Kate Farrell (author of Story Power) remembers this adventure in the beloved Sierra mountains.
It was the summer of 1968, the year after the Summer of Love in the Haight-Ashbury. My younger brother, John, had been a teen runaway there. But when the Haight-Asbury got too dangerous with drugs, dealers, and riots, he fled to the mountains.
In his youth, John was a Boy Scout and later joined the Sierra Club in high school, going on wilderness hikes, learning the ropes. It was a relief to know that he’d left the city and was in Yosemite, climbing the big walls, the sheer granite cliffs, with a wild and crazy group of international mountaineers. Much safer!
Our mother knew John was in Yosemite somewhere and made up her mind to find him and enlisted me as her driver. She’d heard that John had a new girlfriend and phoned me in the city: “We’re going to the mountains to look for John. And I’m going to find out what that girl is doing with my son.”
And so, we set off in Mom’s Buick Skylark, from her home in Los Altos, wearing summery outfits, into the wilds of the Sierra. Taking Tioga Pass, we whizzed past the forests of pine trees above Yosemite Valley. Inside the park, Mom commissioned me to ask about John at a general store. By afternoon, we discovered them in Tuolumne Meadows, in the Sierra Club campgrounds.
It must have been quite a surprise to see the two of us coming over a rise to their campsite in our summer dresses and hats. My brother, thin as a rail, in greasy lederhosen, his long hair covered with a beret, stared at us open-mouthed. Recovered from their shock, John and his sweet girlfriend, Alex, welcomed us and built a canvas lean-to under a tree for me and Mom to share during our visit. John began to plan excursions.
One day, we went on a miles-long, dusty hike in the high altitude that left me breathless. But a few days later, John decided that the perfect highlight for our trip was to climb nearby Cathedral Peak. I had absolutely no experience rock climbing, but Alex thought it would be great fun.
We could see the looming landmark from our campsite, a monumental pile of glacier-polished granite, a pinnacle with a topmost spire that rose over 2,000 ft. from base to summit.
After breakfast the next day, we all hiked to a grassy meadow near the base of the mountain. We settled Mom in the grass with our backpacks, far enough away that she could see us climb, and gave her a copy of the Hobbit for entertainment. I was wearing the only shoes I had, my canvas deck shoes, with flat, rubbery soles—no tread.
At the base of our rocky approach, John demonstrated how to scramble, by using the quartz outcroppings for hand and foot holds, and finding the seams and cracks in the huge rock slabs that angled up and up. We had no equipment, no ropes or chalk for the scrambling climb.
John quickly disappeared; Alex was still at my side. I asked her, “How do you do this?
She grinned and said, “Just make like a monkey.” Wearing a wide-brim, black felt hat and with her sturdy hiking boots, she passed me by.
I was crawling on all fours, almost flattened against the raw rock, making slow progress, when John returned, saying, “Don’t lean into the mountain; lean away from the mountain.”
I pried my body loose from the granite surface and tried to balance, not daring to look down. I was almost halfway up, when my inch-wide ledge vanished. I froze, not able to move, clenching a small handhold, trembling on the narrow footing.
John appeared just above me, standing upright, to find me stuck. He said, “What the hell is taking you so long?”
“How dare you!” I thought and glared at him. Anger motivated me to make a sudden move, grab a handhold and push off to another spot, farther up. I learned the need for momentum, to keep looking ahead for the next move.
It was an angled climb, but the fall was real, a sheer drop. I found wider ledges where I could rest and catch my breath.
At the topmost spire, there was short belay with a rope. From the small summit block, the view was incredible: mile after mile of gray-white mountains under a brilliant, blue sky.
We went down another way, down an easy, sloping, grassy side, running and leaping, exhilarated. When we reached the meadow where Mom was waiting, we rolled in the grass, relieved and giddy.
I looked back at the mountain, not believing we’d truly climbed that granite monster. But it was worth it: I’d found my brother.
Postscript: John Fischer went on to become a legendary alpinist, climbing peaks around the world, and guiding others to experiences of a lifetime; he was co-founder of Palisade School of Mountaineering in the Eastern Sierra. After John’s sudden death in a motorcycle accident eleven years ago, the John Fischer Memorial Route was established in Pine Creek Canyon.
John C. Fischer (September 13, 1946 – June 5, 2010)
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