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My Recollection of Norman Clyde

by Phil Pister

It has been pretty well established that Norman was a rather eccentric guy who was dumb enough to spend nearly his entire life in the Sierra Nevada, much of it above 11,000 feet! Dumb like a fox! I came as close as I could to duplicating Norman's life-style by spending my entire life after grad school at Berkeley as an aquatic biologist with the California Department of Fish and Game (DFG) headquartered in Bishop. Needless to say, I've never regretted doing this for as much as a split second! For those of you less fortunate than I, whose life circumstances have relegated you to the Bay Area, L.A, or other clusters of human population, I am pleased to report that the Sierra Crest, from upper Bishop Creek on the South, thence to Mt. Humphreys and Mt. Tom to the North, is even more beautiful and appealing than usual on this afternoon of July 22, 2007.

I got to know Norman Clyde in 1953 through my first boss, who was a good friend of his. Norman and I hit it off right away. I think I was the first DFG employee (or anyone in my field of aquatic biology) who shared most of his interests, including reading the Greek classics (admittedly in English). I didn't do Greek too well, but Latin I had to have some knowledge of in order to comprehend the taxonomy of fishes. He would come into our office on West Line Street in Bishop, and we'd talk by the hour. Norman had a deep intellectual interest in high lake biology, although I suspect that his main attraction to me was because of my knowledge of where to find High Sierra trout, which he loved to catch and eat. I'm convinced that if Norman had not been able to do this, he would have died of starvation at an early age. He loved to tell stories about how, on his climbing trips, he would take his stew kettle and move fish from one lake to another. He was aware that this was illegal, but that made no difference to him. His stomach came first, and who was I, a 25-year-old kid, to give advice to a guy I considered right up there alongside God, even though my graduate studies had pretty well convinced me that moving exotic predators into pristine ecosystems was not a good idea. I had climbed enough to have seen Norman's name in virtually every summit register I saw, usually as #1! My first major ascent was Mt. Sill, but others had beaten Norman to the top. However, R.J. Secor credits Norman for the first ascent of the northwest face some years later.

Phil Pister and Norman Clyde in August 1970

Phil Pister (left) and Norman Clyde (right) in a campground near the Fourth Recess Lake, August 19, 1970.

During one of our conversations I asked him about his discovery of Pete Starr's body on Michael Minaret in August, 1933. He just spoke of this fleetingly, and I was smart enough not to press him. Norman had a tough time handling the subject of dead climbers. Most will recall that after he discovered Pete's body, he left his interment on Michael Minaret to Jules Eichorn. I was but four years old in 1933, but my brother (four years older and now an emeritus Berkeley engineering professor) distinctly remembers Norman and Jules heading up the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River in early August of 1933 with huge packs, on their way to Donohue Pass and the Minarets in an effort to find Pete. I have often pondered over why they took this much longer route, rather than hike in from the Agnew Meadows roadhead, where Pete had left his car. The only reason that makes much sense is that Pete was very much a free spirit and could have been walking out to Tuolumne Meadows to hitch a ride back to Agnew. Our family would spend the entire summer back in the thirties camped up the Lyell Fork, our Dad being a Stockton High School teacher who taught my brother and me to love the Sierra. He did a fine job!

I recall once working in our office, located back then above where Galen Rowell later set up his photo studio at the corner of Bishop's main intersection, when my boss (a great guy named Ralph Beck) suggested that we go pay Norman a visit. This was in April of 1953, and Norman was working as the caretaker at Glacier Lodge up Big Pine Creek. When we arrived there, Norman was fishing in the pond in front of the Lodge, and he didn't see us drive up. It made no difference to him that the fishing season was still closed. My boss said: "Let's go pull a good one on Norman." So he found a blank notebook somewhere in our car and, pretending to be a warden (he had some sort of a badge), came up to Norman and said: "Norman, I'm going to have to write you a citation for fishing out of season (let alone without an angling license)." I can hear Norman's great response as if it had occurred only yesterday rather than 54 years ago: "Hi, Ralph! I was just gathering some fish population data for you guys!" We all had a good laugh and a good talk about the Palisades Mountaineering School, then returned to work.

The last time I saw Norman was on August 19 of 1970 when he was involved in one of the Sierra Club's High Trips, headquartered in that year a short distance below Fourth Recess Lake in upper Mono Creek. Our Department of Fish and Game lake survey crew was camped about a quarter of a mile upstream from the Sierra Clubbers. I suspected that Norman might be there, and sure enough, as my friend and I walked to their camp, there was Norman, sitting against a lodgepole pine eating his breakfast, which was by then pretty well distributed on his shirt between his mouth and his belt. Although he was well past 80 years of age, when I was perhaps 50 feet away he looked up and instantaneously commented: "Phil! What in hell are you doing way up here?" This was Norman's last trip into the high country, and he passed away a couple of years later. A real loss to the mountaineering community! He surely left us with a great deal more than he took from us.

Although I have had many great experiences over here on the East Side, and met some really great and legendary people, I would have to rank my friendship with Norman Clyde at the very top. Only in retrospect, and in the wisdom of 78 years, can I even begin to appreciate what a unique and enormous privilege this was. Almost needless to say, a photo of Clyde Minaret graces the wall of my backyard office, right next to our photo together (taken below Fourth Recess Lake on August 19, 1970).

Time to close. "Defiant mountains beckon me, to glory and dream in their paradise!"

Bishop, California, July 22, 2007

About the author:

Edwin P. (Phil) Pister is a retired Fishery Biologist who worked for the California Department of Fish and Game. He is an Executive Secretary of the Desert Fishes Council in Bishop, where he lives. He could be reached at