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Special Collections & University Archives

No Guts, No Glory: A History of the Stanford Alpine Club

Great Chimney, Washington Column Direct Route. Photograph by Henry Kendall, 1958. Copyright ©2000 Estate of Henry Kendall.
  • The new Stanford Alpine Club
  • No Guts, No Glory: An Exhibition of the History of the Stanford Alpine Club. Bing Wing of Green Library, May 13 to August 15, 2000. Club founder Alfred Baxter's sermon to the faithful upon the opening of the exhibit. (Al Baxter memorial)
  • The Stanford Alpine Club, featuring the photography of Tom Frost, Henry Kendall, and Leigh Ortenburger, by John Rawlings. Photography editor Glen Denny. Stanford: CSLI Publications/Stanford University Libraries, 2000. 178 duotone and halftone photographs and illustrations, 208 pages, $49.95. 1,000 copies printed. Order Information. There is a discount ($32 plus tax and shipping) for members of the Stanford Historical Society, the Library Associates, and the Stanford Alpine Club.
  • QuickTime movie 4:45 minutes (12,859 KB), SAC film festival trailer (13 May 2000). The complete video El Capitan by Fred Padula, Climbing photographer Glen Denny, is available from Chessler Books.
  • From the SAC Archive: Freedom of the Quad, 2nd ed. 1971 | The Stanford Alpine Club Journal 19551958
  • Ordeal by Piton: Writing from the Golden Age of Yosemite Climbing. Steve Roper, Ed. Stanford: Stanford University Libraries, 2003. Order from or your local bookseller. Booksellers contact

1 / No Guts, No Glory

"I kept seeing rocks in my mind for days afterwards. I was just stunned and thrilled." --Meredith Ellis, climbing an overhang, Yosemite, 1962. Copyright ©2000 Wally Reed. Meredith Ellis Collection.

The Stanford Alpine Club was one of America's prominent college climbing clubs. Its identity was forged in the crucible of Yosemite Valley's smooth, steep granite. Members made important contributions to the development of modern Yosemite rockclimbing technique and helped carry the lessons learned to the world's great ranges. Coeducational membership was another factor distinguishing the SAC from the longer-established and better-known eastern clubs, and a tradition of "manless climbing" dated from the club's 1946 inaugural year.

In the foreword to The Stanford Alpine Club, climbing historian Steve Roper writes "Nothing lasts forever, and for various reasons, the Stanford Alpine Club no longer exists. But nostalgia persists, and the story of this remarkable organization begged to be told. [It] is a testament to an era when young, enthusiastic college kids simply went out and had good fun in the mountains. Look at these rare, often exquisite, photos. Ponder the Pleistocene equipment and clothing we old-timers once were so proud of. . . . You'll be transported back to an innocent time."

2/ The First Stanford Climbers

When Stanford Alpine Club members occasionally paused from conversations of recent accomplishments and future plans and reflected on Stanford's mountaineering heritage, they contemplated a noble tradition stretching back through a web of connections involving Sierra Club climbers and its Rock Climbing Section, the legendary alumnus Walter Starr Jr., '24, Professor Bolton Coit Brown and his wife Lucy Fletcher Brown--all the way to the beginning of the university in the person of its first president, David Starr Jordan.

left: Freddy Hubbard demonstrates how to avoid curfew restrictions by rappelling from a Roble Hall window, 1947. Winifred Brown Collection. The new club drew some of its membership from the student hiking club that Cynthia Cummings, Freddy Hubbard, and three other Colorado friends had formed in 1945. Climbing, however, was what the coeds desired.

3 / Founders

At Stanford the existence of the Alpine Club is as precarious as it is precious: The club exists in terms of a nucleus of avid climbers, sentimental enough to want to express their esprit in objective, institutional form, and proud enough to desire independence of the Sierra Club. But the Alpine Club has not always existed at Stanford; it was founded and has flourished in peculiar times, and how long the club can survive will always be problematic.

--Dave Harrah, 1951

Through the summer of 1946, Larry Taylor worked on plans to form a climbing club at Stanford when he returned for graduate work in civil engineering. Then in August he chanced upon Al Baxter buying hobnails in the campus shoe shop, giving himself away as a mountain climber. "Though he had never done any roped climbing," wrote Taylor, "Al was at once enthusiastic about my plan; indeed it was his enthusiasm which had a great deal to do with the actual carrying out of the idea." The third founding member, Fritz Lippmann, the only experienced climber of the group, Taylor had met during Sierra Club Rock Climbing Section outings.

below left: Some of the members of the Stanford Alpine Club in its first year. Stanford Quad, 1947. 
first row, left to right: G. Schoder, R. Gates, R. Hines, D. Meyer, A. Baxter, F. Lippmann, L. Taylor, C. Cummings, W. Bedford, A. Cheney, M. Coolidge. 
second row: M. J. Fiksdal, W. R. Kane, M. Palmquist, L. Wing, P. Kaufmann, M. Thomas, F. Hubbard, V. Bengal, S. Marsden, E. Seaman, C.B. Forster. 
back row: L. Ames, E. Ornitz, W. Kissell, C. Feldman, K. Campbell, J. Cumming, J. Hood, E. Irvine, W. Gorton, S. Hall, N. Hamilton, K. Hutchinson.

5/ Lippmann, Harrah & Lindbergh

The personal connections and corporate traditions that bound one class to another became the SAC's strength. One such connection was between founder Fritz Lippmann and Dave Harrah, and then between Harrah and members who would become club leaders into the 1950s, including Jon Lindbergh and Nick Clinch. Lindbergh, Clinch, Dwight Crowder, Sherman Lehman, and Rowland Tabor were examples of the club's ability to attract, train, and retain a nucleus of leaders that would guide it through the fifties in the form established by the founders, strengthened by Harrah, and carried on by a cadre of new club presidents with a shared vision and commitment to the club.

right: Dave Harrah preparing to rappel from the roof of Encina Hall in 1948. Copyright ©2000 Dave Harrah.

7 / Hidden Peak

Approaching Hidden Peak. Copyright ©2000 by Bob Swift.

In his book A Walk in the Sky, Nick Clinch told how while sitting twenty-eight days in a storm-bound tent in the mountains of British Columbia, clutching tent poles to prevent them from breaking, morosely contemplating the lowering white veil of the first of several blizzards that would plague the forty-day duration of the 1954 Stanford Coast Range Expedition, he formed the conviction that he and his fellow SAC climbers could actually succeed on an 8,000-meter peak. "Surely the Himalaya could not be worse than this," Clinch mused. "Why not go there?" "That was my great insight," he reflected. "And I was proved right." Clinch and his comrades would be the only Americans to do a first ascent of an 8,000-meter peak.

Fanshawe and Venables wrote about Hidden Peak in Himalaya Alpine-Style:

Nick Clinch led the successful 1958 American Expedition. His team, with the exception of Pete Schoening who had climbed on K2, was made up of old friends with relatively little altitude experience. . . . Clinch himself did not reach the summit of Hidden Peak but masterminded the first ascent, two years later, of Masherbrum and was a member of that expedition's second successful summit party. His contribution to American mountaineering is thus profound, though he was never to gain the same acclaim as his countrymen who were to climb Everest and K2 in the following decades.

8 / Coed Climbers

Women climbers had distinguished themselves beginning in the club's first year when Mary Sherrill and Freddy Hubbard became the third and fourth women to climb to the top of Higher Cathedral Spire in Yosemite Valley. Later Hubbard made the first ascent by a woman of the Washington Column Direct Route. The club's tradition of "manless" climbing dated from 1947. In 1952 Jane Noble, Mary Kay Pottinger, Gail Fleming, and Bea Vogel made ascents of Mt. Moran, the North Ridge of Middle Teton, and the Southwest Ridge of Symmetry Spire. In 1965 Irene Beardsley and Sue Swedlund made the first all-woman climb of the awesome North Face of the Grand Teton, the most famous north face in the United States. Climbing historian Chris Jones called that adventure "probably the most arduous all-woman ascent then made in North America," and Beardsley "one of America's best women climbers."

Freddy Hubbard and her Roble Hall companions were not merely beneficiaries of the new club's coed-friendly attitude. Experienced mountaineers all, they were important contributors to the SAC's success.

right: Su Wheatland belays Bea Vogel on the Monolith, Pinnacles National Monument, 1952. Copyright ©2000 by Richard Irvin.

12 / Harlin & Frost


John Harlin atop the Aiguille du Fou after the first ascent of its south face, 1963. Copyright ©2000 by Tom Frost.

Throughout the 1957/58 school year Mike Roberts, Lennie Lamb, Henry Kendall, Dave Sowles, and Gil Roberts were working on their contributions to a new edition of the Stanford Alpine Club Journal. Gil Roberts, back from his summer first ascent of Mt. Logan's East Ridge, was also planning to join Nick Clinch's 1958 American Karakoram Expedition to Gasherbrum I.

In addition to the challenge of the great Himalayan peaks, a second test of American mountaineering beckoned. The most severe routes of the Alps, including the Walker Spur of the Grandes Jorasses and the Eigerwand, awaited American ascents, as did major lines and faces yet unclimbed. Club members were learning skills and forging relationships that would help them accomplish these mountaineering goals. John Harlin and Gary Hemming would lead the way in a breakthrough for Americans climbing in the European Alps. Kendall joined Hemming on the Walker Spur of the Grandes Jorasses, the first American ascent of that classic climb, "a route to dream of, perhaps the finest in existence." Frost joined them on some of their greatest first ascents: the South Face of the Fou and the Hidden Pillar of Fréney. These adventures on great mountains had their beginnings in small places, on Sunday outings to Miraloma Rock and Hunter's Hill, with the Stanford Alpine Club. 

Tom Frost bivouacking in his net hammock, Dihedral Wall, El Capitan, 1964. Copyright ©2000 by Royal Robbins.

Tom Frost grew up in southern california and became a national champion in sailing as a teenager. At Stanford he majored in engineering, rowed crew, and kept on looking for what he called "the real thing." He found it after meeting SAC members and seeing Henry Kendall's photographs. He joined the club in 1957, rising quickly to the front rank of American climbers.

In 1960 he was invited to join the team attempting the first continuous ascent of El Capitan. Frost knew nothing of photography but recognized the visual potential. Bill "Dolt" Feuerer had been on that wall and offered his camera to Frost, along with instructions on how to use it. The historic ascent took seven days, and Frost's innate visual talent was revealed on six rolls of Plus-X film.

On his El Cap ascents in the 1960s Frost used a Leica IIC 35-mm camera with a collapsible 50-mm 3.5 Elmar lens. In less daunting places he used a 4x5 view camera and tripod, for which he built a carrying case that attached to a Kelty pack frame. But climbing still came before photography, Frost said; and on his major ascents, where survival itself was often in question, he carried the smaller instrument. In Big Walls: Breakthroughs on the Free-Climbing Frontier (Sierra Club Books, 1997), Paul Piana wrote that Frost "more than any other climber conveyed what it felt like to dangle thousands of feet off the ground. Tom Frost's beautiful black-and-white photos are still among the finest and most inspirational examples of climbing photography."

Glen Denny said of Frost: "Most of the climbing photos you see now are prearranged setups for the camera on much-traveled routes. The impressive thing about Frost is that his classic images were seen, and photographed, during major first ascents. In those awesome situations he led, cleaned, hauled, day after day and--somehow--used his camera with the acuity of a Cartier-Bresson strolling about a piazza. Extremes of heat and cold, storm and high altitude, fear and exhaustion . . . it didn't matter. He didn't seem to feel the pressure."


Leigh Ortenburger & Irene Beardsley

Ortenburger during SAC practice climb, Pine Valley, Mt. Diablo, 1952. Copyright ©2000 Richard Irvin.

Leigh Ortenburger's connection with the Stanford Alpine Club extended over some thirty years. Bob Brooke described him as the holder of a long-time record for non-dues-paying participation in Stanford activities. He had not been a Stanford undergraduate, nor had he learned to climb in the club. He was already a Teton guide when he first climbed with Clinch, John Mowat, and Dick Irvin in the Tetons in 1951. Ortenburger's SAC connection developed when he came out to Berkeley for graduate school in the fall of that year, climbing with the same trio in Yosemite Valley. He shared apartments with Al Baxter and later Dick Irvin, attending practice climbs, parties, and dating Stanford coed climbers. He married Irene Beardsley in 1956. Gil Roberts told of his influence in the early fifties:

He was a couple of years older and he was very experienced. He'd been to Peru and he'd done new routes in the Tetons. So he certainly was one of the guys that was setting the pace on club trips. . . . Leigh was an excellent climber and everybody respected him.

In the sixties Ortenburger earned a master's degree from Stanford and did course work for a Ph.D. Throughout the sixties and seventies he sometimes attended club meetings and climbed with Stanford climbers. Probably no other person had such a long-term connection with the club. Leigh Ortenburger Photographer.

Irene (Beardsley) Ortenburger on the first ascent of Irene's Arête, Disappointment Peak, Grand Teton National Park, July 1957. This climb on a beautiful knife-edge ridge is one of the most popular of the difficult rock climbs in the Tetons. Copyright ©2000 by John Dietschy. 

In the summer of 1952, while still in high school, Irene Beardsley traveled with her parents by car west to Stanford from her Washington, D.C. home. Viewing the eastern escarpment of Wyoming's Teton mountains, jutting six thousand feet above Jackson Hole, she knew that people climbed those imposing rock and snow summits. She was intrigued. She was also occupied just then by other dreams. She wanted to study physics:

My mother wanted me to go to Mills, but I wanted to go to Stanford. It was just something I decided to do because of their reputation in physics. And I got interested in the SAC because when I was in my freshman year I looked around for various social activities and didn't find any that fit. I remember an embarrassing interview when I tried out for some kind of political sort of thing; I wasn't the right type, and they told me so. I next saw an advertisement in the Daily for the Alpine Club, and I went to a practice climb at Miraloma Park in San Francisco. I wasn't very good.

While becoming the fourth woman to earn a Ph.D. in physics from Stanford in 1965, she made hundreds of ascents beginning in the 1950s, including notable firsts as the 1965 first all-woman climb of the North Face of the Grand Teton, the most famous north face in the United States, and the 1978 first American ascent of Annapurna (26,545 ft).


Hard Rock: The Sixties


Chuck Kroger, Dihedral Wall, El Capitan, 1969. Copyright ©2000 by Scott Davis.  

The SAC continued throughout the sixties in a form that would have been recognizable and familiar to all earlier members, albeit the overall membership was smaller than in many earlier periods, no more than 15-20 members. The change in Yosemite sign-out rules in the mid-sixties, along with the growing number of climbers, development of commercial climbing schools, production of guidebooks, and availability and relative affordability of climbing equipment contributed to a situation where many Stanford climbers were pursuing their goals independently.

Judy Lovelace climbing at Mickey's Beach, Highway 1 south of Stinson Beach, 1962. Judy and Dave Boore Collection.

Sixties outings sounded pretty much like old times: Belay practice was held in the San Francisquito creek bed near the shopping center and Children's Hospital--as it had been since 1950--at the beginning of fall quarter and sometimes spring quarter as well. It was still required of members who aspired to climb in Yosemite. The raising through a pulley and dropping of a hundred-pound block of concrete, testing the technique of well-anchored and padded belayers, presented an entertaining spectacle. "Belay practice was always a jolly event which attracted a fairly large crowd of both participants and spectators," Russ Van Dyke, president in 1969/70 and 1970/71, recalled. The principal social events were beach trips and club parties, still called Bergsteiger balls through the mid-sixties. Folk dancing and sing-alongs were regular activities at the latter. One-third of the active members were women. Meetings, held several times a quarter, sometimes included slide shows by members or guests and were the forum at which club outings were planned, including Yosemite trips, which were made at least four times during the fall and spring quarters.

"The Yosemite trips were obviously the high point of my experience with the alpine club," Van Dyke wrote. His first Yosemite trip was the traditional fall Tuolumne Meadows trip. His group climbed the classic Southeast Buttress of Cathedral Peak, "pitch after pitch of great rock and beautiful views." With a number of beginners on the climb, including himself, it took longer than planned. "As with many SAC climbs to follow, I recall hiking down to the campground late at night by flashlight," he wrote. Late returns were a constant of SAC history. Chuck Kroger, president 1968/69, was also familiar with the phenomenon:

One thing I remember about the club's Yosemite trips is the number of near disasters. There would be a group doing an unplanned bivouac on one side of the Valley and another group on the other. Someone else would have a harness come loose or rappel anchor slip. Everybody else is sitting in Camp 4 drinking red wine and worrying about the other club members out there bivouacking. Finally we would go out to the base of, say, Lower Brother and yell up, shout and shout and shout. We might see a little light in the talus where a party was crawling out to the road or, maybe, it was their campfire burning. There was a real worry but there was also sort of a cavalier attitude expressed at times.

Davis and Kroger

Scott Davis, first ascent of the Heart Route, El Capitan, 1970. Copyright ©2000 by Scott Davis and Chuck Kroger.

In 1969 Chuck Kroger, SAC president 1968/69, became the first person to climb four routes on El Capitan in a single season, including the third ascent of the menacing North America Wall, widely considered the most difficult rock climb in the world. Scott Davis, '70, joined Kroger on three of those climbs: the NA, West Buttress, and Dihedral Wall. Kroger and Davis, two of the finest big-wall climbers in the country, capped their El Cap tour de force with the first ascent of the Heart Route in April 1970.

Davis was a foreshadowing of the club's future. "I sort of thought I was a member," he concluded some thirty years later, though on another occasion he conceded that he may not have been an official member. "The 1960s were pretty informal," he added. Davis participated in club activities and regularly climbed with club members, especially with Kroger, who counted Davis among the SAC ranks. Another example of the amorphousness of the situation in the late sixties and the seventies was Walt Vennum, a geology graduate student from 1966 to 1971. During his Stanford years he made first ascents in Alaska and the Sierra Nevada, and listed himself in published climbing notes as "unaffiliated." "I don't think I was officially a member of the SAC," Vennum said. "I climbed with a lot of people who were in the club. It was a pretty fluid situation."


By the end of the sixties membership was becoming "a pretty fluid situation." Greg Donalsdson (far left) and Walt Vennum in Yosemite. Copyright ©2000 by Greg Donaldson.


Freedom of the Quad


Jim Collins, sporting his distinctive leather cap, shorts, tube socks, and EB rock shoes, was a familiar campus sight in the late 1970s, cruising the back wall of Building 260 or the Art Gallery. Collins, an applied math major, never had so much to do that he wouldn't take time out of his regimen to encourage and advise another wall climber. "The University is the ideal place for practicing rockclimbing by way of buildering--the art of climbing walls," Collins told a Stanford Daily interviewer in 1979. "The sandstone blocks are ideal for climbing, though extremely difficult. In fact, the most difficult rockclimbing challenge in the world is in the Quad."

Buildering flourished on campus from the club's beginning in 1946: roofs were scaled and rappelled from, walls were traversed, and Freddy Hubbard rappelled out of her Roble Hall second-floor dorm window in order to make a pre-morning-curfew start for the crags. What distinguished the Stanford's post-War buildering history from earlier times was the application of climbing technique and technical rope work to the local problems.

Jim Collins training in the Quad. Stanford Daily, February 22, 1978. Photographs by Luke Erdoes.

The '70s and '80s


Roger Gocking, 1972. Copyright ©2000 by Brian Cox.

All the causes and effects of forces shaping club history and society at large in the sixties intensified in the seventies. Roger Gocking, Darien Hopkins, Jim Collins, Rob Bracken, Greg Larson and other club officers each attempted to make the club relevant, and different solutions were tried. Despite their efforts club activities lapsed during 1975/76 and a few years later in 1980/81. Resurrected once again, it disappeared after the 1982/83 school year. Gocking described the Stanford climbing scene in the early seventies:

The club had played several roles. One was it provided a basic introduction to rockclimbing, and it helped to provide the logistics for climbing. People would pool their cars, equipment, and all those sorts of things. And then too, it was something of a social club. People met one another. I remember talking to Leigh Ortenburger about this, and his observation was that a lot of people got married as a result. When I was president that role was beginning to change. The better climbers didn't feel the need to belong. They were off doing their own things. Climbing levels continued to rise. There was a big gap between club-type activities and what many people were themselves climbing. I think that people who were serious didn't want to be involved in something like a climbing club, which didn't really cater to what they were doing.

Greg Larson, 1982.

The End: Greg Larson, Tresidder Union recreation manager, championed student voluntary outdoor groups in general and the SAC in particular, which he and Steve D'Hondt reestablished in 1981. Having been inspired to try out rockclimbing by a Jim Collins presentation, and having learned to climb with the SAC, Larson fondly remembered the trip-taking and camaraderie. Larson and D'Hondt rejuvenated the SAC to fill the need for rockclimbing instruction. Larson took the title of coordinator. They organized ten instructional climbs at local outcrops that year, along with the showing of climbing films and a presentation by Jim Collins. After Larson's departure, D'Hondt took over as club coordinator for 1982/83, repeating the previous year's pattern of activities. The club, however, disappeared during the next school year.

Henry Kendall

Two kinds of exposure
Illustrate the intimate relationship
Between the climber and his route.
Henry Kendall, "Climber's Camera," Sierra Club Bulletin, 1962.


Henry Kendall, Cordillera Blanca, 1964. Copyright ©2000 Tom Frost.

Henry Kendall began photographing as a teenager in New England. Already an experienced diver, he began taking underwater stills and movies in the Florida Keys, coauthoring a book on the subject. He came to Stanford in 1956 to do advanced research in physics, joined the SAC, and began to climb.

In Yosemite Kendall saw that the magnificent visual situations encountered could best be captured with a small camera carried on the body--not in the pack--and used as the action unfolded, pitch by pitch. He chose a folding Kodak Retina II 35-mm camera, using fine-grained, ASA 32, Panatomic-X film. Kendall wrote that a camera "is one of the last pieces of nonessential equipment to be discarded in preparation for a difficult ascent. In one way, however, a camera is an essential piece of equipment because, beyond tenuous memory, photography is the only means by which the climber can relive and reenjoy the qualities of an ascent."

In the Cordillera Blanca, Leigh Ortenburger encouraged him to use a 4x5 camera. Kendall was inspired by the possibilities of the larger format, especially for landscapes.

"One of his great photos was of me nailing a roof he had spotted up near the Overhang Bypass" --Tom Frost, shown during the first ascent of The Roof, Lower Cathedral Rock, Yosemite, 1958. Copyright ©2000 by the Estate of Henry Kendall.  

Awarded the Nobel Prize for physics in 1990, Kendall made the following comments, published in the Nobel Prize Annual:

I like to go in the mountains to places no one has been before. The world is an astonishingly beautiful place. It's beautiful at the deep level of physics, way down inside things. What we know of the universe that's visible to us is also of astonishing beauty, and I like to see that and explore it. That's why I take photographs.

Kendall was Tom Frost's mentor at Stanford. Frost described their relationship with the exact words Kendall used for Harlin, "He took me under his wing and taught me how to climb." And Kendall took photographs. "He would give me a print of the odd photograph of us climbing together," Frost recalled. "One of his great photos was of me nailing a roof he had spotted up near the Overhang Bypass." Frost also credited Kendall with his branching out from Yosemite Valley to the great peaks of the Andes and Himalaya.

Richard Blankenbecler, a physics graduate student and member, also admired Kendall and Kendall's roommate Hobey DeStaebler because they set a high standard for the club--a standard not only of climbing difficulty, but also of safety and camaraderie. Blankenbecler elaborated:

Henry knew what he wanted, but it wasn't in his nature to achieve something at some other person's expense. He taught me that while climbing was no mere game, it ought to be fun. And while there's competition, it need not be outright competition. You climb with a partner and there's a fellowship there. That was at the essence of the activity.

Steve Roper remembered as a teenager meeting Kendall:

One afternoon in late 1956, in Pinnacles National Monument, a young man with a square jaw saw me gazing longingly up at a towering crag called North Finger. He had just rappelled from its summit and was coiling a rope. Incredibly, he asked me, a fifteen-year-old kid, if I wanted to do it. I jumped up and shyly told him that my elders didn't think I was ready for it. He laughed and began uncoiling his rope. And so I met quiet Henry Kendall, just arrived at Stanford and quite pleased to have encountered our group. Fifteen minutes later we were shaking hands on the summit, watching the rest of our small band scurry down the trail in the waning light. I never saw Henry again, but every time I encountered his illustrious name in the next four decades I recalled his generosity.

Henry Kendall died in a diving accident in 1999.

Huandoy Group from the slopes of Huascarán Norte, 1964. Copyright ©2000 Estate of Henry Kendall.