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Thieves on the tops of mountains

August 8, 2011

The original summit register atop Norman Clyde Peak west of Big Pine was removed and a new one replaced by the Sierra Register Committee, or SRC. Although now disbanded, the SRC charged itself with removing and archiving registers in the spirit of Sierra Nevada pioneers such as Clyde himself, after the registers began disappearing. Photo courtesy of Sierra Peaks Section of the Sierra Club

There are small notebooks, or sometimes just a few bits of paper, and a writing utensil, stuffed into a can or box of some sort at the highest point of nearly every mountain in the Sierra Nevada and beyond. These summit registers are a record of the peak’s visitors, considered historical documents by some.
Unfortunately, the registers have become a target for thieves.
Registers vary from large wedding reception-sized books collecting hundreds of signatures, sometimes daily, as on Mount Whitney, to a small jar on a remote high point opened but once a year, or decade. Registers have signatures and dates; sometimes times and route descriptions; some have inspirational messages, poems and doodles; some describe how climbs are made in honor of others. The registers can also aid in search and rescue operations.
Some of the registers were placed by early Sierra Nevada explorers such as Joseph LeConte and Bolton Coit Brown in the late 1800s. More were placed by the Sierra Club in the 1890s when John Muir was the organization’s president.
Some were placed by legendary American mountaineers Norman Clyde, Jules Eichorn and Glen Dawson in the first half of the 20th century.
The summit registers are disappearing. Some have been taken and archived, but many have simply vanished. A founder of the Sierra Register Committee, Robin Ingraham, estimated that in 2008 there were 30-40 registers unaccounted for. The latest victim is the register on the remote Black Kaweah taken this season.
Some registers have been removed as “trash,” according to self-proclaimed purists on Internet social sites.
Still others have spoken out that the registers belong on the summits. The rhetoric and reasons are the varying points of view are just as sharp and wide as the mountains themselves.
Inyo County Museum Director Jon Klusmire said the registers are “historical documents that should be preserved.”
Local climbing guide and co-owner of Sierra Mountain Center SP Parker said he’d rather see the registers on the summits than left to obscurity in a museum basement hundreds of miles from the peak.

Sierra Register Committee

The Sierra Register Committee was an independent group that claimed to be carrying out the tradition of those early mountain pioneers.
Ingraham and his late climbing partner, Mark Hoffman, started the SRC in 1988 after being discouraged at finding empty registers and the lack of interest in preserving the registers or prosecuting of the thieves.
Ingraham chronicles the founding of the SRC and a full biography of registers in his manuscript, “Ghosts in the Clouds: History of Mountaineering Registers in the Sierra Nevada.”
Ingraham and Hoffman met with many of the early mountaineering pioneers, including Eichorn, Dawson, Hervey Voge, Dick Leonard, and Marge Farquhar. The two also met with David Brower, former Sierra Club executive director and founder of multiple environmental organizations. Brower was evidently instrumental in not only encouraging the two to found the SRC, but also helping to organize register removal criteria.
Ingraham writes of Brower, “His urging was underpinned with the statement, ‘If you guys are truly upset about this, you’ll do something about it instead of making a bunch of noise. The world is full of noise makers, but short on activists.”’
The SRC entered into a memorandum of understanding with Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks and verbal agreements with Yosemite rangers for the register preservation program.
The removal criteria was one of a six-part program for registers. Part one is, “Register removal criteria, formed by David Brower. Remove historic registers which are either full or in peril of loss caused by the weather and elements. In peril of loss is generally a condition of badly damaged, but can pertain to a published location of a significantly old register. Registers removed for preservation are to be placed in the Sierra Club Archives since this was the Club’s long standing tradition stemming from the turn of the 20th century under John Muir and his fellow explorers. The current location for the archives is UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library.”
Registers were also to be upgraded, new cards placed within about the SRC program, and registers were also to be anchored to rock to prevent further theft.
Those removing registers were also instructed to “place photocopies of historic registers on the summits from which they came.”
In “History” Ingraham writes, “The Sierra Register Committee did not invent anything new, but rather implemented the policies and practices of the early Sierra Club.”
The Bancroft list of “mountain registers mainly from California summits of the Sierra Nevada,” stored in 21 cartons, is 696 lines long.
The SRC was disbanded in 1994 following the death of Hoffman and a rift the program had caused between many climbers and groups. Much of this controversy continues today. Ingraham declined to specify how many registers the SRC recovered or replaced with photocopies.

Black Kaweah

Following the publicized theft of the Black Kaweah register earlier this year, comments varied widely on climbing social sites and forums on the Internet.
Comments from a climber from Bishop on Supertopo.com said, “Good all those registars (sic) are considered litter and crap anyway … in my book. Take only pictures leave only footprints kill nothing but time.”
Another comment: “These things are not historical artifacts. They have little meaning to those who have not climbed the requisite formation.”
The register, believed to have been taken sometime in 2010, contained the signature of Walter A. Starr, Jr., in his own blood. Starr, Jr. spent his short lifetime in the Sierra Nevada and was one of the first cartographers of the region. From his notes, one of the first guides to the area, “Starr’s Guide to the John Muir Trail and the High Sierra Region” was published posthumously. Starr, Jr. would perish in the Minarets in 1933. The search party found his signature in a summit register, which helped narrow down the search area.

Stolen art

Followed by the Black Kaweah register, one of the oldest known registers sat atop the obscure Mt. Woodworth. It was made public in 2008 that a climber, local Claude Fiddler, had removed the register and taken it to Bancroft.
This also sparked controversy on the Internet. Vitality M, of San Francisco, wrote on Supertopo.com, “What gives you the right to take the register away from the mountain? Every time I climb a peak I want to sign or at least see the original register. It is like a sweet pay off for the work that has been done. I give a sh#t less to go to a library to look at it.”
The Sierra Peaks Section of the Sierra Club has official bylaws on registers and a differing stance toward removing them.
The SPS’ Mountain Records chair, Harry Langenbacher, who is charged with register duties, provided a copy of the chapter’s bylaws. The bylaws state that the chair maintains the registers, keeps a record of their condition and replaces old and missing ones.
Northern California SPS Representative Daryn Dodge said his chapter does not condone the actions of Ingraham.
“The SPS would rather see the registers on the summit,” Dodge said.
Still others, like those quoted from Supertopo.com, believe that the registers are a blight on the mountain. Dodge called them “self-appointed keepers of the mountain.”
The Sierra Club Outings and Outdoor Recreation Director Jason Halal of the Sierra Club headquarters in San Francisco said the club has no policy on summit registers. He added that area chapters, operating semi-autonomously, are usually the most informed and are policymakers for local concerns.
Dan Richter, archivist for the SPS and mountaineering instructor, said that he has seen an explosion of interest in climbing in the last two decades. He said that peaks that were climbed only once a year or two are now seeing several ascents a year.
He said the new interest also brings with it those lacking ethics, or simple knowledge that what they’re doing is not right. The new crop of climbers are not fully aware of the value of registers, Richter said.
Richter added that he has talked to some of the old die-hard climbers who used to believe the “registers should stay on the summits forever.” He said even they are changing their minds. He said in the light of the register thefts, these die-hards are saying they’d rather see the registers in museums than not at all.
Parker said it is disheartening to summit without a register to sign. He added there’s something magical about holding those scraps of paper once held by Clyde and Eichorn.
Parker added he didn’t know why someone would steal the registers. “It’s like stolen art. Who are you going to show it to?”

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