John Salathe and Yvon Chouinard in Camp 4
John Salathé 1899-1992
Born in Basel, Switzerland John Salathé immigrated to Canada at age 25 and finally settled down in San Mateo, California to work as a blacksmith five years later. He names his business the Peninsula Iron Works. Convinced that his wife is poisoning him, he is feeling ill and idly watching a cow and calf grazing outside his workshop when a voice says, “John, look at those healthy animals. They eat grass, not meat. You eat meat, and you are always feeling sick.” Salathé is to have many more conversations with what he refers to as his “Angels”. John immediately becomes a lifelong vegetarian and, upon his doctor’s suggestion, goes to Tuolumne Meadows for some fresh air. While there, he inadvertently ends up at the Sierra Club’s lodge at Soda Springs. Salathé is intrigued when he hears the caretakers talk about the RCS’s Sierra Club outings.
At the age of 46, Salathé does his first and what could have been his last climb. Robin Hansen, after leading a climb on Hunters Hill near Vallejo, tells Salathé to come on up and “climb freely,” meaning to climb only the rock and not to pull on the rope or the pitons. After several minutes, Hansen hasn’t felt any activity on the rope when suddenly Salathé pops around the corner climbing unroped. Salathé has misunderstood Hansen, thinking that “climb freely” means free of the rope.
Salathé’s physical health returns and he quickly becomes obsessed with climbing. Being older, Salathé isn’t as agile as the younger climbers so he isn’t a particularly good free climber. Because of this, he focuses his attentions on aid (artificial) climbing. Climbers so far have done mostly free routes with short sections of aid in order to link together the free climbing sections. Salathé becomes the first climber to embrace aid climbing as the predominant means of ascending. Salathé quickly realizes that the soft iron pitons are not durable enough for multiple placements in Yosemite’s bottoming cracks. He notices blades of grass growing out of a seam and decides “If a blade of grass can grow out of the rock then a piton could go in”. Back at his shop, he fashions the first hard steel pitons out of Ford Model A axels, and they work splendidly. He develops other gear as well including a giant hook, adjustable aluminum aid ladder steps that are more comfortable than rope slings, and a bolting kit that is similar to what is used today. He marks his gear with the traditional master blacksmithing trademark; a diamond surrounding a capital " P". Yvon Chouinard would later use a similar trademark to mark his manufactured gear as a tribute to Salathé.
Salathé continues to have more conversations with his “Angels” and they direct him to climb three routes in Yosemite. They are the Southwest Face of Half Dome, the Lost Arrow, and the North Face of Sentinel Rock.
Salathé, only a year after his first climb, decides to try his new pitons on the Lost Arrow Spire. His two partners don’t show up, unfazed; he rappels to the notch just to have a look around. Leaving his ropes in place and peeking around the corner from a small, exposed ledge, he finds a thin crack system leading to a good-sized ledge. Undaunted by the 2,000 foot drop and incredible exposure, he sets up a self-belay system and starts aid climbing. He runs out of daylight and retreats to the notch and climbs back up to the rim using his fixed ropes. Shotly afterward, he returns with John Thune Sr. for another try. Salathé goes back for another try with John Thune, Sr. One of Salathé’s pitons pulls out just off the tiny ledge, and he plummets past a cowering Thune who manages to stop the fall. Undaunted, Salathé climbs back up and continues on. When the incipient cracks end, he uses his hammer and drill to place bolts. Though bolts have been used a few times before to protect blank face-climbing sections or a single aid move, this is the first time they have been used for upward progress. They run out of daylight at a blank section 30 feet from the summit.
September 2, 1946
Anton Nelson, Jack Arnold, Robin Hansen, and Fritz Lippman spend several days trying to throw fishing weights attached to a light line over the Arrow Tip from the Valley rim. Hansen is finally successful and the weighted line can be seen dangling at Salathé Ledge. Nelson and Arnold spend two days and a night in the Notch climbing Salathé’s route to Salathé Ledge and the weighted line. A climbing rope is then pulled over the Tip and anchored on the rim. Arnold climbs up to the summit using prusiks on the fixed rope and starts drilling holes for a bolted anchor. A Tyrolean Traverse is set up and Lippman slides out to the summit with an improvised chest harness and a single carabiner. Midway through the traverse is a knot in the rope and Lippman is forced to un-clip the carabiner to get past the knot. Nelson prusiks to the summit and all three men traverse back to the rim as darkness approaches. Robin Hansen does not have the time to do the Tyrolean due to the darkness. They get the coveted first ascent of Lost Arrow after using what the indignant Salathé calls a “rope trick”.
October 13-14, 1946
Salathé teams up with Anton “Axe” Nelson to climb the Southwest Face of Half Dome in a 20 hour marathon using 150 piton placements. Salathé’s hard steel pitons hold up well in the bottoming cracks. The two men spend a miserable night standing on a small stance waiting for daylight. This was the first Yosemite bivouac on a climb. They did not place any bolts on the route and it becomes the hardest route in Yosemite.
Next, Salathé and Nelson turn their sights on the Lost Arrow deciding to up the ante by starting at the base of the wall. Several parties had attempted the route including one strong attempt by Chuck Wilts. During their first attempt on Memorial Day weekend they were rained off. On a second attempt on the fourth of July they spend two days and push the route to the second large ledge called the Second Error. Due to the heat and difficulty of the climbing they once again retreat.
September 3, 1947
Salathé and Nelson climb Lost Arrow Chimney to the Lost Arrow Tip after five days with much preparation and determination. They bring only 18 pitons and 12 carabiners. The leader would lower off the top three pitons to clean the lower pitons to be reused higher on each pitch. They place bolts on three sections of the climb using Star Dryvin bolts with a 3/8” sleeve. Some of the bolt hangers were removed and reused higher on the climb. They lead with a 120 foot nylon rope 7/16” in diameter that cost them $22.00. Food and water rations are extremely slim. They bring only six quarts of water and ration it carefully during the hot weather. Friends lower water to them on their fourth day perhaps saving them form dehydration. After reaching the summit the men rappel to the Notch and climb up a rope tossed down by friends. Both men lose a lot of weight. This is the first time a climbing party has intentionally planned on staying several nights on a climb and is considered the start of Yosemite big wall climbing. The Lost Arrow Chimney is a climb with a whole new level of commitment so far unseen in the United States. It would be seventeen years before this bold route is climbed again by Warren Harding, Frank Tarver, and Bob Swift. To this day, the climb commands a lot of respect.
June 30 – July 4, 1950
The 51 year old Salathé and Allen Steck climb the north face of Sentinel Rock during five days of blistering hot weather. The route had many strong attempts previously including the attempt by Phil Bettler and Bill Long when they reach the top of the Flying Buttress about eight hundred feet above Tree Ledge on Memorial Day weekend 1950. Salathé and Steck bring 18 pitons, 15 carabiners, and 12 bolts with hangers. As with the Lost Arrow Chimney provisions were minimal. The pair has provisioned a quart of water each per day which soon proved inadequate due to the heat and the tremendous amount of effort required. Temperatures reached 105 degrees on the Valley floor. For food they had dried fruit and a can of tuna most of which they tossed off the climb when near the summit. Because of their thirst they were able to eat very little. At one point Steck found water droplets seeping out of the rock which he blissfully was able to wet his lips with. The crux of the route proved to be the intimidating Narrows. Salathé stacked pitons back to back to get around this formidable obstacle opening up the final pitches to the summit
These three visionary routes – Southwest Face of Half Dome, Lost Arrow Chimney and North Face of Sentinel Rock – have stood the test of time and are still bold outings to this day. They were such a bold jump in commitment that Salathé is considered the grandfather of big wall climbing. Salathé did other first ascents during his climbing career but, none of them had the boldness or commitment as these three climbs. Salathé had proven that, with careful planning, proper equipment and plenty of determination, Yosemite’s formidable walls can be climbed. Salathé had set the standard for subsequent climbers to aspire to.
Salathé did not climb much after the North Face of Sentinel. He left his son and wife, closed his blacksmith shop, and headed for the desert. He lived out of his Volkswagon van spending the winters near the Mexican border and the summers in the mountains.
He moved back to his native Switzerland for a while living in a remote cabin and gathered herbs while wandering in the Alps. He was a follower of the Spiritual Lodge, a non-traditional Christian sect based in Zurich. He was known to regularly send religious pamphlets to his friends. His last climb was the Matterhorn in 1958 with lifelong friend John Thune Sr. and his son John Thune Jr. After the climb Salathé handed over his equipment to John Thune Jr. announcing his retirement.
He kept up a regular written correspondence with his friend John Thune Sr. throughout his life often mentioning the “Angels” that guided him. In one of these letters he says “I find that rockclimbing is the finest most healthiest sport in the whole world, look at Baseball where 10,000 set on their ass to watch a handful of players”. Once while an argument ensued at an American Alpine Club meeting over climbing ethics, John got impatient, stood up, and was heard to say in his Swiss accent “All this talk! Vy can’t ve just climb”. Salathé spoke often of his “Angels” and the benefits of a vegetarian diet. He once told Jim Wilson that “Meat makes you have to have woman. Then she’ll have you under the thumbs”.
Salathé visited the Park in the late 1970's and was disappointed to find his beloved Camp 4 had changed. It was now called Sunnyside Campground, cost money, and you were no longer allowed to drive into camp. Salathé eventually moved back to Southern California where he passed away at the ripe age of 93 years.
Salathé was a modest man and probably never realized the influence and impact he had on the climbing community. Salathé’s pitons were cherished and worked so well that others (Yvon Chouinard, Dick Long, and Chuck Wilts) used almost identical designs when making their own. The basic aid climbing techniques and tools that Salathé had developed are still more or less used today. His biggest contribution to climbing was his perseverance and stubbornness that saw him through his climbs. He will continue to inspire climbers for generations to come.