Richard M. Leonard

History of the
Regional Parks Association

Founding Director
Richard M. Leonard
President of the Sierra Club (1953-1955)
& Noted Mountaineer
Higher Cathedral Spire
Yosemite National Park

Lower Cathedral Spire
Yosemite National Park

Lunch Ledge
Yosemite National Park
Leonard’s service on the board of directors of the Sierra Club spanned the years 1938-1972. In 1973 he received the Sierra Club’s John Muir award, which is the organization’s highest award. This annual award honors a distinguished record of leadership in national or international conservation causes such as to continue John Muir’s work of preservation and establishment of parks and wilderness. The award is considered the most prestigious honor after that of Honorary President, which was also bestowed upon him. All winners of this award become lifetime members of the Sierra Club.
In 1932, Leonard formed the Cragmont Climbing Club (later the Rock Climbing Section of the San Francisco Bay Chapter) to hone techniques on Berkeley’s Cragmont Rock and other local sites. The group eventually developed strategies that would change the sport forever, opening up more summits to more people, more safely, than ever before. Some of the techniques he pioneered are described below.

The Dynamic Belay
Before the 1930s, climbers just hoped they wouldn’t fall. If a person fell, the belayer (a companion holding the safety rope) would “lock down,” or grab the rope tightly, stopping the climber’s downward motion at all costs. This “static belay” transferred the force of the fall to the equipment, a dangerous proposition since the hemp ropes used at the time were weaker than today’s nylon ropes, and more prone to break under stress. To address this problem, Leonard introduced the “dynamic belay,” a method in which the belayer allows some of the rope to slide out of his or her hands, reducing the shock of the fall and creating a softer “landing” for the climber.

The Carabiner Technique
Rappelling a mountain can be an exhilarating way to descend, but in the early days it was more often an awkward, painful experience. Climbers wrapped the ropes around their bodies, a friction-intensive method that was difficult to control. The Rock Climbing Section minimized rope burn while rappelling (then called “roping down”) by feeding the rope through a carabiner, a metal link attached to their gear.

The Expansion Knee or Human Piton
Early climbers made their way up to the summit by following the cracks in the mountain. These openings in the rock were an ideal place to hammer in “pitons,” spikes or pegs used for safety and sometimes support. But early pitons were too small to anchor well in larger cracks. In 1940, Sierra Club member Art Argiewicz began using his own body as the anchor, wedging his knee and other appendages into the openings. This technique became known as the “expansion knee” (for the way the human knee expands when bent) or the “human piton.”

Some of Leonard’s noted climbing accomplishments are listed below:
1934 – Higher Cathedral Spire (Eichorn, Richard M. Leonard, Robinson). The ascent of the Cathedral Spires marked the first use of pitons in the Sierra Nevada.

1934 – Lower Cathedral Spire (Eichorn, Leonard, Robinson)

1935 – Northwest face of Lower Cathedral Rock (Doris Leonard, Leonard, Robinson). Of this climb, Richard M. Leonard wrote, “The problem consists in working out from under a massive overhang on a 70-degree face 1,100 feet above the valley floor. Although the difficult portion is only 150 feet high, the piton technique is as intricate as anything yet accomplished by our group.”

1940-Leaning Chimney (Kenneth D. Adam, Brower, Morgan Harris, Leonard, Carl Rosberg)
Sierra Club Bulletin Vol. 19, No. 3, pg. 99-100
Mountaineering Notes by Richard M. Leonard
Yosemite Valley –

“Rock climbing possibilities of the highest order can be found in this accessible and beautiful location. With this in mind, the first annual trip of the Rock Climbing Section of the San Francisco Bay Chapter was scheduled over Labor Day holidays, Sept. 2, 3, and 4, 1933. Seventeen climbers participated and nine other members and friends of the club joined us at our campfires. Some unusually fine climbing was accomplished. Kenneth May, Elliott Sawyer, and Jean Husted traversed Mt. Starr King, then bivouacked high on the slopes of Mt. Clark. The next morning they made a very fine attempt up on the unclimbed and very difficult Northwest arête; but at 11:30 they were obliged to stop because of the necessity of being home by the following morning. Herbert B. Blanks took Mary Vaughan, a girl who had never climbed before, on the ascent of the Lower Cathedral Rock via the narrow gully between it and the Middle Cathedral Rock. It is a very interesting and beautiful climb and is rather difficult. Hervey Voge, Dick Johnson, and Jack Reigelhuth made the ascent of Half Dome from Mirror Lake, finding it disappointingly easy (for them). However, it can be recommended as a trip that offers some of the most magnificent views in the valley. Marjory Bridge, Lewis Clark, and William Horsfall made a fine climb out of Illilouette Cañon opposite the fall. They rated the climb as very difficult, requiring almost constant careful belaying and several shoulder-stands.

On Saturday, Jules Eichorn, Hervey Voge, Bestor Robinson, and Richard Leonard, on two separate ropes, made what is probably the first serious attempt on Washington Column from below. The route started at the base of the chimney between the Column and the Royal Arches and kept 100 to 200 feet to the southeast upon the face of the Column. We were not able to start until 2:30 P.M. and it took three hours to accomplish the first thousand feet of climbing. As the time was short, we had to abandon the attempt and rope on down. On Monday, September 4th, we returned and covered the same thousand feet in two hours. However, the next crack required over an hour to climb only fifty feet. Since we had to be down early, in order to get back to town in time, we again had to abandon the attempt. This climb should not be tried except by those who thoroughly understand the proper technique.”

This was the trip report for the first technical rock-climbing route in Yosemite Valley. This climb on Washington Column later became known as Lunch Ledge. The 1956 Climber’s Guide to the High Sierra described “the Lunch Ledge and the routes above it as undoubtedly the most popular roped climbs in the valley.”