Lessons Learned / Mike Turpin
The Search for Peter Starr
Published 1:14 pm, Thursday, September 2, 2010
I sort of went off on a tangent from civilization and never got back -- Norman Clyde
Aug. 24, 1933 -- There was a sudden chill as the first rays of a brilliant morning sun were interrupted by a stray cloud. Norman Clyde stretched his arms and glanced up the narrow talus shelf that he would use as a base to climb Michael's Minaret. The degree of difficulty to ascend this lonely dagger of granite could not be underestimated. It was vertical on all four sides and rose narrowly through jagged chutes that eventually gave way to an impossible hourglass summit.
For the last five days, he had scoured every inch of this isolated range looking for clues. Clyde had pieced together small bits of information and returned to this particular minaret. How someone could attempt to conquer this serrated spine with no rope and only tennis shoes was beyond him. Clyde rubbed his hands together to prepare for the climb. He was 40 years old and beginning to feel the strain of failing in his mission.
Earlier in the month, Walter Starr Sr. had made an emotional appeal to Clyde and other members of the Sierra Club to help search for his son, Walter "Pete" Starr Jr. who had was last seen climbing toward Lake Ediza along the John Muir Trail. Pete Starr was an athlete, Stanford graduate, promising attorney at the prestigious law firm of Pillsbury, Madison and Sutro and an accomplished mountain climber at the age of 26. Having been raised in the rarefied air of San Francisco wealth, Starr had enjoyed the privilege of education and travel. With his money, he was able to circumnavigate the globe and climb some of Europe's tallest mountains. His father was among the first to join the fledgling Sierra Club, and was on a first-name basis with the famed photographer Ansel Adams. He had instilled in his son a deep love of the timeless peaks that served as California's crooked Eastern spine.
A rare combination of the physical and cerebral, young Starr was a success in every aspect of his young life. He had a great ambition to be first in life and focused his personal passions on completing what he hoped would become the preeminent mountaineering guide for the John Muir Trail and Eastern Sierra. For the past few months, Starr had been in the final stages of completing his manuscript. After attending a wedding of a Stanford fraternity brother, he had taken advantage of a three-week summer window when clear skies, dry conditions and melting snows allowed for access to the Sierra's highest passes and most difficult peaks.
Starr loved the solitude of the Sierras. In the mountains, the seasons established a harsh but predictable cadence that forced each and every living thing to conform to the inevitable certainty of change. Starr would keep a journal and would often reference the defiant permanence of these mountains -- grand monuments to a reassuring sense of immortality and a belief that something within each one of us might endure long after our physical lives have ceased.
Clyde arched his back and considered the route up the spire. He was now the only person still searching for Starr. He had never met the young climber but was familiar with his journal and efforts to detail the entire John Muir Trail and the peaks and valleys of the Eastern Sierra. He had heard through friends that Starr had even made reference to him in describing Clyde's ascent of the last unclimbed 14,000-foot peak in California, a difficult Middle Palisade, named Thunderbolt. With typical humility, Clyde had dismissed this "first ascent" of the "last 14'er"-- one of 82 first ascents of mountains for which Clyde would become famous -- as difficult but manageable. Starr had been amused by the stories of taciturn Clyde and his itinerant lifestyle of guiding, camping and living year round as the self-anointed caretaker of his beloved Sierras.
This area of the John Muir Trail was a rugged strand of great peaks and hidden lakes that sat silently like a string of black pearls along basins clawed out of limestone and granite across 5 million years of evolution. Great silver fingers of glacial streams coursed like capillaries down the mountain sides ultimately feeding into the San Joaquin River which would flow steadily west and down into the fertile Central Valley of California. These mountains had always served as a final gateway to the Pacific Ocean. For two centuries, settlers and damaged souls seeking new beginnings would attempt to cross or skirt these 14,000-foot peaks -- choosing between an inferno of desert or frozen, precarious mountain trails to reach the proverbial land of milk and honey in places like Los Angeles, San Francisco and the Sacramento Valley.
In the case of Norman Clyde, he had come to live in these mountains after the premature death of his 24-year-old wife from tuberculosis. Clyde was devastated by the loss and sought to shut out a frenetic urban America by accepting a position as a high school principal in Independence, Calif. His catharsis was climbing and he quickly distinguished himself at a mere 160 pounds as a unique physical specimen. He could climb for a dozen straight hours into the highest of elevations carrying a 90-pound packs. He once hiked over from the top of Mount Whitney, at 14,995 feet, to the lowest point in Death Valley, at 295 feet, in less than 12 hours.
Clyde was becoming a free spirit, loner and an iconoclast who had less and less use for people who were not interested in those things for which he held great passion. Clyde would be called on dozens of times in his career to find missing persons, downed planes and trapped climbers. He was highly respected and was a local and national celebrity in climbing and naturalist circles -- known through his first ascent records, his ardent environmentalism and his pragmatic journals.
Walter "Peter" Starr Jr.'s disappearance haunted Norman Clyde. While equally capable climbers, including his close friend, Jules Eichorn, had finally surrendered to the fact that young Starr had been mysteriously swallowed up by this untamed maw of wilderness, Clyde was unconvinced. He had reconstructed the climber's last few days through a discovered journal and a series of cold camps that led him to the base of the Ritter Range.
"It was here," he thought, "that Starr had tried to summit one of the spires."
A ledge worked its way to the west and stopped suddenly at the foot of a chute. Working his way up the narrow passage, Clyde reached the third chock stone in a shoulder-width gap -- slowly making his way to the top. He was exhausted and perplexed. He should have uncovered some evidence -- a cigarette butt, a scuff mark, displaced rocks or a trace of trash. As he turned to warm himself in the afternoon sun, Clyde noticed a fly.
Author, mountaineer and Clyde biographer, William Alsup describes Clyde's next few moments: "As I carefully and deliberately made my way down toward the notch, I scanned and re-scanned the northwestern face. Much of it was concealed by irregularities. Suddenly a fly droned past, then another and another. ... I began to follow a ledge running in a northwesterly direction. When I had gone along it but a few yards, turning about, I looked upward and across the chute to the northwestern face. There, lying on a ledge not more than 50 yards distant, were the earthly remains of Walter A. Starr Jr. He had obviously fallen, perhaps several hundred feet, to instantaneous death."
It was a poignant first meeting of two Sierra legends: Clyde, peering out from under his broad-brimmed campaign hat, rope coiled about his chest, standing among the ruins of the ancient range as a storm gathered; Starr, the debonair "club man," clad in khaki trousers and white undershirt, arms outstretched, lying on his back on a narrow ledge, facing the heavens.
For Clyde, it was a bittersweet conclusion to a great mystery. To those who had sponsored the expedition to find Peter Starr -- his father, famed photographer Ansel Adams, Sierra Club President Francis Farquhar and dozens of the day's most expert climbers -- it was devastating closure. A week later, Clyde, along with his friend Eichorn, returned to bury the young man at the base of the spires that had seduced and ultimately killed him.
Norman Clyde continued to climb his way into the folklore and grey granite roster of local California heroes and regional treasures. In High Sierra camps, he was given the nickname "the pack that walks like a man." He was a modern day John Muir -- gently seeking to understand and trace every crevasse, couloir, peak and high alpine meadow that made up the broken rows of jagged teeth known as the Sierra. He continued to lead hikers and climbers into his mountains well into his 60s. At the age of 80, Norman Clyde still preferred to sleep outside his home in a sleeping bag. His body finally failed him at 87 years old when he passed away in Bishop, Calif., just 50 miles south of where Walter "Peter" Starr's cairn rests at the base of the Michael Minaret.
Every sacred place has its own mythology. People, events and the passage of time all combine to create an almost palpable feeling that something greater than ourselves has moved here before us and still lingers like a restless breeze that ruffles the curtains in the early afternoon while summer thunderheads course overhead casting shadows across the landscape.
If you find your way to the eastern fringe of the Sierra Nevada, you can follow the Owens River as it winds through the high desert towards the scabrous, fortressed turrets of Mt. Banner and Mt. Ritter joined by the parapets of the Minarets. If you happen into a local bookstore, you will find Starr's Guide to the John Muir Trail -- a primer still considered by many to be the most comprehensive overview of this section of California. Turning to the section on the Ritter Range, you will find a description of the minarets including "Michael's Minaret." Adjacent to this infamous soaring tower of stone, you will find the description of an equally magnificent obelisk that was formed in the same mid-cretaceous period.
It is simply named "Clyde Minaret."
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