Other High Sierra Graves
William Penn Tuttle, Jr.
A marked grave site near Crabtree Meadows, west of Mt. Whitney, is the burial place of Dr. William Penn Tuttle, Jr., age 27, who died while climbing on August 24, 1946.
He was the eldest son of William P. Tuttle and Barbara [Clarke] Tuttle. In the summer of 1936, William (Jr) was awarded a prestigious $4,500 scholarship to attend Harvard University (New York Times, Aug 25, 1936, p.12, "16 Get Harvard Awards"). In 1938, William received the major Harvard insignia ("the major track H") for his successful participation in the varsity cross-country team (New York Times, Dec 12, 1938, p.22, "Harvard Insignia for Season Listed"). Other New York Times articles from 1936 to 1940 show that William was representing Harvard in various two- to five-mile races. Search The Harvard Crimson Web site to find more information about William's sport results at Harvard. William was also involved in other outdoor activities. For example, a note in the fishing section of the New York Times on April 28, 1941 (p.22), reports on William's catch of a seven-pound Chinook salmon from a boat at Sebago Lake (Maine).
After graduation from Harvard, William moved to California, and continued his study in the field of organic chemistry. He defended his PhD Thesis ("The Polymerization of Phenoxyacetylene") at the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1943. In 1949, an article authored by William and his mentor was published (posthumously) in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. A footnote under William's name reads: "Much of this paper is based upon the Ph.D. thesis of William Penn Tuttle Jr, September 1943. A preliminary report of the work was given before the Organic Division of the American Chemical Society at the New York Meeting, September 1942. Dr. Tuttle was killed while hiking in the Sierra Nevada in August, 1946." (The full reference to the article is: "Acetylenic Ethers. V.1. The Polymerization of Phenoxyacetylene", Thomas L. Jacobs and William Penn Tuttle, Jr., J. Am. Chem. Soc.; 1949; 71(4); 1313-1320).
There is a brief mention of William's death in a family history, The Tuttles and the Times in Which They Lived by Richard H. Tuttle, a distant relative. When describing a trip to New Hampshire in Spring of 1948, Richard wrote: "[We] drove out to Dover Point and stopped at the house of William Penn Tuttle; "Penn" Tuttle, he was called. They had very recently lost their oldest son, who was killed while mountain climbing, and Mrs. Tuttle was not feeling well enough to see visitors...". William (Jr) was survived by his younger siblings, Hugh Clarke Tuttle (died in 2002), Mark Tuttle, and Barbara Tuttle (married name Barbara Kent). Hugh took over the family farm, which is now managed by his son, William Penn Tuttle, III.
I couldn't find any newspaper articles about the accident in Los Angeles or San Francisco papers. The following brief note was published on Thursday, August 29, 1946, in the Berkshire Evening Eagle (Pittsfield, Mass.), under the title "Former Harvard Athlete Killed":
Walter A. Starr, Jr
On Saturday afternoon, July 29, 1933, Walter "Pete" Starr left the Bay Area and drove to the mountains without leaving a specific itinerary. Exploring the mountains on his own, without climbing partners, was nothing unusual for Pete. In the previous several years he had scaled many prominent Sierra peaks, almost always alone. That summer he was expected to complete his book "[Starr's] Guide to the John Muir Trail and the High Sierra region", and although his precise destination was not known, it was likely that he would spend his vacation somewhere along the John Muir Trail (JMT) or its subsidiaries, adding the finishing touches to his guidebook.
Pete had arranged to meet with his father on Monday, August 7, at Glacier Lodge, a gateway to the Palisades region, and not far from the southern portion of the JMT. (The Los Angeles Times of August 15 quotes William R. Quinn, Chief of Police of San Francisco, as saying that August 3 at Tuolumne Meadows was a possible earlier meeting spot for the two). Father and son were expected to spend a few days together. Pete would then return home, and resume his work in a San Francisco law firm on August 14.
But Pete didn't show up at Tuolumne Meadows or at the Lodge. On Wednesday, August 9, his father left Glacier Lodge for the Bay Area alone, his concern growing by the hour. At first, he hoped that his son might have changed plans, and perhaps had stayed out longer on some of the more remote sections of the JMT. But by Sunday evening, August 13, he had become certain that something had gone terribly wrong, and early Monday morning he alerted the authorities as well as Pete's climbing colleagues from the Sierra Club.
That Monday afternoon, Pete's car was found at Agnew Meadow, twenty miles from Mammoth Lakes. The same evening, an abandoned tent, clearly belonging to Pete, was found near Shadow Creek, just below Lake Ediza, in the heart of the Ritter Range. It was suspected early on that the "dangerous Minarets" (as the Oakland Tribune put it) were a likely goal of his expedition, but other nearby peaks couldn't be fully excluded. The scope of the search and rescue mission was thus monumental; search parties would have to cover dozens of square miles of rugged high altitude terrain, peaks, towers, crags, crevasses and glacial debris.
Towards the end of that week, it became clear to everyone that there was no more hope of finding Pete Starr alive. On Friday evening, August 18, Pete's father, not wanting to expose the rescuers to further risk, requested that the search be terminated. Only one person stayed in the area: Norman Clyde. Even for this "mountain detective extraordinaire" (Bill Alsup), it was like searching for a needle in a haystack. But his skills and luck aligned favorably, and on Friday, August 25, Clyde found Pete's body on a ledge, on the northwest face of Michael Minaret.
The exact date or cause of this accident are not known. Pete could have fallen to the ledge from a point some hundred or more feet above, perhaps while trying to find a new route to the top of Michael Minaret. Several days later, Norman Clyde returned to Michael Minaret with Jules Eichorn, to entomb Pete's body in a gap formed by a talus block propped up against a cliff, a short distance from the place where Pete's remains were found. Clyde and Eichorn also made some effort to cover the body with rocks and stones. Sixty-six years later, in September of 1999, Steve Roper and Walter Venum located the 'burial' site. They didn't find much more than a pair of tennis shoes and a few bones, which they reburied. In August 2003, a group of climbers supported by the Stanford Alumni Association and the American Alpine Club placed a bronze plaque on Michael Minaret, commemorating the 70th anniversary of Starr's death.
Young Walter entered Stanford University in the fall of 1920.
During his first year at the University, he lived at 201 Encina
His name can be found in many Sierra peak registers from the late 1920s and early 1930s. His last signature is found in the Mount Ritter register, now at the Bancroft Library, Berkeley. It is dated July 30, 1933, just days before his death on Michael Minaret. We don't know much about the highlights of his professional career, except that he worked for the law firm of Pillsbury, Madison and Sutro, on the 19th floor of the building at 225 Bush Street, in San Francisco. However, the San Francisco Directories from 1928 to 1932 indicate that he resided in Piedmont. He must have been traveling daily across the Bay by ferry to get to his office (note that the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge was opened to traffic only in 1936). In 1933, the year of his death, he rented a room at the University Club, 800 Powell Street in San Francisco. It appears that he had managed to maintain a busy social life when not in the mountains. For example, in the last few months of his life, in 1933, he was best man at the March 1 wedding of his Stanford friend, Edward Morse Hamilton (Botany, 1928), and on July 29, the day of his fateful departure for the Sierra, he attended the wedding of Whiting Welch (Economy, 1927), his fraternity brother from Stanford. A newspaper report from August 1933 claims that Walter was also an amateur musician.
Pete is certainly the best known climber to have met his death in the High Sierra. His guidebook to the John Muir Trail is his lasting memorial. It was published posthumously, first in a private edition in 1934, and then revised and reprinted in a dozen of later editions sponsored by the Sierra Club. In addition, a peak near the trail between Rock Creek Valley (off Hwy 395, near Sherwin Summit) and Mono Creek Valley is named for Walter Augustus Starr, Jr. The summit of Mount Starr, 12835 feet (3912 m), can be easily reached from the trail's pass (Mono Pass). There is also a small "Walter A. Starr, Jr. Memorial Grove" in the Calaveras Big Trees State Park, established by his mother and father in 1959.
Robert F. Johnson
In the heart of Yosemite, there is a hiker's grave somewhere among the cliffs near Yosemite Falls. A report about this accident can be found in John Bingaman's Guardians of the YosemiteA Story of the First Rangers, Chapter VII, Accidents/Lost people/And rescues. Bingaman describes an accident near Yosemite Falls in late May 1956, with the following words: "Doctor Robert F. Johnson of San Francisco, age 28, fell to his death, seven hundred feet from Castle Cliff, near Yosemite Falls. He had taken a climb up Indian Canyon alone and had tried to take a short cut back down the mountain. He was reported lost by a friend when he didn't return. Dr. Johnson had not registered with the rangers about his hiking route and it took several days of intensive searching before we found the body. Bloodhounds were used without success and finally a helicopter with Ranger Glen Gallison as observer located the body. A party of rangers and Sierra Club rock climbers reached the spot after much difficulty. It was impossible to take the body out of such a precipitous place, and permission from relatives was granted to bury the doctor at the scene of the fall".
The victim's full name was Robert Franklin Johnson. He was the eldest son of Martha Beshers Johnson (1901-1986), and Franklin Plotinus Johnson (1896-1975). He was born on March 29, 1928, in Durham, North Carolina. His father was an Assistant Professor of Greek at Duke University at that time, and was a noted author of a book and many articles on Greek and Roman history. The family moved to Chicago in 1930. At the time of the accident, Robert's father was an Associate Professor of Arts at the University of Chicago, specializing in archaeology. (He would eventually become a Professor at the University of Chicago).
Robert graduated from Chicago's Hyde Park High School, then completed a two-year program at the University of Chicago, earning an AB degree. After serving in the Army for about 18 months, he returned to school, obtaining a degree in pharmacology in 1951, and an MD from the Medical School of the University of Chicago in March 1955. He soon moved to San Francisco, where he got an internship at San Francisco County Hospital. As he was completing his internship year, he decided to spend a day doing some hiking with two friends in Yosemite National Park. They left San Francisco early in the morning, on Sunday, May 27, 1956. One of Robert's friends was Edmund G. Rosen, his fellow intern and roommate. Edmund earned his MD at the Stanford University Medical School, also in 1955. The third, unidentified friend, was a young woman, possibly Dr. Rosen's girlfriend or fiancee.
Although it was Memorial Day weekend, Robert and Edmund could not take an extra day, and had to be back at the Hospital on Monday. Rosen told park authorities that they had arrived in Yosemite at 9:50 a. m., Sunday, and had intended to spend a few hours clambering around low-angled slopes near the valley's north wall. He said they wore low shoes and slacks and were without mountain climbing gear. Around mid morning, Dr. Johnson expressed his desire to attempt a scramble in the vicinity of the Lost Arrow. When looked from the center of the Valley, Lost Arrow is an impressive piton to the right of Yosemite Falls. Rosen later remembered that Robert had talked about his considerable mountain climbing experience in Europe (Robert's family was not aware of any such climbing skills, but they remember Robert being in good physical condition). Since Dr. Rosen was not a good climber, the friends separated after agreeing to meet at their parked car near the administration building some time in the afternoon. Robert also said that he would wave to his friends from the peak at an agreed upon time. And so he went off alone
When Dr. Johnson failed to appear at the appointed time, Rosen said he searched for him several hours. When it started to get dark, he notified Park authorities. A search was initiated at dusk on Sunday, but with no results. On Monday, five rangers under the direction of Chief Ranger Oscar A. Sedergren searched all day without discovering any clues, although they found some footprints, which may have been Johnson's near base of the spire. Privately, however, the rangers were skeptical that Robert could have reached the Lost Arrow as he had planned, and therefore focused their search mostly on lower elevations. The superintendent of the San Francisco hospital allowed Dr. Rosen to remain in Park and aid in the search. The frustrating search mission continued, but without real progress. Robert's younger brother, Thomas M. Johnson, an attorney at law, flew in from New York and also joined the search. In a recollection written in May 2007, Thomas Johnson says: "I had hoped to find [my brother] Bob injured, but alive; the rangers didn't consider this likely". He also remembers the rangers and the Park staff being very courteous and helpful throughout the ordeal."
Thomas' arrival changed the dynamic of the search in the following days. He was instrumental in identifying Robert's tracks and narrowing down the area of the search. It turned out that Robert had changed his plan, and tried to reach the rim, rather than the Lost Arrow. Expert mountaineers and national guardsmen also joined the search party. Finally, on Saturday, June 2, 1956, ranger Glenn Gallison, on his second flight in a helicopter piloted by Edward "Buddy" Kohls (33) of a Stockton helicopter company, sighted Dr. Johnson's body. Ranger Sedergren reported that the body was in a deep crevasse 700 to 800 feet below the rim of a canyon, about half way between Yosemite and Indian creeks. Sedergren notified a ground party to leave for the scene, but he warned that it would be "very difficult to recover Dr. Johnson's body".
Leading the ground party of rangers and Sierra club mountain climbers was Park Ranger Herbert Cornell. The party reached the crevasse into which Dr. Johnson had fallen on Saturday afternoon. An attempt to carry the body to the canyon rim proved too dangerous and too difficult. Robert's brother Thomas, representing the family, concurred in the decision for a burial next day, Sunday June 3, 1956, near the foot of a cliff face where the body was found.
In the final analysis, Sedergren said Dr. Johnson had climbed successfully up the canyon rim north of government headquarters and between Yosemite creek and Indian creek. He then tried a different route on his descent and ended up in "much more dangerous territory". He probably fell while hurrying back down and/or trying a shortcut. Official Park documents seem to indicate that Dr. Johnson's grave is somewhere in the Yosemite Point Couloir, beneath Castle Cliffs.
Irving F. Smith
William Tuttle, and Robert Johnson, mentioned above, were amateur climbers or recreational hikers. In contrast, Irving Smith, who died in Yosemite Valley in 1960, not far from the place where Dr. Johnson had died, was a trained rock climber. The accident that took Irving's life happened on Saturday, March 19, 1960. It is described in contemporary newspapers (e.g., The Fresno Bee and Oakland Tribune).
Irving Smith was a 17-year old high school junior from Fresno. He has been climbing with enthusiasm for a year, and was hoping to become the youngest person to climb the Lost Arrow Spire. This was not Irving's first attempt. The climb was originally scheduled for the previous weekend. According to The Fresno Bee of Friday, March 11, 1960, Irving, and his friend Gerald Dixon, 24, a Fresno State College student were to reach the rim and set up a camp there on Saturday March 12, then rappel down to the notch where the Arrow pulls away from the Valley wall next morning. Upon reaching the notch, Irving and Gerald would climb about 250 ft to the top of the Arrow, in several pitches, all classes 5.9 and higher. However, the weather did not cooperate that weekend, and the climb had to be rescheduled.
A week later, on March 19, weather conditions were good, and the team of climbers was larger this time. Irving, Gerald, and their four companions, all members of the rock climbing section of the Fresno (Tehipite) chapter of The Sierra Club, set out early up the Yosemite Falls Trail, then continued along the rim until they reached a point just across from the Spire. Roping up, the six climbers began moving downward toward a notch in the granite cliff to which the Lost Arrow is attached. A pair of long and quite exposed rappels, about 150 ft each, must be made to reach the airy notch. Irving Smith was the lead man, followed by Gerald Dixon. The support group members were George Sessions, Merle Alley, George Whitmore and Richard Calderwood. Whitmore (and possibly Alley) had previously scaled the Arrow.
Suddenly, during the second rappel of the descent, Gerald unexpectedly felt the rope leading from Smith to him grow slack. He may have possibly heard a brief howl from below, but everything then quickly got quiet. At first, Gerald assumed Irving had reached the notch. He then waited for the signal "Off rappel" from his partner, but it never came. Other climbers in the party began frantically searching for Irving, but without success. Later in the day, Gerald Dixon heroically sprinted all the way down to the Valley ranger station to report the tragedy. Both the rangers and Irving's climbing partners were aware that chances of him surviving the fall were "less than negligible".
Irving Smith's body was eventually spotted by his friend George Sessions. Although other climbers immediately volunteered to rappel and recover the remains, Park rangers decided it would be too dangerous to attempt to remove the body. The youth's father, Eugene D. Smith, agreed. According to various newspapers, he said that "the risk of further life in an attempt to recover the body would be unthinkable". A decision was therefore made to leave the body where it fell. Park Service also requested all climbers to keep off the Lost Arrow Chimney route for a year, out of respect for Smith.
An official report specifies that Irving's body was wedged in west Lost Arrow Chimney, some 700 feet above the deep (south) base of the Lost Arrow.
In the other cases described on this page, the accident victims were buried, or at the very least, their bodies sheltered near the place where they were found. Irving's body, however, stayed on the chockstone, exposed to the elements. A year later, when the first climbers returned to the Lost Arrow Chimney, they could still see desiccated remains, and pieces of the unfortunate climber' clothing. But within a few years, the body had completely decomposed, and was washed down the chimney by winter rains.
Irving Franklin Smith was one of two children of Eugene D. Smith and Margaret Dougherty Smith of Fresno. He was born on Dec 14, 1942, and had a younger sister, Marilyn. Newspapers described him as "a handsome, blond teenager". His hopes for setting a record as the youngest climber on the Lost Arrow were well planned and publicized. He had prepared for this feat for at least a year, by practicing rock climbs in Pinnacles National Monument, Yosemite, and the Cascades. His climbing colleagues considered him a "topnotch" climber and remember him as "obsessed with climbing". He trained diligently and climbed whenever he had a chance. Ironically, his fatal fall occurred before he even reached the Lost Arrow. It doesn't appear that his death was a result of inadequate preparation or an error in judgment. Accident can happen to even the best prepared; in rock climbing, accidents sometimes simply come with the territory.
Irving Smith was the first modern era rock climber to be killed in Yosemite Valley. According to Steve Roper, in the thirty years following Irving's death (1960-1990), fifty-four other rock climbers lost their lives in climbing accidents in Yosemite Valley alone. However, the Park policy has changed, and it appears that no other accident victim has been buried (or left unburied) in Yosemite Valley since.
Another grave site is hidden deep in the central Sierra, in Deadman Canyon, west of the upper Kern River. It takes two days and an excellent physical condition to reach the spot from the nearest trail head. This grave, however, has nothing to do with climbing accidents. It is mentioned here because several people had asked me about that grave.
About a mile from the beginning of Deadman Canyon, the trail crosses a creek from west to east. Shortly after that crossing, one finds a large wet meadow (Grave Meadow), with the gravesite for which Deadman Canyon is named. The grave is marked by a wooden monument that says:
The first widely available description of this grave appears to be the one from Francis P. Farquhar's book "Place Names of the High Sierra", published in 1926:
There is a sheep-herder's grave clearly marked at the lower end of the canyon, concerning which there are several legends.
Other interesting markups
Several plaques, scattered throughout the High Sierra, commemorate climbers who died in the mountains but were buried in their home towns. Other plaques pay tribute to people who were not climbers and who didn't even die in the Sierra. Technically, most of those markers were placed illegally, but the authorities (justly) leave them undisturbed.
Robert Shattuck sent me this photo of a marked patch on a meadow south of Mather Pass. It could be another High Sierra grave, or something else. If somebody has more information or an explanation for this site, let me know.
NEXT: The Rettenbachers
If you have reliable knowledge of other climbing-related
High Sierra graves, please drop me a line at