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TNB: Forgotten Hero - Frank Sacherer 1940-1978


Frank Sacherer was one of the fathers of free climbing. Photo by Glen Denny.Search Wikipedia for “Frank Sacherer,” and you’ll find … nothing, at least not in English. Google him and the first listing is often “Find a Grave,” which tells you that he was born in 1940, was a theoretical physicist and a Yosemite rock climber who died in a mountaineering accident. You will also read that his death was a “grievous loss” to CERN, the organization that operates the Large Hadron Collider, a 27-kilometer-long ring that can smash atoms together at near light speed and recently discovered the so-called “God Particle,” the sub-atomic bit that is said to hold the physical fabric of the universe together.

Most climbers, if they have heard of Sacherer at all, know him only as the first ascentionist of Sacherer Cracker, a stout 5.10 that goes from fingers to offwidth at the base of El Cap. But even to most of those people, Sacherer is simply part of a route name, like the Salathé of Steck/Salathé. Who he was, and his impact on climbing is largely unknown.

Simply put, Frank Sacherer was one of the fathers of free climbing. He was bold. Talented. Driven. Smart. When he was on the Yosemite scene, roughly 1961 to 1965, the order of the day was to climb by any means possible, which usually meant a bit or a lot of aid. Sacherer’s calling was to climb completely free, an almost novel concept at a time when chalk, rock shoes, nuts and cams were as unknown as 5.11, and pitons hammered in on lead were about the only pro. Sacherer, schooled by Jesuits, took the free-climbing ethos so seriously he once threatened to yank his partner, Tom Gerughty, off of Crack of Despair, if he stepped on a bolt to rest on lead. Gerughty made it, barely.

Sacherer the virtuoso helped define modern free climbing, and today we take the definition for granted, but back then he shattered conceptions, and was about the only climber who gave Royal Robbins a run for his money. In 1961, Sacherer raced up the Steck/Salathé on Sentinel Rock in just eight and a half hours, on-sight, besting Royal Robbins’ record by one and a half hours. (Robbins returned later that year, and using knowledge gleaned from his previous four ascents, smoked the route in three hours 14 minutes.)

During his tenure on Yosemite’s especially oily granite and unforgiving cracks, he developed a style peculiar to his audaciousness and wiry physique. “He always climbed on the verge of falling over backwards,” wrote Yvon Chouinard in the 1970 edition of the AAJ, “using no more energy than was necessary to progress and rarely bothering to stop and place protection … Apparently his belayers have been so completely gripped they were unable to use a camera. I have not been able to find a single photograph of Sacherer on a lead!”

Partnered with other anointed names including Steve Roper, Jim Bridwell, Bob Kamps, Galen Rowell and Chuck Pratt, Sacherer blasted off routes that remain on any serious Valley climber’s list of priorities. Ahab, the East Buttress of El Cap, Reed’s Pinnacle, the East Buttress of Middle Cathedral Rock, and Lost Arrow Chimney, the country’s first Grade V, should ring a bell. In all, he made 33 first ascents or first free ascents, a tally bested only by Robbins and Pratt for the era.

Little known is that Sacherer imagined doing the Nose in a day, and climbing it all free—revolutionary thinking in the early 1960s when the Nose was still an infant with just two repeats. To that end, he made at least one free attempt, with Bridwell, and took a breezy fall out of the Stovelegs.

Sacherer moved to Switzerland before he could realize his dreams for the Nose, leaving it to Bridwell, who in 1967, with Jim Stanton, freed climbed the Stovelegs, and who in 1975 climbed the Nose in a day with John Long and Billy Westbay. Sacherer did succeed on some of his free and fast imaginations, making the first one-day ascent of the West Face of Sentinel. A stickler for details, Sacherer carefully considered every item of gear to be carried, even to the point of analyzing candy bars to determine which provided the most energy for its weight.

Sacherer the virtuoso helped define modern free climbing, and today we take the definition for granted, but back then he shattered conceptions, and was about the only climber who gave Royal Robbins a run for his money.Those who climbed with Sacherer knew that he was a disciplinarian, about free climbing, and anything else. In Camp 4: Recollections of a Yosemite Rockclimber, Steve Roper writes that Sacherer was a stickler for being on time, and would leave Camp 4 at 5:00 p.m. on Sunday, when he and anyone who had ridden with him to Yosemite was to begin the drive back to San Francisco. If his riders weren’t on time, he left them.

“His stranded passengers didn’t exactly appreciate this tactic,” writes Roper, “even though they were at fault for missing the deadline.”

In 1962, Roper, then 20, and Sacherer, 21, departing from their standard diet of rock, attempted iced-up slabs on Half Dome. Using ice axes and crampons but no rope, they made good progress until encountering two inches of powder snow over a quarter inch of ice on ever-steepening rock. Roper’s crampons slipped.

Vainly attempting to self-arrest, he rocketed 600 feet to land in a pile of ice debris at the base. Roper, who had lost his glasses, sat up and shouted up that he was OK. With Sacherer’s assistance, he made a harrowing descent and spent two weeks in a hospital. Roper chalked up the accident to “extremely bad judgment in regard to lack of equipment and in attempting to climb the thinly-covered slabs.”

On another climb with Sacherer, Roper again found himself dangerously runout, this time on Pratt’s Crack of Doom, and opted to slither back down the climb rather than risk a 120-foot groundfall. Sacherer berated and called him a “chickenshit.”

Sacherer had a “reckless disregard for falling,” said Roper, and, apparently, expected his partners to fall into lockstep. Sacherer would return with Bridwell for the second free ascent of Crack of Doom, one of Yosemite’s first 5.10s.

Also with Bridwell, in 1964, Sacherer attempted a free ascent of Harding’s aid route the 18-pitch North Buttress of Middle Cathedral. Two years previously, Sacherer had made the first one-day ascent of the wall, and was so verbally abusive to his partner, who was belaying him, that his partner threatened to untie from the anchor.

Sacherer, a “tightly wound Catholic boy,” was prone to outbursts and rarely laughed and even then, according to Roper, “his face would settle into a tight grimace within seconds.”

Bridwell remembers the wiry and freckled Sacherer as “stern,” telling him at the base of the route that he didn’t know if Bridwell was up to the task, but that “we'll soon find out."

The duo started up the wall, unroped, to the first aid eliminate pitch where Sacherer “allowed” Bridwell to tie in. Higher on the route they unroped again, presumably to improve speed. Sacherer cautioned Bridwell to not fall, "because I'll never hear the end of it."

It was a good pairing. Sacherer and Bridwell eliminated all four aid pitches, three at 5.10, the highest grade of the day, in just five and a half hours. Bridwell would go on to make a name for himself in his own right. For Sacherer, however, a weekend climber studying physics, there was a higher calling still.

In 1968 he received his Ph.D. in theoretical physics at the University of California at Berkeley. By 1969 he and his wife, Jan, were living in a VW bus in Europe where they visited 13 countries. Also that year he applied for a job at the Centre European de Recherche Nuclear, or CERN, in Geneva, Switzerland. He was hired a day later.

More might be written about Sacherer’s work in physics than of his climbing. At CERN, Sacherer quickly became one of the world's foremost accelerator theorists, specializing in the collective effects of intense beams with themselves and their surroundings. Even today, theorists at CERN refer to the “Sacherer Frequency” and the “Sacherer Method”—their versions of the Sacherer Cracker—for computing bunched-beam instabilities in a particle accelerator. He published 23 papers on particle physics, and many of these are referenced even today. When in 1984 Simon van der Meer won the Nobel Prize in physics for the discovery of the W and Z bosons, he cited Sacherer’s contributions for helping to pave the way. Annually, there is The Frank Sacherer Prize for making a significant, original contribution to the accelerator field.

Sacherer never fully realized his contributions. While living among the Alps he began alpine climbing in earnest. There were ascents of the Aiguille du Plan, Mont Blanc, the Frendo Spur on the Aiguille du Midi, the Philipp-Flamm Route on the Civetta in the Dolomites and others.

In 1978 he and fellow physicist Joe Weis climbed the immense Shroud, a legendary and coveted ice route on the north face of the Grandes Jorasses near Chamonix, France. Completing the route under blue skies, they topped out to a raging tempest that had been hidden from them on the opposite side of the mountain. Opting to descend the steeper and more technical Hirondelles Ridge rather than the standard route on the Italian face, which can get dangerously loaded with snow, they perished in the storm, possibly from a lightning strike. More than a dozen climbers died during that 10-day storm. Sacherer and Weis had a joint funeral in the Chamonix Chapel and were buried side by side in a single grave in the climber’s section of the cemetery.

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