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The Search for Peter Starr
He was one of the country’s best mountaineers, but in 1933 he disappeared. High in the Sierra, they still talk about what happened next.
by William Alsup
AT THE TOP: A track star at Stanford, Starr is still admired for his athleticism as a climber.
Courtesy William Alsup
On an August evening in 1933, the president of the Sierra Club, Francis Farquhar, greeted 27 dinner guests at his San Francisco home. Among them were Ansel Adams and the elite of California’s conservationists. They had come to hear the latest about a search-and-rescue operation in the Sierra Nevada that had animated San Francisco conversation for weeks.
The subject of the search was Peter Starr, a prominent local attorney, Stanford graduate and well-known mountaineer who had disappeared during a solo exploration in the Minarets, a collection of sawtooth peaks on the eastern side of the Sierra.
Starr was an icon in the climbing world. He had scaled more than 40 prominent summits in the Sierra and several in the Alps, including France’s Mont Blanc. He had almost completed an audacious, one-person project to survey the recently completed John Muir Trail and its lateral routes through the Sierra, and to publish a guidebook. Nobody had seen him in more than three weeks, and newspapers throughout California speculated almost daily on his whereabouts.
Farquhar was in charge of the search. Ten days earlier, he had crisscrossed the Minarets area in a biplane, finding no sign of Starr, and pulled together a squad of expert climbers to scour the mountains. One of them, Adams’s former photography assistant, Jules Eichorn, was at the dinner to report on what he and his search team had found: an entry by Starr on a summit register, a cigarette butt, a roll of film and a bloodied strip of handkerchief. The Minarets had yielded clues but not Pete Starr, and most of the searchers had abandoned the effort to find him.
But one climber was still high in the Sierra, looking—an iconoclastic mountain man who scaled dizzying peaks by day and read Homeric epics beside the campfire at night. He and Starr had never crossed paths, but they were about to. Together, the pair would become part of California lore.
Walter ‘Peter’ Starr Jr. was 30 years old in July 1933. He was single, handsome and athletic, the son of a prominent Bay Area businessman and, since 1927, an attorney at Pillsbury, Madison & Sutro (now Pillsbury Winthrop) in San Francisco. He had been a gifted student at Stanford, where he earned both undergraduate (’24) and law (’26) degrees in only five years.
Confident and charismatic, Starr was his family’s bon vivant. He could charm a roomful of guests, whether playing the piano at family gatherings or leading sing-alongs at Delta Kappa Epsilon parties. Yet he preferred solitude in the mountains and often hiked alone.
From an early age, he loved the outdoors. He built an elaborate tree house in an ancient oak at the family’s ranch near Livermore, Calif., spent his days exploring the nearby hills and canyons, and wrote poems and stories inspired by nature.
Emulating his father, Walter—one of the earliest members of the Sierra Club and an accomplished climber himself—Starr spent much of his free time mountaineering. A track star at Stanford, he was virtually unrivaled for his endurance—on one 4 1/2-day trip in the Sierra, he covered 143 miles.
His equipment was crude; lacking the specialized footwear that came decades later, Starr usually climbed in tennis shoes. Yet he challenged sheer rock faces and glaciers that even today’s climbers would find daunting, unaided by pitons or a safety rope. By 1933, Starr was one of the nation’s leading alpinists.
On Saturday, July 29, he attended the wedding of his best friend and DKE fraternity brother Whiting Welch, ’24, and left soon after the ceremony to drive to the Minarets, journeying through the Yosemite backcountry over Tioga Pass Road. Later, when it would matter, no one would know exactly where he was headed.
The first sign of trouble came on Monday, August 7. Starr had arranged to meet his father that day at Glacier Lodge, a crude collection of cabins at 7,800 feet that was a popular watering hole for Sierra cognoscenti. When young Starr still had not appeared by August 8, his father returned to the family’s home in Piedmont, vaguely anxious but assuming that Pete had changed his plan—he wasn’t due back until August 13.
The following Monday, the 14th, Walter Starr telephoned his son’s law firm and asked if Pete had reported for work. He had not.
Alarm quickly spread. Farquhar, the Sierra Club president, organized both air and land search efforts. A certified public accountant in San Francisco, he had been instrumental in organizing the Sierra Club’s annual High Trips, extravagant multiweek excursions with full provisions and pack animals, and he knew the terrain well. For two days, flying perilously close to the mountain walls in a two-seat, open-cockpit biplane, Farquhar strained to detect any trace of Starr but saw none. It was the first aerial search in Sierra history.
Back in San Francisco, Farquhar tracked down three of the best climbers to have emerged during the High Trips—Jules Eichorn and Glen Dawson, both 21, and a pugnacious 40-something loner named Norman Clyde.
Norman Clyde rivals John Muir for the title of foremost Sierra mountaineer. While Muir did more to preserve the range through his inspiring writings and lectures, Clyde’s granite exploits are unsurpassed. In 1928, he became the first to climb what is now known as Clyde Minaret, the tallest peak in the chain at 12,281 feet. By July 1933, he had achieved 82 first Sierra ascents, and by some accounts he notched more than 1,000 during his lifetime.
Clyde came to California around 1911, married in 1915 and lost his wife to tuberculosis four years later. In 1924, he became a high school teacher and principal in Independence, Calif., a small crossroads in the shadow of the Sierra. His teaching career ended abruptly in 1928 after he tried to foil a Halloween prank on the school building by firing gunshots into the air. Irate parents had him fired.
For the rest of his life, Clyde was an itinerant mountain man, hiking, climbing and guiding in the Sierra, the High Trips being one of his major employments. He lived in makeshift camps and in winter occupied a caretaker cabin at Glacier Lodge or some other resort that had closed for the season.
On a narrow ledge near the top of 12,276-foot Michael Minaret, Eichorn and Dawson found a half-smoked Chesterfield cigarette, Pete’s brand. Above them loomed the summit—300 feet straight up. It was the kind of pitch where one mistake might be your last, the kind that could have claimed even somebody as skilled as Pete Starr.
Clyde was variously described as short-tempered, moody, stubborn, taciturn, indefatigable, brave and strong. Despite his small frame—he weighed about 160 pounds—Clyde carried enormous loads even on long trips. During one extended Sierra Club hike, his pack was weighed at more than 90 pounds. The son of a preacher, he had learned to read Latin and Greek as a boy and usually carried classic literature on his journeys. And he walked everywhere. “I can carry a mule faster than he can carry me,” he once told a hiking companion.
Although Pete Starr and Clyde had never met, each admired the other. One passage in the guidebook Starr was working on noted that Clyde was the only person to have climbed North Palisades via the glacier below, although many had reached the peak using easier routes. “It is amusing to compare Clyde’s brief and modest account of this very difficult ascent appearing in the register with the lengthy and exhilarated accounts of some of the parties who made the ascent by the route I have described,” Starr wrote.
When summoned to help search for the missing Starr, Clyde had been climbing a Palisades glacier with a friend, Oliver Kerhlein. A few hours later they were at the base camp for the rescue operation near Lake Ediza, at the eastern base of the Minarets in the Ritter Range.
Like Mt. Shasta in California and the Grand Tetons in Wyoming, the Ritter Range soars dramatically above its neighbors. At the northwest end are Banner Peak (12,945 feet) and Mt. Ritter (13,157), the tallest pinnacle in the range and the highest point in the northern Sierra. Continuing to the southeast is the jagged crest of the Minarets, a two-mile-long, serrated set of black teeth. Lake Ediza lies 3,000 feet below and feeds Shadow Creek, a tumbling cascade that drops another 1,200 feet to the San Joaquin River.
Clyde and Kehrlein joined what was arguably the strongest search-and-rescue team in Sierra history. In addition to an all-star climbing corps, it included members of the Highway Patrol, forest rangers, local police, young men working for the Civilian Conservation Corps, and several of Starr’s friends, including Whiting Welch and other Stanford mates.
On August 15, the day after Starr failed to show up at work, a search patrol discovered his camp in a wooded flat on the north side of Shadow Creek. Among his gear were a Kodak camera, an ice axe, crampons, his pack and food for several days. The searchers sent out the camera’s roll of film to be developed in hope that the photographs might show where Starr had already been.
On the morning of the 16th, the volunteers fanned out in several directions. Most of them searched the lowland areas around the mountains. The experienced rock climbers tackled the mountains themselves. Walter Starr and Pete’s younger brother, Allen, climbed Banner Peak. Two CCC men climbed Mt. Ritter and came upon the first clue about Pete’s recent activity.
The last entry in the peak register read: July 30, 1933 Walter A. Starr, Jr., 3rd ascent—this time deluxe with crampons and ice ax via glacier from Lake Ediza
Since the ice axe and crampons were found at his camp, Pete had obviously returned there after climbing Mt. Ritter. The film in the camera later revealed eight images taken during the ascent.
Meanwhile, Clyde and Kerhlein ascended Clyde Minaret, taking the glacier route Clyde had pioneered five years earlier. They found no Starr record at the top. Near the base of the mountain on their way back to camp, Clyde spotted a strip of torn handkerchief on the ground. It was stained with blood, as if used to wrap a cut finger. Walter Starr later examined the strip and noticed that the embroidery matched that on Pete’s handkerchiefs.
The fourth team, Jules Eichorn and Glen Dawson, headed up 12,276-foot Michael Minaret, located a quarter-mile west of Clyde Minaret. On a narrow ledge near the top, they found a half-smoked Chesterfield cigarette, Pete’s brand. Above them loomed the summit—300 feet straight up. It was the kind of pitch where one mistake might be your last, the kind that could have claimed even somebody as skilled as Pete Starr. They scanned the nearby terrain, but saw only a jumble of ledges and crags.
The two men struggled to the top and located the register, a beat-up notebook in a discarded tin can. The last entry was the one Eichorn and Dawson had written two years earlier. This was odd, and significant. Starr was well known for his playful notes in summit registers and the length to which he would go to record his ascents. Twice, Starr had reached peaks only to discover he had no pen or pencil. Both times, he made a small cut in his ear, collected the blood droplets and scrawled his name and the date in the register. Assuming the cigarette they had found was Pete’s, the fact that his name did not appear in the register suggested two possibilities: he had abandoned the route, or he had fallen off the mountain.
As the climbers compared notes back at camp, word of the discovery of Starr’s artifacts filtered down to Mammoth Lakes and on to journalists. The search had become front-page news. The San Francisco Chronicle speculated that Starr had drowned while swimming at Lake Ediza.
The next day, August 17, Eichorn and Dawson tried a different route up Michael Minaret, and Clyde and Kerhlein returned to Clyde Minaret. There were no visible signs of Starr. On the 18th, working on a hunch, they climbed Banner Peak. Nothing.
Slowly, hope slipped away.
Back in Piedmont, Pete’s mother, inconsolable, waited for word about her oldest son. Carmen Starr was the daughter of pioneers who had crossed the plains in a covered wagon, and she had encouraged her own children’s adventurous spirits. She knew that any number of injuries or mishaps could have stranded Peter high on a mountain, alive but suffering. Now, with the chances of finding him alive all but gone, she yearned to know what had happened, where he rested, and whether his death had been swift. She had not written a word in her journal since July 29: “Peter left on vacation to his beloved mountains.” Almost two years would pass before she made another entry.
Late in the day on August 18, Walter Starr called off the search. He gathered up Pete’s gear and headed home to make arrangements for a memorial service. The other climbers grimly filed out of camp. Only Norman Clyde remained; he really had nowhere else to go. Clyde later told Farquhar he held no hope of finding Starr alive but felt that locating him “would afford a good deal of consolation to his parents.”
Walter A. Starr
HIGHER CALLING: Starr’s father made this photo of Michael Minaret (above) and wrote the legends on the picture. Preparing for the climb to entomb Starr’s remains are Eichorn, Ranger Mace, Clyde, Al Norris and Douglas Robinson.
For five more days, Clyde methodically climbed routes in and around the Minarets, inspecting the rock for scuffs, cigarette butts, scraps of trash, anything that might yield an additional clue. But there was nothing. It was as if the mountains had swallowed Pete Starr.
On the evening of Thursday, August 24, while Eichorn related the search effort to Ansel Adams and others in the Farquhar home back in San Francisco, Clyde stood near his camp staring at the jagged silhouettes and preparing for a final climb. One possibility remained: Michael Minaret, the vertical spire already checked twice by Eichorn and Dawson, who had found the partially smoked cigarette and noted the peculiar lack of an entry by Starr in the register.
The next morning, Clyde moved carefully up Michael Minaret, clinging to the nearly 90-degree rock like a spider. At the top around midday, he wrote his name and the date in the register and paused to peer southeast toward the Palisades, Mt. Goddard and so many other peaks dear to him. Vexed over Starr, he began the descent.
Then came one of the most climactic encounters in all of Sierra mountaineering. Clyde later described it himself:
As I carefully and deliberately made my way down toward the notch, I scanned and re-scanned the northwestern face. Much of it was concealed by irregularities. Suddenly a fly droned past, then another, and another. . . . I began to follow a ledge running in a northwesterly direction. When I had gone along it but a few yards, turning about, I looked upward and across the chute to the northwestern face. There, lying on a ledge not more than fifty yards distant, were the earthly remains of Walter A. Starr, Jr. He had obviously fallen, perhaps several hundred feet, to instantaneous death.
It was a poignant first meeting of two Sierra legends: Clyde, peering out from under his broad-brimmed campaign hat, rope coiled about his chest, standing among the ruins of the ancient range as a storm gathered; Starr, the debonair “club man,” clad in khaki trousers and white undershirt, arms outstretched, lying on his back on a narrow ledge, facing the heavens.
Clyde marched back to the road at Agnew Meadow, caught a ride to Mammoth Lakes and telegraphed the Starr family. The word reached Piedmont the next day, Friday.
That Sunday, some 200 mourners—Stanford fraternity brothers, lawyers from Pete’s firm, Sierra Club luminaries—flowed into the somber Starr home. They were greeted by an enlarged photograph of Lake Ediza and the Minarets, the last image in Peter’s recovered Kodak, flanked by his ice axe and crampons. The eulogy included a recitation of a poem, “The Mountain’s Call,” that Pete had written a few days before embarking on his final journey to the Sierra. The last two lines read:
defiant mountains beckon me
to glory and dream in their paradise.
Walter Starr organized a small party to return to Michael Minaret and bury Pete where he had fallen. On August 30, Eichorn and Clyde, dressed in black, climbed to the precarious ledge on the sheer northwest face where Starr rested. They placed the body in a canvas sack and covered it with rocks. The grave, at 12,000 feet, is the highest known in the Sierra, perhaps the highest in the lower 48 states.
Carmen Starr wrote to Norman Clyde two weeks later. “I know of no words adequate in which to express to you the gratitude I feel for your great efforts which finally resulted in your finding our beloved boy. The knowledge of what had been his actual fate lifted from our hearts a burden that I do not see how we could have lived under.”
In appreciation, the Starrs gave Clyde a stipend for the rest of his life. They encouraged Eichorn to go to college and offered to pay all expenses. He attended UC-Berkeley and earned a degree in music.
Using the final notes his son had assembled, Walter Starr completed Pete’s guidebook, and Starr’s Guide to the John Muir Trail and the High Sierra Region was published in 1934. Seventy years later, it is still in print.
WILLIAM ALSUP is a federal district judge in San Francisco and an avid mountaineer. This article was adapted from his book, Missing in the Minarets (Yosemite Association, 2001).
70 Years Later, an Epitaph
Courtesy of Romain Waczairg
70 Years Later, an Epitaph
by Romain Waczairg
For decades, climbers on Michael Minaret struggled up the vertiginous Sierra rock face without knowing about the man who pioneered several of the routes in the area and fell to his death attempting a new one. Future climbers will know.
On August 30, four mountaineers, including Stanford economics professor Romain Waczairg, ascended Michael Minaret and bolted a memorial plaque near where Peter Starr fell to his death 70 years ago.
Dave Daly, who learned about Starr while reading Missing in the Minarets, conceived the idea for the memorial and led the climb. Waczairg persuaded the Stanford Alumni Association to pay for the plaque. It is located about 300 feet below the summit, in direct view of the ledge where Norman Clyde discovered Starr’s body in 1933. Although the climbers visited Starr’s gravesite, Waczairg says they chose a different, more visible spot to place the plaque—at a junction partway up the mountain, where several routes to the top diverge. “Most people who climb the mountain will go directly past the plaque,” he explains.
Waczairg says the climbing was strenuous, dangerous and unthinkable without a safety rope. It gave him new respect for Starr’s ability. “I’ve done a lot of climbing—I’ve never seen a mountain that was so sheer on all four sides. If you fall, you die,” he says. “I would have rated it about a 5.7.” Anything over 5.0 is considered technical climbing, virtually always performed with a rope and another climber. Recalling that Starr had not only climbed with no rope but in tennis shoes, Waczairg says reverently, “The guy was out of his mind.
“He almost made it,” he adds. “It would have been an amazing climb—to this day, nobody has finished it.”
Read more . . .
My two oldest sisters graduated phi beta kappa from Stanford University in the 1930s, and the story of Peter Starr is perhaps my first memory of the sport of alpine mountaineering or just "mountain climbing", at that time. Also, we knew other mountaineers including Glen Dawson of Dawson's book store in Los Angeles.
His father's wonderful little book Sierra Club Guide to the John Muir Trail and the High Sierra Region by Walter A. Starr was one of my first mountain books. However, I did not get bitten by the bug until I turned 40. Here is part of that story --
The sport of alpine mountaineering