American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

David Ross Brower, 1912-2000

  • In Memoriam
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 2001



Cancer claimed David Brower on November 5. During October, in pain and knowing that only weeks were left, he could have gone quietly into the night. But no, he wanted all possible medical assistance until the very end, for he still had work to do. I imagine that even on his last day he was composing still another brilliant paragraph attacking those who are destroying our fragile planet.

Most of us today cannot imagine what Lake Tahoe looked like in the early 1920s, but Brower never forgot his numerous vacations there as a child. He could drink the lake’s water, walk the shoreline for miles without seeing a building. As he grew older he watched this beloved place change beyond recognition, especially after 1931, when gambling was legalized in Nevada and casinos and hotels began to mar the lakeshore. It’s never easy to see a favorite childhood place get ruined, but few do much about it. “Progress” is a powerful word—and most of us welcome its more subtle aspects. Brower couldn’t do much to save the Tahoe of his youth, but by 1952, as the first executive director of the Sierra Club, he was in a position to influence those who wielded power over much of the West. And did he ever.

The story of Brower’s rise to become the world’s pre-eminent conservationist of the last half of the twentieth century is perhaps not well known to American Alpine Club members, though his name has appeared on our rolls since 1946. His first battle concerned Colorado and Utah’s Dinosaur National Monument. The Bureau of Reclamation wanted to dam the Green River, which would have meant flooding two incomparable desert canyons. Brower was well aware, of course, of the damming of Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite, around the time he was born. John Muir had fought this battle and lost, but the times were different in 1954. Brower (and others, of course) won this one, and people who visit Dinosaur today should fall to their knees and offer thanks.

In the early 1960s he lost the next big fight and regretted it every day until his death. The Bureau wanted to dam the Grand Canyon, but, under pressure from Brower and numerous organizations, opted to dam the Colorado far upstream instead, outside the national park. This compromise led to Glen Canyon Dam and the unconscionable flooding of “the place no one knew,” the title of an Eliot Porter book Brower was soon to edit.

Brower went into high gear after this, and the provincial Sierra Club became a national force in the burgeoning conservation movement during the late 1960s, growing from 7,000 members to 75,000 during Brower’s reign. With a passion matched by few, he began publishing the famed “exhibit format” series, huge, beautiful photo books with eloquent texts. No expense was spared, and the Club’s directors became alarmed at Brower’s recklessness and arrogance. In 1969 he was forced to resign at a tumultuous board meeting. Did this humble him? Hardly. He soon founded the John Muir Institute, Friends of the Earth, and, later, still other organizations. He wrote brilliantly about the world’s plight, and continued his controversial ways until the end. Who will replace this giant?

Jack Turner’s excellent book Teewinot contains this interesting passage:

“I do not believe it is an accident that many leaders of modern conservation and bioregional movements—John Muir, David Brower, Arne Naess, George Sessions, Gary Snyder— have been mountaineers.” Turner goes on to say that the heights offer a unique perspective of the land, with man-made boundaries almost invisible and natural boundaries—vegetation, watersheds, geology—much more prominent. Turner continues: “Since what we see influences what we think, those who spend time on summits often disagree with those whose vision is more limited.”

David Brower stood many a time upon summits, and his keen eyes obviously took in the natural landscape. Yet early on he was famed for his climbing, not his efforts in conservation. A graceful, lanky youth, he first roped up in 1934, on his hometown rocks in Berkeley, Calif. A few months after he first touched rock, a confidential report prepared by the Sierra Club’s Technical Climbing Committee rated Brower’s climbing technique a 14 on a scale of 15. No one else was even close to his level of expertise. On the same chart, however, neophyte Brower scored 16 out of 30 for judgment, a rating probably agreed on by Club directors in the 1960s.

Brower was a master of delicate face climbing, and, since the pioneers of the 1930s sought out the lower-angled cliffs and avoided strenuous jam cracks, the lesser (but still huge and unknown) cliffs of Yosemite Valley were the perfect place for him. A person with great strength had no real advantage on such terrain; delicacy and finesse counted for much more. One of Brower’s climbing partners, Bruce Meyer, later described him as “fast, efficient, and graceful. He would bound over the talus blocks on the approach, not unlike a mountain goat. Climbing with him in those years was an emotional experience, and I can readily see where he gained his fervor in taking on environmental issues and challenges.”

He made 16 first ascents in the Valley between 1935 and 1942, a record that would stand until 1957. His finest achievement on rock came in 1939 with the first ascent of “the last great American climbing problem,” as the media termed Shiprock. This enormous volcanic formation in New Mexico had defeated many parties, but Brower and three other Californians, using specialized techniques learned in Yosemite, persevered and on their fourth day reached the lonely summit. Bestor Robinson, in an article about this ascent, said that Brower “seemed somehow to be able to move on slight discolorations of the rock. His long orangutan arms added to his normal height of six feet two made him valuable where holds were far apart.” The Yosemite pioneers weren’t only rock climbers. They had all started as backpackers and mountaineers and skiers. Brower, in fact, had hiked the length of the Sierra with a companion in 1933, a seven-week journey rather remarkable for a youth of 21. The next year he spent ten straight weeks in the range, and in his first published piece—called “Far from the Madding Mules” (1935)—he wondered if the mountains could ever bore him. “Could the Sierra offer only transitory enjoyment, merely a temporary escape?... By the time I reached Berkeley the answer was certain: This person was not coming home—he had just left it!”

Long hikes weren’t enough; rock climbing wasn’t enough. He craved more serious adventures and found one to his liking in 1935: Mt. Waddington, the unclimbed high point of British Columbia. Storms defeated this Sierra Club group, but now Brower had a new love, the world of snow and ice. Although cross-country skiing was in its infancy in the United States, Brower and a few equally tough companions managed several daring first winter ascents of remote Sierra peaks.

In the early 1940s came an adventure he would rather have avoided: fighting Germans in the mountains of Italy. Lieutenant Brower served in the famed 10th Mountain Division, putting to use his vast experiences in all phases of mountaineering. His 1946 article “Pursuit in the Alps” is a classic of war reportage (typically modest, he doesn’t mention his Bronze Star).

For a few years after the war—before he became the Sierra Club’s executive director— Brower worked at the University of California Press in Berkeley while raising four children with his wife, Anne. For nearly 50 years a small redwood house near the top of the Berkeley Hills was home to this talented family

I first met Brower when he made appearances at Sierra Club gatherings at the Berkeley rocks in the mid-1950s, and he once set me straight about which way the rappel rope should be wound around my scared and frail body. Later, when I brashly decided to write a guidebook to Yosemite Valley, he gave me every possible encouragement and often took the time to sit down with me in his San Francisco office and gently point out that I might be a decent climber but was certainly not yet a writer. He personally designed my 1964 guidebook, a collectors’ item now because of its looks, not its words. In 1966, when Allen Steck and I were thinking that the Sierra Club should devote an entire magazine to climbing, we feared the Club’s directors would veto the project. Brower came to Steck’s house one rainy night, had dinner, listened to our pleas, and sat through a slide show. He had been non-committal all evening, but as he put on his jacket to leave, he said: “Money’s no object and we’ll use duo-tone for the black-and-whites and do a color cover.” And so Ascent was born. That it never made a cent for the Club over many years was irrelevant: in his mind it was simply the right thing to do. This kind of vision earned him many friends, and if he went overboard at times in his conservation efforts, he stood always on the moral high ground.

A brilliant speaker and writer, Brower influenced thousands of young people. I remember a lecture in the mid-1950s when he talked about the beauty of the North Cascades—and its

famed dreary weather. “But what’s a little rain?” he asked. “It’s just water. It can’t hurt you. Your skin is waterproof.” To this day I walk proudly down a street in a drizzle, enjoying the drops on my head and feeling a little smug watching people cowering under umbrellas.

Brower invented some wonderful aphorisms in his long, rich life. “Population is pollution spelled inside out.” “When rampant growth happens in an individual, we call it cancer.” “We are going to fill San Francisco Bay so we can have another Los Angeles in a state that deserves only one.” Dams especially earned his wrath. He once created a full-page newspaper ad that screamed in bold type: “Should we also flood the Sistine Chapel so tourists can get nearer the ceiling?” In speeches came some of his favorite lines: “The Bureau of Reclamation engineers are like beavers; they can’t stand the sight of running water.” Or: “If you are against a dam, you are for a river.” And, finally, the visionary credo that he spoke of a thousand times, and one that everyone should listen to for all time: “Conservationists have to win again and again and again; the enemy only has to win once.”

Steve Roper

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