Brief History

A Brief History of the Sierra Peaks Section, 2001

By Bill Oliver, SPS Historian

Have you noticed - the Sierra Club was named for the Sierra Nevada! It was, indeed, one of the original purposes of the Club to protect and explore this "Range of Light," as John Muir referred to it. Beginning with the 1901 High Trip, with Muir in attendance, the Club conducted annual month-long excursions into various broad areas of the high Sierra. By the late '20s, the trips included a gnarly component of mountaineers eager to tackle hard peaks by tough routes. This contingent certainly included the legendary Norman Clyde, but also the likes of teenagers such as Jules Eichorn from the Bay Area and Glen Dawson from the Angeles Chapter.

A hundred years later, the Club is still actively involved in protecting, exploring and climbing in the Sierra - most notably through the efforts of our own Sierra Peaks Section. The Section was officially established following a unanimous vote of the Chapter ExComm in October 1955. Prior to this, during the '40s and early 50s there was comparatively scant Club mountaineering in the Sierra, although there continued to be National "knapsack" trips into it plus an occasional Rock Climbing Section outing to Yosemite, Whitney or the Sierra Palisades.

The Desert Peaks Section, founded in 1941, included the Sierra only incidentally, leading few outings into it. The folks who founded the SPS, who were also active in the DPS, recognized a strong desire to focus on the high Sierra, and set about to make it happen. Frank Sanborn, the first SPS Chair, worked for the Auto Club and had easy access to its map collection. The first draft of 100 peaks selected for the SPS peak list was drawn from among those named on the Auto Club maps of the Sierra. The list ranged from Matterhorn Peak in Yosemite to Owens Pk in Kern County. Before long, more detailed 15-min. topographic maps were utilized, and the first official list blossomed at 200 peaks.

Although some of the eighteen original "charter" members conducted Sierra climbs privately in 1954, the first official trip was a climb of Deer Mtn in the southern Sierra led by John Robinson and Frank Sanborn in May 1956. Emblem Status was conferred on those climbing the more notable "Emblem" peaks, a number that has been stable for quite awhile at fifteen. The first Emblem holder was Oliver Kehrlein, a renowned High Trip leader for whom the Sierra Club named its outings leadership award. Barbara Lilley in 1957 because the first person to earn Triple Emblem status with all three climbing sections: SPS, DPS and HPS. At the SPS annual banquet in 1989 honorary Emblem status was bestowed upon Eichorn and Dawson, the only prior recipient having been Norman Clyde in 1960.

An early controversy centered around the issue of tough peaks - whether to include on the List peaks whose easiest route was harder than easy 3rd class, which might require the use of a rope. The gnarlier contingent eventually carried the day, although the Section maintains a broad array of climbing opportunities suitable from beginner level through technical rock and snow ascents.

Never free of controversies, if only over the addition or deletion of peaks, the issue of peak registers was notable about 1990. Some members supported the Club's traditional role of maintaining registers on significant summits and preserving historic registers at its National office (but now at the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley). Others preferred that the registers always remain on the summit. Certainly the broad consensus in any event was to keep the old registers in place as long as possible, and the SPS continues its long-standing practice of maintaining registers on virtually all of its 247 listed peaks.

It is alleged that at its founding, no one expected to actually climb all the peaks on the list. Well, Andy Smatko, who wasn't a founding member, evidently felt differently as in 1964 he became the first to achieve the high status of List Finisher. He subsequently also became the first Triple List Finisher. There are now 56 SPS List Finishers and 24 Triple List Finishers. This September Dr. Smatko will be honored by the Sierra Club with its prestigious Francis P. Farquhar Mountaineering Award, last presented in 1994.

Technical trips anywhere in the Club involving the use of ropes or ice axes require special screening and approval at the National level. The Angeles Chapter ranks first among the four Chapters currently conducting such trips, as the SPS alone sponsors over half of all the Club's restricted trips. A tradition set in place almost from the Club's founding, adventuring in the Sierra Nevada, remains very much alive today through the efforts of the Sierra Peaks Section.

[The author gratefully acknowledges extensive historical material compiled and published by Ron Jones in the SPS newsletter, The Sierra Echo, and the climbing records maintained by Dan Richter, SPS Archivist.] 9/6/01 Per Ron Jones' research, the 18 original "charter members" of the SPS were:














Also joining in 1955 were:

Garver Light Chuck Gerckens Dick Kenyon

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