WILLIAM E. “SMOKE” BLANCHARD
It was a windy spring evening in the Owens Valley when James Wilson came striding toward me with that look, the “you never want to see” look, on his face. Smoke had been fatally injured in an automobile accident. Where? The Mojave Desert. When? Just coming home, via Los Angeles, from a holiday of rambling in the Italian Alps. It seemed that Smoke would always return from his far-flung travels to his little upstairs “treehouse” apartment on Willow Street in Bishop.
Smoke would return from one string of treks and expeditions only to prepare for yet another. During his hometown layovers, he would delight his many friends in the Eastern Sierra with truly wonderful tales of things he had seen and experienced on his travels through Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, China, India, Siberia, Kenya, Mexico, Canada, Alaska, Japan, Japan, Japan. During the past few years, Smoke had taken to living about half the time in Japan, walking and scrambling through the Japanese Alps. His visits to Bishop became less frequent and time spent with him became precious.
Many of the best times with Smoke were “Buttermilking,” scrambling often moderate fifth-class routes through the crags and boulder fields of the Buttermilk Country at the foot of the eastern escarpment of the Sierra Nevada. These outings were as intriguing as any wild overseas exploration because of Smoke’s unique way of sharing his deep appreciation of nature, his practice of “Picnic and Pilgrimage.” The stimulating combination of his intellectual observation and physical challenge, the enjoyment and pleasure of where you were, coupled with great respect and awe for the mountains and the wilderness, was tremendous.
Though Smoke was a best friend and frequent climbing partner of the late, legendary Norman Clyde and though he was a highly respected mountain guide, he steered clear of extreme alpinism or high-standard rock climbing, preferring what he termed “mild mountaineering.” His standard of climbing was mild. The technical standard of the routes he tackled was never beyond moderate fifth class, what he call “3.9” with a smile. He applied a minimalist’s equipment use and environmental impact ethic. During the early 1970s, while director of the Palisades School of Mountaineering, Smoke set a strong example and often gave stern lessons in respect for the wilderness, significantly influencing the climbing style and experience of hundreds of climbing students and dozens of mountain guides. His mild style by no means diminished the physical challenges he confronted. Rather than chase the numbers in the technical climbing game, Smoke sought the great glorious feeling of moving through the splendor of the mountains and being there.
When Smoke told his stories, they were not so much of the where and what he and his companions had just done, but what they had seen, felt, learned and experienced. Smoke was such an inspired story teller that he became a teacher without trying. He was such a good teacher that you didn’t know you were learning. It seemed like magic!
Though he had more than fifty years of climbing and world travel, not all of Smoke’s life was so keen. As a long-haul trucker, he drove more than three million miles, adding to time away from home. Smoke lived on the thin line of risk and adventure rather than with responsibility and family. As long as he could get to the hills, walk along, looking, seeing, listening, thinking, sharing these simple joys with friends, life was as good as it could be.