One day, perhaps in late July 1934, Conrad and Anna reached Tuolumne Meadows. How and when they got there we can only speculate. From both ranger Bingaman's and superintendent Thompson's reports, it appears that they came only for a short visit. We know that the couple was expected to return home around August 5. Saturdays were normal working days at that time, and the couple's short trip was perhaps no more than a week-long outing, starting and ending on a Sunday, which would have given them two additional vacation days. I will assume that the Rettenbachers left their home early on Sunday, July 29, and planned to be back in the evening of Sunday, August 5. It would have been easy for them to reach Yosemite Valley in one day from Hillsborough by using public transport, but I don't know if any such means would have been available to get them from the Valley to the high regions of Yosemite and Tuolumne Meadows. Did someone give them a lift from Yosemite Valley? Or all the way from the San Francisco Bay Area? Did they borrow a car? Would the Parks have allowed them to use one of the family cars for their trip? No abandoned car was mentioned in any reports, and an employer normaly would not do any such gallantry. However, Helen Park's father, Edward Clark, was known for his total backing of Phoebe Hearst's benevolent ideas on the treatment of labor, and Phoebe's social theories were far advanced for her era. Phoebe and Edward established free kindergarten, a library, an opera house, recreational facilities, free health care, and a pension plan for Homestake Mining Company employees. Perhaps Helen Park adopted some of those ideas, and generously offered the car when she first heard of the couple's trip?
If the Rettenbachers had somehow reached Tuolumne Meadows by that Sunday
evening, they might have spent the first night in a campground there,
to better accomodate to the high altitude. On Monday morning, July
30, they could have bought a few more food items in an outfitters store,
then hurried to the ranger station to get their campfire permit
and fill out the itinerary. The ranger who was on duty that Monday morning
(John Bingaman?) could have been the last person to talk to the couple.
They would have asked about the weather forecast,
the conditions of the trails,
and the progress of the recent huge fire at the border of Yosemite and
They would then have left. They couldn't reach the Ritter Range in just
one day, and must have stopped somewhere along the way on Monday evening.
wilderness camp could have been in a valley beyond Donohue Pass, facing
The free day could have been used to inspect various approaches to their intended route. If they carried fishing rods, they could have spent part of the day by catching trout for an early dinner. A good campfire at dusk would have helped not only in preparation of the food, but also in fighting hordes of hungry mosquitos. They would have enjoyed the sunset glow, then retired even before the stars filled up the sky.
The sun rises early above San Joaquin Mountain crest, east of the lake, on August mornings. Even if the night had been cold, the sunshine would have quickly dispersed the chill. The first one to leave the tent might have braved the icy cold water of the creek to wash up. The bather would have noticed that the water level was much lower than on the previous afternoon, because the snow melt had all but stopped during the night. One of them would perhaps have prepared warm coffee, while the other would checked the equipment and gear. Someone could have been fishing or walking by the lake, and the Rettenbachers might have waived to the person. They would both have felt good, and ready for a big adventure. How they must have wished that they could afford to spend more time in the mountains each summer! Perhaps this would become possible one day in the future, upon retirement, they might have chuckled.
Their remaining food would have been secured in a double-wall bag and hung over a tree, washed cups and plates placed on a portable table to dry, their tent closed, their fire extinguished. It would have been time to start! The couple would have crossed the creek, then continued uphill. Further up the hill, they would have found a gulley that provided a good approach to the heart of the mountain. Patches of snow would have been visible here and there. Soon they would have been above the tree line.
Do we know where would they have been heading? The newspaper accounts put them on the north or northeast slopes of the mountain, but this doesn't make much sense, considering the position of the grave site. If they had indeed perished on the north(east) side of Banner Peak, the recovery team would have had to carry their bodies a long way and over a ridge in order to reach the remote valley where the grave site is located. Why would the rangers go through that trouble? Furthermore, several articles reported that the burial place was only a quarter of mile below the glacier on which the bodies were found, and this would immediately exclude the northeastern glacier and most likely eliminate the north glacier too.
I was puzzled about this until
Mark Fincher, Climbing Program Manager and Wilderness
Specialist in Yosemite National Park, found the following brief paragraph
in The American Alpine Journal from 1935.
It is very likely that the information had been provided to the
Journal directly by Norman Clyde, who
frequently sumbitted reports about his climbing successes to the editors.
Though short, this report has much more weight than the newspapers
accounts of the accident. In the section
"[Climbing news from] Sierra Nevada of California", signed
It would actually take many more years to conquer those two routes. It appears that the first successful climb over the west shoulder was accomplished in August 1950, by Sarah Haynes and Jim Koontz, and the first ascent over North Buttress only in 1984, a full fifty years after the Rettenbachers accident, by Vern Clevenger and Claude Fiddler.
I will assume that the Rettenbachers had selected North Buttress, simply because it looked more challanging and more direct. This route would have helped them avoid an ugly tallus field partially covered by ice, which they would have had to cross if they had decided to climb the shoulder instead.
Conrad and Anna would have continued up the gully. The route would soon have required more effort, but still nothing technical. They would then have been skirting North Glacier on the way to a small notch between a peaklet on the main crest and Banner Peak summit. The notch is the lowest point of North Buttress. Both the notch and the peaklet are clearly visible on skyline to the right (north) of the summit from almost every viewing point east or northeast of Banner Peak. It can be, for example, easily identified on any photo showing Banner Peak reflecting on Thousand Island Lake (see previous pages).
After some scrambling, Conrad and Anna would have reached the notch and briefly stopped to deliberate their options. It would have become clear to them that towers on the crest above them could not be negotiated. They would have had to be passed either on their left (east), or right (west) side. Today's climber guides recommend staying on the east, but the Rettenbachers chose the west side. Soon they would have been on precarious cliffs, with the West Glacier hundreds of feet below. The weather was perfect, and they would have had plenty of time to carefully consider each step. If they were experienced climbers, as the newspapers had claimed, safety would have been constantly on their minds. One element of safety would be the usage of a rope. Were they on a rope? Modern techniques of belaying and rappelling were introduced to Sierra only in the early 1930s. Only a handful of California climbers, including several women, would have been skilled enough to use a rope in a similar climb at that time. However, the Rettenbachers were from Europe. Roping had a much longer history there, and was equally popular among men and women climbers. Therefore, it wouldn't be a surprise if the Rettenbachers had carried a rope with them. On the other hand, no rope was ever mentioned in any reports of the accident. Would the report writers have failed to mention such an important fact, or should we assume that Conrad and Anna had not used a rope?
Perhaps for a moment they had thought of climbing down back to the notch, and trying the other side of the crest instead. But since going down would have been almost as laborious as what still lay ahead, they would have continued climbing. "Be careful here", one of them might have said when they ended up being aligned one above the other in an uncomfortably narrow and steep chute. And then, without a warning, a rock which the leading climber was relying upon for a handhold or foothold might have given way. A moment of terror, too short to allow them even to scream. They would both have been swept off the cliff, and kept falling, hitting razor sharp ledges on their way down. Anna's lifeless body eventually landed in a crevasse at the apex of the West Glacier, and Conrad tumbled down even further. Their fall would have caused a small rock slide, and it would have taken a while for everything to be quiet again.
Many days later, a hiker, or a member of a search party, stepped into Devils Postpile ranger station, and reported finding an abandoned tent somewhere around Thousand Island Lake. It was soon confirmed via radio that the description matched the features of lost couple's tent. The focus of the search immediately shifted from a wide area along John Muir Trail to just Banner Peak and its direct surroundings. Newspaper reporters learned about the search, and wanted to know about the lost people. They were given the misspelled names found in the Tuolumne Meadows register. A high Forest Service official might have immediately sent a message to Norman Clyde, who could have been in the mountains with a private party, to come and help with the search. Clyde could have been hesitant at first. He was earning his wages by leading wealthy clients around the mountains, and interrupting a trip would have meant a direct financial loss to him. However, eventually he would have been persuaded, and joined the search party.
Just before Clyde's arrival, the forest rangers got a report
of buzzards gathering above a glacier. Clyde would likely
have headed to that area immediately. The glacier was short
but on a very steep slope,
and Clyde's target would have been the glacier's highest tip.
Ranger Mace and other members of the search team perhaps
stayed at a pass near the glacier, and watched
Clyde's progress. The higher he went, the more frequently he would have
swang his long-hafted ice ax.
The ax's foot-long tine would have chiped loose
the packed snow and ice, and the tiny hoe raked footholds clear as Clyde
worked a traverse up the final pitch of the
The next day, while the recovery operation was still going on, a few
friends or perhaps a couple
NEXT: Chronological summary
If you have any reliable knowledge about the accident or the Rettenbachers, please drop me a line at