Rexroth in the Sierra

Some revisited (and more complete) Sierra camping passages lifted from the memoirs of my old friend, Kenneth Rexroth (1905-1982).

These passages concern some hiking and camping trips in the Sierra with Rex’s first wife, Andrée, beginning in the autumn of 1927 (when he was age 22), and continuing through some later visits made with his second wife, Marie, beginning in 1940.

Below these passages, I’ve added some passages about Rex’s friend, Dr Leo Eleosser, one of the most famous surgeons in the world in his day. Eleosser was also a close friend and personal doctor to Frida Kahlo (she painted Leo’s portrait). Dr Eleosser worked as an Allied medical field officer in World War I, and with the anti-fascist Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War. During World War II, he worked in China with fellow independent communist, Dr Norman Bethune, treating soldiers of the then-unified Communist and Nationalist Armies fighting against the Japanese invaders. Following World War II, Eleosser’s life partner, Joyce Campbell, helped found the United Nations and as a result was persecuted by the fanatic rightwing McCarthy crusade. Together, Leo and Joyce then relocated to Mexico. You can read more about Dr Eleosser here:

and here:


Kenneth Rexroth and Andrée Dutcher met and married in Chicago in 1927, and for their honeymoon made an extended camping trip across the West, ending in San Francisco, where they decided, somewhat tentatively, to settle. They soon began exploring the Sierras, frequently staying out weeks and months at a time After Andrée’s severe mental disorder and untimely death of complications from epilepsy, Rexroth continued his Sierra expeditions, at first alone, and later also with his second wife, Marie Kass.


Early on we were walking in Golden Gate Park, and Andrée said, “There isn’t any autumn in this place. There is never going to be any autumn, and that’s going to be the worst part about it.”

And someone said, “Oh, yes, there is an autumn. There is a very nice autumn. All you have to do is go to the Sierras where you’ll have autumns and winters and a twenty-foot snowpack on Donner Summit.”

In early autumn 1927 we hitchhiked up to Donner Summit and hiked from there across to the Feather River basin. In those days the landscape showed signs of very serious damage by the extensive mining and panning and prospecting that had gone on. Most of that has disappeared; the forest has, as the years have gone by, recovered. The hike was very enjoyable. …

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. …

There were big fish in the Merced River, some so big, in fact, that two fish made a supper for us. Then against everybody’s advice, we hiked up to Tuolumne Meadows and over Mono Pass and down Bloody Canyon, to the Valley and back to Lee Vining and Bridgeport. We turned around and went back down to Bishop and around the mountains, through the Mojave, and back up to San Francisco. Of course there were no concrete highways, or highway over the mountains. The east side of Tioga Pass Road was still a rough miners’ road. I don’t believe there was a connection between Tuolumne Meadows and the mining road down below. Anyway, we didn’t go down that way. Highway 395 was not what anybody would call a highway in those days, and the whole country at that time of year was deserted. It was quite wonderful to have camped in Tuolumne Meadows in a warm late autumn with no one there at all. Then a storm came up, and it began to snow as we went down Mono Pass. I know now we had done something very foolish and dangerous. We debated climbing Mt. Lyell. Had we done so, we probably would have been mercilessly exterminated by the onset of the weather. However, we did climb Mt. Gabb. That was not the first of innumerable trips into the Sierras, but the one that I remember best. It was Andrée’s birthday when we were in Yosemite. We had trout and a bannock birthday cake stuffed with black figs and nuts.

As winter came on, we began to read about immense snowfalls in the Sierras. We could hardly believe our eyes. We decided we had to go skiing there. We tried to find out something about conditions, but we couldn’t get any information at all. Very few people in the Sierra Club skied. In those days it was treason to talk about the California winter. As late as the Olympics held in Southern California in 1960, the All Year Club of Southern California protested against having the Winter Olympics in the state. They were held at Squaw Valley [near the California shore of Lake Tahoe], and they had to haul in snow from Upper Ontario in gondolas and coal cars to make ski slopes. At the same time, there was about twenty-two feet of snowpack at Donner Summit. We did find some skis, after a good deal of trouble, stored away at a sporting goods store.

There we met a skier who gave us some advice. But the best information we got came from Leo Eleosser (1881-1976), one of the first ski mountaineers. He was a famous surgeon, a world-famous doctor, and perhaps the most remarkable man in California. …

Leo and a friend were the first people up Shasta on skis. He climbed all sorts of mountains hardly anybody knew existed in those days, like White Mountain. I think he climbed all the 14,000 peaks in California on skis. Both he and the man in the sporting goods store advised us to go to Cisco on the Donner Summit Road and then go north of the road just a sort distance to a chain of lakes in a long valley parallel with the shoulder. There were, in those days, rather steep dirt roads built by the PG&E [Pacific Gas & Electric Company] from one dam to another, and we would have open country, past Castle Rock Peak and around and down to Donner Lake and on to Truckee. Or we could go on north to the Feather River highway and railroad. There, Leo told us, was the best skiing in America.

When we got off the train at Cisco, everything was covered with deep snow. We skied around a little to get the feel of it, and then stopped in the general store, an old-time country place with cracker barrels and a pot-bellied stove. Everybody said, “My, my, where’d you get them little snowshoes?” We didn’t have any ski boots. Ski boots were almost unheard of in those days. We just had ordinary boots and bindings that no one in the world would wear now — they’re terribly dangerous. I can still remember the bindings, they were called Telemark bindings, and they strapped round and round your foot. The old-timers in the country still skied on eighteen-foot skis, sitting on the pole like the famous Snowshoe Tompson. They almost never saw standard skies. We saw one ski track during the entire trip — somebody had crossed the road up by Soda Springs on the local long skis and gone north through the forest. It was a so-called California snowshoe track, with the marks of just one pole.

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. You perspire and breathe during the night, and in the morning you have a coat of ice inside your tent. You have to turn it inside out to get rid of it before you can go on. And as the ice breaks, it may break the cloth.

Anyway, we toiled laboriously through the forest, following a trail that wasn’t very steep. By our Eastern standards, for winter and all that snow, it was quite warm. We didn’t know any turns except the Telemark, which is not for ordinary California snow. You’ve got to have pretty good powder snow to go Telemarking around with much success. So we developed something very much like modern skiing, that is, weighted parallel turns, rather than Alberg fashion. I never did become a good Alberg skier. It’s always looked very ugly to me, though sometimes you naturally make a stem turn. Since I had never been taught to do any of these things (I’ve never taken skiing or swimming classes nor anything like that), my techniques were very odd. Coming down off the mountain to Donner Lake, we were quite frightened at the steepness of the slopes. But we managed to get down. Twice we stayed at inns which were closed for the winter, but the owners were living there. We spent about eight days, I think, skiing all around and camped on the snow for five nights. That was our first trip into the winter mountains, something that would be repeated again and again.

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. At the end of the road, we met a work-crew of convicts who were camped across the valley of Hume Creek. They were building a road that would eventually reach the floor of the Kings Canyon and go on to the upper basin, the valley which greatly resembles the Yosemite Valley, and which could only be reached then by trails over the top. In return for mailing their letters, the convicts showed us a trail that had been build up the floor of the canyon by the engineers, who were surveying the road. It entered the upper basin through Cedar Grove, a dense wood of incense cedar at the other end. The convicts had concealed the trail with timber and brush, so no one else knew about it except a few of them who had gone up there for fishing, so we hiked up to the upper valley.

Because it was fall, the water was way down and we could easily get back and forth across the river. Earlier in the year, the fords were impossible to navigate for a person on foot. For all intents and purposes, a great stretch of the Kings Canyon was open to us alone. We never saw anyone. Usually, we were below the snow line, that is, lower than Yosemite Valley. We could have stayed there until late in the year, at least until Thanksgiving.

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.

Not far above our camp, some timber fell across the river and formed a logjam which made a bridge. So we could get all the way to the upper valley in the spring of the year when the water was too high to ford anywhere else. It was a little dangerous, but it was worth it. The Kings River Valley in spring was an immense flower garden, covered very thickly with tricolor lupines. In the meadows and up in the shady sides was every imaginable flower of that elevation. We’d go in and stay a month. We made a huge herbarium there. 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 [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 [Rexroth wrote this after Mob-connected 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.

We had a life of remarkable peace and order. …

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.

…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.

The great trouble is that we had so few people to share it with. Leo Eleosser, and one or two other people of the older generation like Ralph Stackpole, the sculptor, were about the only connection that we could make with any kind of cosmopolitan world. We’d come back to the city and absolutely baffle people by the way we painted and the things I wrote. We made no effort to remedy this. In San Francisco no one bought modern local paintings and there were few places to publish anything. …

1940 and beyond…

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 [cubes]. 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 gray 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 [First and Second World Wars], 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!


Rexroth writes about Leo Eleosser (and other friends) :

…The best information we got [about skiing in California, 1927] came from Leo Eleosser (1881-1976), one of the first ski mountaineers. He was a famous surgeon, a world-famous doctor, and perhaps the most remarkable man in California. He was the first to perform some of the most radical operations on the human chest. There is an operation called the Eleosser Flap. Earlier he had done brain surgery of kinds which had never been performed before.

…In those days, he had a whole bevy of dachshunds who followed him every place. He drove an open touring car, an old dish-faced Franklin which still exists — it belongs to a car collector here [in San Francisco]. Leo was a tiny man, not much bigger than a dachshund. He didn’t look exactly like [Albert] Einstein, but he had a great mop of gray hair. He wore a Windsor tie and drove about in his open touring car with all the dachshunds sitting behind. Not only that, he was probably the only man who was ever permitted to take dogs into a hospital. At San Francisco County or Mount Zion you would always know when Leo was operating because the dogs would be lined up, mother and children, outside the operating room, sitting patiently, dutifully waiting. He used to play a specially made viola in the bath at all sorts of odd hours. His favorite time of operating was after midnight, so sometimes in the small hours of the morning you would see Leo at County in that basement wilderness of tunnels and pipes followed by a surgery staff with trays covered with gauze, and the dogs trotting along behind.

He went to Spain during the Civil War and organized a very good hospital team. The official Stalinist medical thing was just a front — they lived in hotels and provided nurses to the Comintern officers. Leo set up a practical medical organization from the battle front to the hospitals. How he escaped being killed I don’t know. After the Second World War he went to China and did the same thing. Little Leo Eleosser lived into his nineties, the last years in a remote area of Mexico to act as doctor for the Indians and mestizos of an extremely isolated community. …

…Gradually, I was forming a more or less satisfying intellectual community. Back from Europe, John Ferren (1905-1970) provided an interesting companion, along with Milton Merlin (1905-1996), Jack Trunk (aka Frank Triest, 1906-1987), Ralph Stackpole (1885-1973), and Leo Eleosser (1881-1976), the later two men considerably older than myself. …

I went down to Carmel to see Ed Weston (1886-1958). I was excited to meet him, though I had known him casually through Tina Modotti (1896-1942) in Mexico. He seemed old to me, but he was still comparatively young, and he was certainly full of vigor. The resemblance between Leo Eleosser, Ralph Stackpole, and Ed Weston was remarkable. They had a “diathesis,” to use a medical term, somewhat like the contemporary poet Gary Snyder (b.1930) — full of bounce, with something indefinably West Coast about them, although I don’t think any of them came from the West Coast. Stackpole and Eleosser lived past eighty.

some notes:

Leo Eleosser (1881-1976), American surgeon and medical pioneer

Ralph Stackpole (1885-1973), San Francisco’s once pre-eminent sculptor

Edward Weston (1886-1958), pioneer modernist photographer, Carmel, California, and Mexico

Tina Modotti (1896-1942), Italian American radical leftist activist and photographer, sometime model and partner to Weston, died in Mexico

John Ferren (1905-1970), abstract painter, California

Milton Merlin (1905-1996), California writer, filmmaker, and McCarthy- blacklisted television writer and producer

Jack Trunk, aka Frank Triest (1906-1987), California mountaineer and radical activist

Gary Snyder (b1930), California poet, professor, and deep ecologist

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), Mexican painter

Diego Rivera (1886-1957), Mexican painter, sometime-spouse to Kahlo



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