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 Previously Unpublished Story by Allen Steck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!

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

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


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


Second Up the Arrow Chimney by Bob Swift.


Ordeal by Piton by Allen Steck.


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

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

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

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


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.


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.


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

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

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.

Sport climber
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.

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

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


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 .

Trad climber
The Circuit, Tonasket WA
Jul 7, 2015 - 04:28pm PT
Thank you Chis and Allen.
A well told history to connect us to our past.
Clint Cummins

Trad climber
SF Bay area, CA
Jul 7, 2015 - 06:37pm PT
Great stories - many laughs and famous climbs.
Thanks for sharing.

Trad climber
Fanta Se
Jul 7, 2015 - 06:44pm PT

Trad climber
Jul 7, 2015 - 07:21pm PT
Fascinating writing! Sign me up for a book.

Gym climber
Jul 7, 2015 - 07:35pm PT
WOW. More on Steck-Salathe, please.

Social climber
Elk Grove, California
Jul 7, 2015 - 07:35pm PT
Their route on Sentinel was a rite of passage for so many of us BITD, my partner and I must have done the thousandth something ascent, thirty years after those 'masters' pioneered the route.

“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.”

Classic? No... that pre-dates Classic.

Trad climber
Ouray, Colorado
Jul 7, 2015 - 07:40pm PT
Steck Salathe....quintessential Yosemite! I've done it three times in the past five years. Iconic climb rightly climbed by icons.
John Morton

Jul 7, 2015 - 07:44pm PT
Thanks Chris, and thanks Steve for your efforts on behalf of Steck. Al's memory of picturesque detail and powers of description always kept me on the edge of my seat, and asking for more.

Things to include: observations of the climbing greats of the forties and fifies; the approach from the sea to Mt. Waddington, 1950; the march to Makalu 1954; cycling between climbs in Europe just after the war; reconnoitering destinations for Mountain Travel with Roper. (Well maybe "you had to be there" in his presence for those campfire stories.) Of course the Hummingbird and other great climbs, but I would be happy with almost anything he cares to share.

john hansen

Jul 7, 2015 - 08:25pm PT
Fantastic stuff. Would love to read the book.
Flip Flop

Earth Planet, Universe
Jul 7, 2015 - 08:46pm PT
zuper! Hura gut und garnische ture. awesome. i was lucky to grab a tr from Mr. Steck at Turtle Rock once a while back. was happy to say that the Steck-Salathe Narrows was the most physically challenging thing that i'd done to date. More please!

Social climber
Jul 7, 2015 - 09:14pm PT
hey there say, chris... wow, i missed the post for this... just SAW it in the newsletter... very nice share for us all... very thankful that allen steck shared, too...

great stuff here... did not even get to read it all yet, :))
but will...
Jr Birdman

Trad climber
Boulder, CO
Jul 8, 2015 - 10:08am PT
Allen, yes! Please do this! It would be a major contribution to climbing history, and promises to provide huge insights to micro glimpses into one of the greatest, yet least known pioneers in Yosemite Climbing. And Thank You for considering taking on this huge project!

Mountain climber
there and back again
Jul 8, 2015 - 10:42am PT
THIS is what supertopo is all about!

Allen so kind of you to give us a sneak preview of your upcoming book. I can't wait for it to be published.

I love your Salethe accent. Always wanted to go to slab city.

Take care my friend. "Write on"
Daniel McClure

Trad climber
Jul 8, 2015 - 07:18pm PT
Very moving and enjoyable read. I find it so very interesting to see how rock climbing equipment and techniques have changed over the years. But the spirt and adventure lives on and on thru the ages. Sure love climbing. And sure love reading about John Salathe. And thank you Allen Steck for this read. That is a big YES from me for more.

Gnome Ofthe Diabase

Out Of Bed
Jul 9, 2015 - 08:29am PT
Of course, I think many of us will buy this or it will be the first item on the X-mas list.
any lover of the valley loves to hear the stories about the climbs and the people who put life on the shelf to spend as much of their lives on the shelves and corners, high off the ground in Yosemite as was possible.

Publish, book signing at face lift and the AAC black tie affair too.

Social climber
Jul 10, 2015 - 06:22pm PT
That was about as good as it gets--on "yust vun apple a day" for no less.
You write it and I'll buy it for sure--Salathe-the bridge between the Beats and the Hippies and the RVers--what a stud!
Ezra Ellis

Trad climber
North wet, and Da souf
Jul 10, 2015 - 06:44pm PT
Really nice piece Chris
Brian in SLC

Social climber
Salt Lake City, UT
Jul 10, 2015 - 06:58pm PT
Wow...great read!

Social climber
Elk Grove, California
Jul 10, 2015 - 11:44pm PT
I always thought it was the other way around...
Whenever I ate the fermented bean concoction,
da wumans no longer vanted da mans!

Sport climber
San Diego
Jul 11, 2015 - 07:01am PT
This is great. Would love to see more stories.
Bad Climber

Jul 11, 2015 - 08:33am PT
Hey, Chris:

This is the best of SuperTopo. We've GOT to get Mr. Steck to finish this project. I will happily purchase/pre-order a book. We've got to get these stories down.

Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Jul 11, 2015 - 10:06am PT
Rather amazing that Allen doesn't already have a biographer working with him in the Bay Area. He is the best of his generation being just ahead of John and certainly has had a very consequential and fascinating life in and around the mountains.

Those of you that were fortunate enough to come to the first Oakdale Climbers Festival got a really good hit of the estimable Mr. Steck.

During the preparations for that event Ken Yager and I were in contact with him bugging him for images and at one point he got a touch annoyed with us and declared "I'm not quite sure why I am messing around with all this stuff when what I really should be doing is smoking a joint out in the garden."

Well, it turns out that our efforts were worth the annoyance and his reflections on climbing with John and also on the early days working with the Ski Hut and Mountain Travel were pure gold. He has always given back much more than he has chosen to require of us in the climbing community and for that I am truly grateful.

Any of you STers that are interested in helping with Al's book please consider joining in the effort IF he would like the assistance. A big driver in these Festivals that I put on through NACHA and the Elevated Lives Project is to inspire exactly this kind of deeper biographical inquiry so if you are capable, step up and join in the work and fun.

Trad climber
Bay Area
Jul 11, 2015 - 12:15pm PT
I presume you've been in touch with Al's daughter. If not, give me a shout.

It makes complete sense that Salathe would use Ford axles. Why would he buy shiny new stuff when he could buy the axles from the local junk yard at a fraction of the cost per pound, or even scrounge from local farmer's worn out cars? After all San Mateo county still had thriving orchards and truck farms.

When I was climbing with Palo Alto guys in the mid 70's it was claimed Salathe's blacksmith shop had been on El Camino Real in Palo Alto just south of Page Mill Rd. True or false?

And one more oddity: I climbed the Salathe route on the Hand (scary even with bolts) in the mid 70's and found a couple of older guys on top. One of them claimed to be Salathe! Was he spoofing me or........? I had already heard of Salathe and knew he was Swiss and living in Swtizerland. If this bloke didn't have an accent I would have certainly known he wasn't Salathe. Was the other Steck? I hadn't met Al at that time and wouldn't have recognized him.

Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Jul 11, 2015 - 01:21pm PT
John probably used flat bar stock that was the same alloy as the steel used in Ford axles to make his horizontals and blades rather than using the axle material itself. Roper mentions this distinction directly but the myth follows the man.

I am not in touch with Al's daughter and haven't mentioned getting any help for this project directly in recent conversation with him. The book is something I first heard about when this thread showed up.

Social climber
Butterfly Town
Jul 11, 2015 - 03:02pm PT
A most excellent Thread, Chris! Thanks, Allen! And Steve. More, More!

Trad climber
Wolfeboro, NH
Jul 11, 2015 - 04:13pm PT
Having worked as a blacksmith off and on, for years, I really doubt Salathe
would use Ford axles, as a source of high carbon steel. It would require a huge amount of effort, and fuel to reduce a bar of that size down to material suitable for pitons.

However; Salathe could have used an oxy-acetylene torch to cut pieces from a large bar, like an axle, and then reduce those pieces by forging, into pitons. That is a possibility.

Social climber
Jul 11, 2015 - 04:44pm PT
Steck’s writing begs the question, why did Salathé make such dramatic changes in his life? Was it because he was nuts, or did he have a rational influence which, when added to a slightly delusional mindset caused the change?

What follows addresses the question. I mentioned it to Roper some time ago. He thought it was speculation and might make good fiction, but allow me to put it here for those of you who will convict on circumstantial evidence.

William Kat, my grandfather, was an early climber in Yosemite. He worked for the Yosemite Park and Curry Company (YPCC) and lived in Yosemite for most of the period 1927-1946. Kat Pinnacle and The Kat Walk are named for him.

Born in 1875, William was a native of the Netherlands. He learned German in school and was fluent in it. He was trained as an upholsterer.

At age 17 he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. The medical people said his only hope was to get back to nature, which he did, walking barefoot, eating only fruits, nuts, vegetables and cheese. He worked as an itinerant gardener and along the way became a follower of Ferdinand Jacobus Domela Nieuwenhuis. Nieuwenhuis preached against the five K’s, Kerk, Koning, Kapitaal, Kazerne en Kroeg (Church, King, Capital, Army Barracks and Pub). Nieuwenhuis also recommended for vegetarianism and against smoking.

William Kat thus became an atheist, vegetarian (except for cheese), teetotaler, anti-smoker and socialist. He was also one of the founders of a socialist concert band in the Netherlands in which he played tuba or sang if a vocal part was required.

William immigrated to Canada and stayed in Saskatchewan for 9 years where he became a carpenter in addition to being a failed wheat farmer. Because of the times and the smallness of a prairie community he went silent on the issues of socialism and religion. In 1913 he immigrated to the United States settling in Oakland, California.

He became a carpenter and then a contractor building houses for the well to do in Berkeley. At least one of the houses he built is on the Berkeley Architectural Heritage list. However, a firestorm in 1923 destroyed part of Berkeley north of the U.C. campus and two houses he was building burned. He had no insurance, so he went back to carpentry to pay his debts.

In 1927 he began working as a finish carpenter for the Ahwahnee, and there he remained as jack of all trades, upholsterer, carpenter, locksmith, etc.

After the Navy took over the Ahwahnee in 1943 Donald Tresidder, president of the YPCC, was selected as president of Stanford University in Palo Alto. He had William come with him to do cabinetry in his home at Stanford.

As mentioned in Steck’s article, German speaking Salathé came to the U.S. via Canada as had Kat. He settled down to work in San Mateo, 13 miles north of the Stanford Campus.

Now for the speculative part. Let us suppose William Kat met John Salathé. Perhaps Salathé was in the area doing iron work. If they met, a German conversation would have entailed. They had a lot in common, both coming from Europe through Canada, both speaking German, and both working in the trades. William was in excellent health for a 68 year old (he lived to age 97), but Salathé’s health was not good at this time. Kat was always ready proselytize.

After William Kat’s time in San Mateo, Salathé had visions which turned him, in most respects except for religion, to be like William Kat. William Kat ate all kinds of herbs and wild plants. Try stickery radish leaves to learn how a real vegetarian does it. William always sang while he worked, arias from the Messiah by Handel and Schubert’s songs. Although he was an atheist he loved Handel; the arias suited his tenor voice. People said he sang like an angel. If they had conversed, William certainly would have told Salathé how wonderful Yosemite was, and the joy of mountaineering and rock climbing. William Kat had become a member of the Sierra club in 1941.

We hear from Steck that Salathé was in Tuolomne Meadows at the Sierra Club’s lodge seeking solace in the mountains. Or, was it the power of suggestion of what Kat had told him of the beauty of Yosemite? William Kat said he had been on every trail in the park except one, so he had plenty of stories about the high country.

After Kat returns to the bay area in January 1946 following his retirement from the YPCC, Salathé starts rock climbing.

When I add it all up, Salathé and Kat probably met, and Salathé internalized what Kat told him and ascribed it to angels. Those damned voices!

So, there you have it. If you wish to become acquainted with Kat during his Yosemite years, try https://sites.google.com/site/katbiography/volume-iv

Bill Amborn (BBA)

Boulder climber
Jul 11, 2015 - 05:40pm PT
Hey thanks! Inspiring and humbling to connect our climbing heroes with our human foibles. :-)
Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Jul 12, 2015 - 11:43am PT
Bill- Interesting speculation and given the relatively small number of climbers post WWII likely an accurate one.

Did your grandfather maintain any relationship with the Sierra Club rock climbing sections in his later years?

I feel that it is safe to say that John had already seen Yosemite Valley by the time he started climbing as he would certainly have checked it out on the way to Tuolumne Meadows where he is reported to first have learned about the Bay Area Sierra Club RCS by talking with a caretaker at the Club Lodge there in the mid- 1940s.

John was clearly an old soul and came into climbing with some extraordinary talents for both his age and the time. Along with his physical talents and legendary determination came a certain moral clarity which in my mind made possible his conversations with his higher self or his "angels". Tom Frost has had the same sort of experiences without any of the eccentric background noise that makes it easy to dispel these moments as "kooky" when John's case is examined more closely.

Tom and John both had deeply held spiritual views that became more wholistic as time went by and neither tended toward atheism by example if your grandfather did indeed provide that.

That they would resonate on the topic of diet I have no doubt at all as I imagine they would have had little company in the climbing community in such a choice.

You have presumably studied everything in the way of letters and journals that the estimable Mr. Kat left behind and I would be amazed if the arc of John's climbing career would have escaped his notice or mention along the way.

In short, John's world view doesn't presume contact with your grandfather in my opinion but it is fun to consider the possibilities that such a meeting could have yielded.

If John hand met William and been influenced by the exchange then I think that it would have come up in the well-documented later conversations with Roper and Steck.

I will certainly ask both of them about the possibility and see what comes of it when I see them in the near future. What did Roper think about your proposal?
looking sketchy there...

Social climber
Lassitude 33
Jul 12, 2015 - 11:53am PT
SuperTopo at its best. Great Article and BBA, very interesting speculation as to William Kat's influence on Salathe.
Inner City

Trad climber
East Bay
Jul 12, 2015 - 05:59pm PT
This is a fantastic thread. Great reading! Thanks for sharing such interesting history.

Trad climber
South Slope of Mt. Tabor, Portland, Oregon, USA
Jul 12, 2015 - 11:00pm PT
Awesome. Love reading the history. Thanks for posting. I'd buy the book for sure.


Trad climber
Jul 13, 2015 - 04:18am PT
Doesn't get much better than this. What a legend. Thanks for sharing C-Mac!
Chris McNamara

SuperTopo staff member
Topic Author's Reply - Jul 17, 2015 - 09:37pm PT
I will try to publish another story next week

Social climber
Jul 20, 2015 - 06:52am PT
Very interesting reading, can't wait for the next story you publish next week.

Besides the climbing history, both his mental ascents and descents, are intriguing.

Trad climber
Ketchum, Idaho
Jul 20, 2015 - 07:21am PT
As usual, Allen has delivered a great story. I look forward to more and will buy the book if/when it's published. Thanks much.
Doug Robinson

Trad climber
Santa Cruz
Jul 21, 2015 - 12:52pm PT

This is great stuff. Haven't even read the whole thing yet, but I hasten to send encouragement and bump it back to the front page.

Publish it, of course! Your writing is fine and balanced -- and dare I say mature?

Last week I gave a slide show about the origins of Yosemite climbing at LeConte Memorial Lodge in the Valley. Spent most of my time on George Anderson's siege of Half Dome in 1875. Y'know, his drill-fest of 5/8" by 6" holes and hand-forged bolts took so long he built a cabin at that little spring a mile down the trail. The birth of wall climbing.

Then there was John Muir's solo of Cathedral Peak in 1869. 5.4 summit block in leather-soled shoes. The birth of Yosemite free climbing.

But when I got to Salathe, I was stymied for material. So thanks for this!


Big Wall climber
Terrapin Station
Jul 21, 2015 - 01:03pm PT
settling in the small town of San Mateo some 20 miles south of San Francisco, where John opened up a blacksmith shop.

Is there any memorial or even a small exhibit for Salathe in San Mateo?

There must be a display/ memorial for him in the Yosemite Climbing Museum?
Rockin' Gal

Trad climber
Oct 4, 2015 - 07:06am PT
Bump for Steck and Salathe.

Mohawk Valley,Ca
Oct 5, 2015 - 08:19pm PT
Yes, fine work Allen thanks G
Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Jun 4, 2016 - 01:55pm PT
Bump for Allen's 90th BD!
Fossil climber

Trad climber
Atlin, B. C.
Jun 4, 2016 - 04:56pm PT
Way to go, Al - well done. Thanks for doing this.
mouse from merced

Trad climber
The finger of fate, my friends, is fickle.
Jul 9, 2017 - 08:05am PT

Trad climber
Prather, CA
Mar 4, 2018 - 12:07pm PT
Great Post!
Some time around 1977 my friend Rich Ham and I headed over from the coast to explore the Needles. We car camped in what was probably the Long Meadow campground. While extracting gear from Rich's Honda Civic we noticed an early 60's VW campervan that looked like it had been parked there for some weeks. Some time later an older guy came out from the meadow with a dog (or two) and began sorting things around the van. He had on what looked like a shower cap.
We weren't sure if we had chosen the best spot fearing we were going to get into some sort of in unending conversation with the guy and we were partially right. Upon seeing our climbing gear he approached us and asked where we were headed. He told us in a broken German accent that he had climbed years back but that he just now enjoyed living in the out of doors.
We offered him a seat and we talked some about gear. Examining our EB's, he indicated that PF Flyers were the best climbing shoes...the ones with the white rubber, not the black and that we should get some for granite climbing here.
He also asked us if we knew Al Steck.
With that Rich and I looked at each other..."could this be John Salathe'?"
Shortly thereafter, he headed back to his van to prepare his supper, and Rich and I (who were just a couple years into climbing) talked some about possibly meeting a legend.
Some time later he came back over and asked if we would like to have some dinner with him. We accepted and introduced ourselves and he responded that his name was John...Oh SH#T!
There was a large pot cooking in his van that looked to have barley and other veggies in it, and we all (dog(s) included) were offered a share. He informed us that this was his perpetual soup and daily just threw new ingredients into it some of which came from the meadows. I recall some discussion on angels but generally more on what he was doing now and how he enjoyed his life.
Shortly there after we said goodbye and headed back to our camp for the night.
The next morning as we got up early and packed to leave, we noticed his van closed up. Climbing into the Civic, we began to hear yodeling coming from the meadow just as the sun rose.
I always wanted to revisit that experience with Rich, who is now gone, but your photo of John in that "shower cap" brought it all back.
After later climbing The Arrow and Sentinel, and experiencing the exposure and audacity of those routes, it has always amazed me that the humble old guy in the shower cap got there first and pulled it off.

Thanks for the post
Ed Hartouni

Trad climber
Livermore, CA
Mar 4, 2018 - 12:50pm PT
This story "Who Was John Salathe?" shows up in Allen's book:

A Mountaineer's Life

published by Patagonia 2017 and available at all the various booksellers...


The Good Places
Mar 4, 2018 - 12:52pm PT
quality content bump

Trad climber
Ouray, Colorado
Mar 4, 2018 - 01:35pm PT
I new he was eccentric but I wasn't aware he was that far around the bend.

Trad climber
Prather, CA
Mar 17, 2018 - 10:22pm PT
Kinda think we've all been around a bend or two...at least I have...sometimes I think living out of a vw campervan in Southern Sequoia might just be the ticket.
Tom Patterson

Trad climber
Mar 17, 2018 - 11:24pm PT
Thanks for posting this, Chris. What a remembrance!
Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Mar 18, 2018 - 09:34am PT
One of the more interesting details in this chapter is the remark by John during a conversation with Al that he actually did make his first alloy steel pitons using a chunk of metal from an old Model T Ford axle which had always been the myth.
Buy this book folks! It is a treasure just like Al.

A long way from where I started
Mar 18, 2018 - 10:13am PT
I don't know how I missed this thread the first time round, but thanks for bumping it.

I'm halfway through Allen's book now, and yes, you should all buy it and read it.
mouse from merced

Trad climber
The finger of fate, my friends, is fickle.
Feb 3, 2019 - 09:29am PT

Grey Matter
Feb 3, 2019 - 05:41pm PT
From this thread it seems he only really climbed from 1946 thru 1950. Amazing achievements in a short time.

Feb 3, 2019 - 10:00pm PT
Pure Supertopo gold in this post! TYFPU!
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