Disappearing summit registers hit home for Sierra climbers

Thefts steal a legacy left by famous mountain climbers
Sierra Club member Harry Langenbacher shows a 1940s-era register box that was stolen from a mountain summit. Langenbacher tries to maintain these registers that let climbers note their name and experiences upon reaching a peak.Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times/MCT

LOS ANGELES — For generations, the book survived in a metal box on California's rooftop — a small, khaki-colored volume whose pages held a story of ephemeral encounters with an enduring place.

The summit register on 13,765-foot Black Kaweah in the High Sierra, placed there in 1924 by a group of outdoor adventurers, offered a window onto California's rich mountaineering history.

The signatures of pioneering alpinists from the 1920s and '30s such as Norman Clyde, Francis Farquhar, Jules Eichorn and Glen Dawson evoked a time when the Sierra was lightly trampled by a small fraternity of explorers who were unwittingly creating a sport.

The name of Walter Starr Jr., written in his own blood and dated July 10, 1929, attested to the physical and mental effort it takes to scale one of the Sierra's most remote and challenging peaks.

So challenging that after nearly 90 years, the Black Kaweah register, its spine held together with duct tape, was only half full.

"Wonderful day, and a dandy climb!!" wrote a member of a party led by Clyde, considered the most famous of all Sierra mountaineers.

For today's climbers, leafing through its pages was part of the reward for negotiating the peak's steep walls, narrow chimneys and treacherously loose volcanic rock.

"It's like touching history," said Vern Clevenger, 56, a mountaineer and nature photographer who lives in Mammoth Lakes.

So when Clevenger climbed Black Kaweah with his 21-year-old son last summer, he was looking forward to showing him the book that had captivated him when he reached the summit as a young man.

"We looked and looked and looked — and it's gone," Clevenger said. "My son was furious. I was too. If anyone finds who took it, I hope they string him up. What kind of person would do something like that?"

One by one, they have disappeared. Hardcover books in engraved aluminum containers. Parched scrolls stowed in metal tubes. Delicate scraps of paper scorched by lightning strikes and stuffed in tobacco tins, coffee cans and ammo boxes.

What has happened to scores of historic Sierra summit registers is a mystery as intriguing as the mountains themselves.

As word spread last year that the Black Kaweah register was missing, online mountaineering forums crackled with anger and a sense of violation.

"Even on the remote peaks, the thieves got them," said Robin Ingraham Jr., 47, of Merced, a former climber who wrote a history of Sierra registers. "Are we dealing with souvenir hunters? Or is it people who have the mind-set that these registers are trash and don't belong on peaks? Everyone would like to know."

To get a sense of what's being lost, climb the steps to the third floor of the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley. Here in the Sierra Club archives, there are boxes of summit registers originally left on mountains by that organization, the California Alpine Club and other groups representing ardent climbers. Some date to the late 19th century.

Open a book at random and there is John Muir's signature, from 1895, authorizing placement of "Register Box of the Sierra Club No. 8" on Mount Brewer. His friend and Sierra Club charter member Joseph N. LeConte led a party that performed the honor.

These old manuscripts are all business: Formal, calligraphic signatures marking significant personal achievements. Barometer readings, weather reports and compass surveys of the surrounding panorama. Details of the route taken.

Often, a year or more would pass between signatures. Nonetheless, with each new name, a boundless West was beginning to shrink.

"Having climbed this peak and finding no signs of previous ascent, we christen it Mount Julius Caesar since it is the highest unnamed peak overlooking the Italy Basin," wrote Alfred and Myrtle Prater of Glendale on Aug. 12, 1928.

The next entry was made five years later, by 21-year-old David Brower, who would become among the most influential environmentalists of his generation.

Entries in newer registers lack the reserve of earlier explorers. They tend to be more confessional, humorous, celebratory or flippant. Smiley faces outnumber barometer readings.

"Hello Mother Nature," reads a 1996 entry from a Mount Conness register. "We made it. Time to smoke a joint. Peace to all."

Beginning in the late 1980s, Ingraham and a friend spent several years removing about a dozen of the oldest registers for preservation in the Bancroft, where visitors aren't allowed to bring bags and notebooks are checked twice for pilferage upon leaving.

The effort, Ingraham said, was encouraged by a number of Sierra Club elders, including Brower.

Ingraham says his idol's advice was straightforward: "If you guys are truly upset about this, you'll do something about it instead of making a bunch of noise."

"I had the conviction that I was doing the right thing," Ingraham said.

Not everyone did. Ingraham's work was met with an avalanche of criticism: Who are you to decide the fate of these precious books?

"Putting these in the Bancroft is like putting bighorn sheep in a zoo," said Harry Langenbacher, who keeps track of missing registers and containers for the Sierra Club's Sierra Peaks Section. "They should stay on the peak forever."

The digital age has put the endangered summit register on life support.

"It's a losing battle," Langenbacher said. "More and more people are climbing these mountains today. And there's a wealth of information on the Internet."

Publishing photos online of a notable summit register, he and others say, is akin to a mushroom hunter blabbing about a patch of wild truffles.

In 2007, climber Claude Fiddler heard that photos of Mount Woodworth's register appeared online — along with directions to where the delicate papers had been cached in a metal cylinder.

Fifteen years earlier, Fiddler was profoundly moved by Woodworth's register, which was signed by the early legends of the Sierra (the peak was first climbed in 1895). Adding his own name — the first entry in 12 years — Fiddler felt a connection with those who came before and their love for this shared place.

Never mind that it was November and snow was falling. Fiddler trekked into the Sierra. After two days, he stood atop Woodworth in an icy wind, holding the register. Only a half-dozen people had signed it since Fiddler had.

Later, he hand-delivered it to the Bancroft. And, like Ingraham before him, Fiddler was criticized by some for doing so.

"What was I going to do?" Fiddler said. "Wait to see how long it took to disappear?"

It's a question Glen Dawson never had to consider when he was scrambling across the top of California in the years before World War II.

"I don't understand why anyone would take them," he said. "It may not be a matter of law. But it is a matter of ethics."

Dawson, who recently turned 100, is a legend of California mountaineering — the last living vestige of an era of extraordinary exploration.

Dawson shared rope with men who summited peaks before the advent of motion pictures. He is credited with dozens of first ascents. A mountain is named after him. A photo of Dawson belaying a partner up a knife-edged peak hangs in his Pasadena living room. It was shot by his friend Ansel Adams.

His signature is in countless summit registers. Some remain in the wild. Many are in the Bancroft Library. How many are in curio cabinets may never be known.

Told the Black Kaweah register had vanished, Dawson shakes his head in resignation.

"The Sierra has changed ..." He doesn't finish the thought. But his point is clear.

Gone are the days when the Sierra held more mystery than footprints.

Gone, too, are the days when a historical document could be left in a tin can on a mountaintop, and no one who could reach it would think of stealing it.


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