Ansel Adams.

Conversations with Ansel Adams : oral history transcript / 1972-1975 online

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ly. And then about midnight the fever broke, and I was drenched,
and it was thundering outside and the lean-to was leaking. I was so
weak for a day, I could barely move around. I tried to get home but
could not manage it.

V. Adams: You said you went to the river and the bridge was under water.

Adams: Yes, the log we used to get over the river was under water for eight
days. I never would have made it home. That was for certain. So
I had the good sense not to get panicked, and spent the night, and
that's when I drank the water.

Then the next day I just realized, "Well, I'm all right.
There's no more pain." The day after, I returned to Yosemite.
was what I got at Taos in 1930.

V. Adams: When you knew it was appendicitis.



Adams: I got exactly the same thing in the morning terrible pains. And
the doctor came and put an ice pack on me and took me off to
Albuquerque for an operation. But I know if I had known in Yosemite
it was appendicitis, I'd have simply died of fright.

Of course, the other tragic thing was, say, if I'd had a pill;
say I'd taken a cascara or something, that might have killed me. So
they'd come up and find me dead of natural causes in a wet lean-to.

Teiser: Did you often go out alone?
Adams: Oh yes. That was very bad to do.

V. Adams: They didn't really talk about that as much as they do now; people
are prepared now.

Adams: You always tell people where you're going. But I just told my aunt,
"I'm going to Merced Lake. I'm going to try to climb Mount Clark,
and I'll be back in three days." Well, I got so enthusiastic. Met
some trail workers, and I asked them if they'd tell my aunt that
I'm going to stay two more days. I went up Isberg Pass. So if I
had not shown up people would have come for me. They would have
probably given me a day's leeway and then called the rangers or
something. But how do you know where anybody is? You just go to
Merced Lake country and start climbing. My God. You never could
find anybody, unless they were yelling or had built a fire or made
smoke in daytime.

So now we go off on well-known routes. I wouldn't mind taking
a trip specifically to Half Dome alone, if I could describe where I
was going pinpoint it. Remember that time with the Sierra Club
when I said I was going to the Second Recess of Mono Creek? (There's
four canyons called the Mono Recesses.) I was going up the Second
Recess and cross over and come down the First Recess. And take my
camera, of course. I promised I wouldn't go anywhere else. The
only thing I forgot was I hadn't looked carefully at the map; the
Second Recess was twice as long as the first one. So I thought I
climbed awfully high, and I got over a pass and went down about two
thousand feet and looked up. And there was the Seven Gables
mountains to the south and I realized what I'd done I'd crossed
the whole divide. I'd gone over the main divide, you see. It's
just like having two canyons; instead of crossing over into the
First Recess, I went all the way up the Second Recess a real
struggle! And the last bit of it was something terrible. I had a
bad time getting back to camp tried one "draw" after another
because of cliffs on the other side. I never did get to the First
Recess. I got back to the Second Recess, because the First Recess
was too far to the west.


Adams: I got home about midnight, very sheepish. Because I'd given people
a lecture on doing exactly what you said you'd do, you see. And of
course I hadn't used my brain; I'd done exactly the opposite. I'd
gone out of the proper canyon and there again, if anything had
happened, nobody would have found me. They would have gone up and
looked at the map and crossed over and looked all around that area,
which I never was in! I was at least five to eight miles off my
stated route!

V. Adams: It wasn't your fate to die in the mountains.

Adams: No. And I nearly fell off several things. The time the piton came
out when I practiced climbing at Benson Lake.

V. Adams: Yes. That was one of the worst things.

Adams: They had a rock climbing practice, and Glen Dawson was holding the

rope down in the meadow. It was a very long rope a light rope that
went through a piton. It was set between a great big rock, twice
as big as this table, laying against the cliff on a ledge. They'd
driven this big piton between the cliff and rock all the way. The
rope ran through it. People would climb and get up fifty or eighty
feet and then give up and be eased down on the rope.

V. Adams: Everybody was learning from it.

Adams: And they'd fall on the rope, you see, and the man in the meadow
would hold them; then they'd slide down or start over again.

Well, it was about two hundred feet 180 feet high, I guess,
with a lot of sharp rocks at the bottom. And I failed it. I
couldn't do it twice. I asked Glen Dawson if he would hold the rope
once more. I just felt I couldn't let this thing beat me. Then I
got up nearly to the top, and I was terribly tired, and I rested by
leaning forward on the ledge. It was an all vertical climb. As I
leaned my weight on my arm, I heard a tinkle and a sliding sound,
and down comes the piton with the rope. And the rope catches over
a point and sticks. If the rope had fallen it would have dragged me
off, because it was pretty heavy, you know a hundred feet or more
of rope. Here I was completely without any support. One's reactions
are all automatic. I got up to the ledge by just sheer clawing at
the rock, and held up the piton that had come out.

And I'll never forget Glen's face. It was dusk. He just turned
white. This little figure down there with this white face. I still
remember that .

Well, then they had to send somebody up high and around and let
a rope down to me two hundred feet or so, quite a bit. And then
belay it with a fresh piton so we could get down. That was a close


Teiser: Glen Dawson the bookseller?

Adams: Yes. What happened was, everybody falling on the rope had levered
this rock a little, widening this crack just enough so that when
I took my weight off the rope (the crack being at a slant) the
piton just fell out.

Sierra Club Trips

V. Adams: Wasn't that the same trip where somebody a girl was drowned,
and we kept trying with the short-wave radio, which was a new
thing to carry along, to get to the rangers?

Adams: Yes. She fell in Benson Lake. Oh, we had a lot of accidents.
I remember two fatal and two bad falling near-fatalities, and
plenty of heart attacks, intestinal obstructions and double
pneumonia, etc.

V. Adams: That belongs in Sierra Club history.

Adams: We always had a doctor. We always brought an intern along as a
camp doctor, but then we had some very fine practitioners who
were guests, and of course in an emergency they'd come out and
help Dr. Walter Alvarez and Dr. Herbert Evans, for example.

I remember one time, a man was climbing, and put his hand up,
and somebody was up ahead. That's very bad too, to climb too close
ahead. He loosened this rock, and it came down and hit him right
in the hand, literally went through his hand broke everything.
So this poor guy we had to get him down to camp.

The intern was really having a fit. He was just a medical
student, he wasn't even an intern. And the nurse said, "Well,
just get hot saline water and keep it wrapped in it." They had
to tell him to get out as quick as he could and apply these
compresses constantly. In those days, you know, they didn't have
penicillin or anything.

V. Adams: The packers would take them out.

Adams: They'd strap them on the saddle and lead them out, and they'd
have to go many miles.

V. Adams: They'd have to go to Lone Pine or to Sequoia National Park.


Adams: But this man kept the use of his hand. They had to practically
rebuild that hand. It just shows you what can happen. Now, if
you were alone, or it was just a small part, you can imagine what
might happen.

Well , they did have that awful thing years ago in the Palisade
basin, where a woman was climbing the North Palisade. While in the
talus, one of those huge rocks rolled over and caught her, right
on the pelvic area and broke both pelvic bones. So they had to
improvise a stretcher and carried her with great difficulty more
than three miles above timber line to the trail. It was the
roughest possible terrain. She was pretty well crippled for life.
I remember Mr. [William E. ] Colby telling me that. It took five
days in all to get her to the Owens Valley.

Then a woman had a heart attack when we were near Ralph
Merritt's camp. The woman knew she had a heart condition and
asked the packer if he thought she'd get along all right. Well,
how did he know? He wasn't any doctor. We had horses anyway.
I forget what it was some form of heart failure. She got up to
Sphinx Pass and practically passed out from the attack. She was
six weeks in Ralph Merritt's camp, and finally the doctors came in
and said, "Well, I think we can take you out now." And it was a
two thousand foot climb back over Sphinx Pass. When she got there
(with less oxygen) she expired right on top of the pass.

V. Adams: You know what I remember about that is that all of these young
husky boys who were part of a rescue group, in groups of four
carrying the litter down the slope, and they'd change take-over
after a little while, carrying her down. She'd had six weeks or
four weeks or however long it was down at that camp in the flat-
lands, but those boys just worked like mad to get her there and
also to get her out. It was just so sad, because everybody tried
so hard, and then when the final thing happened, it wasn't any
good after all.

Adams: I don't want to give the impression that we had nothing but
disaster, but

V. Adams: No. We had lots of wonderful things.

Adams: Always things may happen in an outing of one hundred or two
hundred people.

V. Adams: People have gone on long trips and nothing has happened.

Adams: But I think we well, we had that case of old Mr. Padway, who
saved up for several years for this big vacation. He was some
kind of a specialist and couldn't get away from work, and finally


Adams: he did and this was a four-weeks vacation. We were up at Milestone
Camp, which is over eleven thousand feet, and he had this very bad
cold; it was freezing, and the camp doctor didn't like the way he
sounded. I think Dr. Alvarez came to see him, and they got
another doctor and they listened, and then they came over to see
us. They said, "He's got pneumonia, and if you don't get him out
of here, he'll be dead in twelve hours because of this altitude."
(Low oxygen.) They said, "It's very important. You'll have to
get him out some way." Of course, that was before helicopters.

So [Clair S.] Tappaan and I went to him and said, "Well, Mr.
Padway, we're really sorry, but the doctors have ordered you out
and we'll have to make arrangements right now to bundle you up and
get you on a horse."

"What! I've got nothing but a bad cold. I'll be over this
in a day or so." (Cough, cough)

"Well," we said, "the doctors don't say that. They said you
have pneumonia. "

He said, "I refuse to believe it, and you'll have to order me

We said, "Well, we'll have to send you out."
He said, "If you do that, I'll sue you."

Tap was a lawyer, so I said, "Well?" We went back to the
doctors and told them. They said, "We'll give you an affidavit.
If you don't get him out of here, in eight hours he'll be dead."

So we got him to Fresno, and he just barely made it. And his
letter of apology was touching, because he felt that he caused all
this trouble. They did save his life, and our insistence was
important. But he never realized it at the time. He didn't want
to realize it. It would spoil his trip.

V. Adams: There was one treck I wasn't on this trip when you went across

country and it was very high and very cold, and a couple of people
nearly didn't make it. The altitude and the whole thing got them.
But outside of that, when you think one hundred people go every
summer on these trips for forty years and most of them do

Adams: Well, it's not a compensation, you see. Your oxygen supply goes
down. In Yosemite you have three-quarters normal, I think, and
you get up to Glacier Point eight thousand or nine thousand,
somewhere in there you only have about half. No, it's more
nearly ten thousand that you have half. And it diminishes as
altitude increases.


Adams: Well, I can compensate very quickly, because I'm always going from
high to low altitudes. But for some people it takes several days.
And this mountain sickness is just sort of a breakdown of body
functions, because there just isn't really enough oxygen for them.
Everything is knocked out of sync. The heart has an automatic
trigger device, and if it works too hard, it automatically just
slows up, or may temporarily fail. It doesn't mean there's
definite damage. But you can have some awful symptoms. People
have passed out absolutely cold and go into what appears to be a
deep faint. And only a doctor can tell whether it's a state of
shock or not.

Teiser: What was your position on those trips?

Adams: I was after 1930 the assistant manager. I went first in 1923 for
a week, and then didn't go again until 1927. And 1927 I was the
photographer, and I was taken along to make pictures. That was in
the Sequoia National Park area, the High Sierra back country. In
1928 we went to Canada. I was the photographer and helped, and
Mr. Colby was the leader. In 1929 I didn't go anywhere. They
went to Yellowstone, I think. In 1930 I was back assisting Clair
Tappaan as manager. I was in charge of personnel, mountain
climbing, and lost and found, and morals committee. [Laughter]

So, that was my job, and it really was something, because I'd
be up very early in the morning, and I'd try to make some
photographs, and I'd have to see that people got off and their
bags were ready to pack. Then I would have to go ahead, at a
rather fast rate, to pick out the campsites and the commissary
location and the latrines. And I'd always divide up the camps
men, women, married couples try to figure it out logically. I'd
get that done. Then I'd go off and try to make some photographs.
Of course, I did many on the trail, too. Then in the evening I
had to conduct the campfire and run the lost and found. And of
course the lost and found could be serious, because somebody would
leave something like his watch or a pill you know, you don't have
much of un-importance when you're out in the wilderness. We'd
have a bag, and some of the things we'd find in it were surprising!
Glasses, prescription bottle, a toothbrush, etc., etc.

I can report now that the worst hike I ever had was when we
left Woods Creek and went to Rae Lake. We were going to camp at
Rae Lake and go over Glen Pass to Center Basin the next day. I
had a very nice Dagor lens. It was what we call a convertible
symmetrical lens. In other words, you could unscrew the front
element or the back element and get one and a half or twice the
size of the full-lens image. It was really three lenses in one.
I'd taken a picture in Woods Creek Camp, leaving camp in the
morning in the usual hurry. When I got to Rae Lake, I realized


Adams: I'd left the back of the lens on a rock at Woods Creek, and I

could see in my mind's eye just where that lens was. Of course
animals could have nudged it off or got it but my whole
photography depended on this lens (it was the only one I had on
the trip). So after dinner I said I had to go back the twelve
miles. So I hiked down there as fast as I could, with a flash
light, and by gosh, there was the rock and there was the lens.
And I ate some hardtack and a piece of chocolate, and I came back
the twelve miles to Rae Lake. That made it thirty-six miles for
that day.

But I got back in the morning after the camp was broken up
gone. So I had this climb of nearly twelve thousand feet over
Glen Pass to Center Basin, which was about fourteen miles down.
So I had walked a total of about fifty miles!

And all I can say is I'm glad they didn't move camp the next
day. But those were the days when I could do such things. I
could have done another ten miles. I was just terribly tired and
footsore. But I used to time myself walking. Even with a pack,
on the level I could go almost five miles an hour. Usually on a
long trip, I used to keep to about four. Mr. Colby had a wonderful
system of starting in the morning at a very slow pace, and the
people with him would get exasperated because old Will would plod
along. Then he'd get plodding a little faster, you see. And he'd
never stop; he'd just go all day long. And all the guys would be
dashing ahead the young squirts, you know, racing for the next
camp. And we'd pass them lying down on the ground, gasping. And
Colby, at sixty-something, was still plodding along, with a nice,
good-sized pack. [Laughter] It's a matter of just accommodating
and working into a pattern.

Yosemite, Continued

Adams: Well, I think now we've skipped away from Yosemite. Now, the
early days in Yosemite are associated for me with the LeConte
Memorial. They had just moved it from the Camp Curry area. It
used to be called the Lodge. Lodge was the wrong description.
I mean nobody ever slept in it. Well, they did, but it wasn't
supposed to be for that purpose. It was first in the Camp Curry
area, and when they expanded Curry they found that this building
would be right in the middle of it. So they offered to rebuild
the Memorial for the Sierra Club in a near location to the west.

Mr. Colby and a few others came up and picked the site, where
it is now, where you got a beautiful view up to Tenaya Canyon. The
trees in front were ten to fifteen feet high. They were young


Adams :





cedars and pines. You'd look over this very small growth and
see the whole vista of Washington Column, Tenaya Canyon and Half
Dome. It was a grand view.

Now the trees are nearly a hundred feet high, and you can't
see anything at all. It just shows how things grow and change
in time. They always had a "custodian." There were a few dried
plants and a few books and information available.

How old were you when you became custodian?

I'm always two years behind the century. That would be 1919 when
I was at the Lodge alone. I'd take people out on trips.

That was a lot of responsibility for a young man.

Yes, that's true. Then, after that, Aunt Beth and Uncle Frank
joined me. I climbed around a lot.

Did you always carry cameras with you?

Oh, almost all of my trips. Usually a 6 1/2 by 8 1/2 or a four
by five fairly simple. But my pack would be about fifty pounds.
I also carried my tripod, and a good tripod weighs about ten
pounds. And then there were the lenses and the film holders and
the accessories, and lunch. A notebook and maybe a brass cylinder
for a mountain-top register, the Sierra Club register.

I remember bringing down the early records of Clarence King
from Mount Clark after putting up a new register. And somebody
stole that record that was priceless; the first notes of King.
I had them at the LeConte Lodge in an envelope, clearly indicating
that they were important records, and I was going to send them to
San Francisco. And one day I found they were gone!

[End Tape 9, Side 2]
[Begin Tape 10, Side 1]

Well, to go back to the Clarence King episode. Mount Clark used
to be called Gothic Peak, which is a better name for it. It's
a triple glacial cirque. It's unique, and a very handsome mountain.
Clarence King's description of his ascent of Mount Clark is very
harrowing. Nobody 'd been able to find the place he made his
famous "jump." I went all over the summit area, hanging down on
ropes and trying to find the place. We say now there was
probably a rock slide that's obliterated it. But everybody in
those days could really exaggerate their experiences. The
painters did and the writers did and the explorers did; it was
always a great wild wilderness hard to check up on!


Adams: The place that he described, in considerable detail, where he
makes his "leap over the abyss" it might have been big enough
to kill him if he fell. I mean, you don't have to fall very far
on granite. Well anyway, up at the top he had left this lead
container in pretty bad shape and in that were his original
geologic survey records with the altitude readings, his signature,
and date, time of day all such stuff. And then some other
climbers left some notes after that. I replaced those with the
new Sierra Club register, which was a brass tube with a sealed
wing lock cap on it. In the scroll was the name of who placed it
there, the date, the time, notes of any predecessors, etc., and
then people sign it to record their climbs. I guess that's still
up there, although I suppose vandals might have taken it!

The register really has value only on a very remote,
difficult mountain. I imagine Mount Clark has been climbed
hundreds of times. But at that time, in the 1920s, relatively
few people had made the ascent.

The idea of true wilderness today is inconceivable. When
you were out there in the earlier days, you were completely out
of touch. Now you have search planes, radios, and helicopters.

Teiser: Those records were never returned?

Adams: No. Somebody who knew something about them took them, I'm sure.

I recognized how valuable they were; valuable in a mountaineering-
historical sense.

Then Hall McAllister gave the cableway on Half Dome. The
cableway was two posts set in the rock about every fifteen feet
with steel cables threaded through them. You just walked up
between the cables. I attached the Crosby clamps to the first

Photography Workshops and Aspiring Amateurs

Teiser: We wanted to ask you to discuss your workshops.

Adams: One of the most important things about a workshop, apart from its
location, is the fact that in my philosophy it is directed to the
individual photographer maintaining his individuality. Trying to
find out what he has to say about what he sees, so that he is not
dominated by any school or any instructor or any philosophy.

I think I described to you that in studying music, all my
really effective teachers never played a note for me. And there
was only this one teacher in Berkeley who taught with two pianos,




Adams :


Adams :

and by illustrating phrases and saying, "No, it's this way," and
me echoing her. In a few weeks my father recognized the difference,
He said, "It doesn't sound like you." Now, that was a great
revelation. You suddenly realize that you must build something of
yourself. Then you can resist somebody coming along and saying,
"Now, this is the way you do it." Technically it may be another
thing; you may have to say: this is the way you expose and
develop to get a certain result. But the result is yours .

When it comes to saying, "You have to make a photograph with
this feeling," or we have to phrase something in music with a
particular style, that can be quite disastrous unless a person is
a strong individualist. And part of the success of the whole
"group" piano teachers, music teachers, was really developing
people on an imitative basis. I suppose they were honest about
it, with the hope that they'd develop the individuality later.
But there's something about the individual's development of style
and phrasing and touch that's so precious. You just can't
dominate it, you see. So I was extremely fortunate in the
opportunity to be myself.

And that's why I want to impart that same concept in
photography. I want to give students a basic technique which will
liberate them to the utmost degree to get what they "see," and get
what they want . What they see and what they want to photograph
and what they want the photograph to look like that's their
business. But knowing something of the scientific, practical,
technically oriented approach will enhance their capacity to
understand and express themselves.

It must be difficult, when a group of students comes in, like the
other Sunday, and you really didn't know them.

Well, they were pretty bad. That was a very weak group.

But you didn't even know if the one who had what he presented as
beautiful sunsets really liked to photograph those. His
objectives had not narrowed down; you couldn't even perceive what
he was trying to do.

You can't do that. You either have to say, "I'm a psychiatrist,
and you'll come to my couch for so many dollars an hour over a
period of six months," or you admit, frankly, just an intuitive