Wandering and Wilderness

Wandering and Wilderness, Venturing and Roaming: A Natural and Cultural History of Mountaineering California’s Sierra Nevada

The tendency nowadays to wander in the wilderness is delightful to see. Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life. Awakening from the stupefying effects of the vice of over-industry and the deadly apathy of luxury, they are trying as best they can to mix and enrich their own little ongoings with those of Nature, and to get rid of rust and disease. Briskly venturing and roaming, some are washing off sins and cobweb cares of the devil’s spinning in all-day storms on mountains; sauntering in rosiny pinewoods or in gentian meadows, brushing through chaparral, bending down and parting sweet, flowery sprays; tracing rivers to their sources, getting in touch with the nerves of Mother Earth; jumping from rock to rock, feeling the life of them, learning the songs of them, panting in the whole-souled exercise, and rejoicing in the deep, long-drawn breaths of pure wildness.

—John Muir, Our National Parks, 1901

Among the things that explains California is the lifestyle of people who live there. There are many lifestyles, of many different peoples, in urban and agricultural landscapes, as well as in rural deserts and in uninhabited areas. There are cultures and subcultures, associations (like “laid back”), and people’s lives who are inextricably linked to California’s mountains—shepherds and ranchers, park rangers, scientists and snow surveyors, ski area operators and employees, fishing guides and resort owners, state and federal government employees, “ski bums” and mountaineers, to name just a few. There are individuals and communities determined by the economic engine of tourism as well as the cultural privileges of recreation. There are different experiences.


Dusk Jacket for Clarence King’s Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada

At the turn of the twentieth century John Muir claimed that “wandering in the wilderness has the potential to enrich our lives. Although recreation can be associated with the idea of a “vacation,” defined as avocation, Muir talks of the experience as “re-creation,” a returning to something that is missing from (or has been diminished in) “civilized” human life . Might one way to approach California, then, be to explore the experiences of people who have made the mountains their home, or to trace the history of people who were drawn to and have explored the mountains of California?

For Phillip Fradkin, the interest of the Sierra Nevada is the stories of the passes and the opening of a route to the Pacific coast. The early passages—including the Donner Party, the Stevens Party—give way in this narrative to the promise, greed, and violence of the California Gold Rush, the transcontinental Railroad in the 1860s. This narrative includes the stories of the native peoples who had for generations lived in and traveled across the mountains, the Chinese immigrants (“Celestials”) who labored on the railroad project, the emergence of the Anti-Chinese Leagues, and the Mexican Americans who lived and worked on the Western slope. And then there is the coming of the automobile and the completion of highway 40 in 1926. As the historian George Stewart explains, “the keynote for whole area has been transportation” (qtd. In Fradkin 109).

Further south, the high Sierra rears up and presents a more formidable boundary. The range is only passable by a seasonal road over Tioga Pass down into the Yosemite and then is unbroken by a road until the range meets the desert south of the Owens valley and you can turn right on Highway 178 and motor over the mountains to Bakersfield. What was happening in the close to 220 miles of unbroken mountainous terrain? Who was drawn into the mountains? Why were they drawn into this rugged terrain? What were their experiences like? What were there motivations?

From John Muir’s public advocacy for national parks and the emergence of the organization for which he serves the founding president, The Sierra Club, to the present culture of the Sierra Nevada, outdoor travel, recreation, mountain play is woven into the fabric California’s mountains. Wandering and wilderness, “venturing and roaming,” what might one learn by mapping out a natural and cultural History of Mountaineering California’s Sierra Nevada?

General Resources The Sierra Nevada page on Wikipedia offers a useful portal to resources and a serviceable overview of the range. The Bibliography of California offers a great list of books on recreation, natural history, and human history

Selected Titles What do we learn about human history when we read in the nineteenth century journals and essays of early travels in the mountains?

William H. Brewer. Up and Down California in 1860-1864
Clarence King. Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada. Boston: Osgood, 1872.
John Muir. The Mountains of California. New York: Century, 1894.
Norman Clyde. Norman Clyde of the Sierra Nevada: Rambles Through the Range of Light. San Francisco: Scrimshaw, 1971.
Daniel Arnold. Early Days in the Range of Light: Encounters with Legendary Mountaineers. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2009.

Selected Explorers and Climbers 1860-1960 Who are the climbers and what brought them into the high mountains of California?

Bolton Coit Brown, Joseph Nisbet LeConte, James Hutchinson, Francis Farquar, Jules Eichorn, Bestor Robinson, Charles Michael, Dick Leonard, David Brower, John Salathé, Alan Steck, Chuck Pratt, Royal Robbins, Warren Harding, Bill Feuerer, Jim Bridwell, Yvon Chionard, Dick Long, Steve Roper, Galen Rowell, Doug Robinson–there are many, many more

Selected Resources What can we learn from the experiences and written and visual records of those experiences of early climbers in the range?

Eastern California Museum

Norman Clyde
Norman Clyde Exhibit at the Eastern California Museum
Guide to the Norman Clyde-Robert C. Pavlik Collection, 1906-2009 at California Polytechnic State University. The Norman Clyde-Robert C. Pavlik Collection contains the research notes, correspondence, interview notes, vital records, background materials, and secondary sources compiled and created by Pavlik in the course of writing his 2008 biography, Norman Clyde: Legendary Mountaineer of California’s Sierra Nevada.

Organizations and Journals Muir’s legacy is in part carried forth in the environmental organizations and activism as well as the emergence of associations and clubs promoting mountain travel?

The Sierra Club
Earth Island Institute
Yosemite Climbing Association Yosemite Climbing Association is a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving and protecting Yosemite’s rich climbing heritage and making it available for public viewing and interpretation.

California Mountaineering Club The CMC promotes mountaineering as a thinking person’s sport. Where climbers bring their collective knowledge, skills, and experience to safely solve problems and minimize potential dangers that exist. We believe the following five general areas represent the skills, knowledge, and abilities of a good mountaineer:

Journalism and the Environment What can the advent of more widely circulated print and web-based publications tell us about outdoor experience, the rhetoric of recreation and play? How do these activities align with Muir’s call for an “awakening from the stupefying effects of the vice of over-industry and the deadly apathy of luxury, they are trying as best they can to mix and enrich their own little ongoings with those of Nature, and to get rid of rust and disease”?

California’s Adventure Sports Journal

California Climber A publication specifically molded for the California rock climber. As gas prices skyrocket and international travel becomes more of a burden, we feel that climbers are becoming more interested in exploring local climbing areas. This is why we decided to produce a totally free, seasonal climbing magazine to assist the California climber on their quest for high-quality local crags.

Sustainable Play Sustainable Play is a form of narrative outdoor journalism that advocates for mindful adventure, in keeping with the notion of sustainable development – cultivating wellness through wilderness in a way that preserves the wild for those who follow.

Outdoor Retail and Environmental Ethics The Patagonia mission is to “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.” Story of company founding

Maps and Peaks Map of Sierra Peaks

Rock climbing: Free Soloing National Geographic Free Soloing with Alex Honnold and
Free Climb of the Dawn Wall by Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgenson

Alpine Ice Skating: Skating the John Muir Trail A sustained drought in the Sierra leads to a new mountain project. Selected shorts from Evolution Basin and the Topsy Turvy Lake


I drove down the Freeway
And turned off at an exit
And went along a highway
Til it came to a sideroad
Drove up the sideroad
Til it turned to a dirt road
Full of bumps, and stopped.
Walked up a trail
But the trail got rough
And it faded away—
Out in the open,
Everywhere to go.

-Gary Snyder. “The Trail Is Not a Trail.” Left Out in the Rain. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1986.