The climb of his life

Special to The Times

GLEN DAWSON took a bold leap in the summer of 1931 when he signed on to tackle the unclimbed East Face of Mt. Whitney. His only gear: heavy rope and sneakers.

Dawson, a boyish 19, Robert Underhill and climbing legend Norman Clyde would join Jules Eichorn, also 19, to make history with a first ascent on the highest mountain in the contiguous U.S. and the Sierra's premier peak. The foursome's swift journey up the mountain's steepest side would break climbing barriers and usher in a new era of mountaineering in the West -- one that used ropes for the first time. "To my knowledge, the East Face had never even been attempted before they did it," says R.J. Secor, author of "The High Sierra: Peaks, Passes and Trails." "It's certainly one of the earliest technical climbs in the High Sierra and a real milestone of that era."

In a small conference room at the back of the Sunland-Tujunga Library, Dawson, 92, spins out the story of his most notable climb at a recent meeting of the Sierra Club's Crescenta Valley Group. Most of his climbing contemporaries have come, left their names on Sierra pinnacles and peaks, and gone. Dawson may be the last of his breed.

"I'm mainly here as a historical curiosity," he quips. The longtime Pasadena resident and distinguished rare book dealer is surely the only "contemporary" of Sierra Club founder John Muir in the room. "He died in 1914. I was born in 1912."

During his slide show, Dawson lets the black-and-white images do much of the talking. The first shot is telling enough: a close-up of his Sierra Club lifetime membership certification (the 14th ever issued, dated 1921, when he was just 9). "I really got my money's worth with that one," he says.

A few slides later, a sharp profile of a young Dawson flashes on the screen -- snapped in Yosemite by Sierra Club friend, fellow climber and not-yet- famous photographer Ansel Adams. Next up: a blurrier shot of Adams beaming clownishly into the lens. "He took my picture," says Dawson. "It was only right that I take his."

Somewhere in this early footage is the Matterhorn climb Dawson bagged at age 16 with his father Ernest, an early Sierra Club president and founder of Dawson's Book Shop, L.A.'s oldest continuously operating bookstore.

Then on to a series of harrowing climbs in the 1920s and '30s on the Sierra Club's High Trips, annual forays on which 40 to 50 skilled climbers set off to tackle rock faces in the club's namesake range. There's Francis P. Farquhar and Norman Clyde standing atop the needle-like Milk Bottle in the Palisades in the eastern Sierra. There's Dawson's brother Muir crouching on Yosemite's equally dizzying Hoffman's Thumb. And Dawson, captured again by Adams, straddling the crest of the knife-edge Sawtooth Range.

Then the evening's hallmark image flashes on the screen: the East Face climbing party.

Dawson recalls that even the famously unflappable Clyde, renowned for soldiering more solo firsts in the High Sierra than everyone else combined (as well as summitting Whitney at least 50 times), said the East Face looked "pretty sheer."

Enter Underhill, a Harvard lecturer and climbing pioneer who had trained with ropes (then a newfangled European concept) in the Swiss Alps and used them with amazing success earlier that year in the Tetons. After penning his seminal article in the Sierra Club Bulletin, "On the Use and Management of the Rope in Rock Work," Underhill was invited to share his skills that summer with the Sierra Club's finest during a peak-bagging spree running south from the Palisades to Whitney.

By the time Underhill's rope-climbing class had reached Whitney's East Face, the group had shrunk from 16 to just four. Dawson was among them.

Was he apprehensive?

"No," says Dawson. "I was just interested in going up." Then, as an afterthought, he adds: "Sometimes you really can't tell whether a face can be climbed until you go rub your nose in it."

Studying the route, Underhill would later write: "It continued to look, I must confess, downright unclimbable."

At dawn the next day the four climbers set off with two 100-foot manila ropes, the first pitons to be seen (if not used) in the Sierra, no established route to work from and footwear that would make any present-day climber get back in the car.

"A lot of climbers back then wore basketball shoes, but I didn't like those," recalls Dawson. "I could feel the rock better with an ankle-high lightweight tennis shoe."

Heading up a steep series of crack systems now known as the Washboard, the foursome paused briefly at the crux of the climb, the Fresh Air Traverse, a section above a thousand-foot precipice where some loose rocks fell without a sound for a chilling number of seconds.

"On the Fresh Air Traverse, there's a lot of what you call exposure -- meaning it's a long way down," recalls Dawson dryly. "Robert Underhill let me lead the whole way, except in that one area."

Several pitches later -- scooting up a short but steep chimney, a 300-foot mess of loose rock faces now called the Grand Staircase, another wall or two -- they reached the triumphant end of the road in an astonishing 3 1/4 hours.

"Nowadays six hours is considered a fast time," says Secor, who describes the East Face as "an interesting but convoluted route without a clear line" -- especially for four guys who were figuring it out as they went along. Underhill had allegedly said they could have done it in half the time if they had known where they were going.

"Very few climbers today are anywhere near their proficiency," adds Secor. "Maybe this is partially because they weren't as constrained back then by any ideas about what was or wasn't possible. But also they were just really good climbers."

Dawson has a more pragmatic thought.

"I think one reason we made such fast time ... is that we didn't want to get caught at night on the face," says Dawson. "We wanted to get it done with. So we moved right along."

After about an hour on the summit, Dawson and some of his fellow climbers descended via the Mountaineers Route and celebrated by climbing neighboring 14,012-foot Mt. Muir. Six years later, Dawson would lead his own trip back up the East Face along a more direct route called the East Buttress.

A few years after that, when Dawson's first child was born, he'd retire from rock climbing and become a towering figure in the somewhat less hazardous rare book business. He ran the family bookshop with his brother Muir, who died Feb. 21 at 83, for decades before turning it over to a nephew.

"I've climbed in many parts of the world, and published over 300 books," Dawson says. "But of all the things in my life, that day in August in 1931 ... " He pauses, getting a foothold.

"Well," he says, "I still get a good deal of pleasure out of it."

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