Frank Sacherer -- 1940 - 1978


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Feb 6, 2009 - 10:54pm PT
This is the most interesting thread I've read in a long time. I never met Frank, but Chouinard and others would talk about him from time to time in the Tetons more than forty years ago, describing his incredible ability to wriggle up virtually any fold in the granite. To read that he was also at the leading edge of his profession as a physicist is indeed impressive. He brought stature to "amateur" (nonprofessional) climbing . . . Are there parallels today?
Patrick Oliver

Boulder climber
Fruita, Colorado
Feb 7, 2009 - 03:15pm PT

Of course you are the most immediate parallel, in terms
of being a renowned climber and highly respected in your
profession, although there are quite a number of
excellent climbers who were and are excellent mathematicians
or scientists. John Stannard is one example, a
genius level climber of course and physicist.
Tom Frost, of course, was a distinguished engineer, what
with all his designs and also won a national championship
in sailboat racing. You might be referring specifically,
though, to physics and to those coming up now in the
modern age. That's an interesting question...

Mountain climber
Okinawa, Japan
Feb 7, 2009 - 08:32pm PT


Here's the link to an article in the NYT on the connection btween physicists and climbing.

Feb 8, 2009 - 01:01am PT
Please don't put me up there with Frank (or jstan, or ed) - I was a college math professor, a teacher who dabbled a bit in research, not a distinguished research mathematician or scientist.

In the 1950s and early to mid 1960s it was easier to have an impact on the evolution of climbing - as a nonprofessional - and be a dedicated, even renown scientist, engineer, or mathematician making important contributions. I don't know if that's still possible. Probably not, but I'm curious to learn of any celebrated scientist, engineer or mathematician who - at present - is also at a leading edge of some type of climbing. I would guess that each of these activities is currently so demanding that excelling in both is a rarity. Maybe not.

I don't keep up with what is happening in the climbing world, other than reading an occasional issue of a climbing magazine, or scanning forums like this one. So pardon my ignorance if I raise an issue that has been resolved.

Feb 8, 2009 - 11:34pm PT
I fail to pass the test for contributing to this thread on both counts but my poor judgment wins through once again

Three comments, none earth shaking.

1. I am frankly uncomfortable when mention is made of myself in a sentence including the word “genius.” Perhaps we should admit none of us really knows what that word means. We are using it as an approximation. When use of it comes to my mind I find it much more accurate to replace it with the sentence, “We appreciate very much the contributions you have made.”

For example I very much appreciate the contributions made by Oli over the years, just as I appreciate the contributions he continues to make today. It may be he does not realize he is still contributing just as much as ever, but hey. Life is full of surprises.

2. Many of us have encountered “normal” people who ask very seriously, “What on earth do people get out of risking their lives when they go into the mountains?”

To answer such questions we, henceforth, need to carry that picture of Frank appearing above. It is a picture of a person who obviously, has never been happier.

3. Regarding the quote from Dr. Kaplan.

''Climbing mountains satisfies this competitive drive, it seems, where you might not be competing with your fellow climbers, but with the mountain itself.''

I think he gets almost to the point I have made on ST a number of times – never to the intended effect. Let me ask. Suppose you love to solve problems. If you are in physics which deals with the full scope of almost all problems as they are presented to us by nature itself, which problem would you prefer?

A problem created by Joe down the street?

Or a problem created by nature millions of years ago and unchanged by human hand?

In these crowded busy times many of us focus our attention on Joe down the street. A shame. The problems whose solutions truly are critical to our satisfaction and even our survival are presented to us, by nature itself.

Ed Hartouni

Trad climber
Livermore, CA
Topic Author's Reply - Feb 9, 2009 - 12:05am PT
thanks for contributing that jstan, and for John Gill's contribution. My guess is that Frank would also have protested being put into a category of "genius scientist climber" as his contributions to accelerator physics were important, but just so.

As I alluded to up thread, my accelerator physics colleagues thought him very very good, but the work he had done up to his death was not "extraordinary." Perhaps he would have gone on to have made extraordinary contributions, that is something we'll never know.

It is equally true that we sit here nearly 50 years after his climbing in Yosemite Valley and judge his contributions to be profound, yet it is not clear that the people of the time judged them so, then. It takes some time to come to those sorts of conclusions, after a lot of stuff has happened...

I am hoping that jogill wasn't referring to me in his post, as I have been an active researcher, but not so notable in research. And equally un-notable in climbing, which has been an activity I've done nearly all my life. That I am climbing harder now than at any other time is just an indication that I wasn't a very accomplished climber, and still am not, at least compared to the great climbers who have been active during the same time.

What I do is quite unusual, as jstan points out, I do like puzzling over the problems that understanding nature poses to us. My skills there are reasonable, but I've known so many truly extraordinary physicists that my ranking among them is considerably low. They are extraordinary.

But having been a physicist all these many years I'm at least content to still follow my interests where they may take me, and also communicate what I find, be it physics or climbing. It is all so wonderful, we should be enjoying that wonder as much as we can with the time that we have.
Patrick Oliver

Boulder climber
Fruita, Colorado
Feb 10, 2009 - 12:28am PT
Thank you, John (Stannard). Words such as that,
and from one I have always respected so much,
mean more to me than anyone can imagine. You must
have been reading my mind, because today, having
a low day maybe, I was just thinking that I have
probably run my course, in terms of having much of
anything to offer the climbing world anymore...

Ed, probably the reason Frank's achievements might
not have been judged so much as "genius" in his day
is that factor of his carelessness,
or maybe the word is dangerousness, at times. I
often heard people speak about him, always with
praise and admiration, but then never, or almost
never without adding one of those stories about
some near disaster or potential one... In the eyes
of some, that possibly may have detracted from
his brilliance...

Torino, Italy
Feb 14, 2009 - 08:07am PT
>The accident occurred while descending an off-route couloir >leading back toward the N. face. Two mysteries surround this >climb for me: why the late start, and why after reaching the >summit of the Shroud did they go down the complicated Hirondelles >ridge? Joe and I had always planned to go over the top (250m >higher) to descend by the normal route.

Hi John,

I don't know about the former question, of course, but I can provide some clue for the latter. I've been collecting documents on the Jorasses climbing history for the last few years, and I'm aware of this accident. Besides, it happens that I was on the Jorasses (the Italian/south side of course) on the same days (not much of a coincidence, as I was living in Courmayeur in these years!).

As you may remember, summer 1978 was extremely snowy in the area, even for late 70's standards. I've pictures taken in the second half of August '78 showing big snow patches lingering in Val Veny as low as 1800m. The main watershed (the frontier ridge) was particularly affected, as it was in general the whole italian side. On August 20th, Giancarlo Grassi and Gianni Comino did the FA of the Ypercouloir on the south face of the Jorasses,
(here's it)

and found, in full southern exposure, in August and not much higher than 3300m, very fat ice. Of course there was a thick snow cover on all glaciers too.

The upper 200m of the Hirondelles aren't really a ridge, but a sort of shallow spur of broken rock, separated by a several large couloirs from the "counter slope" of the Tronchey Ridge on the left, linked to the lower part by some exposed and delicate terrain. During snowstorms, it accumulates snow very rapidly, and in such condition, seen from below may look very difficult if not impassable. On the other hand, the Hirondelles may look deceptively straightforward (it isn't, or at least, it wasn't - now there's a set of short equipped abseils on the lower rock triangle leading to the col)

On 1978, the escape routes from the Jorasses were poorly documented in any language but Italian (the definitive Buscaini/Vallot guide - in French - for the area was published the following year). Given the nasty reputation for the Jorasses normal route, and the state of the upper ridge, it may have been relatively reasonable for your friends to decide for the immediate descent.

The Hirondelles - and all the couloirs that leads from the lower Hirondelles are seriously lighting prone. As I understand from my documentation, Sacherer and his partner got stuck by lighting while abseiling down towards the Leschaux glacier from somewhere above the col. "Standard procedure" from the base of the Hirondelles is to return to the Gervasutti hut on the Freboudze glacier (on the Italian side). It's a straightforward and safe (even if long) route, but again, that descent was very poorly documented in 1978, so I guess the direct descent to the French side was too tempting (and cheaper too - no tunnel fee) for foreign climbers active in the area.

Hope this hasn't been too boring or long winded.

Trad climber
Feb 14, 2009 - 10:49am PT

Thanks for that reply. Your comments on the availability of the various foreign-lang. guides is especially helpful. That's not the kind of detail that most chroniclers tend to notice.

And no, your reply wasn't long at all. Supertopo (and some of the other US forums) tend to be much more tolerant of lengthy posts than is the case in Europe and the UK, especially when the poster has something of value to contribute.
John Rander

Trad climber
Paris, France
Feb 16, 2009 - 05:40am PT
Luca –

Thanks for the post, you’re quite right to bring up the rather unusual conditions of that summer. Interested readers should compare my photos of the Shroud with the image posted by Rick A (post 49 on this thread) or the one on the Summitpost link I gave. I must admit that a Courmayeur perspective from that year is interesting. I have always felt that once off the Shroud, the summit access would have been straightforward on that Wednesday morning before the weather turned completely, and the normal descent route, though not without objective risks, is what Joe and I had discussed. The situation later in the day might have been quite different. I also agree with you that the descent down to the Col des Hirondelles would have been very tempting when seen from above. It’s the choice they made.

As for lightning, all I can answer is that I had the sad task of their identification at Chamonix before the families were contacted, and that aspect was not obvious to me at the time. However, that doesn’t exclude lightning as an indirect cause of the accident.

Rick A

Boulder, Colorado
Feb 16, 2009 - 02:31pm PT
For reference, my photo up thread of the Jorasses was taken in the summer of 1976, from the top of Les Courtes. That year had very little snow, as shown by this shot of the North Face of Les Courtes.


Torino, Italy
Feb 16, 2009 - 03:24pm PT
> I have always felt that once off the Shroud, the summit access would have been straightforward on that Wednesday morning before the weather turned completely, and the normal descent route, though not without objective risks, is what Joe and I had discussed. The situation later in the day might have been quite different.

The conditions of the normal route were snowy (the Reposoir was quite plastered), but decent enough (the route was traced), the main problem being the extremely violent winds. It think that wind may have been an addition factor on your friends decision, as probably the summit ridge was being wind-blasted enough to make progression upward very difficult. However, once below the summit ridge (even few dozen yards towards the Jorasses upper plateau) wind normally abates. I think descent on that side would have been probably difficult, but not impossible or suicidal.
It should be note also that winds continued without pauses for days after the storm of the 30th - a typical September condition back in those days.

>I also agree with you that the descent down to the Col des Hirondelles would have been very tempting when seen from above. It’s the choice they made.

Return via the Hirondelles has been used several times over the years, and this option has seen several accident and rescues (one this summer was particularly epic), so I believe your friends didn't really do anything terribly odd, considering the conditions and the informations they probably had.

> As for lightning, all I can answer is that I had the sad task of their identification at Chamonix before the families were contacted, and that aspect was not obvious to me at the time. However, that doesn’t exclude lightning as an indirect cause of the accident.

A great deal of falls during thunderstorms (the majority) are not provoked by direct lighting hits, but by lightning hitting nearby and provoking the climber fall. However, the real cause may have been different (winds may be a good candidate too).
Ed Hartouni

Trad climber
Livermore, CA
Topic Author's Reply - Feb 22, 2009 - 10:33am PT
bump to the top

Social climber
wuz real!
Feb 22, 2009 - 10:42am PT
Where else do you get stuff this cool?

Mountain climber
Okinawa, Japan
Feb 25, 2009 - 05:44am PT


Mountain climber
Okinawa, Japan
Feb 25, 2009 - 06:30am PT
The photo above was kindly shared with me by Luca Signorelli and certainly supports the old saying that one picture is worth a thousand words. I realized when he sent it that I had never seen a closeup of the Grandes Jorasses before, in this case the Hirondelles Ridge which lies in the center of the photo on the border between the light and shadow. It was taken during an exceptionally dry year when the Shroud was almost free of ice and snow. The red F marks the place where Luc thinks that Frank and Joe would have exited though he notes that there is another exit a bit higher.

As we can see, the Hirondelles is indeed a complex ridge and Luca believes the exit through the summit notch would have been covered with snow and invisible from point F. He thinks the safest way down may have been toward Italy on the Freboudze glacier but notes that documentation was so scarce back then, they may have considered this alternative too long if they even knew about the hut on the Italian side.

My own thoughts are that it would normally seem counter intuitive to go up a ridge during a snowstorm with high winds and lightning, especially if there was a lot of snow. Other psychological barriers would have been that they almost certainly didn't have Italian money or their passports with them, which as Americans they would have needed to get back to the French side. To this Luca has noted that back then crossing the long Tunnel which traverses the Italian -French border via hitch-hiking, wasn't as difficult as it could have seemed.

I thought it was a good thing that fixed rappel anchors have now been placed on the Hirondelles for route finding if nothing else, but he had a further interesting observation about that saying he’s not sure it’s a good idea as the descent from the “triangle” above the col is not technical and the rappels are short but that the rappel ropes always get stuck. He adds. “Coming down from the Hirondelles is not a problem of anchors - it's a problem of being on such serious and remote terrain. Putting the anchors means people (often far less competent that Frank was) get tempted to climb the Shroud even if they don't have the strength - or the condition - to continue to the summit, which is the safest choice if the situation allows, because they feel there's a safe escape route in any case. The large number of fatalities we had in the area in the last couple of years is partially the result of this”.


Big Wall climber
A Token of My Extreme
Feb 25, 2009 - 06:54am PT
Amazing discussion in this thread.
All I can do is marvel....

Mountain climber
Okinawa, Japan
Feb 25, 2009 - 08:13am PT

I finally figured out how to post this overview of the Chamonix Valley with the Grandes Jorasses on the skyline at the far left and Mt. Blanc on the skyline in the middle. Hopefully this gives an idea of the scale of things and the remoteness as Luca suggested, of the Grandes Jorasses from any permanent settlements on either side of the border.

I think it helps to illustrate that a descent from the Grandes Jorasses still leaves a person even on the French side, two glaciers and a long way from Chamonix.

Mountain climber
Okinawa, Japan
Feb 25, 2009 - 08:25am PT

More detail on the location of the Grandes Jorasses on the French side.

Mountain climber
Okinawa, Japan
Feb 25, 2009 - 08:31am PT

This portion of the Chamonix panoramic map shows the lower part of the Mer de Glace Glacier which is only partially seen in the lower right corner of the Grandes Jorasses map. It also shows the location of the Frendo Spur from which the great summit photo of Frank was taken five days before he died. The top of the rock climbing portion and the beginning of the snow ridge lie just between the letters n and i in the label Aiguilles de ChamonNIx. The photo itself was taken from the top of the ridge of the Aig. du Midi cable car station. I believe it was not the Grandes Jorasses which was visible in that photo as mentioned by someone earlier, but rather, the Mt. Blanc du Tacul, a subsidiary peak on the base of Mt. Blanc.
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