YES, I KNEW SOMETHING of the great mountaineer Don Jensen; after all, I bore witness to his Sierran legacy with every ramble up either fork of the Sierra Nevada’s Big Pine Creek. But I didn’t really know Jensen, nor did but a handful of people. Last summer, while interning at Alpinist Magazine, I set out to discover who he was. By summer’s end I learned far more than the details I sought. He was, after all, the central figure in two books considered monumental in the modern mountaineering literary canon.
Prying into lives isn’t out of the ordinary for profile-writing journalists—I’ve written a few—but never before had I attempted to know someone whose last words had been uttered so long ago. Finding Jensen was to become a journey that bordered on nothing less than obsession, and at summer’s end, I learned far more than the simple details that I sought.
The search was complicated because Don Jensen wasn’t there to speak for himself; he mainly existed in the memories of others, a smoky figure whose story ignites, flickers, and then disappears. He died at thirty, and based on a paucity of published works – he seemed content to let others do the documenting of his expeditions – he left us with few clues about his inner life.
Where to begin? There were, of course, the memoirs of David Roberts, who met Jensen at the Harvard Mountaineering Club and famously wrote about him in his accounts of the Huntington (The Mountain of My Fear) and Deborah (Deborah: A Wilderness Narrative) expeditions, and in his memoir, On the Ridge Between Life and Death. Roberts called Jensen the climbing partner with whom he “had wound my half of our double helix of destiny, had plotted a limitless future of unclimbed mountains all over the globe,” and he chronicled their adventures in intense psychological detail, sketching Jensen as a brilliant and inventive but lonesome figure who chafed at Harvard’s insular culture and city life.
When Cambridge grew claustrophobic, Jensen decamped for his home range, the Sierra Nevada, and “his beloved Palisades.” And then in 1964, Jensen left Harvard for good. He returned to California, enrolled at Fresno State College, and guided summers in the Palisades for Larry Williams’ Mountaineering Guide Service and later for the Palisade School of Mountaineering. Roberts mentioned that Jensen was a defensive lineman on his high school football team, and I was later to learn that he attended Las Lomas High, in his hometown of Walnut Creek. I emailed Roberts several times, but never heard from him.
I also knew from Doug Robinson’s stories that Jensen had wandered the Sierra alone in the early Sixties, spent a winter below Middle Palisade, guided at the Palisade School of Mountaineering and roamed between the glacier and the backside of the Sierra Crest as casually as a Greenwich Village habitue of the era might have strolled between the Cafe Wha and Washington Square Park. Given his climbing vita and knowledge of the place, he was undoubtedly the strongest alpinist working at PSOM, or perhaps in the entire Sierra. He and Joan Vyverberg married in July of 1968. They held the ceremony near Glacier Lodge, and hosted a feast for a few friends on the so-called Banquet Boulder, an enormous flat-topped erratic up the North Fork of Big Pine Creek.
In the late autumn of the previous year, I had hiked up the North Fork with Robinson, who knew Jensen from PSOM days. Robinson veered off the trail to visit the Banquet Boulder on the way up to Second Lake. He recounted how fortunate he had been to have Jensen as a mentor. “He was, without a doubt, the most advanced Alaska mountaineer at the time – and unbelievably, he was here!” (Read more about Robinson’s relationship with Jensen and his years in the Palisades in the Alpinist 48 Mountain Profile)
I asked Robinson what had become of Joan, and he shrugged, said something about “maybe Canada,” and that was it.
And now, six months later, I was determined to find her, because she was obviously the missing link. If I could contact her in time, maybe she’d even consider writing an essay for the upcoming issue of the magazine. I scoured online databases for two days, and finally found a Joan nee Vyverberg in Florida. I was able to track down her phone number, left several messages, but received no reply. I found her daughter on Facebook, IM’d her with the reason for my interest, and received a terse reply that made clear that this was not Don’s Joan: “My mother has never climbed anything in her life.”
I next launched a search for Larry Horton, who had formed Rivendell Mountain Works in the early Sixties to bring Jensen’s backpack and tent designs to market; I figured he would have worked closely with Jensen at some point in the start-up process, and he might be able to shed some light on Jensen’s personality. Horton is now a Doctor of Oriental Medicine, and his practice is in Albuquerque, so I found his website, filled out a contact form with a request to chat, and heard from him later in the day. When we connected he told me that he hadn’t talked about Rivendell Mountain Works in years. To Horton, the Jensen Pack represented not just a product he once made and sold, but an entire way of life, and I sensed that revisiting these memories both pleased and pained him, the latter of which I later learned was my own projection, an ineffable sense of loss I felt, perhaps, from superimposing a subtext regarding the destruction of the idyllic, the venality of the marketplace. He recounted the joy of building a small and socially responsible gear manufactory in Victor, Idaho, and the sorrow of forfeiting it to his creditors. When I asked him about Jensen, he remembered the man’s genius, but otherwise had surprisingly little else to say. As for Joan: they hadn’t corresponded in decades. Later that day, Horton emailed me scans of Don’s hand-drawn pack patterns, along with a link to several Rivendell brochures and an ancient Rolodex card with Joan Jensen’s address and phone number. I recognized the Walnut Creek address as the Jensen family home. Both of Jensen’s parents were long dead, but I dialed the number anyway, with predictable results.
I called Don Wittenberger, the founder of YakWorks and the YakPack, who purchased Rivendell’s assets in 1981; his sole licensee, Eric Hardee, still sews Jensen Packs on a bespoke basis. Wittenberger told me that he was inspired to acquire the company out of respect for Jensen’s genius. “I thought his designs should live on,” he said. He had no information about Joan’s whereabouts, but he was keenly interested in finding her. Later, Wittenberger emailed me a letter from Joan to Larry Horton written in the mid-Seventies; the return address it bore was from a horse ranch in the Yukon. Harried searches in that region turned up nothing, but at least I knew that Joan had once migrated north.
Meanwhile, I had become so fixated on finding Joan that I had forgotten about Lin Jensen, Don’s brother, whom Roberts mentions in On the Ridge Between Life and Death. Horton, however, remembered Lin, found him using search, corresponded with him, and forwarded me his email address. I wrote Lin, Lin wrote Joan, Joan emailed me, and we scheduled a call for the following day. And just like that, thanks to Larry Horton, I’d be speaking with Don Jensen’s wife.
As I dialed Joan’s number on a humid Vermont evening, I tried to imagine how she might be feeling waiting for my call. Anxious? I knew I certainly was. But all I had to do was ask questions; she would have to inhabit that long-ago sliver of time to answer them. Later I would find out that Joan’s memory of the Sierra surfaced while on a walk two weeks before our call; the redolence of the air reminded her of early mornings in the Palisades which was strange, because she rarely thought about her years in the Sierra. In fact, she had never talked about her former life with the friends in the small town in which she had resided for thirty-five years. As with Horton, I would both facilitate the conversation and hold the psychic space, and despite my desire to have all of my questions answered that evening, I didn’t want to overstay my welcome. We spoke for nearly three hours. Joan had been in the midst of a graduate program at the University of Washington when she moved to Fresno to conduct meteorological research. One evening she wandered into a small Sierra Club slideshow given by a Fresno State College student by the name of Don Jensen who had climbed a bit in the Alaska Range. They took up together immediately, which Joan writes about here.
Their seven years together were wonderful and far too few. They married in 1968. She moved to Los Angeles to join Jensen in a small, plain apartment located next to the University of Southern California, where he was completing a Ph.D. in mathematical logic. They spent summers in the Palisades; Jensen guided while Joan worked as PSOM’s camp cook. Joan became a proficient climber, and they put up a new route on Temple Crag (Surgicle, II, 5.7), early repeats on the Celestial Aretes, and the first traverse of the fifth-class Palisade Crest. Jensen eventually earned his doctorate and searched for work in Canada to escape being drafted into the Vietnam War. They traveled to Chamonix and the Yukon’s Ross River, where they built a shack and staked a claim on the land; they planned to return and build a cabin. Jensen eventually found a post at the University of Waterloo in Ontario.
They spent two years there before he received a one-year post-doc fellowship at Scotland’s University of Aberdeen, where they moved in 1973. Jensen was killed that autumn, struck by a lorry while riding a bike to school on any icy November morning. After his death, Joan stayed on at the school; she had nowhere else to go. The renowned World War II code breaker, R.V. Jones, the chair of the Natural Philosophy Department where Joan worked, extended Jensen’s fellowship to her. She remained for six months, and then returned to Waterloo in the summer of ’74, packed up their house and put most of the belongings in storage. She returned to the Yukon, where she worked at a mill pulling and grading lumber. Eventually, she moved to a small community in northern British Columbia, which she’s never left.
“We were soul mates,” said Joan. “We loved doing the same things. We were enmeshed.”
I asked about the moodiness Roberts had written about in Deborah.
“I never saw any of that,” she said. “He was really fun to live with, enthusiastic about what he was doing, whether it was math, or climbing or cooking. His enthusiasm would transfer to people. And he was thoughtful. He had ideas about different, interesting things to do. He supported me, encouraged me. That’s what made him such a great guide,” she said. “His clients always loved him. He was gentle and encouraging. He’d make suggestions, but in a kind way.”
I asked her how he carried himself, how he came across. Joan described him as about 5’8,” lean, well muscled. He spoke in a confident but quiet baritone. She described the injury to his lip, which he had sustained in a crevasse fall when he and Roberts were retreating from Deborah: it looked like a cleft palate surgery scar. Later in life, Jensen wore a beard. He was self-assured, but he hadn’t always been so; he was overweight in high school, and the family doctor told him to lose weight, which he did by climbing Mt. Diablo daily.
It was time to bring the conversation to an end. Of course, she’d be happy to write an essay about her years with Don in the Palisades Yes, some of Don’s possessions were stowed in her attic: gear, inventions, and photographs, an ice axe, and more (unfortunately, no Jensen Pack). She remembered shipping several boxes of Don’s letters to the University of Wyoming after being contacted by Gene Gressley, the director of a new museum on campus. She assumed the documents were still in Laramie, and a quick phone call confirmed that they were.
The Jensen Archives
In late August I was seated at the University of Wyoming’s American Heritage Center, awaiting the delivery of the Don C. Jensen Collection, which was packaged in four rectangular archival boxes.
As I lifted the lid from the first arbitrarily chosen carton, I sensed that I was about to peer into a sarcophagus; few if any had explored these papers since they had arrived in the mid-70s. The musty odor of decades-old paperwork and leather journal covers and clippings effervesced from the dim holdings, light hit the contents, et voila: neatly organized by expedition were Jensen’s voluminous notes and ephemera: Deborah (1964), Huntington (1965), and Deborah (1967). Each file contained a small journal and dozens of pages of expedition logistics, maps, photographs, letters, newspaper clippings, and scribblings about gear designs. I realized I’d need half a day to wade through this box alone. Meanwhile, in “Deborah 1964” I came across a piece of ruled notebook paper, notes for various gear he planned to make, including a new backpack. Jensen had written in pencil, and the graphite etchings were faded but distinct:
“[T]hese should be extremely light (perhaps ripstop). They should be large enough to relay loads…must be small enough to be useful…must be able to carry sleeping bag conveniently and flatly – must be able to withstand rappel. Perhaps combination day pack belt bag…” These incipient musings, of course, would form the basis of Jensen’s eponymous pack.
The sheaves of meticulous notes and and logic-bound planning documents and the gear sketches: these I had expected to find; in fact, Roberts talked about Jensen’s obsessive expedition planning, which he carried out with such single-minded purpose that he nearly flunked out of Harvard.
What I didn’t expect to find, however, was what I was looking for all along: Jensen himself. I found him in his journals from the two expeditions to Mt. Deborah.
The young man – boy, really – that Roberts once described as “earnest,” and who preferred to keep his own company, was revealed as a deep thinker with a sensitive demeanor and keen self-awareness. He was both open-minded and generous of spirit. Anyone who has read Roberts’ account of Deborah ’64 will appreciate the honesty and insight with which he analyzed his own role in the incessant bickering and psychological processing that took place on that expedition, which, at times, resembled an alpine version of an encounter group. Jensen was keenly attuned to those dynamics, and forgave himself and Roberts for their tetchiness. In Jensen’s words:
We had an argument this morning about each others habits and personalities etc. These occur almost automatically and with little real hard feelings because they are almost always followed by an open discussion and much good will — it seems that both of these extremes of our relationship are necessary on such a 2 man expedition where the possibilities of various personal relationships are so limited- I am really amazed at how hot and yet unprovoked and unprovoking the arguments are – totally automatic. We have had long discussions about them, our mutual relationship – past present and future – our individual relationships with other of our friends…
Jensen also described his dreams; in some he faced death, and in another, late in the expedition, he dreamed meeting two women on a country road and having a picnic with them, which surprised him, since it was his first dream with female characters.
“Dave has also observed very little sexual interest and fantasy during the duration of the expedition,” wrote Jensen. “We noticed little or no craving for music and a certain dissatisfaction with literature. The lack of craving for either sex or music could possibly be explained by the overwhelming craving for the first necessity food. During good weather our quota of reading has gone way down and we even have books to spare.”
In Deborah, Roberts’ exquisitely, almost painfully described the trials the two endured for over a month in the Hayes Range – the snow was unrelenting, the ice was rotten at times, as was the rock. Their radio malfunctioned, they were expending more calories than they could take in, and they were quickly running out of food. They left Deborah in defeat. As if they hadn’t already suffered enough during the climb, Jensen fell into two huge crevasses on the retreat, and he was lucky to escape both relatively uninjured. Here’s his account of the first fall, a 60-footer.
It was quite warm and slightly depressed crevasse marks ran diagonally from center up-glacier to side down-glacier. I led stepping in one apparent hole about 50 yards from camp. I warned Dave about the conditions. About 100 yards from the camp I fell in another hole up to my head. I called and discovered I was hanging by chin and pack and dangling my helpless snowshoed feet hitting and feeling walls which seemed 5 feet across. I was worried – my bare hands were clawing into the snow in front of me – I was hopeless to do anything – the uncomfortable load of my pack forcing my head down on my hanging neck and hence I expressed my discomfort to Dave that I was choking – this was a mistake and I should let it be a lesson to myself: I was not actually choking although I was extremely uncomfortable and helpless – But Dave had no way of knowing this. He could only suppose that his immediate help would alone keep me from choking. For other such occasions previously he has accused me of over-dramatization to make a point. He has not in this case although perhaps he rightly should.
Anyway this brought the following action from him. He anchored the rope around his axe and then he came running forward to assist me. He tried to lift my pack off me but this further collapsed the snow under it and when he sat it back down I had slipped further into the hole (by 6” – 1’) and much more hopelessly as my arms were fully extended upward and fingers still clawing the snow. I yelled for him to back off and told him what his moving had done and that he should not be so dangerously near the crevasse because (I gasped) it must be big. In this and the previous crevasse fall situation Dave assumes that it is an absolute emergency and runs around trying to perform a rescue not being content to follow his duty of simply securing the rope until I can report on the situation. His lack of a good physical understanding of things means also that he doesn’t know how to make a strong anchor or how to judge (I had to replace a number of his icelite piton anchors on Deb east ridge). I only lasted about 1 minute in the previously described position – then I fell through. As I started to fall I broke through things (ice structures) and expected to be caught by the rope but instead I just broke through falling free smashing and then bashing things and then crash and piles [of] ice and snow crushed down on me in darkness.
What were my feelings? After the rope did not catch me it was like a repeat of Damnation but this time I could realize what was happening because I did not pass out. I guess I thought it was all over and Dave was coming in with me because he did not stop me – just that horrible long tumbling and falling and hitting things (Dave said he saw the ice axe pull out of the soft slush in which he put it and drag towards him. He said later that it then occurred to him that most of our snow anchors must have been unsafe).
I immediately came to my senses. I was on my back wedged in between two walls of ice (which [the] shock was apparently was eased by my pack getting wedged). My pack seemed to be pulling me down…Finally I just told him to get away and not take any chances but give me a chance to gather my senses. I was able to climb around a bit by cutting steps and chimneying after putting on my crampons in the bottom of the crevasse. At first I entertained the hope of climbing out but was still perplexed by the problem of getting the pack out. However once I got high enough out of my hole I saw that I could never climb or for some distance in either direction the walls were overhanging the top in addition to being rotten. Meanwhile Dave tied slings together and I broke up the pack so he could haul it up. I ducked under a protection shield a little ways off so as to minimize the bombardment. This all took a lot of time. I then prussicked out using a tripled knot on 5/8” hero loops and thus emerged into the sun some 4 hours or so leaving it very wet and exhausted and quite sore.We had a lunch on the spot and I tried to warm up while Dave repacked my pack. Then we headed back to the camp site and set up camp – this I didn’t object to at all because although I was quite well enough to go on I was very tired a little cold and frankly didn’t feel up to immediately charging over that same section and the apparently worse crevasses a little ways beyond after I had seen the open nature of the glacier beneath the shallow snow cover.
Despite the fall, Jensen was intent on continuing to Hayes, but Roberts objected.
After dinner Dave brought up the inevitable question. He was convinced in his own mind, he said, that we should leave. I said I didn’t think that. At best he thought we could go to the col but to risk another crevasse fall like (in which he says we were lucky) just for one day looking from the col (only for a sure sign of the air drop) could be disastrous. He would not go on. I admitted I hadn’t thought much of turning back and didn’t want him to force me into a decision – that I thought we should go on but admitted that to find the drop we may have to descend to the cirque. In my own mind I didn’t know at what I would decide retreat mandatory but I didn’t think this was it – I felt confident that I would get out no matter what – he gave me examples of crevasse falls and impossible river crossings , etc. I was tired of his insistence that I decide…and finally stated that I thought we should go up to the col, but if he refused I had no choice but to follow his decision. It was clear he wanted this to be a joint decision and to take the responsibility of it off his head. I would not let it be – but conceded I would not ….but demanded that it should not be blamed on my crevasse fall.
I glimpsed into the same file and found a three-page letter from Roberts to Jensen, written in April 1967. It’s a stunning piece of writing. At the time, Roberts was finishing the rewrite of the Huntington book, and was well into his account of the Deborah attempt, so he was revisiting the story arcs of both expeditions.Roberts, in his distinctive self-examining style, reveals his hopes and fears to his former best friend; at one point, he hypothesizes whether he might have been responsible for both Bernd’s death and Jensen’s crevasse fall. The letter which is, in part, a recapitulation of the emotional highs and lows of both journeys and the intervening years, reveals something of Jensen’s will and probity. “Strangely enough, for all your ‘objectivity,’ your diary is more personal than mine, Roberts wrote. “Perhaps it was the writer in me then, but I always seem to sense an audience whereas you don’t, except yourself. I censored, while you ignored; in other words, I underwrote our antipathy, you faced it when you mentioned it, but left it out at the times you didn’t want to hash it over.”
Hash it over or not, when reviewing these correspondences I had to remind myself that I was reading the words of 21-year-olds; at the time of the Deborah expedition, Jensen and Roberts had just completed their junior years at Harvard, even though their letters and journal entries seem to have been composed by much older men. Roberts, who wrote the Huntington book at age 22 and Deborah at 23, must be commended for laying himself bare – his doubts and angst and even small cruelties – when it would have been so much easier to sugarcoat the truth. Lesser writers would have. While I’m convinced Roberts sketched an accurate portrait of Jensen, if he erred, it might have been in painting Jensen within a too-narrow band of colors, tending on the dark side of the spectrum. But this is often so with introverts, whose inner lives are often so much more vibrant than those muted ones they often exhibit.
Jensen’s journal of the 1965 Huntington trip was strangely silent; he had written in only a few pages, which made me wonder whether his real Huntington journal had ever made it to the University of Wyoming. But the 1967 Deborah journal was as elaborately written as the first. Deborah ’67 was another beat out for him; he had invested much money in the expedition – money he could scarcely afford at the time — and he was felled early in the trip by either either bronchitis or strep throat. The weather was as nasty as it had been in ’64, and by this time Jensen had met Joan, was deeply in love, and freely rued his decision to travel so far away from his soon-to-be wife. He spends most of his time reading Sartre and Herman Hesse, enjoys the camaraderie of the group, and when it’s time to leave, he gratefully departs, questioning his commitment to expeditionary mountaineering. In fact, it would be his last mountaineering trip to Alaska, and last expedition; from thereon out, most of his climbing would take place in the Palisades.
In fact, the second box contained a trove of information about that majestic subrange known as the Palisades, including Jensen’s illustrations of various technical paths around and through the South and North Forks, and his original route descriptions for the Palisade Crest and the Twilight Pillar on Norman Clyde Peak. I also found maps with the locations of Jensen’s hidden caches, garbage cans stuffed with food and sleeping bags, which he intended to use for his Alpalet and Alpaline tours. Also, I found a folder containing a mass of paperwork from the Palisade School of Mountaineering, along with letters from Allen Steck, Galen Rowell, Doug Robinson, and others. Here was Don’s membership card to the East Willow Alpine Club, signed by Smoke Blanchard.
I opened a third box to find a papier mache model of the Ruth Gorge and the Mooses Tooth constructed on panel of cardboard cut from a wine box. On the bottom Jensen had written, “Done to keep sane while studying for PhD exam.”
The fourth box contained a mess of photos from Jensen’s Alaska expeditions – more than I had time to catalog.
I spent two days sifting through Jensen’s life. Finally, as evening fell on Laramie, thoroughly sated and somewhat sad, I closed the last of the boxes and wondered who would be the next to pore over the collection. I hoped it would be Joan, but my work here was done.
Or was it?
In his 1970 treatise on psycho-social development, Radical Man, the organizational theorist Charles Hampden-Turner posited that we humans grow by freely risking our preconceived notions of self to interact with others; whether the resulting encounters are unconscious or planned, confirming or disconfirming, we reap insights that, if we’re open to them, reform ossified habits of mind, which, in turn, lead to a more informed sense of self. Risking self to engage with others mindfully, according to Hampden-Turner, was a radical and necessary move to create synergies to un-fuck the world, which appeared to be unraveling when he wrote the book. Plus ca change…
Indeed, the search for Jensen required “letting go” of my own ego and self-concept to enter into privileged dialogue with at least two people who freely risked emotional tumult by revisiting their mental and emotional Wayback Machines. At the risk of stepping too far into the realm of transpersonal psychology, you might say that Jensen led me to Joan and Larry, who allowed me to receive their stories, which imbued me with a sense of kinship and yes, slightly greater insight and optimism. I can only hope it did the same for them.
The search for Jensen, as all good journeys do, brought me right back to myself.
For more photos, maps, and other documents from the American Heritage Center’s Don C. Jensen Collection, visit The Jensen Archive.