Noted climber and owner of the Palisade School of Mountaineering lived his calling in the High Sierra
By Bruce Willey
For a man who should have been nearing his sunset years, John Fischer was in better shape than most 30-year olds. It was hard to tell how old he was with his thick head of hair and just a speckling of gray, his mountaineer’s lope, and his at-the-ready enthusiasm. The only hint that he might have spent his formative years in the 1960s was his long, drawn-out inflection of “wow.” It was a word he uttered often, especially when it concerned climbing or when he told the story about being front and center at a free Jimmy Hendrix concert in Golden Gate Park. But the “wows” mostly spilled about climbing, and more specifically mostly regarding the peaks of his beloved High Sierra.
“I’m saving fishing for when I get really old,” he told me. Sadly, he never got the chance. John was killed last June on Highway 395 near the Conway Summit after hitting a deer on his motorcycle. He was in route to climb Excelsior Mountain on the northeastern corner of Yosemite National Park with two close friends. Somehow fitting given the Latin meaning of excelsior: “Ever higher.”
From time to time, I’d run into John at the grocery store in Bishop, at the crags, at yoga. He never asked how I was doing, but what have I been doing. By this he didn’t mean work or the everyday goings-on of the sage-covered lowlands. Rather, this was his climber’s code for what he always considered deep fun and play in the mountains. Almost every peak or climb I mentioned John had already climbed or had put up the first ascent, which of course caused me my own “wow.”
He lived on Willow Street, a quiet street off Bishop’s main drag that perhaps not so coincidently was the same street that another famed mountain guide once lived: Smoke Blanchard. Smoke and John were friends and Smoke was also taken too early by an accident involving the road. Too often it’s not the mountains that take good mountaineers but just getting to them. Last year it was Bruce Binder, AKA “Brutus of Whyde,” who was tragically killed on his way to a climb. Earlier still, his mentor Don Jensen was killed when he hit a brick wall after his bicycle skidded on a patch of ice.
His hand carved front-gate latch, substantial, sturdy, and welcoming, gave certain clues to John’s personality. He was a tinkerer at heart, well known throughout the Eastside for his fine craftsmanship. When the historical house of Mary Austin, author of “The Land of Little Rain,” needed fixing it was John they called. His own home in Bishop was a cozy affair, decorated with paintings and photographs of the mountains. In his garden that he and his soul mate Shawn Delehanty (they had exchanged rings and were intending to marry) tended were large granite rocks balanced like cairns as if a reminder that their path always lead back to the high country.
It was there that John left his indelible mark, although a mountaineer as good as John only left a historical line in a guidebook. But his lines were fastidiously artistic—from one-pitch wonders like Sheila (arguably the first 5.10 on the Eastside) in Pine Creek, to day-long adventures such as the North Buttress (5.9) of Mt. Goode and the Sun Ribbon (5.10) on Temple Crag, to mega, Himalayan-sized routes like the first traverse of the Palisade Crest, all eight miles of it in one push that took seven days and seven bivouacs.
Born in Pontiac, Illinois, his family moved to San Antonio, Texas when John was seven. With not a real rock in sight he began climbing the Alamo’s walls and became a local fixture there. His family moved to California in 1960 and John graduated from Pacific High School in the Santa Cruz Mountains. He attended the San Francisco Art Institute before dropping out and heading to Yosemite where the Golden Age of climbing was in full swing. Soon, though, he was inexplicitly drawn over the Crest to Bishop where he found his true home for the rest of his life.
John was the owner of the Palisade School of Mountaineering (PSOM: pronounced “possum”) for 12 years and was the director of the climbing school. There, he guided and exposed countless people to the mountains both in the Sierra and throughout the world. Though he couldn’t put an exact number on it, he reckoned he’d climbed Mt. Sill in the Palisades over 200 times and nearly 100 times up the East Buttress of Mt. Whitney (“That’s a big, wild guess,” he said.).
Once, while guiding some clients on a training run up the PSOM Slab in Pine Creek before taking them up Cardinal Pinnacle or Temple Crag, he was bitten by a rattlesnake before the climb. He shrugged it off, took the clients up three pitches, rappelled the route, and then, only then, did he think it prudent to get to the hospital.
“I really downplayed it, and besides my clients were paying me,” he told me. “They were really upset at first but I insisted that we carry on. And they had no choice but to go along with it. Pretty soon they forgot about it once we started climbing. But my leg kept getting fatter and fatter, then turned purple. By the time we started walking back down I was starting to feel dizzy.”
John was well rounded in the mountains. Alpine rock, ice, ski mountaineering, and cragging were all part of his honed skills. He was also impeccably safe and boasted that he’d never taken a fall while leading. “I used to wear those leather lederhosen thinking that I might, but I never did.” He was also a founding member of the American Mountain Guides Association and was responsible for starting one of the first U.S.-based mountain medicine courses.
Never one to rest on the laurels of past achievements, John was still climbing a lot, mostly with his partner Shawn when he could tear her away from work. And he was still putting up new lines, his most recent on the Wild Rose Buttress near South Lake, just up from Bishop. After a long spell away from the Eastside, I asked John what he was doing. “Well, I climb, I ski, and I ride my motorcycle, hiking, and I work to support that, just like always.”
Just like always, indeed.
Outpourings came forth on Supertopo.com. One, from Doug Robinson, old friend and fellow guide at PSOM, went like this:
“John Fischer was my first climbing partner when we were in high school. We shared the intensity of early fumblings into climbing, which took so much longer then, when every simple 5.5 climb was a trad lead with chrome-moly angles ringing into cracks for pro and a twisted chunk of Goldline knotted onto your waist. Yesterday morning John’s trajectory up Conway Summit intersected a deer and two sentient beings went down. I miss you my old friend.”
I recall talking to John a few years back and asking what his upcoming mountain plans were. He paused for a long while, a somewhat wistful look spreading over his face. “Going alone to see some old friends, some spirits actually, in the Palisades,” he said.
And now that is where we shall find him too.