Who was John Salathé? Previously Unpublished Story by Allen Steck


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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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