Frank Sacherer -- 1940 - 1978


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Patrick Oliver

Boulder climber
Fruita, Colorado
Nov 17, 2008 - 04:01am PT
Good to hear from my old friend Eric Beck. Do you remember that climb we did on the Owls? Others... trying to dig them out of my memory... Sounds as though you are well...

Good stuff about Sacherer. As I read through this whole thread I see lots of factual errors, but oh well... people don't seem to like it when you suggest things happened a different way, so I'm shutting up on correcting things.

I will say Sacherer pushed the limits for his day, but more accurate might be to say he pushed HIS limits. He was a wild man of sort. By the way, he called several people chicken-st, including Kor one day. They were doing a route on the Arches, and Sacherer started leading a long traverse left. The only hard part of the traverse is the first move off the belay. He made the move, with the protection of Kor right there nearby, but then ran it out a long way. Kor said, "Frank, put something in for me." Obviously if Layton fell off that first move he'd take a huge, wild swing. Sacherer turned back and said, "Shut up, Kor, you chickenst." Layton himself told me that story, so I think it's reliable. And I have already written above about the Erb story, how that actually went down.

Pratt had that remarkable control and beauty of technique. Sacherer had the go for it mentality... TM tells a story only as TM can tell a story, of roping up with Frank, and Frank assessing the crack pitch ahead and saying something to the effect of, "I don't think I'll have the strength to stop and put anything in. Watch me, here I go." And that was a little like Frank, to just go up and do it, and not worry about things too much, but be very determined, somewhat at the risk of companions... He didn't have the raw talent of several of the others, as he is often touted to have had, people such as Kamps or Pratt, or probably even Robbins either, but Frank had that will to push it, and that kind of mind can take you some pretty wild places. He also had a perfect body for certain types of cracks. Someone mentioned his thin chest and relatively wide shoulders... perfect for such a crack as Hour Glass right side. He was dang good and bold as heck.

Frank came to visit me in Boulder once, and we had good conversations... I had climbed a fair bit with his wife, Jan, before they were married. And before that, briefly, she was Layton's girl friend. Haven't seen Jan in a long time...

Pat Ament
Roger Breedlove

Cleveland Heights, Ohio
Nov 17, 2008 - 10:55am PT
This is one of the best qoutes on Sacherer "...especially with Sacherer being in the hospital. It was bound to happen to him the way he climbed with his head up his ass. Maybe he will have learned something that will keep him alive from here on if he continues to climb. Then again, maybe he climbs the way we all should; perhaps he is the only courageous one and we're all chickenshits..." The existential question of all great climbers.

Thanks Bill.

Hey, Jeff, can you talk Bonnie into posting up on ST? I know she reads it a bit. It would be so nice to have here post Bob's side of these tales and her take on the Valley history from the 60s.

BTW Bill, do you climb any these days? You would have enjoyed the Nose 50 reunion. And we would have enjoyed you.

Good start to a Monday.

Best, Roger
Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Nov 17, 2008 - 11:08am PT
I second that motion!

Bonnie- come join the fun directly if you please! Your input would be greatly appreciated and respected so pull up a virtual log round and chew the fat with us by the fire. We would love to hear your perspective on the many characters that you and Bob hung out with BITD.


Mountain climber
Okinawa, Japan
Jan 12, 2009 - 02:14am PT
Thanks to everyone for their contributions. I learned some things about Frank that even I didn't know and I was his wife from 1965-1971.

I also spotted a few errors along the way but wanted first to correct information about the circumstances surrounding his death. Unfortunately, I learned about it six weeks after the fact, from a condolence letter written by Chris Jones. I had just returned to Kathmandu after several months away working in a remote Nepalese village on a Swiss Aid project. I then wrote to friends at CERN and sent for the official accident report from the Chamonix Rescue Service.

Frank and fellow physicist Joe Weiss died from a fall on the summit ridge on their descent after completing their climb of the Shroud. It is impossible to say why they fell although high winds were suspected. Probably they were moving down the the ridge simultaneously in the interests of speed because of the oncoming storm. There was lightning spotted but no indication that was the cause. Frank was killed instantly and Joe survived long enough to set up a bivouac and then died of hypothermia and shock. They were still roped together when found. The actual date of Frank's death was Aug. 30 but the winds were so high, a helicopter confirmation could not occur until the 31 so that is listed as the official date of death for both men.

The storm was such that a helicopter retrieval of the bodies was not possible until the 4th of September. By that time Frank's father had arrived in Chamonix from San Francisco. He stayed just long enough to do the necessary paperwork and then returned home to be with Frank's mother as it was not certain even then, when the funeral would be, since everyone was awaiting the uncertain arrival of Joe's father. The funeral finally occurred on Sept. 8. CERN chartered a bus to take their employees to the double funeral so many people were there, but unfortunately, not one person from Frank's family. So far none of us have been able to visit the gravesite either. In fact only his brother survives at this time. If anyone has a photo of the gravesite, we would be happy to have it.

People react to grief differently. For Frank's parents, the decision was made to try to forget the past. No obituaries were published and thus the event has been shrouded in mystery. Five years after his death, Frank's father still did not want his name even to be mentioned. Both of his parents have passed on now, so I feel it is time to be more forthcoming.

Roger Breedlove

Cleveland Heights, Ohio
Jan 12, 2009 - 08:15am PT
Hello Jan. Welcome to SuperTopo and thanks for posting.

As you can read here, there are many of us who trace the Yosemite's current free-climbing styles to Frank's climbing in the 1960s. However, most of us who spend time in the Valley in the late 60s and 70s never climbed with him or even met him. He seems to be unique, somehow, amongst 60s climbers in having a shrouded personality: we all know his climbs, temper, and his quotes, but we don't seem to know him. These stories and details are very welcome.

Thanks again.

Best regards, Roger Breedlove
Mighty Hiker

Social climber
Vancouver, B.C.
Jan 12, 2009 - 02:06pm PT
Thanks, Jan, and welcome to wonderful wacky world of SuperTopo! We're a pretty diverse bunch, but one strong common thread is interest in climbing history, and the stories, people, and photos. I think we'd all be very happy to have you add corrections to this thread, and other stories and pictures. There are a half dozen or more posters who knew and/or climbed with Frank, and perhaps some lurkers also.

These threads tend to bob to the surface, generate some interest, information, and discussion, then submerge for a while. So it won't always be on the front page - keep a note of the URL so you can easily find it again. There's no subdivision or index, and the search function is a bit clumsy.

Trad climber
Jan 12, 2009 - 02:27pm PT
A buddy of mine who has done a ton of hard Valley climbs and elsewhere says Sacherer Cracker was his first 5.12 climb and he didn't even know it!
The guy was definetly way ahead of his time and his fitness level must have been quite superior for the times.
He is a legend and rightly so.
Double D

Jan 12, 2009 - 02:33pm PT
This is so cool. Thanks for your post Jan. Frank has probably been one of the biggest free-climbing meantors for several generations of Yosemite climbers. I've always been in awe of his acheivements and bold routes, especially for the day. I only wish that I had the chance to meet him.

Ed Hartouni

Trad climber
Livermore, CA
Topic Author's Reply - Jan 13, 2009 - 12:12am PT
Physicists as a class of people have some odd, and seemingly contradictory personality traits, and Frank Sacherer was probably no different.

There is an attitude that is described as "arrogant" which I think is more an assumption on the part of people familiar with physicists than some belief that what they are doing is "important" in a general way. Now that is not to say that a physicist probably thinks what the problem is that they are working on is the most important thing at that moment. The degree to which they attend that work, the concentration it requires and the devotion to seeing it through to the end might also be interpreted as exaggerating its worth. But that is how a physicist is wired, to take something apart and understand it's working. It can seem totally trivial and inconsequential to someone else, even another physicist. What drives this is a belief we can understand nature that way and the pleasure in finding that out. Maybe it is the curse that Newton bestowed on us all. Einstein said: "The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is at all comprehensible." (Scripta Mathematica, 1932).

Anyway, a physicist goes into the world armed with this belief, and is certain that it is true, even when they have doubts about their ability to actually achieve that comprehension. This all looks odd to someone not trained as a physicist, on the one hand very sure, on the other very doubtful, both emotions contained within the same thought.

Another strange behavior is to be somewhat shy in the company of others who are not physicists, at least to a point. Physicists are uncertain of the "rules" of engagement in "other cultures," and lacking the certainty of mathematical logic, often will keep quiet rather than speculate idly. Philosophy has no "truths" that can be demonstrated, literature is opinion, art is emotion... but physics is something demonstrably real, and there are provably true and false statements.

One of my interests in Frank Sacherer was to try to understand the person and how these two cultures, climbing and physics, came together in him. While physics is a supreme intellectual exercise, climbing is the physical realization of the solution to a puzzle about how to move from here to there in a vertical world.

An interesting similarity is the certainty in solution. When I have worked out a problem in physics, I have done it with certainty, I can prove it, someone else can show it in a calculation or in an experimental result, and understand what the physics means. When I solve a problem on a pitch there is a similar certainty in it, given a style, I have actually overcome the obstacles, I have figured out how to get my body up, there is no uncertainty in the final result. The rigorous application of "style" serves the same discipline in climbing as the requirement for mathematical and experimental rigor in physics.

Perhaps I've got it wrong, but I wonder if Sacherer might be found in some of those characterizations.

Not here
Jan 13, 2009 - 01:27am PT
Jan, I feel greatly honored to have you here. Please keep posting!


Mountain climber
Okinawa, Japan
Jan 13, 2009 - 07:39am PT
It's difficult to try to explain Frank to climbers, since I knew him primarily in his intellectual and academic mode. He did severe climbing before I met him and after I departed, but hardly climbed at all during the time we were together. Nor did he want me to climb which was a source of great personal frustration. It's true that in the spring of 1965, he was told by his thesis advisor that if he took off one more summer to go to Yosemite, he would be dropped from the graduate program. Still, that doesn’t explain why he didn’t even want to do easy rock climbs on the weekends and turned every attempt of mine at climbing with him into a nightmare. Somehow it was all or nothing as far as climbing in the Valley went, although he did not at all mind starting from the beginning with snow and ice climbing when we got to the Alps. There we did do a lot of climbing together on safe classic routes like Mt. Blanc and the Matterhorn and with a minimum of personal friction.

The other problem in explaining Frank is that physicists live in a different world than the rest of us. While Frank did use physics to figure out crack climbing techniques, (bordering on engineering is probably how he would have referred to it), most of his work was extremely abstract. Like many physicists and mathematicians he was a right brain thinker. The right brain is the center of symbols, strong emotions, and athleticism among other things, the very things at which he excelled. He was able to translate symbols into words however, only with great difficulty. He called people names and obscenities I believe, from lack of a more standard social vocabulary.

This sounds unbelievable given his intelligence unless you know the world he worked in. Often he would pace back and forth and mutter things like "it's coming, it's coming" and couldn't explain what, except that it had something to do with physics. Weeks later he would begin to put it down in mathematics, but still couldn't explain it in English. I remember one equation that went on for 30 finely written pages, but it was months before he could begin to formulate it in words. Then when we were in Europe, he would agonize for half a day over a simple one paragraph letter to his parents.

He was also very shy about telling you what he knew unless he felt very comfortable around you. He was great at explaining physics principles and philosophy without the use of mathematics to me, but resisted the idea of talking about it with anyone else. Physics was by no means his only intellectual interest. His 16 years of Jesuit schooling meant he had a wonderful classical education. When we went to Europe, we spent 10 months living in a Volkswagen bus and touring Europe. We visited every major museum, cathedral, and archaeological site in Greece and western Europe. We bought the Guides Bleus series of guidebooks and read through them word by word as we walked through these sites inch by inch, sculpture by sculpture, painting by painting. It was quite impressive to see him read on sight the original inscriptions in Greek and Latin at places like Thermopylae and Rome and then translate them almost simultaneously.

The question for all of us who knew him I suppose, is who was the real Frank? Or better yet, why wasn’t he better balanced so that he could enjoy both worlds at the same time without going from one extreme to the other? It is certainly a characteristic of the right brain thought process to focus intensely on a single subject at a time. I also have a few psychological theories concerning his religious and working class background as part of his conflicted view of the world. Still, after living with him for almost seven years, he remains even to me, a kind of enigma.

Mountain climber
Monrovia, CA
Jan 13, 2009 - 11:42am PT
This has been a meaningful thread to me. Jan, your beautiful prose describes a good many of the many physicists I've known (3 of my best college buds were from Los Alamos); all great people in their 'own way'.

Dick Erb

June Lake, CA
Jan 13, 2009 - 09:19pm PT
When I began climbing in the Valley I soon met Frank and we started climbing together. This was a great learning experience for me, but the way he climbed scared me half to death. I think it scared him too, but that was a fascination of his. These experiences peaked for me on the Powell-Reed route on Middle Cathedral Rock. Kamps and Higgins had recently bagged the first free ascent and we were going up for the second. Two of Frank's characteristics that factored into the ensuing events were his impatience and the fact that he never liked to stop at the end of the pitch if he had much rope left. It was up here that I took the longest fall of my life, and most amazingly while following. Somewhere a number of pitches up I made a mistake following a pitch and grabbed a pin to avoid falling. This didn't upset Sacherer too much because the pitch had been led free, but it frustrated me and higher up at a series of traverse moves I decided to just swing across on the rope. I called my plan up to Frank. "OK" "Got me" "Gotcha". I started the short pendulum but was immediately falling through space. My first thought was this was some kind of joke or punishment but I soon realized this was no joke. My mind seemed to enter a very clear space where all of the possible reasons this was happening and their consequences were instantly apparent. One reason I could check right away was whether the pendulum pin had popped. I looked up and saw it still there. Too bad, that was one of the better possibilities. Then I was looking out across the Valley, then at the river , then down at the talus, then I snapped to a stop just a few feet short of a three foot ledge. Good thing our rope wasn't any longer. I climbed back up the rope and figured I'd gone about eighty feet. When I got to the top of the pitch there was Frank staring at the rope burn shredded skin on his hands. When leading the pitch he had passed up the belay ledge and went another forty or so feet and stopped on a sandy sloping shelf where he quickly pounded in an anchor piton. He didn't like it so he tied a slack anchor to keep the weight off of it, and started belaying me up. When I put my weight on the rope he started to slide off the ledge and grabbed at the anchor with his braking hand. The rope took off and he grabbed at with both hands, not in belay position, just his two hands desperately squeezing the speeding rope until all my weight and momentum slammed into the single anchor piton, which held. When I got back up to him he said, "You'll have to lead the rest of the pitches but don't fall because I can't hold you." I believed him. About forty feet up I get to a move that looks to be about 5.8 and slam in a piton. I looked down at Frank bent over with the rope lying across his open hands. A quick mental calculation tells me a fall here would be well over a hundred feet. Let's get out of here. I grab the pin as Frank looks up and yells up, "Let go of that pin Erb". He looks away, I grab the biner and I'm on my way. Higher up at the next pro he yells, "If you grab that pin I'll tie you off right here".

Jan, A while after this incident while Frank and I were room mates in Berkeley, I heard him say that if he ever found the perfect woman he could quit climbing.
Patrick Oliver

Boulder climber
Fruita, Colorado
Jan 13, 2009 - 10:06pm PT
Thanks, Jan, for your insight and refreshing accuracy. Most climbers here, I seem to get the impression, think only the Californians knew or cared about Frank. Maybe it was because I spent so much time in the Valley through the 1960s and did enough climbs with Bridwell and Pratt, but Frank was a big part of my life as well. When he looked me up in Boulder that year, and you were there, I met a quiet man who treated me as a friend and fellow climber. He treated me with respect, yet we hadn't yet climbed together. Our mutual friend Pratt was a link that brought us together. I think Frank understood me on some cosmic level, or intuitive level, as did I understand him. It took only a few minutes for our spirits to meet and know everything we needed to know. That's the way it is, sometimes, with climbers. That's the same thing that happened with Whillans. Don and I knew we were friends the second we met, and we remained so. Had you not been there, Jan, and so much of Frank's focus right then, he might have swept me up and away toward... who-knows-what crack. I think by then both he and I had done enough of them that it had started not to matter... but that's a speculation. My point is, he was well aware of my involvement with Yosemite and could probably just about tell, to a handhold, the degree of intimacy with which I knew those granite cracks. Something we learn as climbers is that these routes tie us together on some spirit to spirit level. It was as though every climb he and I both had done, even with different partners, brought us into some kind of
unspoken communication. We could feel that in the air. I look back with deep reverence for those masters who were also my friends, Royal, the leading light, and Pratt, the crack master and quiet guru, and Kamps and Higgins, those face climbing geniuses, and Dave Rearick, the unheralded humble master who always awed all of us when the mood struck, and Jim Bridwell and Barry Bates, my bouldering partners, and Frank, possibly the least naturally gifted of them but who made himself an artist of the highest order because he transcended his own ability by sheer mind and will and love, and of course those other only slightly lessers, such as Beck, who went up rock with such ease, even Herbert because he could laugh you off the rock if you got too good, and Layton who when he ran into some hard section simply sped up so it wouldn't get in the way (or wouldn't frighten him by slowing to see how difficult it actually was), and Tom Frost and Yvon, both as good as they needed to be at any point when a wall rose before them... and Roper, the aid climber, and Denny... who always seemed to find a way into the picture... There is no negating any of them, because they all are and were a part of the same spirit though they varied so greatly as individuals. That time, yes, they tell me is gone, but it lives on in those of us who were there... and tied also to that "rope"...

Mountain climber
Okinawa, Japan
Jan 14, 2009 - 12:38am PT
Pat, my old friend and climbing buddy from the days before I met Frank, thank you for your observations. Frank loved Colorado the two summers we visited there and enjoyed meeting my old friends. Given that all three of us were always intuitive types, yes there was a special rapport.

One subject often discussed in connection with Frank is religion. I think his 16 years of Catholic education had a big impact, but not in the ways that are generally thought. I never sensed that he worried over dogma or going to church which he never did. He had been through that a decade or more before I knew him. Certainly he never would have been found cursing against God as Roper has postulated in his portrayal of Frank for Camp 4, as Frank never entertained such a narrow and anthropomorphic concept of God. He was well aware of the mystical leanings of many great physicists and the philosophical questions posed by quantum mechanics and astronomy. He also knew a lot about Eastern philosophy and we often discussed the concepts which later appeared in The Tao of Physics.

Frank also had a rock solid sense of personal ethics from his religious background and a social conscience. Consequently we were both active in anti-Vietnam war activities in Berkeley. Of course every thinking person was involved somehow, though the Catholic Church as a generally conservative force, supported the war in the early days. Frank of course put personal conscience above the church. Luckily, Franks’s research assistantship at the Lawrence Radiation Lab exempted him from the draft.

One aspect of the 1960’s that Frank did not approve of was the drug taking. While I’m more the experimental type, Frank was dead set against any of it. I think this had to do with personal control issues however, rather than religion. Knowing Frank’s fondness for sweets, some of our friends did take it on themselves to dope some brownies once at a private slide show. I was not told of the scheme and not surprised when Frank ate several. I only caught on as we drove home and he began waxing ecstatically about the beautiful colors of the traffic lights. Much to the disappointment of our well-intentioned friends, getting Frank stoned did nothing to loosen him up. We were both agreed moreover, that this violated his free will, a basic principle of most religions, and the result was, we were very careful after that what we ate at parties.

The harmful effects of Frank’s Jesuit education were much more subtle. From my point of view, the worst thing he was taught, was the idea that compromise was the deadliest sin of all. As Ed has already noted, physicists like certainty and there is a certainty to climbing as well. Unfortunately when applied to human relationships, the results are not nearly so beneficial nor the right way of doing things so obvious. Most of the important interpersonal issues in life benefit from love, not logic. And for sure, there is more than one ideal way to get things done in the kitchen! Of course that never stopped Frank from trying to supervise even the smallest details.

The traditional Catholic view of women as either madonnas or whores probably caused our relationship the most damage however, as I never identified with either. This combined with Frank’s view of women’s proper roles based on his working class background, and the fact that he had no sisters, was something we were never able to overcome. In fact, the more I spoiled him with domesticity, the more he resisted my efforts to be a person in my own right. Looking back, I probably should have been more traditional in the sense of resorting to tears and throwing things, rather than trying to use logic on him. Arguing logically with a genius trained by Jesuits is 99% of the time a losing proposition, I can assure you.

Finally, he seemed to have imbibed a masochistic view of the world based on what the Jesuits taught him. He had the definite sense that one should not enjoy oneself too much as an equal amount of pain awaited, since everything must balance out. Of course, this may just have been his interpretation of what he was taught by the church, plus a good dose of what he knew from solving physics equations. His masochism did however, give him tremendous drive and discipline. He was the first climber to systematically work out at circuit training. I ran the circuit too, when training for specific outings, but only Eric Beck eventually joined him for regular workouts – discipline for its own sake. The discipline I learned from Frank did have a major effect on my own life however, when applied to academia. I owe much of my own subsequent success to his influence, even though he did his best to thwart my efforts along these lines, while we still lived together.

As for my friend Dick Erb's comments about Frank saying he would quit climbing if he ever found the perfect woman, all I can say is that if he ever thought it was me, he had a hell of a way of showing it!

Double D

Jan 14, 2009 - 12:48am PT
This is what I love about this place.

Clint Cummins

Trad climber
SF Bay area, CA
Jan 14, 2009 - 01:08am PT

Thanks for sharing your insights on Frank. He was before my time, but I recognize a lot of his attitudes and behaviors in myself and some of my climbing friends. Fortunately I had several moderating influences in my life and a non-intense profession, so I've had some better luck in getting along with people. Just lucky, in some ways.
Patrick Oliver

Boulder climber
Fruita, Colorado
Jan 14, 2009 - 02:17am PT
Your reflections are amazing, lucid, and helpful, and in your few entries I feel I know more about Frank than all the memories and reports and mixed up stories, and comments that have warped through the passing of years and too many careless ears... which is often the way it is. Your presence, and that of Beck's and Erb's and maybe a couple others definitely saved this thread.

Mountain climber
Okinawa, Japan
Jan 14, 2009 - 06:28am PT
I believe that another source of Frank’s internal conflicts came from the distance he had traveled from his original social background. His mother graduated from high school and his father barely made it out of the 8th grade. His father was a member of the teamster’s union and spent his life delivering baked goods to groceries stores around the Bay Area as did his younger brother. Sociologists tell us that even changing up or down one social class is stressful and can result in cognitive dissonance. How much more so if you are the first in your family to go to university and you end up getting a Ph.D. in theoretical physics, your thesis signed by a Nobel prize winner?

Frank was not an easy child for working class parents to deal with either. They suffered through many youthful pranks, like his rewiring the front door bell to drive them crazy with ringing and no one there. It took an electrician to figure that one out. Their most serious concerns came however, in the 1950’s, with his home- made rocket building activity. Fearing he would actually get one to launch from their backyard in San Francisco, they worried about liability. Frank's father then helped him launch his rockets in the forest up on Mt. Davidson in San Francisco, figuring that if he set the woods on fire, they could both run and the city would be responsible! Frank was said to be like his paternal grandfather who was a skilled machinist and inventor of many mechanical gadgets some still used in the wheelhouse of the San Francisco Cable cars.

Frank's parents also didn't want him to climb because of the danger of course, and several times told of their anguish when the hospital in Yosemite phoned them after the 80' leader fall. They were very happy when he got married and stopped all that. I'm not sure if they had heard the prediction that he would not live to be 30, but were devastated when he was killed as they didn't even know that he had taken up climbing again. I was shocked for the same reason as I thought having gotten him through age 30 alive, and because of his avowals to never get involved in serious ice climbing, that he was safe.

Frank’s father also did not want him to be a physicist and preferred him to become an engineer instead. In his father’s eyes, engineers were normal, while he didn’t want his son to grow up “weird like Einstein”. Of course this became a joke between us, and from time to time I teased him that he was becoming just as nutty as that great scientist.

Frank's parents were very loving and supportive of both of us. The problem was that they just couldn't understand us and our life most of the time. Sometimes they were bemused, other times totally mystified. Because of this, I think Frank paid a high price psychologically, for his intellectual and social mobility.

Roger Breedlove

Cleveland Heights, Ohio
Jan 14, 2009 - 09:47am PT
"Much to the disappointment of our well-intentioned friends, getting Frank stoned did nothing to loosen him up." Great line Jan. Thanks for being so forthcoming about Frank and your relationship. I think this thread has more information about Frank than any other source I have seen.

Hi Dick. Welcome to SuperTopo. I hope that we can get you to post more stories about the 60s. What a hair raising story about falling on the Powell Reed--the only part of the story that I remember is Sacherer telling you if you touched the pin he would tie you off. What is it about the NE face of Middle that causes horrendous following falls--George Meyers has a similar story and I think I have heard of one other?

Thanks for posting. Happy New Year. Please say hello to Judy.

Best, Roger
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