The Sierra Club High Trips and why women liked them

In the High Trips, for about thirty years at the start of the 20th century, the Sierra Club as a mountaineering club peaked, surely. On those brilliantly organized journeys, as many as 200 people at time went into the High Sierras, having committed to a walk of a minimum of two hundred miles, over several weeks of hiking. Though the club's founder John Muir was too old and too busy battling the Hetch-Hetch Dam to go, he greatly encouraged these trips, and they were led by the likes of Norman Clyde and David Brower, with great campfire talks and performances as well as great mountains. 

This was a highly evolved society, divided (roughly) into "mountaineers." of the likes of Muir and Brower and Clyde, and "meadoweers" who didn't care for the heights. (Likely I would have been one of the latter number, had I been so fortunate to have been present on the trip.) 

When I talked to Brower on this and other topics, a few years ago, he bemoaned the fact that the National Park Service will no longer approve long trips for Sierra Club backpacking groups. The limit (in the Sierra, at least) today is about eight days.

In his gentle but insistent way, Brower argued that the transformative power of the wilderness is lost if it is restricted to a handful of days. 

True, and perhaps the time has come to remember those extraordinary trips, before everyone alive who remembers them has passed away…for one, the camp photographers included Cedric Wright and Ansel Adams! Here's my fav pic from their 1929 efforts, by Wright, showing a High Trips expedition summiting at Mount Resplendent:

[Sorry about the angle: comes directly from the hand set Bulletin (pdf).]

These High Trips were for the elite of the Sierra Club, and set out to attract intrepid women, and succeeded (although the trips were predominantly male, the women who did go were as adventurous as any man).  

In her gender study of women in the wilderness, "Nature's Altars," Susan Schrepfer finds some interesting examples of women who were drawn to the wilderness because it gave both them and their mates a chance to shed their gender roles. That was part of the idea of the High Trips, that women weren't the domestic slaves. Wasn't easy on these trips, but after a day of mountaineering, a woman didn't have to do the dishes too. 

The club secretary, William Colby, made this clear in a letter to applicants to the High Trips: 

The irksome duties of cooking, dishwashing, and provisioning will be turned over entirely to a commissary department. All transportation of outfits, etc., will be attended to by a committee, such relieving the party of all drudgery and leaving their time entirely free for the enjoyment of scenery and mountain life. The trip will be particularly attractive for women, and every effort made to secure comfort usually lacking in excursions to the high mountains.

Isn't that a dream? "To relieve the party of all drudgery."

Only in California…

Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: