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Anton (Ax) Nelson, 1918-2001

Anton (Ax) Nelson 1918-2001

Ax Nelson passed away in Oakland, California on April 22,2001 at the age of 83. He was a giant of a man and strong as an ox. By trade he was a carpenter and builder of homes, and by avocation a dedicated humanitarian and a rock climber.

He started climbing at the age of 27 in the San Francisco Bay Area with the Sierra Club shortly after the end of WWII, and quickly graduated to the ranks of those willing and able to take on the most difficult challenges. When he lacked skill he made up for it in strength and determination.

Ax’s climbing career spanned only a few years, but two of his ascents left an indelible mark on Yosemite. He was on the team that made the first ascent of the Lost Arrow in 1946 (via a Tyrolean traverse achieved by throwing a rope across the spire) and was the second person to stand on its summit—the first being Jack Arnold and the third Fritz Lippman. Not content with that first ascent, he turned to the last unsolved problem of that era—the Lost Arrow Chimney (see page 24). Since the early 1930s, when technical rock climbers discovered Yosemite Valley, the Lost Arrow became the symbol of the impossible climb. On days when rain prevented climbing, the group that had climbed both the Higher and Lower Cathedral Spires would use binoculars to sweep the 1300 feet of its Chimney and to pick out a possible route.

Their route consisted of four distinctive sections. The first led to a ledge they named the First Error, the second to a ledge called the Second Error, the third to the notch which was the Third Error, and the fourth from the notch to the summit which was the Last Error. Those puns reflected their conviction that the climb was above their skill level. Despite that, Richard Leonard and David Brower made the first attempt and reached the First Error in 1937. In 1946 a later generation of climbers pushed some 120 feet higher. Still, until Ax Nelson set his sights on this goal in 1947, no one had made a serious attempt at the route.

Ax and John Salathe, spent four days in the Chimney and on the fifth day made the second ascent of the Lost Arrow’s spire and the first ascent from the base of its chimney. This feat ushered in the era of Yosemite climbing that knew no limits.

Ax Nelson last climbed in the Valley in 1948 and some years after that he put his humanitarian avocation to work full time. He set off for East Africa to work with the struggling Wameru coffee growers in Tanzania and in his spare time made the first complete traverse of Mt. Kilimanjaro.

I can’t complete this without sharing the following anecdote because it is Ax to the nth degree. In the late 1960s, I was at a function in Washington D.C., where I met and talked with someone from the World Bank who had served in Tanzania. I mentioned that Ax Nelson had been there at one time and asked whether he knew of him. He did, he had seen this mad giant of a white man running almost daily through the streets of Dar es Salaam in the heat of the day and, a victim of curiosity, stopped him one day. It was Ax and the Ax that all of us knew.

Robin Hansen, AAC