Sacramento Bee Article on Missing Summit Registers

Sacramento Bee Article on Missing Summit Registers

Joined: January 1st, 1970, 12:00 am

October 25th, 2004, 2:07 am #1

Ever since 19th century explorers first scrambled to the top of Sierra Nevada summits, climbers have felt compelled to mark their peak accomplishments in writing ...
In notebooks, on loose sheets of paper and scraps of Kodak film cartons, they have recorded moments of pure exhilaration, marveled at the knife-like ridges and wind-polished domes, jotted down climbing routes or simply signed their names.

But today, those informal archives of achievement, tucked away inside sardine cans, glass jars, baking powder tins or even custom-made Sierra Club metal boxes, are vanishing.

For those who hike and climb in the Sierra Nevada and revel in its history, the disappearance of the summit registers comes as a jolt.

"Some of the real neat ones are missing," said Jason Lakey, a 29-year-old climber from Bishop whose passion for bagging peaks has led him to 72 Sierra summits over the past five years.

Three years ago, on top of a rugged spire in the eastern Sierra called Petite Griffon, Lakey found something special: worn scraps of paper in a film canister that held fewer than 20 names, including those of the first two climbers known to have reached the summit in 1964.

"It's pretty neat," he said. "It's history without having to go to a museum. You just climb the mountain and there it is."

This summer Lakey returned to the 13,040-foot peak with his girlfriend. The climb was so steep and arduous it required ropes. On top, Lakey searched for the register. But it was gone.

Why summit registers are disappearing is a mystery.

In trailside conversations and e-mails, climbers toss out theories. Is it the work of a souvenir hunter? Might the National Park Service have adopted a register removal policy? Should climbers be checking eBay?

Like tributaries of a stream, those discussions lead in many directions - from the serrated peaks that tower over the John Muir Trail to the garage of a former climber from Merced to the campus of the University of California, Berkeley.

They reach back across a century of mountaineering to reveal periods of conflict, concern and confusion over the fate of summit registers.

But inevitably, they end up where they began: on the top of a mountain where a chapter of Sierra history is missing.

Storing records on summits is inherently risky. They can, and have, been struck by lightning and accidentally dropped into cracks. But today climbers say registers are disappearing more rapidly than ever - far faster than mere mishaps could explain.

"On some peaks, the container is empty. On others, the container is gone as well as the book," said Tina Bowman, mountain records chair of the Sierra Peak Section of the Angeles chapter of the Sierra Club.

Bowman is in charge of maintaining registers across more than 200 Sierra peaks. In a normal year, her biggest concern is getting new ledger books into register containers where old ones have filled up.

Recently that concern has been eclipsed by another: 19 books have been reporting missing this year alone, along with 10 containers. The oldest, lost from Mount Barnard, dated to 1936.

"The increase in missing ones is dramatic," said Steve Eckert, who runs the Web site www.climber.org. "But there is no pattern. It's not like they are disappearing from the seldom-climbed peaks. Or the most climbed peaks."

The first known summit register was placed on a Sierra summit in 1864 by geologist William Brewer. But it wasn't until the early 20th century, when the Sierra Club lured throngs to the mountains with its annual outings, called High Trips, that large numbers of signatures showed up on summits.

Part of the thrill of the six-week excursions was climbing peaks and signing registers. On popular peaks, they filled up fast, as club leader Richard Leonard discovered in 1930.

"When I ascended Mt. Conness, I found the register left by Ansel Adams in 1920 had been completely filled," Leonard wrote to a club secretary. On Mount Dana, "the register was going to pieces due to the efforts of people to find a place to write."

Leonard's solution represents one of the first clues for a summit register sleuth: send full and damaged register books to the club's San Francisco headquarters for safekeeping and replace them with new ones. Those records, pulled from a constellation of peaks, are lost from the mountains, but not from history. They now are housed at UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library.

Like journal entries, they not only reflect the nature of those who wrote them - they say something about the period in which they were recorded.

During the 1890s, for example, severe weather lashed the Sierra. Rivers thundered. Glaciers growled. "Thunderstorms in progress - and hail falling," says a register entry signed by Walter Starr Sr. and Allen Chickering on Mount Goddard in 1896. "We are on our way from Yosemite to Kings River, keeping as near the crest as possible."

In the 1930s, registers, like the economy, were lean. When legendary mountaineers David Brower, Norman Clyde and Hervey Voge reached the top of Devils Crag #5 in 1934, they left just seven to-the-point words. "Apparent first ascent, climbed from northwest notch."

Four decades later, concern for the environment swept the country and showed up in registers.

"Climb the mountains and get their good tidings," wrote one hiker on Mount Conness in 1974, quoting John Muir, and adding: "What would he think of the smog in the valleys to the east and west?"

The '70s also were a time when the thrill of climbing mingled with illicit recreational activities. "It's good to be high again," one Mount Conness entry reads. "Can you dig it?"

"Almost as intense as being busted at the Canadian border for LSD five days ago," another hiker wrote. "Almost as intense as LSD itself, for that matter."

Summit registers "are virtual Sierra history lessons," said climber Bob Burd, who this year discovered registers missing from four prominent peaks. "Coming across signatures dating back 50 years is far more interesting to me than the views."

Seventeen years ago, the discovery of a missing register in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park by two young climbers, Robin Ingraham Jr. and his friend Mark Hoffman, led to more registers being removed from the Sierra - and to tragedy.

Looking for a summit register on Midway Mountain, they instead found a note saying it had been stolen. The note was signed.

"I remember the names: Mark Farkel and Otis Jasper Russell. Whether those are aliases or not, I don't know," Ingraham said. "They called themselves the Purple Mountain Gang."

Angered, Ingraham took a picture of the note, which he keeps in his closet. He stores copies of other summit records in his garage.

"When we got back, we contacted the Sierra Club and they said, 'That's beyond our scope now. We're just an environmental organization.'

"We contacted the National Park Service and they said, 'Gee that's a bad thing but we're really stretched on funds. There's nothing we can do about it.'"

Undeterred, the two sought advice from early Sierra Club climbers who, Ingraham said, encouraged them to retrieve full or damaged registers. They formed a group - the Sierra Register Committee - to do just that.

Like old Sierra Club records, the committee's fresher finds can be viewed in the Bancroft Library's reading room, along with a set of strict rules. No pens allowed. Copies - 50 cents a page. Fragile records can only be scanned, for $30 a page. Visitors are searched as they leave.

One of the committee's discoveries - for "Peak 12,560+" - which rises above the Lyell Fork of the Merced River, is just a few scraps of worn, burned paper.

The first signature is famous: photographer Ansel Adams - July 10, 1924.

Ingraham recalled the thrill of rescuing that register. "It was in this little can," he said. "It had been hit by lightning. The thing was in terrible condition."

R.J. Secor, however, is not thrilled. The author of "The High Sierra: Peaks, Passes and Trails," Secor signed the same summit register in 1972.

"These two fellows came out of nowhere and took it upon themselves to remove these registers, for history, when the general view of most climbers is: 'Leave them up there forever,'" Secor said.

Although controversial, the activities of the Sierra Register Committee were short-lived.

In 1988, while Ingraham and Hoffman were looking for registers, a rockslide broke loose. Hoffman was killed. "I was with him; I saw the whole thing happen," Ingraham said. "I almost quit climbing at the time."

The committee officially disbanded in 1994, after sending at least 10 registers to the Bancroft.

Registers have not stopped vanishing from the mountains, however, and that's where the trail goes cold.

"People drop them," Eckert offered. "They are walking around on the peak and down the crack they go. I've personally fished out three from deep in cracks."

Many registers have disappeared from Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park and some climbers speculate that backcountry rangers there - perhaps viewing registers as incompatible with wilderness - might be removing them.

But park public affairs specialist Alexandra Picavet said that's not the case. Rangers "are surprised they are going missing," she said. "And there is no answer as to why."

Secor believes some are simply stolen. "It's a shame," he said. "Reading and signing summit registers is part of the history and ambiance of climbing peaks in the high Sierra."

Among the talus pile of theories, though, there is one solid, though slender, handhold. Of registers that have turned up missing in recent years, one - from Mount Langley, a popular 14,042-foot peak near Mount Whitney - has been found.

It resides at the Bancroft Library where someone donated it in 2002. Who was that someone?

Librarians can't say. "I'm not supposed to disclose donors," said Tanya Hollis, environmental collections archivist at the Bancroft. "We just don't do that as a matter of course."
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Joined: January 20th, 2004, 3:08 pm

October 26th, 2004, 3:55 am #2

NOT to open a can of worms, but to play devil's advocate...

From the 1964 Wilderness Act:

DEFINITION OF WILDERNESS

(c) A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. An area of wilderness is further defined to mean in this Act an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man's work substantially unnoticeable...

PROHIBITION OF CERTAIN USES

(c) Except as specifically provided for in this Act, and subject to existing private rights, there shall be...no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such area.
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Joined: January 21st, 2004, 3:15 pm

October 26th, 2004, 4:23 pm #3

I support the logic that USFS wilderness areas should not have the imprint of humans. Does this inlcude benchmarks too?

The logic behind keeping registers is that visitors tend to mark their ascent somehow (scratchings in rock, momentos left behind), and summit registers concentrate such personal testaments into a minimal area (tube). Also, registers provide a way of collecting data about visits.

In either case, visitors should not install or destroy registers without authority.
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Joined: January 20th, 2004, 9:10 pm

October 26th, 2004, 4:32 pm #4

...help aid in searches. If missing subject X has signed in then at least searchers know a last known location and can concentrate their efforts accordingly.

Similar arguments are made in removing cairns. If removing them causes more lost subjects then does this act of removal actually do more harm than good in the long term? If a cairn is redundant (i.e. a good trail is already there and the way is obvious) then maybe no. If the cairn is vital as a trail junction or somesuch then I leave this as an open question.
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