolific writing career of Don’s classmate, Dave Roberts. The Harvard Mountaineering Club of the day was one of those localized explosions of creativity that pushed the cutting edge of alpine climbing, much as The Valley was doing for rock climbing.

And Deborah – jeez! No wonder Don and Dave Roberts were inspired. It looked a lot like the French Ridge on Huntington, freshly climbed by the great French guide and Annapurna veteran Lionel Terray. A low summit too, only 12,339’ – shouldn’t be that hard. Dane Burns gave us the sobering perspective [on that other thread], though, of twenty subsequent failures to get up the thing. Its FA party in 1954 is a clue: it included Fred Beckey and Heinrich Harrer. Around Palisades campfires Don talked about the shockingly bad weather there in the remote eastern Alaska Range. Stuck in their Bombshelter tent during days of blizzard, Don drove Roberts nuts by calmly disassembling a watch and spreading the gears and springs around as he patiently repaired it. A pretty good glimpse of the stormbound mathematician and fledgling equipment genius.

After all that, after his fits and starts at Harvard, after dropping out to train alone in the Palisades and work the cutting edge in Alaska, Don seems to have settled down a bit in SoCal and focused more of his huge energy on the Palisades. Maybe Don Jensen’s happy absorption in climbing there is as good a recommendation of the range’s importance as I can muster. I’m still pretty amazed that the place never seemed to me to get the respect it was due. I mean out of the whole Eastside, Norman Clyde chose to winter at the foot of those peaks for decades. And the ten-mile-long Crest of the Palisades, first traversed by John Fischer and his client Jerry Adams – it took a week! --is still the only one of the great Sierra ridge traverses that Peter Croft has not nailed in a single-push traverse.

In the 1960s in the Palisades Don Jensen was the Lone Ranger of alpine climbing in the Sierra. Sure, Harding was putting up bigger rock climbs on the alpine walls of Conness and -- yes, let’s not forget – Keeler Needle. But those were really sunny rock climbs that happened to be on high peaks. So were my later efforts to put up Dark Star, deliberately homing in on Summer Solstice to squeeze max sunlight and warmth onto a north wall. Don’s spring training rambles through the Palisades were a whole different deal. Deliberately climbing in the snowiest season, approaching on skis. Just by repeating sections of the ridge under those conditions he was forging new ground.

It’s so unfortunate that the details of most of what he did up there seem lost. My recollection of his down-soloing the V-Notch plunging in his pre-Terror MacInness with a handle no longer than a framing hammer is like a tiny surviving fragment of significant climbing lost to us now. Don had a little card file of what he’d done, 3x5 cards with neat, tiny lettering kept in one of those flip-top recipe boxes at the Mountaineering Guide Service roadhead basecamp, a wood-framed canvas tent like the ones in Camp Curry. Where has that card file gone? I often wonder. Joan has long since moved to the Yukon.

Trad climber
The state of confusion
Mar 26, 2009 - 02:06pm PT
Dave Roberts and Don Jensen. What a team. Mt. Deborah.
Incredible read. Of course, The Mountain of My Fear too.

right here, right now
Mar 26, 2009 - 02:10pm PT
We want the cardfile.

Trad climber
Mar 26, 2009 - 02:16pm PT
thanks, doug. i had always assumed that the pack design was inspired by the evolution of the rucksack in the post-war alps. but it's cool to hear the timing.

where were you sourcing your materials? tech fabric wasn't terribly easy to come by in most parts of the country, even though the collapse of the us textile/sewing industry was just getting underway.

gaston had a huge impact on photo composition in the states. if you look at period (1960s, esp.) climbing photos, you can find echo after echo of that ridiculous aiguille shot.

given the small size of the alpine community in the us at the time, it's not that surprising that the palisadaes didn't draw more interest. the closest urban center was los angeles, not a likely source of serious alpinists. and the tetons and cascades were already well-established as centers for serious mountaineering.

Mar 26, 2009 - 02:38pm PT
Thanks so much, Doug. Every word here will be much-treasured by many.

I read an interesting note regarding Don's death in Roberts' 'On the Ridge Between Life and Death: A Climbing Life Reexamined' (which, by the way, I think is the most thoughtful consideration of the climbing life that we have). Roberts says that he received a note from Joan in 2003 that says Don was actually hit by a truck. The original report was simply that "Don was killed instantly while bicycling on slippery roads." Roberts seems to think that he himself was somehow responsible for the "crashing onto the stone wall" part of the story. There's a lot about their friendship in the book, full of both love and regret.

Thanks again, Doug, keep it coming, please!
Doug Robinson

Trad climber
Santa Cruz
Topic Author's Reply - Mar 26, 2009 - 02:46pm PT
Thanks for pointing out more on Don in Roberts' book. Now I'll read it for sure.

Got an excerpt for us?

Trad climber
quaking has-been
Mar 26, 2009 - 02:57pm PT

This couldn't possibly be the "Diamond Don Jensen" who sold Kassbohrer snow grooming machines in the Tahoe area could it? His brother Bill Jensen was the GM of Northstar.........
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