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The Nature of Memory

There are things I remember and things I have forgotten; some memories come together as I look through the boxes of photographs and notes unearthed from the storage loft. The cobwebs and dimness there echo my frame of mind. Do I really want to remember those times forty-five years ago when Don Jensen and I were together in the Palisades?

Don and Joan Jensen on the Palisade Crest, June 1968. On the back of the photo, Joan says, “is the notation in the Gothic script that Don sometimes used…’to EmBeth & Howard [friends of the couple], as a token of your honoring us at our wedding.'” Don and Joan were married in the Palisades, a region they loved. [Photo] Bob Swift/courtesy Joan Jensen

After Don died while biking to work in Aberdeen, Scotland, I tried to dissociate myself from moments that would have been painful to recall. Apparently, I was successful, as I now find those ancient memories almost nonexistent. But searching through the old boxes to enable someone other than myself to write about those times has helped release me from sorrow.

If he had survived beyond his thirtieth year, what would have been his life’s path? Mathematician/logician, equipment designer, photographer/artist, teacher and inspirer of others? Whatever it was, it would have been accomplished with enthusiasm, a sense of humor and eagerness for exploration and discovery.

Don didn’t dwell on the past: I rarely heard him mention the Alaska climbs he undertook prior to our meeting. But he did try to envision the future. In November 1970, after we’d been together for four years, he wrote:

“Now we should begin…to encourage our real excitement about life. It is over five years since my last (Huntington) really expensive expedition to Alaska, and our own Alaska exploration/escape [from LA] is one of my first promises to Joan–the time is overdue.”

Instead of his planning another expedition with his climbing buddies, Don and I wanted to try living in a remote area of Alaska. He wrote: “I felt I could have become the greatest of mountaineers–but chose to integrate the joy of the mountains into my life–instead of making it control my life.” In life, as in climbing, I went wherever his joy for the mountains took us. He was the kind of man you could trust with your health and safety, and I did. In the years after his death, I never found anyone else about whom I felt this way, and so I never climbed again.

Still, a few memories stand out from the haze of forty-five years. There is my first summit in the Palisades, a peak whose name I can’t recall, with Don: 360 degrees of rock, snow and glacier below us on a glorious, sunny summer morning. And there is the moment of waking up on a narrow ledge thousands of feet above the Palisade Glacier, watching the sun rise over the Owens Valley, with us–or at least our sleeping bags–anchored to the rock behind.

That might also have been on the trip I wasn’t supposed to be on: The guides at PSOM wanted to go to Palisade Basin and were strongly against having me along, not because I couldn’t climb, but because they thought I might raise a fuss. Finally, after some pressure from Don, I was allowed to join, but I was expressly told to keep my mouth shut and not complain. On the ascent to the pass, Bob Swift’s long stride leading through the ice and snow was too wide for me, but I never said a word. Don noticed the problem and cut additional, shorter steps that I could use.

A portrait of Jensen. David Roberts, who climbed with Jensen in Alaska, wrote in the 1974 American Alpine Journal obituary: “The style of Don’s climbs, the special stamp he left on them, came from a blend of daring scheme and methodical preparation. He would choose the route or the mountain; then began a kind of brooding, full of diagrams and logistical data, during which all his other worldly concerns atrophied. Once on the mountain, he made the place livable, familiar, his own: to be his best there, he had to endure the mountain with the quirks and echoes and scenic furniture of home.” [Photo] courtesy Joan Jensen.

On another occasion, Don and I went to Palisade Basin to leave a cache of equipment for the guiding season. The most reasonable container was a 40-gallon metal garbage can, which Don strapped on to his pack. Off we went, up and over the crest into the basin. Presumably the cache is still there, hidden in the depressed area next to a huge boulder.

The pack he used, or at least the sack, was of his own design. Don made most of his own equipment: either he didn’t like the available designs or he didn’t have the money. His motto was “go light”–I would count pieces of toilet paper so as not to have to pack the whole roll.

Don also calculated the number of calories needed. For winter excursions, breakfast was instant oatmeal and dried buttermilk powder mixed with hot water. Lunch under the crisp blue winter sky was cheese, crackers and hard salami, shared with the Steller’s jays perched in the scrubby trees. Dinner we called “glop”: instant rice, dried soup mix, canned meat or tuna. A splurge was an onion, which livened up the one-pot brew. A dram of apricot brandy was our reward before calling it a night.

Although we spent most of our time in the Palisades during summer climbing-school season, my sharpest memories are from the winter. We would drive from LA in Don’s VW Bug to camp near the trailhead. The owners of Glacier Lodge lived there year-round, and thus the road along Big Pine Creek was plowed (most of the time), eliminating a long trudge.

I had first met Don when he was giving a talk on Mt. Huntington to the Fresno Sierra Club during the autumn of, probably, 1966. He wanted to show me his beloved Palisades, and he planned a ski-mountaineering trip during term break. It was to be my first overnight experience in winter. We strapped on our skins over wide, heavy mountaineering skis and headed up the trail. I loved the serenity and purity of our snow-blanketed surroundings.

Late that afternoon, after we’d settled into our camp, he began preparing our glop. Then the stove malfunctioned, and the tent caught fire. We managed to get out (not difficult, because the thin ripstop nylon melted easily), but the tent was ruined and one of Don’s boots was damaged. Because of the severe cold, we had no choice except to make our way down to the lodge, following our ski tracks back through the moonlit forest. We stayed the remainder of the night in one of the empty cabins, thankful for a roof over our heads. A few years afterward, we were married, so obviously the scare didn’t diminish my opinion of him. In fact, it might have improved his chances with me, as I saw how calmly he executed our emergency descent (though I can’t imagine the names he was calling himself while doing this).

Of a later experience, Don wrote:

“On Thanksgiving afternoon we walked from Sage Flats in new snow. There were perhaps a dozen ‘winter hikers’–some years ago we would have been alone. The next day we had passed all and waded to the overlook beyond the Black Lake Trail–we had abandoned our minimal hardware selection and skis near the roadhead, seeing their inutility (and ill repair respectively). Due to the big work push this fall [on Don’s PhD], we have not been able to escape the traffictional field of LA prior to this, and we needed desperately what we got–to see plumes of snow blow off Temple Crag, and to be alone–but as dusk was deepening, our grateful solitude was interrupted by two persistent followers. I guess we were not as cordial as they had expected–but we were both honestly angry. As Joan said later, they were new and enthusiastic to the winter mountain scene and could in no way understand the extent to which we needed to be alone there….”

It was these opportunities to be alone together and away from the crowds of LA, and even of Bishop, that interwove and cemented our relationship. They are what I remember most vividly of the years I was fortunate to share with my soulmate, Don Jensen.

[Photo] David Stark Wilson

This week, we’re publishing the four essays from the Palisades Mountain Profile, including Joan Jensen’s thoughts on “The Nature of Memory” and Cam Burns’s retelling of his “backside” adventures with Steve Porcella. Daniel Arnold tracks the histories of the Palisades’ early pioneers while Peter Croft does what Peter Croft does best. We’re also publishing a bonus essay by Steve Porcella about his quest for the “remote, barren, trailless, treeless, oxygenless and peopleless,” where he finds out what it is to really know a mountain range. CLICK HERE to read the essays as they progressively become available, or purchase a copy of the entire issue in our online store.–Ed.