Sierra vintage gear notes from Rex

Here are some vintage notes on gear and general ways-and-means of backpacking in the Sierra Nevada.  Lifted from the memoirs of Kenneth Rexroth (1905-1982).

These passages concern Rex’s visits in the Sierra with his first wife, Andrée, from 1927 (when he was age 21) and onward, through to visits made with his second wife, Marie, around 1940.

We went off to the Sierras whenever we could, even if the main road to Yosemite (this was before either tunnel) was closed. We hitchhiked up the steep, dirt Sand Hill Road. …

No matter the season, we were able to get away from the main trails, which was not a common thing to do in those days. One fall afternoon, we hiked down one of the old lumber roads from our camp near Hume Lake. Andrée had spent the morning painting, and I had been botanizing and writing. …

Midway up the trail there was a cabin which had belonged to a prospector, trapper, and general mountain rat by the name of Put Boyden. He had discovered a cave at this point which later became one of the sights to see in Kings Canyon National Park, kept closed by huge iron gates so that people would not get lost in there, and to prevent vandalism, the curse of national parks, national forests, and city parks. Boyden’s cabin was a little shingle hut, with a bunk and a stove. In front was a broad deep pool in the river where the current was still enough for swimming and full of immense fish, the largest of which were almost as long as my lower leg. The smallest fish weighed about a pound and a half. We only had to toss in a fly to pull out a meal. That gave us a plentiful protein supply, and we could carry in on our backs three weeks of dry food. …

We’d go in and stay a month. … When our supplies ran short, I’d hike out, twelve miles or so, to Hume to get some food and come back. No one was around yet because there was still snow on the way over the bench from Lake Hume. So we had our refuge all to ourselves. It’s extraordinary to think that then we could spend six weeks in California and never see another human being. …

Most travel was done with packhorses and mounted tourists. There were few backpackers like us. We’d go off the trail wherever the country was relatively level and travel with geological survey topographical contour maps. So I began the habit of living under the stars, later even in the winter. Until very recent years I’ve spent most of the year living outdoors. We would lock up our little studio in the Montgomery Block [a bohemian apartment building in downtown San Francisco] or let somebody use it. We knew everything would be perfectly safe. It was the same with camping. In those days, you could leave a tent with cameras, fishing tackle, and everything else in the public campgrounds in a national park, let alone in the high country, and no one would ever disturb it. The high country was far less populated and polluted than it is now. Then there was no road in Big Sur. The Muir Trail was not finished, nor was the trail from Giant Forest to the Muir Trail, the so-called High Sierra Trail. Now the Muir Trail along the crest of the Sierras resembles the Haight-Ashbury in its days of horror [this was written after mob-related drug pushers and fake hippie-wannabe drifters and grifters crowded out the original flower children], and if you leave your tent, it will be gone when you come back. …

Our snow equipment was very primitive, but we had a wonderful time making it. For those days, it was really good. Some of it we simply invented. Some we had information about, but that described equipment which was much too heavy. We did have sleeping bags, and Egyptian cotton covers for them — all of this waterproofed with alumina gel which we mixed and precipitated into the things ourselves, something I still prefer to complete waterproofing because it breathes. The great trouble with modern equipment is that it is impermeable. …

…We eventually did a lot of rock climbing, and some glacier climbing elsewhere, not in California, and ski mountaineering…. That first year in California was a period of intense activity. … When Andrée discovered the distant landscape of the mountains, and the near landscapes of trees, rocks, and waterfalls, she was entranced. She’d always take watercolors and paper along, even on winter trips, find a sheltered spot in the sun, and sit there and paint watercolors on top of eighteen feet of snow. I was writing and painting, and the creative outpouring never stopped. …

All this had tremendous influence on us. My poetry and philosophy of life became what it’s now fashionable to call ecological. I came to think of myself as a microcosm in a macrocosm, related to chipmunks and bears and pine trees and stars and nebulae and rocks and fossils, as part of an infinitely interrelated complex of being. This I have retained.

My backpack astonished [Marie]. It was so heavy that it was extremely difficult to lift off the ground onto my shoulders. I would put it on a stump or a downed timber, adjust the shoulder strap and the tumpline around my forehead. She would pull me to my feet and we’d start off. We got a ride from the ranger up the narrow dirt road to Florence Lake and Blaney Meadows hot springs, and from there by easy stages to the pass below Mount Humphreys about Desolation Basin. …

Every year after that we went to the mountains, eventually to cover the Sierras from Yosemite to Sequoia Park. We soon tired of trying to pack three weeks of supplies on our backs and each year we rented a burro, usually in Sequoia Park if we were going into the southern Sierras, from there always the same burro, whom we called Bebe and who must have been as old as the rocks among which she shit, for she was marked by a running iron with the brand of the Kings River Packing Corporation, which dated back to the days of Jack London [1876-1916] and Stewart Edward White [1873-1946]. She was the wisest equine animal I have ever known. It was not necessary to tether or hobble her, she always stayed near camp, and in the evening would come and lie down near the fire like a dog. …

We came to spend more and more time in high country at or above the timberline and off the trails. Sometimes we would go down with the donkey and load her up with wood and come back to the high lake. About the same time we began to climb with a rope — fourth- or fifth-class climbing — but without pitons. I have never liked mechanical aides in rock climbing — besides the nuisance of carrying all that hardware around. Snow goes from the summits of the Sierras in July, and the more difficult climbs are on very homogeneous granite, something like Chamonix in France. I have never cared much for climbing on ice and snow, although I’ve spent many hours cutting steps with an ice ax. I much prefer the acrobatics of difficult rock climbing. The Saw Tooth Range in northeastern Yosemite Park is granite with large crystals of glagioclase feldspar about the size of sugar. It provides, as it were, its own hobnails. Nevertheless, the traverse of The Three Teeth is nothing to sniff at. At one point you rope down to the end of your doubled rope about a hundred and fifty feet, drive in a heavy piton, attach a carabiner and attach a rope sling to that, put your feet in the sling, pull down the rappel rope, thread it through the carabiner, wrap it around yourself, and throw yourself backwards into space.

We joined the rock climbing section of the Sierra Club and went on most of their weekend practice trips on local rocks, but never on one of the High Sierra trips. I have a strong distaste for group activities in the mountains. I can sympathize with the insane Englishman encountered by one of the Everest expeditions, who set off to climb the mountain alone and was never seen again. But I found a few friends who enjoyed winter camping, ski touring, and mountaineering, and made a complete outfit for the purposes — goose-down mummy bag, coffin-shaped tent which could be pitched to anything upright or in an X by two thick rubber bands cut from an inner tube, on crossed skies in front and ski poles behind. I used a high count, long staple, Egyptian cotton spinnaker cloth and dyed it the most brilliant red I could obtain. … My tent would hold just three men, very close together in their sleeping bags with their duffel at the long narrow end. I used it for many years in the blazing sun of spring skiing in the Sierra Nevada. It never faded. Then I loaned it to a fiend who was going to the Himalayas. It came back the palest apricot color. Otherwise I still have it, and it’s as good as ever — over forty years old.

Ski touring and mountaineering have given me some of the happiest moments of my life. It’s not just swinging long turns down a steep mountainside, or traveling through the snow-bound forest where the treetops stick up like little Christmas trees, but even crawling out at night to piss under the black sky full of billions of stars shedding a pale grey light in the infinite expanse of snow. One is tempted to write one’s initials doing this, while realizing under planets, stars, and nebulae, and surrounded by peaks heaved up in the Jurassic, that like Keats “here lies one whose name was writ in water.”

As I look back on the period between the wars [World Wars One and Two], with all its busy work and endless meetings in the labor movement, mass strikes, police attacks and killings, and all the other seemingly eventful activities, what I remember clearly are stones and trees and flowers, and snow, and the companionship of my wife. Tout passé, ils demeurent!

~~~~~ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ~~~~~





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