Deanna's letter was a great combination of facts and personal memories. It was a real breakthrough, and it opened doors to a quick succession of other findings. I still couldn't get Alsup's book in the Stanford or Palo Alto libraries, and didn't know in which context the San Francisco Examiner article was mentioned in the book, but if there really was an obituary in a mid-August 1934 issue of Examiner, I knew where to find it! Deanna's note was the lucky break that I needed, and who knows where this story would be today had she not taken time to contact me. It also became clear how big a setback in my quest was caused by the action of the person who had stolen Alsup's book from the Stanford Library. My friend, there is still time to return that book!
Several days later, I was back in the Newspaper Collection on the 5th floor of the San Francisco main library. The reel with the August 1934 content of Examiner was in its drawer. I anxiously put the microfilm into the reader and quickly found the correct day: August 16. I hoped, it would be easy to find the Obituaries section.
But, there was no need to search. The article mentioned in Alsup's book was not an obituary, it was front page news, with a huge title spreading across the top of the first page:
The front page article continued on page 3, where the couple's picture was reproduced: A lady sitting on a brick stairway in front of a French door that looks out onto a garden. A gentleman standing behind, his hand resting on her shoulder. Contrasting this picture of a happy couple, the article brings a grim story about a mountain trip that ended tragically. It took searchers nine days, says the article, to find Mr. and Mrs. Conrad Rettenbackers' remains. Buzzards dipping and soaring over Banner Peak's glacier guided Norman Clyde, noted mountain climber and writer, to their bodies. According to the article, the couple plunged some 600 feet from a perilous slope of Banner Peak, and made an almost sheer drop. Mrs. Rettenbacker's body lodged in a crevasse on a glacier, and her husband rolled and tumbled another 700 feet before his torn and lacerated body came to rest. It would require the use of some 700 or 800 feet of rope and the participation of half a dozen rangers in a perilous undertaking to recover the remains from the glacier, according to the article. The Rettenbachers would then be buried in a peaceful mountain meadow about a quarter of a mile below the glacier. The article describes the doomed couple as "intrepid mountaineers who had scaled many of the State's difficult peaks". They were "enthusiastic members of the San Francisco German Hikers' Club", and "employed in the home of Howard Parks in San Mateo".
The articles in the San Francisco newspapers confirmed what Deanna and Susi were telling me earlier: Conrad and Anna were husband and wife! However, the romantic aspect of the story, suggesting that the couple was on their honeymoon trip, couldn't be authenticated. Another important detail became apparent immediately: The couple's name was misspelled in the papers, and in more than one way: Rettenbacker, Rittenbacker, and other odd variations, often within the same article!
The next day, I repeated the Web search, this time by using the incorrect spelling from the newspapers. A search with the string RITTENBACKER immediately led to a book by retired Yosemite District Park Ranger, John Bingaman. The book paints a somewhat different picture of the accident, and is also very important in determining the trailhead from which Anna and Conrad had started their journey to Banner Peak. More about this book later.
The most shocking news was that the accident had probably happened in early August, not in July (as the plaque on the grave would suggest), and that it had first been reported only in mid August. No wonder I couldn't find anything in the San Francisco and Mono County newspapers from July 1934. Suddenly, all my theories involving mystery and conspiracy had a much simpler explanation: typing errors and wrong dates could have been largely responsible for the initial search failures.
However, at least one of my early assumptions, that the people involved in the search for Walter Starr would likely be involved in the Rettenbachers' case, proved correct: Norman Clyde, who had found Starr's remains in 1933, was the one who found the Rettenbachers' bodies in 1934. Clyde was not only one of the most important people in the history of Sierra mountaineering, but now also one of the main characters in the Rettenbacher story, and an entire separate section is devoted to him. At least two other people involved in Walter Starr's search and burial, a ranger in Sierra National Forest, Benjamin Mace, and Douglas Robinson with Inyo National Forest, were also mentioned in the articles about the Rettenbacher accident.
I made another visit to the History Center in the main San Francisco library, and checked the California Death Index again, hoping that perhaps some of the misspelled forms of the last name, Rettenbacker, Rittenbacher, or Rittenbacker, would show Anna's and Conrad's death records, but in vain. Their deaths are not registered! This is particularly strange because a newspaper article (see the next section) indicates that the Madera County coroner did have knowledge of the accident, and didn't object to the mountain burial. Yet the coroner apparently didn't file the death certificates. This remains one of the big puzzles in the story. It is worth noting that the Starr accident from 1933 happened in the same remote area of Madera County, and as with the Rettenbachers, Walter Starr was buried in the mountains, but his death is listed in the California Death Index.
Deanna's recollection that the Rettenbachers had been connected to Hillsborough area was corroborated by reports in the San Francisco newspapers. It turned out that the couple had not only worked in Hillsborough (San Mateo County), but also lived there. Many small communities had their own newspapers in the 1930s, and my next goal was to find which local paper was covering events in Hillsborough. There was a good likelyhood that such a paper would have even more details about the accident and the Rettenbachers than the City papers.
NEXT: Five days in August 1934
If you have any reliable knowledge about the accident or the Rettenbachers, please drop me a line at