‘Picnic and pilgrimage’ exhibit honors climber Smoke Blanchard
Blanchard pioneered climbing in the area, including the Buttermilks
“For half a century I have tried to promote the idea that mountaineering is best approached as a combination of picnic and pilgrimage. Mountain picnic-pilgrimage is short on aggression and long on satisfaction. I hope that I can show that mild mountaineering can be happily pursued through a long lifetime without posting records. Can a love affair be catalogued?”
– Smoke Blanchard, from his memoir, “Walking Up and Down in the World”
Smoke Blanchard’s love affair with the Eastern Sierra, Bishop and the Buttermilks makes up a large part of the new exhibit at the Eastern California Museum, titled, appropriately, “Smoke Blanchard: Mountain Ramblings, Picnics, and Pilgrimages.” In addition to presenting the pioneering rock climber’s life in Bishop, the exhibit also explores his expeditions to the notable mountain ranges and peaks in the United States and his trips “up and down” the world’s great mountain ranges.
Guest curator Andy Selters also presents Blanchard’s groundbreaking work as one of America’s first international mountain guides. Closer to home, the exhibit details Blanchard’s exploits and approach as head of the unique Palisade School of Mountaineering in Big Pine Canyon starting in 1970. The PSOM was the first commercial climbing school in California, and the many climbers he taught and mentored read like a who’s-who of the climbing world from that era. It was in the Palisades where Blanchard also developed a penchant for showing novices and just interested souls the joy of climbing without the toil and hardship of bagging sharp granite Sierra peaks.
“He took joy in bringing people into the mountains,” said Selters during the exhibit opening.
A curious mind
The multi-faceted Blanchard opened his Bishop home to climbers and mountaineers for years, as part of the non-organized organization, the East Willow Alpine Club. Visitors often found Sierra climbing legend Norman Clyde reclining on Blanchard’s couch, offering commentary and observations about his life in the High Sierra.
Blanchard, like his friend Clyde, was an insatiable reader. But unlike the solitary and stoic Clyde, Blanchard enjoyed people and had “a playful joy of partnering with all kinds of people. He found irony and humor around most any corner,” according to the exhibit’s text panels. “His remarkable mix of spontaneous curi-
osity and focused discipline” helped him to “make the most of every day.”
That curious mind also led him to become a practicing Buddhist, which added a different dimension to his numerous pilgrimages to the mountains of Japan, which the exhibit also explores.
Another unique aspect of Blanchard’s climbing life in the Sierra was that it was a summer occupation. For 30 years he was a longhaul trucker, bringing propane to the Eastern Sierra in the winter. That work gave him all summer to climb, walk and ramble.
Enjoying the climb
One of Blanchard’s favorite places to “ramble” were the Buttermilks. The exhibit has an entire section on Blanchard and the Buttermilks. He would visit the boulders often and created the daunting and unique “Smoke’s Rock Course,” which rambles over the Buttermilks.
“Smoke invented a kind of climbing” in the Buttermilks, “that was totally unique in the world, there was nothing like it,” noted Doug Robinson, during the opening of the exhibit on Oct. 22. Robinson was one of the young climbers who started on his own groundbreaking climbing career in the Palisade School of Mountaineering. Robinson went on to take a prominent place in climbing history by helping develop and lead the “clean climbing” movement in Yosemite, among other high-altitude feats.
Robinson said he arrived in Bishop as a young climber and was directed to Blanchard’s East Willow Street home. He walked in and “there was Norman Clyde on the couch and Smoke.” Robinson then worked at the Palisade climbing school under Blanchard. “He was a kind, firm, wonderful boss.”
Jay Jensen, another noted Yosemite climber who got his start in the PSOM under Blanchard, was a “Bishop kid” when he said he met “Smoke, Norman Clyde, Jules Eichorn” and “that whole generation of climbers.” They gathered in Blanchard’s house, making it an “interesting salon.”
In contrast to some of today’s climbers who seek out “the hardest, longest, tallest, most miserable” climbing projects, “Smoke wanted to also show how to enjoy the process.” Although he had climbed the most challenging routes in the Sierra (Robinson called him, “a badass climber”), he would often guide others “not on the hardest route, but take the most elegant route,” with a mix of terrain, he noted. “He had a populist approach” to climbing and mountaineering.
The exhibit features about 75 photos of Blanchard and many of the climbers of his era who came to the Eastern Sierra. Blanchard’s nephew, James Blanchard, gave Selters access to thousands of his uncle’s photos, which make up the bulk of the exhibit.
Friends and family members also loaned the exhibit artifacts from Blanchard’s life, from climbing ropes, to his expedition jacket, boots and personal items.
Selters researched and wrote the exhibit text, which is a careful examination of Blanchard’s climbing and guiding exploits and personal life. As noted by the speakers at the exhibit’s opening, it was an interesting life well-lived.
The Smoke Blanchard exhibit will be on display through March 24, 2023 at the Eastern California Museum, located at 155 N. Grant Street in Independence, three blocks west of the Historic Inyo County Courthouse. For more information, call (760) 0258.