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Original Issue

The old devil of the Sierra Nevada

A confirmed individualist named Norman Clyde has become a legend in the mountains he loves

The Inyo National Forest, north of Los Angeles and just west of Bishop, Calif., is tucked into a pocket of the Sierra Nevada. As a forest, it is most notable for its profusion of boulders, rocks and pebbles (the tamarack and white bark pines are outnumbered zillions to one) and for its lyrical lakes and streams which feed the Los Angeles aqueduct and, some 300 miles later, it is melancholy to consider, debouch into that community's dishpans.

Although within 25 miles of Bishop and its bustling motels, sporting goods stores and take-it-or-leave-it cafés, the Inyo Forest is the habitat of all kinds of upcountry wildlife, friendly and ferocious alike. It has also been, for the past 40 years, one of the favored refuges of a particularly untamed individualist named Norman Asa Clyde. Mountaineer Clyde, who acts 40, looks 60 and, in fact, is almost 80, is a former schoolmaster who, one day, elected to become an emigrant from society. Now a solid, low-slung man with an outsized middle, eyes the color of pale blue water, streaming white hair and a general air of dishevelment, he knows more about the cirques, ar√™tes and couloirs of the Sierra Nevada than most men know about the street corners of their own neighborhoods.

But then few men are on such close terms with their neighborhoods as Norman Clyde is with the western mountains. In the four decades this free-wheeling, nonproductive eccentric has lived among these craggy heights, he has climbed nearly every respectable mountain from Mexico to Canada, and has wandered, happily homeless, from one end of the Sierra to the other. Indeed, Climbers Guide to the High Siena, a sort of vertical Baedeker for mountain types, mentions Clyde's name on nearly every page, usually because he got there first. And the longer he has climbed, the taller the tales about him have become, until they begin to take on the casts of myth and legend. Norman Clyde, they say, approaches sainthood when he is in communion with the mountains, but when with men he is a cantankerous, unapproachable loner who prefers no company to his own, a man who would rather catch trout than sleep and who would rather read Vergil and Aristophanes in their original languages than eat.

Since all this is true, as legend often is, it is difficult to phrase an inclusive definition of the man. On the basis of the crusty, misanthropic exterior he affects and the funny old clothes he wears (twill knickers, green canvas boots, OD Army shirt and Teddy Roosevelt campaign hat), not a few think Clyde is a loco old coot, and he himself partially accepts this judgment. "I reckon I have a cranial aberration," he rasps. "Why else would I be like one of the vertical migrants in the mountains—going up in the summer, coming down in the winter?" On the basis of the enormous amount of equipment Clyde customarily packs on his back when he travels, including cameras, guns, fishing poles, foreign books, axes, sleeping bag, skillet and preseasoned batter mix, he is sometimes known "as the pack that walks like a man." Strictly speaking, Clyde has not really forsaken civilization when he goes off into the wilderness. Rather, he takes as much of it with him as he can, sometimes in 100-pound loads. All things considered—his idiosyncrasies, his erudition (he reads, writes or speaks six foreign languages, and has a solid knowledge of most of the general sciences) and his delicate sensitivity to nature and her blandishments—Norman Clyde is perhaps most appropriately known as the last of the mountain men. In this capacity, he is, spiritually and physically, a throwback to those individualists of the 19th century who, driven by curiosity and supported by courage, explored the West as it opened, blazing the way for the softies who were to follow someday in their campers and station wagons.

As Clyde will tell you, it is becoming increasingly hard to be the last of the mountain men, and he does not always face the drawbacks of his role gracefully. For one thing, the current upsurge in family camping trips is everywhere evident in Clyde's Sierra Nevada, and to escape the campers, their litter and their trail-climbing motor scooters, Clyde must seek the higher, less accessible recesses. "I feel the squeeze just like the animals do," he says. "I want to go farther in." That raises the problem of where on earth to go: Dingle-berry and Topsy Turvy lakes are no longer off the beaten track, and the same is true of Disappearing Creek, Evolution Valley, Inconsolable Range, the Devil's Bathtub and hundreds of other magically christened landmarks in the Sierra. Thus, at an age when most other men are already well grooved to the comfy conformations of their easy chairs, Norman Clyde at 76 is quite literally in search of new heights to conquer, new horizons to survey. As he complains earnestly, there are simply too few places left. "You pick the spot and I've probably been there already," he says. "If I can't think of a different route to take there's not much use in my going." By this logic, Norman has no further use for Mount Whitney, the highest peak—at 14,495 feet—in the old-time 48 states. With a galvanic love for the pile of granite, Clyde has been to Whitney's summit 50 times, by night and by day, in fair weather and foul, and in every season. He even helped accomplish a first ascent of the mountain's precipitous east face in 1931—when he was 46.

Finally, this surviving mountain man is face to face with the ironic nuisance that he has become a curiosity to the very people he once sought to leave behind and who now are drawn to him. Grownups touch his sleeve in wonder and say such things as, "At last! I've caught up with a legend." Children stand back, a little in awe, a little in terror when Clyde shuffles by with his bent-knee gait, wearing his frazzled costume with its decidedly lived-in look. (Personal daintiness is not Norman Clyde's long suit, but in one particular he excels: even in the most remote backcountry, where another man says the hell with it, he shaves daily in the snow-cold waters of the mountain streams, an ordeal that leaves his face poignantly red.)

An acquaintance says of Clyde: "I tend to think of him as someone with a complete affinity for the land—as if he just grew out of a mountainside." Actually, Clyde was born, of Scotch-Irish parents, in staidly urban Philadelphia in 1885. When he was 3 years old, as he recollects it, he and his eight brothers and sisters (few of whom, as far as Clyde knows, are still alive) moved with their parents to Toronto. When the father, a Reformed Presbyterian minister, died in 1901, Clyde's mother removed her children to Pennsylvania, where Norman began his schooling, graduating eventually from Geneva College in Beaver Falls. Even in high school, Clyde recalls, he was a "solo bird." "I spent my free time hunting cottontails and grouse with a .22 Winchester," he says, "going alone because that was the way I liked it." He spent his classroom time, on the other hand, applying himself conscientiously to Latin, Greek and the Romance languages, and it is a rare evening in the mountains Clyde does not fall back on this early education to relieve his solitude. "I can't read Greek and Latin, of course, as fast as I can read English," says Clyde. "Thus I'm not obliged to take along as many books."

College completed, Clyde began to drift west, drawn by the writings of John Muir, the Sierra Nevada's famed nomad naturalist. His first stop en route, however, was Fargo, N. Dak., where he spent one term teaching grammar school. The next summer, about 1911, Clyde thinks, he took graduate courses in education at the University of Wisconsin and taught school that fall in Mount Pleasant, Utah, where he added a jot to his own education by learning to rope cattle from the back of a cow pony. About the same time there awoke in Clyde a passionate zeal for climbing mountains.

During the next dozen years, between 1912 and 1924, Clyde moved to California, married a Pasadena girl (she died three years later, but Clyde denies that her death influenced his later reclusiveness from men and women) and settled down to teaching school in Independence, a place to catch one's breath when traveling up the arid Owens Valley, which lies beneath the eastern face of the southern Sierra. "But I couldn't leave the mountains alone," says Clyde. "Nearly every weekend after school I was off to the high country, and that's where you'd find me, too, all summer." In the summer of 1920 one could have found him flush against the face of Mount Whitney, tackling this eminence for the first time.

Presumably things might have gone on like this indefinitely except for a singular misadventure that befell Clyde one Halloween night in the mid '20s. "It was nothing," Clyde protests, but as the tale has been told and retold by others, what happened changed Norman Clyde's life. At the time, the story line goes, Clyde had been elevated to principal of the Independence high school, and as part of that responsibility he determined to defend the school building against pranksters. To this end he stationed himself on the front steps that fateful October evening with a Colt .45 for company. Unhappily for everyone concerned, the pranksters, arriving as expected, pressed their luck, and Clyde pulled the trigger. A bullet went through a car one of the boys was driving, and the car, so they say, belonged to a school board official. Clyde took pains to overstay his vacation the next summer. "When I got back down from the mountains," he says, "all the school jobs were filled so I didn't trouble to ask for one." Instead, refitting his burdensome pack, he returned to the Sierra and has been there, for the most part, ever since. Why he chose to make the mountains his hermitage thereafter he does not say. "I never analyzed myself in that respect," he says, countering the question. "All I know, I like being in the mountains. I miss nothing in the cities now except the concerts and lectures one might find in them. But to my mind, all people in the cities do is run around stumps, getting nowhere."

It was not long after Clyde took to the hills that stories about him began to trickle down, and as he grows older his exploits seem to take on Bunyanesque qualities. Once Clyde's native reticence has been broken, no one likes to talk more than he, and in the stories he will spin by the hour, given the audience, he is the protagonist and, invariably, the hero. He likes to recount how, when the deer season opened one fall, he loaded his shotgun with rock salt and drove unwary deer to high, secluded rocks; how once, carrying all his provisions, he climbed 36 peaks in 36 days in Glacier National Park; how another time he climbed 14,162-foot Mount Shasta three times in four days ("I never went in much for record-breaking stuff," he explains, "because I never thought it wise to risk straining one's heart"); how he skied down 13,635-foot Mount Dade when he was 70; how he has repeatedly rescued lost climbers and found lost bodies when all others had given up; and how, despite all, he has no fear of falling, himself. "I'm a phlegmatic old devil," he says. "I can't worry about this and that happening."

Norman Clyde may then confide that altogether he must have made 1,500 mountain ascents of which at least 200 were first ascents; that carloads of tourists stranded by winter snows owe their lives to him; that the California Academy of Sciences depends upon him for its census of wildlife in this area; and that he once caught 300 trout in 30 days to prove—well, to prove what a first-class fisherman he was. (He still is: not long ago, while instructing a neophyte in flyfishing techniques, his reel came loose and fell into two feet of water. It was two landed-trout later before Clyde bothered to fetch it.)

Because his wants are simple, Clyde has been able to eke out living expenses all these years by hiring himself out as a climbing guide and, occasionally, by writing nature articles for West Coast magazines and newspapers. This summer, for example, he spent six weeks—at $10 a week plus provisions—with an outing of the Sierra Club, an outdoorsy organization whose members share conservation philosophies and white-collar incomes. This particular camp of the club was situated in the Inyo Forest on the east fork of the middle fork of Bishop Creek, an accessible but isolated spot 10,500 feet up and eight miles from the nearest roadhead. Members rode in on horseback; Clyde walked in with a 55-pound pack. For the benefit of untutored naturalists, the camp's staff included a botanist, a geologist and an experienced mountain climber. But with Norman Clyde along all three were somewhat superfluous.

Shepherding a rock-climbing hike one morning—the hikers ranged from little old ladies in cowboy pants to preschoolers in Merry Mites—Clyde led the way from the campsite to Baboon Lake ("a vulgar, hideous name for a beautiful body of water," Clyde said). As he picked the way over the gradually rising terrain, Clyde cited the names of the wild flowers underfoot—the orange Indian paintbrush, the purple owl's clover, the blue lupin, the yellow monkey-flower—and he explained in copious detail why that outcropping of stratified rock was flaked and broken, how this one was roughly buffed by a glacier crunching over it 25,000 years ago. As the hikers listened, he extended his remarks to sketch in the whole geological history of the glaciated canyon they were in, told how it was scraped and shaped by the plastic ice, how the land was altered and the lakes and tarns sculpted out, and how, farther ahead, a remnant of glacial ice still cowered against the side of Mount Thompson. To round out the picture, he switched to zoology and delivered himself of definitive remarks on the area's wildlife, where it was and what it was probably up to at the moment. (Clyde's only failing in mountain lore is his inability to navigate campsites. One black night this summer, as a Sierra Club camper was brushing her teeth, she froze at the approach of a bear in the underbrush. "Pardon me," said the bear, "I think I'm off the path.")

Just a ramshackle shack

For a man whose home is as big as all outdoors, it is perhaps not surprising that when Norman Clyde must descend into the Owens Valley in dead winter, he is content to serve out his term in a make-do, makeshift shelter; for him, after all, it is merely temporary. Consequently, his ramshackle, unelectrified, tin-roofed shack in Big Pine, Calif. is no more than a hovel, made invisible at 20 paces by a dense thicket. About the only signs of order within it, indeed, are trails that Clyde has hacked out through his accumulation of clothes, camping equipment and books. But it is also here that Clyde chips out his nature columns in Victorian prose, and the very recall of the places he has been and the things he has seen the past summer must help relieve the oppressive surroundings.

"I know so much about the mountains," he says, "that I think it would be useful to others if I could pass it along in an appetizing way. I only worry I can never bring to writing the flavor, the beauty and the appeal of the mountains, and that I can't put into words the grandeur that they possess for me. Trouble is too I read too blamed much to get much done."

Inevitably, of course, Clyde must descend the mountains for good, when he is beyond enduring their physical rigors. Then, perhaps, there will be time aplenty for his reading and his writing. But the notion has no appeal for him. How long would he last in the unaccustomed confines of a year-round house? "Frankly," says Norman Asa Clyde, "I can't say as how I'd give a damn."