Clyde, Norman, 1885-1972

Alternative names
Dates:
Birth 1885-04-08
Death 1972-12-23

Biographical notes:

Norman Clyde was one of the most prolific mountaineers in the Sierra Nevada in the early to mid-twentieth century.

From the description of Norman Clyde papers, 1912-circa 2002 (bulk 1923-1972). (University of California, Berkeley). WorldCat record id: 123430300

Norman A. Clyde (1885-1972) explored and ascended hundreds of peaks in the mountain ranges of western North America, from Mt. Robson in the Canadian Rockies to El Picacho del Diablo in Baja California. In Who Was Who in America, Clyde is described as an explorer of western mountains, and is given credit for making over 1,000 ascents, to include 200 first ascents, as well as mapping new routes. In 1932, Clyde established a world record by climbing a mountain a day during, a 36-day hike through Glacier National Park. Mountain features named after Norman Clyde in the Sierra Nevada include Clyde's Minaret, Clyde's Spires, Clyde's Ledge, Clyde Meadow and Clyde Peak.

Robert C. Pavlik (1958- ) is the author of Norman Clyde: Legendary Mountaineer of California's Sierra Nevada, published in 2008 by Heyday Books of Berkeley. One of Pavlik's primary goals when writing the biography was to restore Norman Clyde to his place in history. He compares Clyde with historical figures John C. Fremont, Joseph Walker, and Jedediah Smith, and even poet Robinson Jeffers, pointing out that Clyde didn't need to explore or traverse the mountains like other trailblazers and poets; he lived in them for over 60 years as a guide, naturalist and writer.

From the description of Norman Clyde-Robert C. Pavlik Collection, 1906-2009. (Palm Springs Public Library). WorldCat record id: 503591033

Biographical Information

Norman Asa Clyde was born on April 8, 1885, in Philadelphia, the son of Charles and Isabel "Belle" Clyde. He was the oldest of their nine children. The family moved to Ohio when he was three. His father, an itinerant Presbyterian clergyman, rarely stayed at one parsonage for more than a year. In 1897, when Clyde was 12, the family moved to Canada, near Ottawa. There Clyde became an expert hunter and fisherman. His father educated him at home, schooling him in Greek and Latin. After his father's death in 1901, his mother moved the family back to Western Pennsylvania. There Clyde attended Geneva College, graduating with a degree in classics in 1909.

After graduation, Clyde moved west, working as a teacher in rural areas, including small schools in North Dakota and Utah. In 1911, in order to advance his career as a teacher, he enrolled in the University of California, Berkeley. Clyde spent two years at Berkeley, but frustrated at the thought of writing a thesis no one would ever read, he left school without completing his master's degree.

Details of the next dozen years of Clyde's life are sketchy. He taught at small schools in Northern and Central California, in Mt. Shasta, Weaverville, and near Stockton, and spent his summers and weekends climbing in the mountains. In 1914, Clyde joined the Sierra Club, led their annual outing, and made his first of 50 ascents of Mt. Whitney. Clyde married Winifred "Winnie" May Bolster, a registered nurse who worked in Oakland, in 1915. She died of tuberculosis in 1919. Her death appears to have affected Clyde greatly, and he did not like to talk about it. Indeed, few people knew he was married, as Clyde did not often speak about this period of his life. Shortly after Winnie's death, Clyde moved to the Eastern Sierra and became absorbed in mountain climbing.

In 1924, Clyde became principal of the Valley High School in Independence, California, in the Owens Valley, at the foot of Mt. Williamson. He spent every weekend making first ascents of new peaks and discovering new routes up others. Residents of the valley were not impressed by Clyde's climbing feats; they wanted their principal to act like a respectable teacher and spend more time in the community. In 1928, after Clyde fired warning shots to deter local youths from vandalizing school property on Halloween, enraged parents demanded that charges be brought against him. Instead, Clyde resigned and, unencumbered by a regular job, devoted himself fully to exploring and writing about the High Sierra. He spent his summers hiking in the backcountry and guiding parties to the summits of challenging peaks; he spent his winters as the caretaker of lodges in such places as Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks. Clyde began writing prolifically, and published the first version of his famous Close Ups of the High Sierra in 1928. He supplemented his meager income by lecturing and selling stories and photographs to various publications.

Clyde made first ascents of 100 peaks in the High Sierra and Montana between the years 1914 and 1939. In fact, he managed more first ascents in the Sierra than Clarence King, John Muir, and William Brewer combined. Clyde set a world's record for climbing 36 peaks in as many days in Glacier National Park in August and September of 1923; 11 of the peaks were considered first ascents. He gained a reputation for rescuing or recovering the bodies of lost climbers, and finding missing airplanes, and stories about his exploits appeared in numerous publications. In 1939, Geneva College, awarded him an honorary doctorate in recognition of his writings about the mountains. Clyde was known for carrying such huge backpacks that some people called him "the pack that walked like a man."

In his later years, Clyde lived in a ranch house, without electricity or plumbing, on Baker Creek, near Big Pine, California. He continued to lead private climbing parties into the High Sierra and act as a guide on Sierra Base Camp trips well into his 70s. He was still leading nature walks at 83. Clyde died on December 23, 1972. Several friends, including mountaineers Smoke Blanchard and his son, Bob, Jules Eichorn, and Nort Benner, scattered Clyde's ashes on a peak that he could see from his house, one that eventually bore his name--the Norman Clyde Peak on the Palisade Crest.

Published works by Norman Clyde:

Clyde, Norman. Close Ups of the High Sierra . Bishop, Calif.: Spotted Dog Press, 1998.

Clyde, Norman. Norman Clyde of the Sierra Nevada: Rambles Through the Range of Light: 29 Essays on the Mountains . [San Francisco]: Scrimshaw Press, 1971.

Clyde, Norman. Twenty-five Letters from Norman Clyde, 1923-1964 . Los Angeles: Dawson's Book Shop, 1998.

From the guide to the Norman Clyde papers, 1912-circa 2002, bulk 1923-1972, (The Bancroft Library)

Biographical Notes

Norman Clyde

Legendary Mountaineer Norman Asa Clyde was born April 8, 1885, in Philadelphia, the descendant of Irish and American parents. His father, Charles Clyde, was born in Antrim County, Northern Ireland and his mother, Sarah Isabelle Purvis, a native of Glade Mills, Pennsylvania, was from an established Irish family. A Reformed Presbyterian minister, Charles Clyde died at the age of 46, which forced sixteen-year-old Norman to assume a position of responsibility in the family.

Norman graduated from Geneva College in Pennsylvania in 1909. He worked his way west to California and the Sierra Nevada, taking on a number of jobs along the way, and was a high school teacher in North Dakota, Utah, and Arizona. Teaching enabled him to explore the Sierra Nevada during the summer.

In 1914 Clyde made first ascents of Electra Peak, Mt. Parker, and Foerster Peak. He married Winifred May Bolster in 1915, and after her death in 1919 he spent even more time in the Sierra. In 1928, Clyde menaced students with a firearm, ending his career as a principal at Independence High School near the Owens Valley. As a member of the Sierra Club, Clyde found work and a home.

During his lifetime he explored and ascended hundreds of peaks in the mountain ranges of western North America, from Mt. Robson in the Canadian Rockies to El Picacho del Diablo in Baja California. In Who Was Who in America, Clyde is described as an explorer of western mountains, and is given credit for making over 1,000 ascents, to include 200 first ascents, as well as mapping new routes. In 1932, Clyde established a world record by climbing a mountain a day during a 36-day hike through Glacier National Park. Mountain features named after Norman Clyde in the Sierra Nevada include Clyde's Minaret, Clyde's Spires, Clyde's Ledge, Clyde Meadow and Clyde Peak.

He honed his outdoor skills over a lifetime. He was remarkably self sufficient and skilled at a variety of tasks, including not only rock climbing and mountaineering but skiing, snow-shoeing, fishing, hunting, axemanship, and mountain rescue.

In addition to being a mountaineer, guide, rescuer and prolific writer, Clyde was a scholar who read the Classics in their original language. He was well read, and knowledgeable in a broad spectrum of disciplines, in the arts and humanities as well as the natural sciences. A prolific author, he wrote many articles for the popular press and for mountain journals. And, contrary to popular belief, he was not a hermit, but in the winter season could often be found in the Los Angeles or San Francisco Bay regions, visiting with friends, replenishing his supply of reading material, and planning new excursions.

Clyde and his colleagues Jules Eichorn, Glen Dawson, owner of Dawson's Book Shop in Los Angeles, and expert climber Robert L.M. Underhill were the first climbers to ascend the difficult east face of Mt. Whitney in 1931. Underhill introduced the techniques of roped climbing and belays to climbers in the Sierra. Eichorn and Dawson remained his friends.

His exploits as a searcher for lost climbers include some of the most dramatic stories of tragedy, triumph and heroism that have ever taken place in the annals of California history. In 1933 Clyde discovered the remains of avid climber Walter A. Starr, Jr. on Michael Minaret following a grueling month-long search by dozens of government workers and volunteers. Starr's Guide to the John Muir Trail and the High Sierra Region was published the following year by the Sierra Club. Clyde also located the bodies of Anna and Conrad Rettenbacher and the crew of a downed Army Air Corps B-18 plane.

Among climbers and skiers, his legend has outdistanced him; among the general population he has been forgotten. Yet Clyde's contributions to the exploration and description of the Sierra Nevada and to the field of mountaineering are important and long ranging, and deserve to be known by a wider audience. He once said that he "came between the pioneers and the rock climbers." Because of the immense size of his pack, long-time Sierra Club President David Brower described Clyde as "the pack that walked like a man."

Clyde received an honorary Doctor of Science degree from Geneva College in 1939. In 1970 he was presented the first Francis Farquhar Mountaineering Award from the Sierra Club. In the same year, at the age of 85, he went on his last Sierra Club outing. In 1971, he was on hand to sign copies of his book Norman Clyde: Rambles Through the Range of Light published by Scrimshaw Press.

Norman Clyde died on December 23, 1972, in Big Pine, California. In 1974, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names bestowed his name on a prominent peak and glacier in the Sierra Nevada.

Robert C. Pavlik

Robert C. Pavlik is a Supervising Environmental Planner with the California Department of Transportation. A native of Cleveland, Ohio, he was raised in the San Fernando Valley, but grew up in the mountains of California, hiking, climbing, and traveling to remote places of quiet beauty throughout the state. He graduated with a degree in Liberal Studies and Anthropology from California State University, Northridge in 1979, and received a teaching credential from San Francisco State University in 1981.

He has worked as a State Park Ranger in Big Sur, an Environmental Education Instructor in Yosemite National Park, and as an historian for the National Park Service in Yosemite. Following the completion of his M.A. degree in the Public Historical Studies program at University of California, Santa Barbara he worked for over six years as State Historian at Hearst San Simeon State Historical Monument. Bob has published articles and book reviews in several magazines, journals, and newspapers, including California History, The Californians, Yosemite, The Public Historian, Material Culture, California History Action, Washington Free Press, and Oral History Review . His poetry has appeared in the San Luis Obispo Tribune, Perspectives, Hopedance, Washington Free Press, and the Web site, "Poets Against the War."

One of Pavlik's primary goals when writing the biography was to restore Norman Clyde to his place in history. He compares Clyde with historical figures John C. Fremont, Joseph Walker, and Jedediah Smith, and even poet Robinson Jeffers, pointing out that Clyde didn't need to explore or traverse the mountains like other trailblazers and poets; he lived in them for over 60 years as a guide, naturalist and writer.

Sources

Clyde, Norman. The Conquest of Lower California's Highest Peak, 1932 & 1937 . Los Angeles: Dawson's Book Shop, 1975.

Clyde, Norman. Norman Clyde of the Sierra Nevada . San Francisco: Scrimshaw Press, 1971.

Farquhar, Francis P. History of the Sierra Nevada . Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1965.

Pavlik, Robert C. Norman Clyde: Legendary Mountaineer of California's Sierra Nevada . Berkeley: Heyday Books, 2008.

Pavlik, Robert C. Personal interview 16 October 2009.

Rusho, W.L. Everett Ruess, A Vagabond for Beauty . Salt Lake City: Gibbs M. Smith, 1983.

Voge, Hervey, Ed. A climber's Guide to the High Sierra . San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1962.

From the guide to the Norman Clyde-Robert C. Pavlik Collection, 1906-2009, 1984-2008, (Special Collections, Robert E. Kennedy Library)

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Subjects:

  • Mountaineering
  • California--Description and travel
  • Mountaineering--Sierra Nevada (Calif. and Nev.)
  • Mountaineers--Biography
  • Natural History--California
  • Natural history
  • Mountaineers--California--Biography
  • Mountaineering--Photographs
  • Mountaineers
  • Yosemite National Park (Calif.)--History
  • Clyde, Norman, 1885-1972
  • National parks and reserves
  • Sierra Nevada (Calif. and Nev.)

Occupations:

not available for this record

Places:

  • Sequoia National Park (Calif.) (as recorded)
  • Sierra Nevada (Calif. and Nev.) (as recorded)
  • Glacier National Park (Mont.) (as recorded)
  • California (as recorded)
  • Yosemite National Park (Calif.) (as recorded)
  • Sierra Nevada (Calif. and Nev.) (as recorded)
  • California (as recorded)
  • Yosemite National Park (Calif.) (as recorded)
  • Canadian Rockies (B.C. and Alta.) (as recorded)