It was not long after Clyde took to the hills that stories about him began to trickle down, and as he grows older his exploits seem to take on Bunyanesque qualities. Once Clyde's native reticence has been broken, no one likes to talk more than he, and in the stories he will spin by the hour, given the audience, he is the protagonist and, invariably, the hero. He likes to recount how, when the deer season opened one fall, he loaded his shotgun with rock salt and drove unwary deer to high, secluded rocks; how once, carrying all his provisions, he climbed 36 peaks in 36 days in Glacier National Park; how another time he climbed 14,162-foot Mount Shasta three times in four days ("I never went in much for record-breaking stuff," he explains, "because I never thought it wise to risk straining one's heart"); how he skied down 13,635-foot Mount Dade when he was 70; how he has repeatedly rescued lost climbers and found lost bodies when all others had given up; and how, despite all, he has no fear of falling, himself. "I'm a phlegmatic old devil," he says. "I can't worry about this and that happening."
Norman Clyde may then confide that altogether he must have made 1,500 mountain ascents of which at least 200 were first ascents; that carloads of tourists stranded by winter snows owe their lives to him; that the California Academy of Sciences depends upon him for its census of wildlife in this area; and that he once caught 300 trout in 30 days to prove—well, to prove what a first-class fisherman he was. (He still is: not long ago, while instructing a neophyte in flyfishing techniques, his reel came loose and fell into two feet of water. It was two landed-trout later before Clyde bothered to fetch it.)
Because his wants are simple, Clyde has been able to eke out living expenses all these years by hiring himself out as a climbing guide and, occasionally, by writing nature articles for West Coast magazines and newspapers. This summer, for example, he spent six weeks—at $10 a week plus provisions—with an outing of the Sierra Club, an outdoorsy organization whose members share conservation philosophies and white-collar incomes. This particular camp of the club was situated in the Inyo Forest on the east fork of the middle fork of Bishop Creek, an accessible but isolated spot 10,500 feet up and eight miles from the nearest roadhead. Members rode in on horseback; Clyde walked in with a 55-pound pack. For the benefit of untutored naturalists, the camp's staff included a botanist, a geologist and an experienced mountain climber. But with Norman Clyde along all three were somewhat superfluous.
Shepherding a rock-climbing hike one morning—the hikers ranged from little old ladies in cowboy pants to preschoolers in Merry Mites—Clyde led the way from the campsite to Baboon Lake ("a vulgar, hideous name for a beautiful body of water," Clyde said). As he picked the way over the gradually rising terrain, Clyde cited the names of the wild flowers underfoot—the orange Indian paintbrush, the purple owl's clover, the blue lupin, the yellow monkey-flower—and he explained in copious detail why that outcropping of stratified rock was flaked and broken, how this one was roughly buffed by a glacier crunching over it 25,000 years ago. As the hikers listened, he extended his remarks to sketch in the whole geological history of the glaciated canyon they were in, told how it was scraped and shaped by the plastic ice, how the land was altered and the lakes and tarns sculpted out, and how, farther ahead, a remnant of glacial ice still cowered against the side of Mount Thompson. To round out the picture, he switched to zoology and delivered himself of definitive remarks on the area's wildlife, where it was and what it was probably up to at the moment. (Clyde's only failing in mountain lore is his inability to navigate campsites. One black night this summer, as a Sierra Club camper was brushing her teeth, she froze at the approach of a bear in the underbrush. "Pardon me," said the bear, "I think I'm off the path.")
Just a ramshackle shack
For a man whose home is as big as all outdoors, it is perhaps not surprising that when Norman Clyde must descend into the Owens Valley in dead winter, he is content to serve out his term in a make-do, makeshift shelter; for him, after all, it is merely temporary. Consequently, his ramshackle, unelectrified, tin-roofed shack in Big Pine, Calif. is no more than a hovel, made invisible at 20 paces by a dense thicket. About the only signs of order within it, indeed, are trails that Clyde has hacked out through his accumulation of clothes, camping equipment and books. But it is also here that Clyde chips out his nature columns in Victorian prose, and the very recall of the places he has been and the things he has seen the past summer must help relieve the oppressive surroundings.
"I know so much about the mountains," he says, "that I think it would be useful to others if I could pass it along in an appetizing way. I only worry I can never bring to writing the flavor, the beauty and the appeal of the mountains, and that I can't put into words the grandeur that they possess for me. Trouble is too I read too blamed much to get much done."
Inevitably, of course, Clyde must descend the mountains for good, when he is beyond enduring their physical rigors. Then, perhaps, there will be time aplenty for his reading and his writing. But the notion has no appeal for him. How long would he last in the unaccustomed confines of a year-round house? "Frankly," says Norman Asa Clyde, "I can't say as how I'd give a damn."