1947. The Lost Arrow

Publication Year: 2002.

1947. The Lost Arrow

Allen Steck

When Anton Nelson and John Salathé reached the summit of the Lost Arrow via the Arrow Chimney, they had just completed the most demanding climb yet in the brief history of Yosemite climbing. The ascent took five and a half days in early September 1947, and though agile climbers with modern gear can do the climb in far less time today, it is still one of the premier routes in the Valley.

Both Nelson and Salathé had been on the route several times prior to their ascent. Some of these were multiday attempts, and they had opportunity to work out many of the major problems facing them: the amount of water required, special equip ment needs including bolts and pitons, proper rations for hot, dry climbing, and more. One of the most important items of equipment—without which the climb certainly would not have succeeded—were the hard-steel pitons that Salathé had crafted. Salathé was born in Switzerland and trained early as a blacksmith. He eventually emigrated to Canada and then to California where he started his Peninsula Wrought Iron Works. He became interested in climbing sometime in 1945 on joining the Sierra Club Rock Climbing Section and soon became aware of the problems regarding soft iron pitons: they deformed easily when used on Yosemite granite and did not last long under repeated usage. He solved this problem by using steel from Model A Ford axles to make his own pitons; these could be used and reused as often as needed during an ascent. On one eight-hour pitch during his Lost Arrow climb, Salathé often had to hammer his pitons directly into rotten granite, which they penetrated without undue deformation. But this was not his only genius.

In August of 1946, with minimal climbing experience, he agreed to join some climbing friends at Yosemite Point to make an attempt on the Arrow Tip. Through a misunderstanding his friends did not arrive, and so Salathé decided to try it solo. He rappelled to the notch, and through the use of his special pitons and a bolt he succeeded in reaching a ledge some 100 feet below the top before retreating. Realizing that solo climbing is dangerous, he came back a week later with a friend, John Thune, to try again. Salathé climbed to his ledge and then Thune belayed him as he made his way up the discontinuous crack system leading to the summit. This effort took most of the day and when Salathé was just 40 feet from the top he called down to Thune to tell him he had reached the end of the crack system and that the drill was too dull to continue and besides it was getting dark. So they retreated. By virtue of his aid climbing skill Salathé had come within a few bolt holes of making the first ascent! A full year later he was back with Nelson to make the final ascent of the Lost Arrow.

Nelson’s seminal article about the climb in the 1948 Sierra Club Bulletin was groundbreaking in many ways. Not only does he discuss the matter of equipment at some length, he ponders the question of motivation in climbing, perhaps the first American author to do so: “One cannot climb at all unless he has sufficient urge to do so. Danger must be met—indeed it must be used—to an extent beyond that incurred in normal life.” In other ways, the climb was representative of a new era as it was the first big wall done with multiple bivouacs and hard steel pitons, and the first use of bolts for upward progress.