The Bay Chapter and the birth of modern rock climbing

Modern rock climbing began in the Bay Chapter.

In 1930 - 1931, Chapter members Jules Eichorn and Dick Leonard, among others, began experimenting with ropes for rock climbing at Cragmont, Indian, and Pinnacle Rocks in the Berkeley Hills. They formed the Cragmont Climbing Club, and then in the fall of 1932, after some controversy over stringent safety requirements, they formed the Sierra Club Rock Climbing Section (RCS).

One of their earliest innovations concerned belaying, the technique of using ropes to protect a climber in case of a fall. They found the European body belay inadequate because a falling climber could pull the belayer down too. Led by Leonard, the father of California rock climbing, they developed the hip belay. The person performing the belay holds the rope around the hip, but is not tied to it; this way they can apply tension to the rope to break the fall without any danger of being pulled.

On Labor Day weekend in 1933, RCS went to Yosemite, six hours from Berkeley with just one small store. Leonard insisted that RCS climbers pass a rigid test of technique before climbing there.

While most of the group enjoyed easy hikes and scrambles, Leonard, Eichorn, Bestor Robinson, and Hervey Voge attempted to climb Washington Column. Starting in mid-afternoon, after a morning of reconnoitering, the climbers reached a small ledge (later known as "Lunch Ledge") about 1,000 feet above the talus. Their attempt the next day gained only 50 additional feet, but marked the beginning of serious roped (hemp) climbing in Yosemite.

That November Leonard, Robinson, and Eichorn, armed with pitons obtained from Germany, returned to Yosemite to attempt the Higher Spire. Although they achieved only two 10-foot pitches, this attempt was the first use in Yosemite of direct aid, the technique of using tension in the rope not merely for protection but also to assist the climb.

The following April they returned to conquer the Higher Spire, and the Lower Spire, as well. (Each of these climbers later became a Club director.)

In October 1936 Morgan Harris, Kenneth Adam, and Kenneth Davis climbed Royal Arches, pioneering the pendulum traverse, the use of the rope to swing from point to point.

The next day, Harris teamed with David Brower, already reputed as a master of delicate climbing, for the first ascent of Cathedral Chimney, between the Higher and Middle Cathedral Rocks. The next day they climbed Panorama Cliff. Together, Harris and Brower established 9 more routes. Harris garnered 14 first ascents, and Brower collected 16. By 1940 only 23 routes were established in Yosemite Valley.

During World War II, nearly 1,000 of the Club's 4,000 members were in the military, many, including Brower, in the 10th Mountain Division. Robinson helped design mountain gear, and Leonard determined the suitability of the recently developed nylon rope for climbing.

After the war serious rock-climbing resumed in Yosemite. RCS member John Salathé invented the hard piton, which he made from the axle of an old Ford Model A. (Earlier pitons were made from softer metals and could bend under stress.) The hard piton together with nylon rope greatly extended possible climbs.

The Lost Arrow was a much-sought goal. This curious pinnacle rises deep from the Valley floor, but is also connected higher up to the rim. Before the war Leonard and Brower had tried it unsuccessfully, and in 1946, Salathé came within 30 feet of the summit. Finally in 1947 Anton (Ax) Nelson, Jack Arnold, Fritz Lippmann, and Robin Hansen hiked to the rim and, after nearly a day of attempts, threw a line onto the summit. With this rope they established belays, and soon three members of the group climbed from the attachment point to the summit. Later that same year Salathé and Nelson made the five-day climb all the way from the Valley floor, the first big wall climb in the U.S. and the beginning of a new era in Yosemite climbs.

The next generation of climbers included UC students and RCS climbers. In 1953 Al Steck, Will Siri (a future Club director and president), Willi Unsoeld, and Bill Long climbed the east buttress of El Capitán. Many of these climbers began journeying to the peaks of the Himalayas, including Unsoeld, who later climbed Everest by the West Ridge.

These Bay Chapter climbers made summer and winter ascents elsewhere in the Sierra. In August 1934 Marjory Bridge (Farquhar) and Eichorn climbed the east face of Mount Whitney, including class 5 pitches, probably the most difficult rock-climb completed by a woman in the Sierra at the time.

Since 1988, due to insurance restrictions, the Chapter has not been able to sponsor rock climbing, but the RCS continues to meet monthly, and the reactivated Cragmont Climbing Club continues to sponsor rock climbing.


This article was adapted by Ed Bennett largely from Camp 4: Recollections of a Yosemite Rockclimber by Steve Roper (The Mountaineers Books, 1994), a fascinating account of Yosemite rock-climbing. Other sources include Defying Gravity: High Adventure on Yosemite's Walls by Gary Arce (Wilderness Press, 1995) and A Climber's Guide to the High Sierra edited by Hervey Voge (Sierra Club, 1954).

Current editions of these books are available at the Sierra Club Bay Chapter Bookstore, 6014 College Ave., in Oakland.

This article is part of a series of historical items in honor of the Bay Chapter's 75th Anniversary.

From RCS Yodeler June 1999