History of The Desert Peaks Section

Chester Versteeg

Chester Versteeg was a man of vibrant personality and boundless enthusiasm, well known to Southern California Sierra Clubbers for some four decades. Except in the summer when he was off tramping in the High Sierra, he seldom missed the Club's Friday night dinners at Boos Brothers Cafeteria in downtown Los Angeles. Here, among friends in a genial atmosphere, Chester's enthusiasm was infectious. Many a time, by the force of personality alone, he was the driving force behind Club projects and outings. And here, in the friendly surroundings of Boos Brothers, was the genesis of the Desert Peaks Section.

The idea of climbing desert peaks came to Chester while he was climbing in the Sierra Nevada in 1940. Gazing eastward from the Sierra crest, he noticed range after range of tawny mountains fading to the distant horizon. His curiosity was activated. What were these desert ranges like? Were they as devoid of life as they appeared? When snow closed the Sierra passes in the fall of 1940, Chester decided to find out.

His first desert ascent was New York Butte, a rounded, pinyon-clad summit across Owens Valley from Mount Whitney. Chester was delighted with what he found. The mountain was not barren at all. Its upper slopes were clad with pinyon pine and juniper. There was a spring of icy-cold water just below the crest. The view across Owens Valley at the snowy Sierra crest was breathtaking.

The Friday after his New York Butte climb, Chester was at Boos Brothers, talking up the idea of a climbing group specializing in ascending desert peaks. But his idea took a while to reach fruition. Louise Werner describes the birth pangs of the Section: "If there was any one quality that especially characterized Chester, it was enthusiasm. Out of his infectious enthusiasm was born the Desert Peaks Section. It did not, however, spring fullfledged, like Minerva from the head of Zeus. Chester's flame all but died under the soggy indifference he encountered every time he brought up the subject. It took a good deal of fanning and blowing before it caught a few individuals who went along, at first, mainly because Chester was such a persistent salesman. We can see him yet, before a crowd of Friday-nighters at Boos Brothers Cafeteria, trying to warm us up to the idea."

Chester proposed that membership in the newly-formed group be attained by climbing seven peaks in the ranges east of Owens Valley: White Mountain, Waucoba Mountain, New York Butte, Cerro Gordo, Coso Peak, Maturango Peak and Telescope Peak.

On the weekend of November 15-16, 1941, the first scheduled activity of Chester's new group was held: a climb of New York Butte led by Chester and Niles Werner. The Chapter schedule proclaimed in typical Versteegian prose, "Here is your opportunity to knock down one of the seven peaks required to make you eligible for the new Desert Peaks Section. New York Butte presents one of the grandest alpine views on the entire continent, the Sierra Crest from Olancha Peak clear to Mt. Tom."

As fate would have it, momentous outside events intervened to place a temporary damper on the fledgling group. With World War II gas rationing, desert climbing activities were reduced to occasional forays by a handful of gas-sharing enthusiasts. But with the war's end, all the pent-up energies of Chester and his band of desert peakers burst forth in renewed activity. In late 1945 the Desert Peaks Section was organized as a formal section of the Angeles Chapter. Chester declined the chairmanship, but did agree to serve on the management committee.

The steady growth of the Desert Peaks Section in the 1950's was a source of pride to Chester. With the Section in capable hands, he turned to other projects. One of these was the Trojan Peak Club, which Chester organized among University of Southern California students and alumni in 1951.

Chester Versteeg, 76 years old, died in 1963. Besides the DPS, Chester's legacies include the 250-odd Sierra Nevada peaks, passes, lakes and meadows he named. After his passing, at the urging of Chester's many friends, the United States Board on Geographic Names accepted the name "Mount Versteeg" for a majestic 13,470-foot summit on the Sierra crest near Mount Tyndall. Over the Labor Day weekend of 1965, I led a dedication climb of Mount Versteeg and placed a register on the summit containing a brief summary of Chester's life and accomplishments.

John Robinson

Bill Henderson

The Desert Peaks Section official existence in the Sierra Club began in 1945. It had no official publications in the first few years with the exception of a "List of Qualifying Peaks". There was one meeting per year, the business meeting, usually held at chapter headquarters.

In 1950, Bill Henderson assumed the duties as Section Chair. Bill felt that the communications between the Management Committee and the section's members would be improved if he wrote a letter to the membership to keep them abreast with the latest news pertaining to the section. He did just that. The letter was addressed "Dear Member", it was written in the first person, and each issue was signed personally by Bill. The final copy was typed by his wife Margie.

Though the issues were seldom larger that a couple of legal sized pages, Bill was relentless, sending out nine issues in his year-long term of office.

At end of Bill's term in office, he was succeeded by Bob Bear. Bob did the section a huge favor by continuing Bill's effort. This established the tradition of the DPS Newsletter. It continued as an informal function of the Chair for several years before becoming recognized as an official asset of the section.

In this manner, Bill Henderson became founding father of our newsletter.

Charlie Knapke

John Robinson

In the first decade of the DPS Newsletter, it was traditionally edited by the Chair of the section. As the years went by two things became apparent. First, the newsletter was becoming more and more important to the members of the section. Second, the job of being Chair AND publishing the newsletter was found to be a difficult task.

In January 1961, the section picked John Robinson to be an appointed editor of the newsletter. They could scarcely have made a better choice. Both the quality and the size of the newsletter increased dramatically. The average issue increased from 3 pages to 10 or more. John set the standard for all editors that followed.

In 3-1/2 years, John cranked out 19 issues of the newsletter. Most of these were produced by typewriter and without the use of a mimeograph machine. Today, almost 40 years later, technology has made production easier. Our newsletters are larger and have pictures and graphics. However, few editors have exceeded the quality that John's issues exhibited. Much of the current format of the Desert Sage is derived from the standards that John set so long ago.

Charlie Knapke