A Climber’s Guide to the High Sierra (Sierra Club, 1954) lists thirty-three peaks in the Sierra Nevada that were first ascended by David Brower. “Arrowhead. First ascent September 5, 1937 by David R. Brower and Richard M. Leonard…. Glacier Point. First ascent May 28, 1939, by Raffi Bedayan, David R. Brower, and Richard M. Leonard.… Lost Brother. First ascent July 27, 1941 by David R. Brower.…” Brower has climbed all the Sierra peaks that are higher than 14,000 feet. He once stared out at midnight, scaled the summit of Mount Tyndall (14,025) by 3 a.m., reached the summit of Mount Williamson (14,384) by 7 a.m., and was on top of Mount Barnard (14,003) at noon. He ate his lunch – nuts, raisins, dried apricots – and he went to sleep. He often went to sleep on the high peaks. Or he hunted around for ice, removing it in wedges from cracks in the granite, sucking it to slake his thirst. If it was a nice day, he would stay put for as much as an hour and a half. “The summit is the anticlimax,” he says. “The way up is the thing. There is a moment when you have the mountain by the tail. You figure out how the various elements go together. You thread the route in your mind’s eye, after hunting and selecting, and hitting dead ends. Finally, God is good enough. He built the mountain right, after all. A pleasant surprise. If you don’t make it and have to go back, you play it over and over again in your mind. Maybe this would work, or that. Several months, a year, or two years later, you do it again.” When Brower first tried to climb the Vazquez Monolith, in Pinnacles National Monument, he was stopped cold, as had been every other climber ever, for the face of the monolith was so smooth that Brower couldn’t even get off the ground. Eventually, someone else figured out how to do that, but, as it happened, was stopped far shy of the summit. When Brower heard about this, he went to his typewriter, wrote a note identifying himself as the first man to ascend Vazquez Monolith, and slipped the note into a small brass tube. In his mind, he could see his route as if he were carrying a map. He went to Pinnacles National Monument, went up the Vazquez Monument without an indecisive moment, and, on top, built a cairn around the brass tube. When Brower led a group to Shiprock in 1939, at least ten previous climbing parties had tried and failed there. Shiprock is a 7,000-foot monadock that looks something like a schooner rising in isolation from the floor of the New Mexican desert. Brower studied photographs of Shiprock for many months, then planned an ornately complicated route – about three-quarters of the way up one side, then far down the other side, then up a third and, he hoped, final side, to the top. That is how the climb went, without a flaw, start to finish. Another brass tube. “I like mountains. I like granite. I particularly like the feel of the Sierra granite. When I climbed the Chamonix Aiguilles, the granite felt so much like the granite in the Yosemite that I felt right at home. Once, in the Sierra, when I was learning, I was going up the wall of a couloir when I put both hands and one knee on a rock. The rock moved, and fell. It crashed 75 feet below. One of my hands had shot upward, and with two fingers I caught a ledge. I pulled myself up, and I sat there on that ledge and thought for a long while. Why was I that stupid – to put that much faith in one rock? I have an urge to get up on top. I like to get up there and see around. A 360-degree view is a nice thing to have. I like to recognize where I’ve been, and look for routes I might go.”
Mile 156. Already the talk is of Lava Falls, which lies 24 miles ahead but has acquired fresh prominence in the aftermath of Upset. On the table of rated rapids – copies of which nearly everyone is at the moment studying – categories run from “Riffle” through “Heavy” to “Not Recommended.” Upset was a “Heavy” rapid, like Deubendorff. In the “Not Recommended” category there is only Lava Falls.
“Do you agree with that, Jerry?”
Sanderson grins with amusement, and speaks so slowly he seems wistful. “It’s the granddaddy of them all,” he says. “There’s a big group and a lot of boulders, and several holes like the one at Upset.” You have to look over the rapids carefully, because the holes move.”
In the stillness of a big eddy, the raft pauses under an overhanging cliff. Lava Falls fades in the conversation. Twenty-four miles is a lot of country. Through a cleft that reaches all the way down through the overhanging cliff a clear green stream is flowing into the river. The cleft is so narrow that the stream appears to be coming straight out of the sandstone. Actually, it meanders within the cliff and is thus lost to view. The water is so clear that it sends a pale-green shaft into the darker Colorado. The big river may no longer be red with silt, but it carries enough to remain opaque. In the small stream, the pebbles on the bottom are visible, magnified, distinct. “Dive in,” Brower suggests. “See where it goes.”
Brower and I went into the stream and into the cliff. The current was not powerful, coming through the rock, and the water was only four feet deep. I swam, by choice – the water felt so good. It felt cool, but it must have been about 75 degrees. It was cooler than the air. Within the cliff was deep twilight, and the echoing sound of the moving water. A bend to the right, a bend to the left, right, left – this stone labyrinth with the crystal stream in it was moment enough, no matter where it ended, but there lay beyond it a world that humbled the mind’s eye. The walls widened first into a cascaded gorge and then flared out to become the ovate sides of a deep valley, into which the stream rose in tiers of pools and waterfalls. Some of the falls were only two feet high, others four feet, six feet. There were hundreds of them. The pools were as much as 15 feet deep, and the water in them was white where it plunged and foamed, then blue in a wide circle around the plunge point, and pale green in the outer peripheries. This was Havasu Canyon, the immemorial home of the Havasupai, whose tribal name means “the people of the blue-green waters.” We climbed from one pool to another, and swam across pools, and let the waterfalls beat down around our shoulders. Mile after mile, the pools and waterfalls continued. The high walls of the valley were bright red. Nothing grew on these dry and flaky slopes from the mesa rim down about two-thirds of the way; then life began to show in isolated barrel cactus and prickly pear. The cacti thickened farther down, and below them was riverine vegetation – green groves of oak and cottonwood, willows and tamarisk, stands of cattail, tall grasses, moss, watercress, and maidenhair fern.
The Havasupai have lived in this place for hundreds, possibly thousands, of years, and their population has remained stable. There are something like 200 of them. They gather nuts on the canyon rim in winter and grow vegetables in the canyon in summer. They live about 12 miles up Havasu Creek from the Colorado. Moss covered the rocks around the blue-and-green pools. The moss on dry rock was soft and dense, and felt like broadloom underfoot. Moss also grew below the water’s surface, where it was coated with travertine, and resembled coral. The stream was loaded with calcium, and this was the physical explanation of the great beauty of Havasu Canyon, for it was the travertine – crystalline calcium carbonate – that had both fashioned and secured the all but unending stairway of falls and pools. At the downstream lip of each plunge pool, calcium deposits had built up into natural dams, and these travertine dams were what kept Havasu Creek from running freely downhill. The dams were whitish tan, and so smooth and symmetrical that they might have been finished by a mason. They were two or three feet high. They sloped. Their crests were flat and smooth and with astonishing uniformity were about four inches thick from bank to bank. Brower looked up at the red canyon walls. He was sitting on the travertine, with one foot in a waterfall, and I was treading the green water below him. He said, “If Hualapai Dam had been built, or ever were built, this place where you are swimming would be at the bottom of a hundred feet of water.” It was time to go back to the Colorado. I swam to the travertine dam at the foot of the pool, climbed up on it and dived into the pool below it, and swam across and dived again, and swam and dived – and so on for nearly two miles. Dominy was waiting below. “It’s fabulous,” he said. “ I know every river canyon in the country, and this is the prettiest in the West.”
Mile 171. Beside the minor rapids at Gateway Canyon, we stop, unload the raft, and lay out our gear before settling down to drinks before dinner. Brower is just beyond earshot. Dominy asks me again, “What did Dave do during the war?”
I tell him all I happen to know – that Brower trained troops in climbing techniques in West Virginia and Colorado, and that he later went with the 10th Mountain Division to Italy, where he won the Bronze Star.
Dominy contemplates the river. Brower goes to the water’s edge and dips his Sierra Club cup. He will add whisky to the water. “Fast-moving water is a very satisfying sound,” Dominy says to him. “There is nothing more soothing than the sound of running or falling water.”
“The river talks to itself, Floyd. Those little whirls, the sucks and the boils – they say things.”
“I love to see white water, Dave. In all my trips through the West over the years, I have found moving streams with steep drops to them the most scenic things of all.”
Over drinks, Brower tells him, “I will come out of this trip different from when I came in. I am not in favor of dams, but I am in favor of Dominy. I can see what you have meant to the Bureau [of Reclamation], and I am worried about what is going to happen there someday without you.”
“No one will ever say that Dominy did not tell anyone and everyone exactly what he thinks, Dave.”
“I’ve never heard anything different, Floyd.”
“And, I might say, I’ve never heard anything different about you.”
“I needed this trip more than anyone else.”
“You’re God-damned right you did, with that white skin.”
Dominy takes his next drink out of the Sierra Club cup. The bottle of whiskey is nearly empty. Dominy goes far down into his briefcase and bring out another. It is Jim Beam. Dominy is fantastically loyal to Jim Beam. At his farm in Virginia a few weeks ago, he revived a sick calf by shooting it with a hypodermic syringe full of penicillin, condensed milk, and Jim Beam. Brower says he does not believe in penicillin.
“As a matter of fact, Dave Brower, I’ll make a trip with you any time, anywhere.”
“Great,” Brower mutters faintly.
“Up to this point, Dave, we’ve won a few and lost a few – each of us. Each of us. Each of us. God damn it, everything Dave Brower does is OK – tonight. Dave, now that we’ve buried the hatchet, you’ve got to come out to my farm in the Shenandoah.”
To have a look at the map of the river, Dominy puts on Brower’s glasses. Brower’s glasses are No. 22s off the counter of F.W. Woolworth in San Francisco. Dominy rolls the scroll back to the Upset Rapid.
“How come you didn’t go through there, Dave?”
“Are you going to go through Lava Falls?”
“No, thank you. I’ll walk.”
Upstream from where we sit, we can see about a mile of straight river between the high walls of the inner gorge, and downstream this corridor leads on to a bold stone portal. Dominy contemplates the scene. He says, “With Hualapai Dam, you’d really have a lack of water down this far.”
“Yes. A hundred and sixty feet deep,” notes Brower.
“It would be beautiful, like Lake Powell, it would be better for all elements of society.”
“There’s another view, and I have it, and I suppose I’ll die with it, Floyd. Lake Powell is a drag strip for power boats. It’s for people who don’t do things except the easy way. The magic of Glen Canyon is dead. It has been vulgarized. Putting water in the Cathedral in the Desert was like urinating in the crypt at St. Peter’s. I hope it never happens here.”
“Look, Dave. I don’t live in a God-damned apartment. I didn’t grow up in the God-damned city. Don’t give me the crap that you’re the only man who understands these things. I’m a greater conservationist than you are, by far. I do things. I make things available to man. Unregulated, the Colorado River wouldn’t be worth a good God damn to anybody. You conservationists are phony outdoorsmen. I’m sick and tired of a democracy that’s run by a noisy minority. I’m fed up clear to my God-damned gullet. I had the guts to come out and fight you bastards. You’re just a bunch of phonies, and you’ll stoop to any kind of God-damned argument. That’s why I took my pictures. You were misleading the public about what would happen here. You gave the impression that the whole canyon was going to inundated by the reservoir. Your weapon is emotion. You guys are just not very God-damned honorable in your fights.”
“I had hoped things would not take this turn, Floyd, but you’re wrong.”
“Do you want to keep this country the way it is for a handful of people?”
“Yes, I do. Hualapai Dam is not a necessity. You don’t even want the water.
“We mainly want the power head, but the dam would be part of the over-all storage project under the Colorado Compact.”
“The Colorado Compact was not found on a tablet written on Mount Sinai. Hualapai Dam is not necessary, and neither was Glen Canyon. Glen Canyon Dam was built for the greater good of Los Angeles.”
“You’re too intelligent to believe that.”
“You’re too intelligent not to believe that.”
“For Christ’s sake, be objective, Dave. Be reasonable.”
“Some of my colleagues make the error of trying to be reasonable, Floyd. Objectivity is the greatest threat to the United States today.”
Pulitzer Prize-winner John McPhee has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1965. He is the author of 32 books.
Southwest photos by Joseph Holmes. Holmes’ photography will be shown at the David Brower Center gallery through August 31 as part of an exhibition, “Thinking Like a River: Art, Advocacy, and the Legacy of David Brower.” See more of his work at www.josephholmes.com.
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