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The Stanford Alpine Club: Featuring the Photography of Tom Frost, Henry Kendall, and Leigh Ortenburger

The Stanford Alpine Club: Featuring the Photography of Tom Frost, Henry Kendall, and Leigh Ortenburger. John Rawlings. Foreword by Steve Roper. Photography editor Glen Denny. Stanford, California: CSLI Publications and the Stanford University Library Press, 2000. 193 pages. $49.95.

John Rawlings’ history of the Stanford Alpine Club offers readers an inspiring connection to the past. The large-format book details the rich history of the club by way of lively stories, revealing quotes, and an impressive collection of mountain photographs. Rawlings traces the origins of Stanford alpinism to the university’s first president, David Starr Jordan, who made an early ascent of the Matterhorn in 1881. Bolton Browne, a professor of drawing, recorded the most difficult climb of the day, soloing Mt. Clarence King in the High Sierra in 1896. The club itself was formed in the late 1940s by a few World War II veterans who adopted the motto, “No Guts, No Glory.”

From the beginning, women were active participants in the club, which functioned as a social engine as much as an athletic opportunity. In fact, “Fearless” Freddy Hubbard, an early female club member, believes the club to have begun as an offshoot of a hiking club organized by women in 1945. Climbers enjoyed day outings at local crags and pooled resources for weekend Yosemite trips. Steve Roper, in his foreword, calls the book “a testament to an era when young, enthusiastic college kids went out and had good fun in the mountains.” Among those enthusiasts were some of the most important climbers of the day. John Harlin mentored Henry Kendall, who taught Tom Frost the ropes. Nick Clinch and Jim Collins join others on the long list of climbers who honed their skills while at Stanford. Of the many achievements of this exceptional group, Henry Kendall’s 1990 Nobel Prize in physics may eclipse them all.

The book overflows with rich anecdotes, and Rawlings’ exhaustive research is evident throughout. Details of early fatal accidents are tempered by stories of buildering hijinx and creative tall tales. Each chapter in this well-constructed volume is enlivened by black-and-white photos. Additionally, portfolios representing the work of Leigh Ortenburger, Tom Frost, Henry Kendall, and others—keenly selected by photography editor Glen Denny—enhance the beauty of the book. Ortenburger’s pictures, taken exclusively from his Peru collection, offer a remarkable look at the Cordillera Blanca. Frost’s group includes a healthy number of El Capitan shots that document big wall climbing in its infancy.

By the early 1980s, the club had petered out. Why this happened it difficult to say. Rawlings quotes former club president Roger Gocking, who plausibly surmised that the steep rise in climbing standards may have had something to do with it. Instead of joining group outings where new climbers were taught to belay, serious climbers were doing harder and harder climbs with accomplished partners; achievement may have displaced camaraderie as a primary motive among a new generation of climbers.

The Stanford Alpine Club deserves a place in the pantheon of elite university mountain clubs. Though it began much later than the better-known clubs in the east, the Stanford version spanned a critical period in the development of the sport. This book further illuminates that golden age of American climbing, and historians will want it for their collections. Other climbers and mountain photography buffs will also admire the book, although the hefty price tag may discourage some potential buyers.

David Reid