[Excerpt from Absens et Indagans “The Missing and the Searchers”]
Peter and Matt were not alone in being drawn to the Minarets; the dramatic beauty and mystery of the range have long beckoned to those who yearn to test themselves in the wilderness. One of the most recognizable sections of the Sierra Nevada is the fraternity formed by Mount Ritter and Banner Peak. At 13,157 feet high, Mount Ritter is the highest of the two and distinguished by its symmetrical pyramid shape. A saddle containing snow most of the year joins it to Banner Peak, whose top is more dome-like and only slightly lower at 12,945 feet. Mount Ritter was named for a German geographer by the California Geological Survey, who was responsible for naming many of the peaks in the area. John Muir was the first to summit Mount Ritter, a feat he accomplished in 1872, and his account of being paralyzed by fear and unable to move either up or down while spread-eagled on one of its sheer faces is riveting. Banner Peak was named for the clouds that seem to fly from its peak.
Continuing to the southeast, one’s eye discovers an even more striking result of ancient volcanic eruption and glacial carving. The narrow spires of the Minarets rise starkly from their chutes, thrusting aggressively into the sky like inverted black icicles. If they were part of the landscape of a fantasy novel, they would surely be the lair of a mythical dragon or a powerful warlock.
The Minarets were first known only by number, but gradually, as persistent and wily mountaineers found ways to reach their tops without falling prey to their landslides, glaciers, and sheer faces absent of handholds or footholds, they were named after those who arrived first. Clyde Minaret, the highest Minaret, was named after the esteemed climber Norman Clyde who was called to help search for Peter Starr. Clyde first climbed its 12,281 feet in 1928.
Michael Minaret was named after a Yosemite postmaster and his schoolteacher wife who climbed the 12,276 foot peak together in 1923 while camping at Ediza Lake. Exploring westward, they discovered a notch in the crest through which they could pass to the other side of the Minarets. They then found a chute which they managed to follow up to Michael’s dizzying heights. As they approached the summit, the husband became concerned about his wife’s safety and begged her to wait while he completed the last section, which he described as “the most difficult 300 feet that I ever had the pleasure of climbing.” The couple had met on a Sierra Club hike and lived out their lives in Yosemite Valley where they studied birds and flowers of the region. When you gaze at the Minarets from the east, Michael Minaret hovers slightly behind the main range like a gawky, uneasy visitor who isn’t sure he has been invited to the party.
The entire area is chock-full of inspiring sights with extraordinary vistas in every direction. The blue waters of the aforementioned Ediza Lake contrast with the red and green deposits in the surrounding bluffs. Higher and closer to the range, Lower and Upper Iceberg Lakes are dominated by the gray granite cliffs shooting precariously above their shores. A large hemlock forest grows nearby, adding its “floppy tops” to the palate of natural beauty as though nodding in approval at what the artist has wrought.
Norman Clyde was old school. With his burly, powerful body, fierce wide-spaced eyes gazing evenly out of a craggy, square face, broad–brimmed hat jammed on his head, and ever-present ice axe, he looked as though he had emerged out of a stone cliff carved entirely in granite. While others were mountaineers, he was mountaineering. He was the most acclaimed climber in Sierra history. By 1933, he had made eighty-two first ascents, an almost inconceivable number. He stayed in the back country full time, moving from camp to camp in the summer and living in a caretaker’s cabin in the winter. He earned a very frugal living as a guide or by writing articles.
He had not always been alone. He married in 1915 but lost his wife to tuberculosis only four years later. In 1924, following graduate studies at the University of California, Berkeley, he took a job as a teacher and the principal of the high school in Independence. On Halloween in 1928, he became aware of some “tricks” the students were planning to play on the school. He hid on the grounds, and when the kids appeared, he fired shots to scare them off. Appalled, the parents tried to have him arrested for attempted murder. They were unsuccessful, but the controversy forced his resignation. He would never hold a full-time job again.
After the rest of the search team departed, Clyde considered his options. He wrote later that he believed “it would afford a good deal of consolation to his [Peter’s] parents to know what had happened to him, particularly to be certain that he had not died a lingering death.” Others would say that Clyde was just stubborn.
Eighty years later to the day from when Norman Clyde found Peter Starr’s body, another search and rescue expert was looking for a missing climber he too had never met. Eastern Sierra local Dean Rosnau had been exploring the back country for thirty-nine years and had participated in more than seven hundred SAR missions. After reading about Matt Greene’s disappearance, he told the Sheet, “It would have haunted me, with my skills and my background if I didn’t do something.”
He had searched unsuccessfully on a previous outing, but continued to be pulled to the Ritter Range. He wrote on a climbing website, “I felt a strong leaning towards the Ritter/Banner theory. Frankly, it’s what I would have done had I been in Matthew’s position of wanting a fun, full value day in the mountains.” On July 17, it was among the few areas that still had snow and ice and would have been within Matt’s reach from Shady Rest Campground if he took the shuttle or caught a ride to Reds Meadow. Because of the text at 3:00 a.m., some believed that he might have started out very early that morning. And then there were the missing pages from his guidebook. Even with that focus, however, Rosnau said that one hundred professional searchers could spend the rest of their lives looking in the two hundred thousand acres of the now-named Ansel Adams Wilderness and never find him.
In 2014, Matt’s dad, Bob, traveled to Mammoth Lakes to undertake a rigorous one-man search over the course of the summer. From Pennsylvania, he had initiated an email correspondence with Rosnau who was initially opposed to this endeavor and wrote later he threw “everything at him” to try to talk him out of it. He emphasized the likelihood that an out-of-shape sixty-seven-year-old would get into trouble in such dangerous terrain at altitude and the unlikelihood that he would find anything. He did not anticipate the determination of a grieving father looking for his missing son. Unwavering, Bob began training with a forty-five-pound pack, going for long hikes around the wintery Pennsylvania countryside, including local areas of the Appalachian Trail. He lost weight, bought gear, and arranged for a condo. He was, in Rosnau’s words, “a man with a mission.”
In recounting these parallel tragedies, the writer is obliged to recognize that, no matter her compassion and sympathy, her words will fail to fully render the tourbillion of emotions suffered by the friends and families of the missing. Indeed they themselves recognize that however useful words are for everyday living, there are times in which they forsake us.
In early 2015, another climber, haunted by the events surrounding Matt’s disappearance, dreamed of bringing solace to the Greene family. As a moderator of the High Sierra Topix mountaineering website, Maverick could access the most talented of its subscribers and began organizing an effort to return to the Ritter Range and scour it with a group of volunteers. By March, a large number of experienced climbers had expressed interest in participating, and SAR experts, some with forty years of experience, were working with Maverick on an investigation into what had happened. Despite never having met Matt, Maverick told me in an interview, “I want to do this for a fellow mountaineering brother. Our passion for the mountains binds us all together.” The group set plans to return just after Labor Day 2015.
The stories also reveal what unites those who are driven to find their brethren when they go missing. The searchers, the indagans, are haunted by the missing, the absens, and go to great effort even at personal risk to discover the answer to the question that I asked on the shuttle: What happened? Even after hope for a rescue has winked out, they continue to look, hoping to find resolution for the families of the missing and for themselves. After the tragic death of adventurers, we attempt to temper grief with the clichéd adage that “at least they died doing what they loved.” The plight of the searchers teaches us what cold comfort that dispassionate reckoning offers. Unable to move on, the searchers persist—determined to reach the end of the story, to uncover what happened to someone who played the odds and lost, and perhaps to gain insight into their own mortality.
© 2017 Jennifer K. Crittenden