John Mowat: Climbing in ’51

September 24, 2004

In 1949, when John Mowat was 20 years old, he went on a trip with his parents, and for the first time Visited Teton National Park in Wyoming. He felt an instant affinity for the beautiful Teton Range, and met some people in the area who were involved in mountain climbing. When he returned to Stanford University, where he was an undergraduate, he joined the Stanford Alpine Club.

Friday evening, September 24, at the Obsidian potluck, John shared his slides and memories from his early years of mountain climbing.

The Stanford Alpine Club went on practice climbs about every three weeks, where the members learned and practiced the skills needed to ascend vertical cliffs, including the art of rappelling — without a harness. We saw slides of John’s eager young men and women in various poses and stages of rock climbing, holding onto nylon ropes in ungloved hands, dressed in denim pants, flannel shirts, and wearing tennis shoes a few sizes too small for better traction. One slide showed John in mid-climb with a hammer in his back pocket, pitons dangling from his hip, and a nylon rope looped over one shoulder and underneath the opposite arm. Compared to the sophisticated equipment currently available, one wonders how John and his companions were able to accomplish so much with what now seems so little.

After John graduated from Stanford in 1951, he and some friends went on a climbing trip. Their first stop was Yosemite National Park This was at a time before El Capitan or Half Dome had been scaled. Being able to see John’s slides of these now famous rock-climbing icons, taken before anyone had ventured up them, creates a feeling of awe similar to being able to view the earth before humans had made a first footprint.

Later that same summer, John and his friends visited the Tetons, and then went on to the Canadian Rockies. Climbing was easier in the Tetons than it had been at Yosemite, but being in the high mountains and experiencing the grandeur of alpine vista was what John really loved.

John visited the Canadian Rockies this past summer, and interspersed his slides from that trip with the trip he made to the same area in 1951. It was clear from his slides that while certain photographic processes had improved, the rock, snow and clear blue skies still looked as wild, beautiful, and untouched as they had more than fifty years ago.

— LaRee Beckley


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