Maybe the sneakers made him faster.
Glen Dawson’s historic climb of the East Face of Mt. Whitney in 1931 was not just the first-known ascent of the formidable route, it was also one of the swiftest.
Completed in just 31/4 hours, the ascent was one of California’s first technical climbs with ropes. Dawson, then 19, completed it in his favorite shoes — ankle-high, lightweight tennis shoes. He said he preferred them to basketball shoes, which were then popular among climbers.
FOR THE RECORD
An earlier version of this post incorrectly identified Bob Cates, history committee chairman of the Angeles Chapter of the Sierra Club, as Bob Case.
Dawson, who died March 22 at age 103, made the groundbreaking ascent with buddies Robert Underhill, Jules Eichorn and Norman Clyde.
The quartet took little on the ascent of the uncharted, craggy vertical wall. They had 100-foot Manila ropes and also pitons, but only used a couple. They felt their way up. “They didn’t know what to expect,” said Dawson’s son, Keith.
What worried them most was not knowing how long it would take. “We didn’t want to get caught at night on the face,” Glen Dawson later told The Times. “We moved right along.”
They hustled up an area now known as the Washboard, then ventured the Fresh Air Traverse, which rose over a 1,000-foot precipice where Underhill led instead of Dawson. After that, a scramble up a steep chimney and several more walls brought them to the top, where they flopped down long enough for photos.
Decades after his famous East Face ascent, Dawson, a member of a prominent L.A. antiquarian bookselling family, still remembered the moment as a figurative as well as literal high point. “That day in August in 1931...” he said, trailing off.
Dawson, who was short and wiry, was a natural climber with a low center of gravity who made several other first ascents in the Sierra while still a teenager.
Later, he also led a group that included his brother up the East Buttress of Mt. Whitney in 1937 — another first, said friend and Sierra Club mountaineering historian Bill Oliver.
Dawson’s climbs helped introduce modern rope techniques to the West and launched a golden age of Sierra climbing, said Bob Cates, history committee chairman of the Angeles Chapter of the Sierra Club.
Born June 3, 1912, Dawson was the first of four children of Ernest and Sadie Dawson. His father ran Dawson’s Books, but was also an outdoor enthusiast who knew John Muir and named one of his sons in his honor. Glen Dawson became a lifetime member of the Sierra Club in 1921, and was the organization’s longest-tenured member until his death from natural causes at a Pasadena retirement home.
He graduated from UCLA with a history degree and became an ardent mountaineer and friend of photographer Ansel Adams. The East Face climb came after Francis Farquhar of the Sierra Club organized a course in modern climbing techniques with Underhill, who was then a famous climber.
Eichorn, Underhill, Clyde and Dawson had several firsts behind them when they attempted the face. Dawson continued climbing for years until the death of a friend in a climbing accident, a hard fall and marriage convinced him to quit cold turkey and raise his family, his son said.
Dawson earned a Bronze Star in combat in Northern Italy with the 10th Mountain Division in World War II, his son said.
He joined his father in the bookselling business. Dawson’s began on Broadway and operated in several more locations before settling in Larchmont. Dawson later ran the store with his brother Muir, who died in 2005.
Dawson served on the Sierra Club’s board until 1951. In later years, he helped compile a history for the group and donated hundreds of photos to its archive.
Keith Dawson described his father as understated and generous, and shorter than both his wife and son. Glen Dawson didn’t drink, never smoked, and was very involved in activities at his church, his son said.
As for his climbing talents, “we won’t see the likes of him again for sure,” Oliver said.
Dawson’s wife, Mary Helen, died in 2002. Besides his son, Dawson is survived by daughters Susie Smith and Karen Ganske, seven grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.