Lonely Grave in the Sierra:
What happened on Banner Peak?
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Much of what you find below is a pure fiction. However, a good deal of research went into this section, and a special effort was taken to accomodate the story to the facts or likely facts, not the other way around. The final paragraph reflects my deep uneasiness about the possibility that Anna's and Conrad's families have never learned the couple's fate. At the time of the accident, the political situation in Central Europe was getting chaotic, the war was approaching, communications became broken, distances unpassable. I hope I am wrong.

One day, perhaps in late July 1934, Conrad and Anna reached Tuolumne Meadows. How and when they got there we can only speculate. From both ranger Bingaman's and superintendent Thompson's reports, it appears that they came only for a short visit. We know that the couple was expected to return home around August 5. Saturdays were normal working days at that time, and the couple's short trip was perhaps no more than a week-long outing, starting and ending on a Sunday, which would have given them two additional vacation days. I will assume that the Rettenbachers left their home early on Sunday, July 29, and planned to be back in the evening of Sunday, August 5. It would have been easy for them to reach Yosemite Valley in one day from Hillsborough by using public transport, but I don't know if any such means would have been available to get them from the Valley to the high regions of Yosemite and Tuolumne Meadows. Did someone give them a lift from Yosemite Valley? Or all the way from the San Francisco Bay Area? Did they borrow a car? Would the Parks have allowed them to use one of the family cars for their trip? No abandoned car was mentioned in any reports, and an employer normaly would not do any such gallantry. However, Helen Park's father, Edward Clark, was known for his total backing of Phoebe Hearst's benevolent ideas on the treatment of labor, and Phoebe's social theories were far advanced for her era. Phoebe and Edward established free kindergarten, a library, an opera house, recreational facilities, free health care, and a pension plan for Homestake Mining Company employees. Perhaps Helen Park adopted some of those ideas, and generously offered the car when she first heard of the couple's trip?

If the Rettenbachers had somehow reached Tuolumne Meadows by that Sunday evening, they might have spent the first night in a campground there, to better accomodate to the high altitude. On Monday morning, July 30, they could have bought a few more food items in an outfitters store, then hurried to the ranger station to get their campfire permit and fill out the itinerary. The ranger who was on duty that Monday morning (John Bingaman?) could have been the last person to talk to the couple. They would have asked about the weather forecast, the conditions of the trails, and the progress of the recent huge fire at the border of Yosemite and Stanislaus National Forest. The ranger would likely have assured them that the fire was under control, and that the further south they went, the less smoke there would be in the air. The forecast was also good, and there were no reports about any problems with the trails. The ranger would have been curious about where they planned to camp, and what activity they would be involved in. Noticing their accent, he might have asked if they were from France, or Sweden, or whatever exotic country he had in mind when meeting foreigners. They would have answered, "Oh, we are from a small town in …", but when faced with ranger's puzzling look, added "this is close to Munich, you know, where all that good beer is made." Yes, a cold beer would be something that the ranger could easily relate to, especially on a day when temperatures would be high even there at 8,000 feet. He would have asked for their names and current address, and would have tried to do his best to spell their names correctly. "My wife's name is …", Conrad would have added probably, but it would have been too late, for the ranger had already listed them as "Mr. and Mrs. Conrad Rettenbacker". Anna and Conrad might have looked at each other. That wasn't quite the right last name, but the Rettenbachers wouldn't have made any effort to change it. It was equally irrelevant that their "we live in Hillsborough, near San Mateo", ended up being just "San Mateo" in the ranger station's register. Those were mere formalities not worth arguing about, Conrad and Anna would have decided.

They would then have left. They couldn't reach the Ritter Range in just one day, and must have stopped somewhere along the way on Monday evening. Their first wilderness camp could have been in a valley beyond Donohue Pass, facing Mt. Lyell. In fact, they could have stayed there for more than a day, and tried to climb Mt. Lyell or Mt. Maclure. It might be significant that in the first days after the couple's disappearance Mt. Lyell was a focus of the search. Perhaps that was one of the mountains that they had mentioned to the ranger in Tuolumne Meadows. Mt. Lyell's summit register from the 1930s is lost, and we shall never know if the Rettenbachers reached that peak, but Mt. Maclure summit register is preserved in Bancroft Library. Perhaps worth checking!

Approach to North Buttress
Approach to Banner Peak's North Buttress from the remote valley. The photo is taken in September. There would be more snow and the grassy areas would be greener at the time of the Rettenbacher accident in early August. North Glacier is clearly visible. West Glacier is hidden behind the ridge at the skyline on the right. (Photo by Dirk Summers, reproduced with permission).
If Anna and Conrad didn't pause to climb Mt. Lyell, and continued their trip the next morning, they could have reached the Ritter Range on Tuesday afternoon, July 31, at the earliest. On their way, earlier in the day, they would have had their first good view of Banner Peak, Mt. Ritter, and the Minarets from the top of Donohue Pass. From another pass, called Island Pass, they would have first seen Thousand Island Lake, which was just a short downhill from the pass. They could have left John Muir Trail at that point, and taken a cross country route directly towards the west part of the lake, at the foot of Banner Peak. There are many good places to camp there, close to running streams. They would have been quite tired after carrying their camping equipment, gear, and food over two high passes. Perhaps they took a day off on Wednesday, August 1, and planned their Banner Peak ascent for Thursday, August 2, 1934. This would still have given them plenty of time to get back to Tuolumne Meadows by Saturday, and home by Sunday.

The free day could have been used to inspect various approaches to their intended route. If they carried fishing rods, they could have spent part of the day by catching trout for an early dinner. A good campfire at dusk would have helped not only in preparation of the food, but also in fighting hordes of hungry mosquitos. They would have enjoyed the sunset glow, then retired even before the stars filled up the sky.

The sun rises early above San Joaquin Mountain crest, east of the lake, on August mornings. Even if the night had been cold, the sunshine would have quickly dispersed the chill. The first one to leave the tent might have braved the icy cold water of the creek to wash up. The bather would have noticed that the water level was much lower than on the previous afternoon, because the snow melt had all but stopped during the night. One of them would perhaps have prepared warm coffee, while the other would checked the equipment and gear. Someone could have been fishing or walking by the lake, and the Rettenbachers might have waived to the person. They would both have felt good, and ready for a big adventure. How they must have wished that they could afford to spend more time in the mountains each summer! Perhaps this would become possible one day in the future, upon retirement, they might have chuckled.

Their remaining food would have been secured in a double-wall bag and hung over a tree, washed cups and plates placed on a portable table to dry, their tent closed, their fire extinguished. It would have been time to start! The couple would have crossed the creek, then continued uphill. Further up the hill, they would have found a gulley that provided a good approach to the heart of the mountain. Patches of snow would have been visible here and there. Soon they would have been above the tree line.

Do we know where would they have been heading? The newspaper accounts put them on the north or northeast slopes of the mountain, but this doesn't make much sense, considering the position of the grave site. If they had indeed perished on the north(east) side of Banner Peak, the recovery team would have had to carry their bodies a long way and over a ridge in order to reach the remote valley where the grave site is located. Why would the rangers go through that trouble? Furthermore, several articles reported that the burial place was only a quarter of mile below the glacier on which the bodies were found, and this would immediately exclude the northeastern glacier and most likely eliminate the north glacier too.

I was puzzled about this until Mark Fincher, Climbing Program Manager and Wilderness Specialist in Yosemite National Park, found the following brief paragraph in The American Alpine Journal from 1935. It is very likely that the information had been provided to the Journal directly by Norman Clyde, who frequently sumbitted reports about his climbing successes to the editors. Though short, this report has much more weight than the newspapers accounts of the accident. In the section "[Climbing news from] Sierra Nevada of California", signed by K. A. H., on pp. 414-415, one finds (emphases added):

Banner Peak. Mr. and Mrs. Conrad Rittenbacker of San Mateo were killed on this mountain about August 17th. According to Norman Clyde who found the bodies after a week's search, they must have fallen about 600 ft. from a point about 1000 ft. below the summit on to the glacier on the west side of the peak."
The date, August 17, is wrong, but the mention of a glacier on the west side of the peak fits. The foot of Banner Peak's West Glacier is indeed very close to the grave site. However, the assumption that West Glacier was the spot where Clyde had found the bodies, would still not help us to determine the exact route that the Rettenbachers took on that ominous morning. West Glacier is rimmed on one side by the mountain's North Buttress, and on the other side by a steep ridge on the west shoulder of Banner Peak. A fall from either the buttress or from the shoulder would have ended on the West Glacier. Which of the two ridges had Anna and Conrad selected? If their intention was to make the first ascent via a new route, those two possibilities would have been equally attractive: Both North Buttress and the west shoulder were untried before.

It would actually take many more years to conquer those two routes. It appears that the first successful climb over the west shoulder was accomplished in August 1950, by Sarah Haynes and Jim Koontz, and the first ascent over North Buttress only in 1984, a full fifty years after the Rettenbachers accident, by Vern Clevenger and Claude Fiddler.

The Ritter Range from northwest
The Ritter Range from northwest. Banner Peak is in the left center of the photo. Its West Glacier is below and slightly to the right of the summit. Banner Peak's North Glacier is on the far left of the picture. (Courtesy of GeoData Center. Further reproduction of this photo is allowed only if the following citation is used: "Photo by Austin Post, Sept 2, 1962, No. F655-188, USGS Ice and Climate Project, GeoData Center, University of Alaska, Fairbanks").

I will assume that the Rettenbachers had selected North Buttress, simply because it looked more challanging and more direct. This route would have helped them avoid an ugly tallus field partially covered by ice, which they would have had to cross if they had decided to climb the shoulder instead.

Conrad and Anna would have continued up the gully. The route would soon have required more effort, but still nothing technical. They would then have been skirting North Glacier on the way to a small notch between a peaklet on the main crest and Banner Peak summit. The notch is the lowest point of North Buttress. Both the notch and the peaklet are clearly visible on skyline to the right (north) of the summit from almost every viewing point east or northeast of Banner Peak. It can be, for example, easily identified on any photo showing Banner Peak reflecting on Thousand Island Lake (see previous pages).

After some scrambling, Conrad and Anna would have reached the notch and briefly stopped to deliberate their options. It would have become clear to them that towers on the crest above them could not be negotiated. They would have had to be passed either on their left (east), or right (west) side. Today's climber guides recommend staying on the east, but the Rettenbachers chose the west side. Soon they would have been on precarious cliffs, with the West Glacier hundreds of feet below. The weather was perfect, and they would have had plenty of time to carefully consider each step. If they were experienced climbers, as the newspapers had claimed, safety would have been constantly on their minds. One element of safety would be the usage of a rope. Were they on a rope? Modern techniques of belaying and rappelling were introduced to Sierra only in the early 1930s. Only a handful of California climbers, including several women, would have been skilled enough to use a rope in a similar climb at that time. However, the Rettenbachers were from Europe. Roping had a much longer history there, and was equally popular among men and women climbers. Therefore, it wouldn't be a surprise if the Rettenbachers had carried a rope with them. On the other hand, no rope was ever mentioned in any reports of the accident. Would the report writers have failed to mention such an important fact, or should we assume that Conrad and Anna had not used a rope?

Perhaps for a moment they had thought of climbing down back to the notch, and trying the other side of the crest instead. But since going down would have been almost as laborious as what still lay ahead, they would have continued climbing. "Be careful here", one of them might have said when they ended up being aligned one above the other in an uncomfortably narrow and steep chute. And then, without a warning, a rock which the leading climber was relying upon for a handhold or foothold might have given way. A moment of terror, too short to allow them even to scream. They would both have been swept off the cliff, and kept falling, hitting razor sharp ledges on their way down. Anna's lifeless body eventually landed in a crevasse at the apex of the West Glacier, and Conrad tumbled down even further. Their fall would have caused a small rock slide, and it would have taken a while for everything to be quiet again.

Many days later, a hiker, or a member of a search party, stepped into Devils Postpile ranger station, and reported finding an abandoned tent somewhere around Thousand Island Lake. It was soon confirmed via radio that the description matched the features of lost couple's tent. The focus of the search immediately shifted from a wide area along John Muir Trail to just Banner Peak and its direct surroundings. Newspaper reporters learned about the search, and wanted to know about the lost people. They were given the misspelled names found in the Tuolumne Meadows register. A high Forest Service official might have immediately sent a message to Norman Clyde, who could have been in the mountains with a private party, to come and help with the search. Clyde could have been hesitant at first. He was earning his wages by leading wealthy clients around the mountains, and interrupting a trip would have meant a direct financial loss to him. However, eventually he would have been persuaded, and joined the search party.

Just before Clyde's arrival, the forest rangers got a report of buzzards gathering above a glacier. Clyde would likely have headed to that area immediately. The glacier was short but on a very steep slope, and Clyde's target would have been the glacier's highest tip. Ranger Mace and other members of the search team perhaps stayed at a pass near the glacier, and watched Clyde's progress. The higher he went, the more frequently he would have swang his long-hafted ice ax. The ax's foot-long tine would have chiped loose the packed snow and ice, and the tiny hoe raked footholds clear as Clyde worked a traverse up the final pitch of the glacier. Large and small pieces of rock and dirt bore witness to a recent slide from the wall of the mountain. It was here that Clyde would have found Anna's body in one of the shallow crevasses. He would have sent a prearranged signal to ranger Mace: a body has been found! However, there was no sign of the other missing climber anywhere near. Clyde would have taken out his binoculars and followed the trace of debris down the glacier. He would then have seen Conrad's broken body, 600 feet lower, well hidden by a small ridge. There was nothing that Clyde or anyone else could do for the two climbers. The mountaineer would have been relieved that the search was over quickly. Perhaps he could still catch his party in the mountains south from here. Then he would have realized that forest rangers couldn't safely climb the glacier. Instead, they would have to retrieve Anna's body by roping down from a cliff high above. Clyde wouldn't have touched the dead bodies, that was not his job, but it was clear he would have to stay yet another day, and advise the rangers where to fasten the ropes and how to best approach the victims.

The next day, while the recovery operation was still going on, a few friends or perhaps a couple of CCC boys, selected a tiny meadow and dug a shallow grave there. They also rolled suitable rocks from a nearby slope, to serve as the cover of the grave. They could now have seen other members of the party approaching from the pass above the meadow, carefully carrying two canvas bags with the victims' bodies. At sunset, the last rock would have been placed upon the grave, the last prayers said. Members of the small party then gathered their tools and ropes, and continued silently down the creek, towards their camp site.

A small house, at the end of a street, January 1948, evening. Snow is falling. An old woman is about to turn the light in her room off. Her eyes stop, as so many times before, on a picture pinned to the wall. It shows her eldest son and his wife. The small picture came in the mail, accompanied by a letter. The last one she had received from them. In the letter, the son said that they had found a new job, and that they were about to move to a small cottage at the side of the employer's house. They would send their new address soon. And that was it. Many years have passed since, with no further news about her son. Sure, various rumors were circulating around, one saying that her son and her daughter-in-law were killed in an automobile accident. Other people, travelers returning from a far away country, would swear that they had seen her son in South America, where he had worked in his own garage. Yet others were spreading stories that at the beginning of this war all German speaking people in America were rounded up, and they won't be let free until all of the Reich's gold, hidden in one of Alpine lakes was found and delivered to the Americans. She didn't know what to think about all those rumors. More than anything else, she needed some certainty. There was another picture on the wall, of her youngest son. He was killed in the war. She didn't get his body back, but there were plenty of witnesses of his death, and there was no doubt that he would never come home again. She didn't understand the wars, but knew that they were happening with frightening regularity, taking the best of what this poor neigborhood had to offer, then coming back again when the wounds were just beginning to heal. She had placed a black ribbon over the corner of her youngest son's picture. There was a closure to that tragedy. But not so with the eldest son. She could always find a reasonable explanation on why the son had stopped writing. Perhaps his letters got lost, or a greedy mailman stole the mail, hoping that money would be enclosed. The son might have sent several letters, but since she didn't receive them, she couldn't reply. She wouldn't even know where to write. After several unanswered letters, the son might have given up. No matter how concerned he would have been, he couldn't come back home to check if the mother were sick or dead, because he would never be allowed to go back to America. The war was looming and every able man would be immediately drafted. But now, when the war was over, the boundaries slowly opening, and travel across the ocean safe again, what was holding him up? She couldn't tell. The bedroom light was extinguished. Through a window, snow could be seen falling in the fine cone around a street lamp. There was no wind, and with all that snow and clouds it won't be so bitterly cold next morning, thought the woman. If she could only make it through the few coming months. This might be the spring when her son would return. She could imagine a knock at the door, then his figure in the small door frame, with the sun shining behind him. They would hug. Just one firm embrace, no need for words or tears.

NEXT: Chronological summary

If you have any reliable knowledge about the accident or the Rettenbachers, please drop me a line at


indicates that more information is available in the footnotes section.