What saved me during those teenage years was the wilderness of the Sierra Nevada, at a time when small glaciers still clung to highest peaks. Two of my close friends in the Society of Cynics and I spent a month each summer back packing and rock climbing, and winters skiing in the Sierra. I still have my 1951 editions, of Walter Starr’s 1934 Guide to the John Muir Trail and the High Sierra Region and A Climber’s Guide to the High Sierra, which were republished by the Sierra Club in 1951, when I was sixteen.
The only available camping equipment was World War II army surplus, sold from stores run by veterans amused that we would voluntarily put on their cruel pack frames and heavy canvas sacks. In 1952 we came across the first real alternative to the GI knapsack. A backpacker in Glendale, California named Dick Kelty welded together an aluminum frame and hung straps and a canvas sack on it. He made 29 of them in 1952 and Doug and I each got one. Kelley welded them himself and his wife sewed the adjustable shoulder straps and web backing. The Kelty frame began a revolution in backpacking.
For our tents, before the era of high-tech fabrics, we bought exotic Egyptian cotton, woven light and fine. The cotton fibers would swell and keep the rain out. It worked until you touched the fiber, in which case the water flooded through as if through a hole. We became adept at designing gear and using sewing machines to make our own sleeping bags stuffed with high quality goose down. We were obsessive about weight, counting out five sheets of toilet paper for each person each day and drilling holes in our tooth-brush handles.
On our first trip to the Sierra in 1951 when I was 16, my parents drove Doug Strong, Dink Leigh and me up to Tuolumne Meadows in late July We followed Lyle Creek up the canyon to Mt. Lyle, watching the water turn milky from the grinding of the glacier that still clung to Mt Lyle’s northern slopes.
In the years that followed, we preferred the most rugged part of the Sierra, the northern watershed of the Kings River. We accessed it through Parcher’s Camp, at the end of a long dirt road out of Bishop. The trail started at 9,750 feet, went along the East side of South Lake and then climbed steeply about a thousand feet into a basin of lakes shut in by towering granite walls. A few day hikers or over-nighters would come this far to fish, but few made the steep climb up a scree slope of endless switchbacks to the 12,000 foot low point between Mt Agassiz (13,882) and the sheer towers of North Palisade (14,254).
It took two brutal trips of six hours each to get ourselves into the high country with all our food and gear. I learned to put one foot in front of the other and concentrate only on one step at time. If I thought of what lay ahead or behind I wanted to rest. Once I sat down, it was almost impossible to get up again. Your whole body cried out against it. Better to take one even tiny step at a time. Keep going. Important life skill!
The air was rare at 11,500 feet. Snow lay deep in pockets below the granite summits. Few people came into the high country above the John Muir Trail in those days, a land of dizzying heights, emptiness, a few stunted trees in small valleys, meadows and crystal clear lakes rimmed on the North with snow. We could cast dry flies from the shallows and in an hour catch fifteen Golden Trout twelve to fourteen inches long, our dinner staple.
The sky was crystal clear at night, the moon bright and close, casting the faces of North Palisade in a pale light of mystery. Looking up, we could vaguely make out the chutes between the sheer cliffs we had climbed that day. It was almost impossible to believe that we had inched our way across them. The Sierra taught me that my body was capable of much more than my mind thought.
Mountain climbing in the mornings, fishing for dinner in the late afternoons, sitting around a fire at night smoking a cigarette and reading thick, dense European novels in cheap, light paperback editions. Surviving the incredible violence of a high country thunder-storm. Living on oatmeal and trout for a week after a bear destroyed our food cache. The Sierra still seemed raw in the early Fifties.
Our last trip together we hiked well into the night under a brilliant full moon, above timberline over granite rocks and through lush meadows, wanting to believe that this would go on forever. We felt like young gods dancing over rocks and scampering up mountain peaks, beholden to no one but ourselves and our keen desire for adventure. I think we knew it was the end. We had begun to find plastic trash in the Sierra that would never disappear left by campers who would never return. I wrote my first published article called The Last Flower for the Sierra Club Bulletin in 1953.