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Pillsbury's youngest son, Arthur Francis, recalls carrying camera equipment up the back of Half Dome when he was eight years old.  This was all in a day's for for a member of the Pillsbury Picture Company.  But in 1915 a group of friends and acquaintances decided to mount their own assault on the Dome and as part of the experience assisted in the installation of a new aid to later climbers.    

Ascents of Half Dome have been chronicled on the Stanford history site, which includes the Pillsbury Party of 1915 and its various members, several of whom where Stanford students.   


The account below is copied from their site with a link so you can read more about other ascents! 

915: Pillsbury's Rope

Ascenders: Pillsbury, Murray, Marx, Anspach, Templeton, Putnam, Brake, Vandervort, eight or nine others

The first brief note about Arthur Pillsbury's Half Dome ascent appers to have been printed in the Mariposa Gazette:

Mariposa Gazette, August 7, 1915, p. 1:

A.C. Pillsbury headed an interesting group of climbers who made ascent of Half Dome recently. In the party of seventeen were six ladies. A ladder of spikes was their means of accomplishing this dangerous and difficult feat. Mr. Pillsbury took motion pictures of the scene.

Seven days later, the Los Angeles Times had more to say about this trip:
Pillsbury's party at Half Dome in 1915

The Pillsbury party at Half Dome,
in August 1915

Los Angeles Times, August 15, 1915, p. V12

Where Human Foot Had Never Trod
Angelenos scale the famous Hanging Rock,
Regarded as an Impossible Climb Even by Expert Mountaineers
Ascent of Half Dome - 1915 
Fighting their way to the top of Half Dome, the most inaccessible point on any of the mountains about the Yosemite Valley, A. C. Pillsbury and seventeen college students, several from this city, spent last Saturday night on the summit and made the descent the next day.

This is the first time on record that a party of tourists has ever scaled the mountain, and reached the top of the dome. The summit is 9500 feet above sea level and the last 1000 feet of the climb was made with rope ladders[!] The grade is said to average 75 per cent.

The picture shows the party at the point of the dome, which rises hundreds of feet above a massive rock on the top of the mountain proper[?!] The rock itself is 1000 feet high. The overhanging rock at the summit of the dome projects out from the wall eighty feet and the rock slab on which a venturesome student is seated sticks eight feet out into yawning space. There is a sheer drop of 3000 feet from this point.

The party spent one night on the point and built a huge bonfire that lighted up the surrounding heights for miles, to the delight of many tourists on the floor of the valley who had observed the climbers through field glasses during the afternoon. At midnight the bonfire was pushed over the point, making the longest stream of falling fire in the history of the State.

A. C. Pillsbury, who was guide for the party, is a well-known photographer. He packed his motion-picture camera to the top and took several reels of film depicting the cloud and moonlight effects, as well as the vista observed from that point.

Six girls were in the party. All of them are students at Stanford University...

(Also reprinted in the Charlotte Daily Observer, North Carolina, September 9, 1915, p. 4)

There was a quick reaction to this extremely sloppy written report. However, the letter writer, Henry Zenas Osborne, was equally unaware of all post-1881 ascents, as was the Times reporter:

Los Angeles Times, August 17, 1915, p. II5

Climbing the Half Dome

Los Angeles, Aug. 16 — To the Editor of the Times: The feat of seventeen college students, several from this city, accompanied by the photographer A. C. Pillsbury, of climbing the Half Dome in the Yosemite Valley..., is a very notable achievement in mountain climbing.

But it is not quite accurate to say that "this is the first time on record that the top of the Dome has been reached by human beings", although it is probably true it has not been done during the last thirty years...

H. Z. Osborne

In the rest of the article, Osborne describes his 1881 ascent, in order to prove his point about Pillsbury's climb not being the first ascent of Half Dome. See the first part of these Chronicles for more details about the Osborne-Gassaway party.

Strangely and unfortunately, Stanford or Palo Alto newspapers from Aug/Sep 1915, did not mention Pillsbury's ascent, or named Stanford students who had participated.

It appears that Pillsbury (or the National Park Service?) made some improvements on the Half Dome route in the summer of 1916:

Mariposa Gazette, July 15, 1916, p. 1:

Half Dome — New iron pegs, soldered with melted sulfur, have replaced the old and a new half-inch Manila rope had been stretched from top to bottom. Headed by A.C. Pillsbury, a party of sixteen went up to the summit of the Dome after completing the safety measures.

We can learn a few more details and names of some of participants of the 1915 climb from a letter to the editor, published in the San Francisco Chronicle, in August 1932. Seventeen years after the climb, Charles Thomas Vandervort, a member of the Pillsbury party, wrote:

San Francisco Chronicle, August 13, 1932, p. 12

Editor, The Chronicle — Sir: I noticed in yesterday's Chronicle an account coming out of Yosemite under date of August 8 [1932] setting forth the mountain climbing exploits of Warren Loose and Jean Husted. I do not wish in any way to detract from the noteworthy achievement of Mr. Loose and Miss Husted, on the contrary, I believe it should have due acclaim...; but in establishing mountain records and climbing to highest peaks we must remember the generations which have gone before.

The statement that "Loose and Elden Dryer were the first to reach the top of Half Dome without the aid of rope or cable" is not only untrue but shows a great lack of knowledge of what I call the "middle" history of the great Tissiack. Most books on the subject state that Anderson first climbed this peak in the seventies and then go on to describe the cable which was attached in 1919. Between these dates many mountaineers visited the Yosemite and to them Half Dome was not only an inspiration but a challenge. I climbed Half Dome unaided by rope or cable, once in 1915 and eight times in 1916, but I was not the first to accomplish this feat.

During the summer of 1915, Mr. Pillsbury succeeded in raising enough money for 900 feet of substantial rope for Half Dome and a group of eight college men volunteered to put it up. I was first up with the new rope. Other members of the party were the late Bay Murray, son of Professor Murray of Stanford University; young Marx, son of Professor Marx of the same institution; Mr. Anpach [Anspach], now a practicing attorney at Glendale, Cal. The event was recorded in motion pictures by Mr. Pillsbury from a perilous position on the side of the mountain, where we suspended him by a rope. After the rope was established, others climbed the mountain to help commemorate the event. My pictures of the party on top show the faces of "Dink" Templeton, Miss Dorothy Putnam of Stanford and Miss Ann Brake of the University of California...

Charles T. Vandervort
Menlo Park, Aug. 10, 1932.

"Bay Murray" is Francis King Murray (1895-1929), a son of Prof. of Greek at Stanford, Augustus Taber Murray (1866-1940). Onetime Leland Stanford footballer and trackman, and prominent in college dramatics, where he earned the nickname "Bay". Graduated in 1917, with Phi Beta Kappa rank. Died of kidney failure in Boston, in 1929. Obituaries in the Time (magazine), Monday, April 15, 1929, and the New York Times, April 3, 1929. p. 25. Survived by his wife and three children.

There were two professors Marx at Stanford, brothers Charles David Marx (1857-1939) and Guido Hugo Marx (1871-1949), both working in the School of Engineering. Each brother had a son and three daughters. "Young Marx" was probably Charles' eldest child, Roland Grotecloss Marx (1889-1976). Roland got his AB in Civil Engineering (Stanford class of 1911), and continued studying at Stanford for a higher degree. He was an early radio amateur at Stanford. It is less likely that "young Marx" was referring to his cousin, Guido Van Dusen Marx (1900-1939). Guido was professor Guido H. Marx's son, but he was probably still in high school during Pillsbury's ascent.

"Mr. Anpach" is Wilmur Claire Anspach (1894-1955). He got his AB (Pre-legal) at Stanford, class of 1917, then a degree from Harvard. Stanford's Quad 1917 lists him playing cornet in Stanford University Orchestra (together with Charles Vandervort, clarinet!). He began working as attorney in Glendale in 1922. Wilmur and his wife Sue Lively (Anspach) had two children.

"Dink Templeton" refers to a star athlete and a talented coach at Stanford University, Robert Lyman Templeton (1897-1962). His life is well documented on the Web.

Dorothy Putnam (1890-1970) was born in Illinois, and after studying for two years at University of Illinois, transferred to Stanford and got her AB in History, class of 1916. Next year she received her high school teaching credentials, but stayed at Stanford as secretary of the School of Education, and as departmental librarian. She described her experience at this function in "[Ellwood] Cubberley as Known by His Secretary," in the California Quarterly of Secondary Education, Vol. 8 (April 1933), pp. 243-244. She may have left that job after 1937. In the "Stanford Alumni directory" printed in 1956, her unconfirmed address was in Salinas, California. She died in Palo Alto, in 1970.
San Jose Mercury Herald reports Miss Anna Brake just returning from Yosemite.

From the San Jose Mercury Herald
August 15, 1915, p. 27.

"Ann Brake" was Anna Beatrice Brake (1896-1977). She was described as a first year student in Letters and Science, from San Jose, in the 1914-1915 University of California Register. An issue of San Francisco Chronicle of November 12, 1916, p. 52, briefly mentioned her in an article entitled New Talent in Cast of U. C. Junior Farce: "...Among the newcomers, who are famed for their good looks already, and who promise to make their marks in college theatricals are Jessie Todhunter, Ann Brake, Katherine Woolsey, [and others]". In her Senior year at Berkeley, she was awarded Phoebe A. Hearst Scholarship. She graduated in the class of 1918, then got a nursing degree from the Bellevue Hospital of New York City in 1921. In 1922, in a wedding ceremony in the Yosemite Valley, she married Dr. Morton Ryder, a New York physician. They lived in Rye, N.Y., and had three children. Anna died in Carmel, N.Y., in 1977.

Charles Thomas Vandervort (1892-1980) was born in South Dakota, and died in Southern California. He got his Pre-legal AB at Stanford in the class of 1917. Stanford's Quad 1917 lists him playing clarinet in Stanford University Orchestra (together with Wilmur Anspach, cornet!). After Stanford, he spent some time in the Army. In 1922, when he became "commandant" of William Warren School (private military school, later Menlo Junior College, in Menlo Park, California), his title was "Major Vandervort". In the late twenties he submitted his MA Thesis to the Department of Education at Stanford ("Military Training in the Secondary Schools of the United States", 1929).

Arthur Clarence Pillsbury (1870-1946) was a well known photographer. He studied Mechanical Engineering at Stanford University, and was preoccupied with cameras and photography while still a student. After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake he left Bay Area and purchased a studio in Yosemite Valley, where he was a licensed photographer at the time of the 1915 ascent of Half Dome.

What happened to Pillsbury's "motion picture"?

What happened to the movie that Pillsbury had made during his trip? It was certainly frequently screened in 1916, as the following newspaper articles attest. However, its further destiny remains a mystery to me. Could it still be preserved in a movie archive, or in a Sierra Club depository?