The collected Sierra Nevada

Meteorologist Hal Klieforth has spent his life exploring and documenting California's 'Range of Light'

  • Hal Klieforth, 81, on his way to the Lyell Glacier summit, a hike he first made as a 23-year-old in 1950.

    Randy Pench/Sacramento Bee/ZUMA Press
  • Istock, Ogphoto

Name Harold Klieforth
Hometown Bishop, Calif.
Occupation Meteorologist and explorer
Stomping grounds The peaks and valleys of the eastern Sierra Nevada
World record held Highest flight in a two-man glider (44,255 feet, set in an unpressurized cockpit in 1952)

On a damp winter's evening in Bishop, Calif., Harold Klieforth comes home after dark. The 81-year-old meteorologist looks wind-battered as usual in his worn blue parka, khaki pants and the thick-soled leather boots that never seem to leave his feet. But there are hints of soreness in his stride and a bruise beside one eye from a stack of boxes that shifted in the U-Haul yesterday.

Klieforth used to rent a 3,000-square-foot storage space near his house. But it's going to be demolished, and he has been forced to find a new home for all the material accumulated during a lifetime studying and exploring the Sierra Nevada. For the last two weeks, he and his son have been lugging around rare maps and piles of field notebooks, old carabiners and hemp climbing rope, crates of data and stacks of slides. Klieforth jokingly calls himself a "super pack rat," but his collection reflects the singular knowledge stored in his head.

"Hal knows the Sierra from the base of the range to the peaks," remarks one colleague. "There just aren't that many people around like that anymore."

"I probably have the longest view, both geographically and chronologically, of weather patterns in the Sierra," Klieforth says. "I'm outdoors more than (most meteorologists), who are sitting in front of their computers."

Klieforth tends to duck compliments, but his accomplishments speak for themselves. Raised just north of San Francisco, he first ventured into the Sierra during camping trips with his father in the 1930s. Seven decades later, he still spends much of his free time rambling in the basin and range of eastern California, filling notebooks with observations on the weather, flora and fauna.

He says it was never clear in advance that he'd specialize in meteorology. "I was interested in natural history, across the spectrum of both biological and physical sciences," he says. Before immersing himself in atmospheric sciences at the University of California at Los Angeles, he studied everything from plant pathology to geography.

After graduating in 1951, he took a job with an Air Force research program in Bishop, and returned to the Sierra for good. His interests have taken him farther afield as well -- up the slopes of Ben Nevis in Scotland, into the night above Iceland to photograph the aurora borealis, to a strip of tarmac on the Argentinean pampas with good wind for glider flights. But, he says, "the Sierras are still my real love."

Some of Klieforth's collection -- the two globes, the drawers of '60s-era office supplies -- may never mean much to anyone else, but there's potential in the rest of it. Take the souvenirs from his stint at Edwards Air Force Base, south of Bishop. For seven years, he coordinated research flights that spanned the continent north to Alaska and across the country to the Eastern Seaboard. Photos from those flights offer a glimpse of changing snowlines, forest boundaries and city limits a half-century ago.

Or there's the data he began gathering when he moved to Reno, Nev., in 1967 to work for a Bureau of Reclamation cloud-seeding program. For 30 years, he manned a string of research sites scattered through the Northern Sierra. "I was measuring precipitation across 1,000 square miles after every storm," he says. True to form, Klieforth also took notes on the dates flowers bloomed in the spring, and on cloud patterns, birds and tree growth. He thinks those notes may acquire value in the context of climate change, perhaps by illuminating changing regional trends. But, as with so much of his collection -- for example, the journals from his expeditions with Sierra mountaineering legends Norman Clyde and Smoke Blanchard -- the notes largely remain a mass of answers waiting for the right question to be asked.

Klieforth has considered seeking grant money and a few sturdy graduate students to help him sort through his collection, and several local land agencies have agreed to shelter some of his materials. But for now, most of it will move to another storage space, and access to this little-known museum will play out as in the past -- through Klieforth himself. Express some interest in local mountaineering or just mention the weather, and you may find a package in your mailbox -- a book from his library, an assortment of meteorological newsletters from the 1970s, or a photocopied sheaf of hand-written notes describing the fog over Mono Lake on a certain day, 40 years in the past.

The Sierra
William  D. Tomany
William D. Tomany
Apr 28, 2009 08:12 PM
Does it bother you as much as it does me to hear the Sierra called The Sierra's.

I grew up in Tonopah but now live in Las Vegas
“The Sierras” or “the Sierra”?
David Page
David Page
Apr 29, 2009 03:35 PM
Hi William (and Terray),

Here's some text on the subject from my guidebook (Yosemite & the Southern Sierra Nevada: A Complete Guide)--check it out at

James Mason Hutchings, one of the earliest pioneers to set up business in the Yosemite Valley, and author of its first published guidebook, Scenes of Wonder and Curiosity in California (1862), habitually referred to these mountains as the “Sierras,” following a long-standing tradition by which most other great and famous ranges—from the Rockies to the Smokies, from the Alps to the Andes to the Himalayas—are referred to in the plural. (California adds another tradition which is that of appropriating original Spanish place names for their obvious romantic value, while ignoring their meaning. Thus have we inherited all manner of silly phrasings and redundancies, i.e. the La Brea Tar Pits, or the “the tar pit” tar pits.) Such habits prove hard to break. Joseph Starr King, another early promoter of the range; Joseph LeConte, one of the eminent patriarchs of the Sierra Club (note the singular form); Mary Austin; Teddy Roosevelt; Fred Eaton, of the great Los Angeles/Owens Valley land and water grab—all wrote of this collection of granite peaks as “the Sierras.” The problem, alas, is that in pronouncing the word “Sierras” (plural) a person is saying “Ranges” in Spanish. And there is no disagreement that what we have here, however impressive, is but a single range: the Sierra Nevada, the Snowy Range, or as John Muir suggested, the “Range of Light.” If it were multiple ranges it might have been called Las Sierras Nevadas. But it is not, and was not. Whitney had it right, and Muir, of course, and Ansel Adams. The Park and Forest Services these days generally get it right. And yet to this day it is not uncommon to overhear someone speaking of his or her latest fabulous weekend adventure in the “Sierras.”
The Sierra
William  D. Tomany
William D. Tomany
Apr 29, 2009 04:31 PM
I cring when I hear the range called by the plural name
ya know . . .
Apr 29, 2009 06:42 PM
As someone who lives in the Sierra, have lived on both sides of the Sierra, who live above 10k feet in the Sierra more months of the year than not, and who hears this argument again and again, year in and year out, I'd like to say . . .

well, to be polite, get a life.

There are so many more important things to think about here in the Sierras than whether or not there's an s at the end.

None of the posters above managed to write without typos: should we rend our flesh over that as well?

This is like the people who wait until someone utters a curse, mild or otherwise, and uses that as an excuse to dismiss whatever they have to say. Why not talk about the tourist economy that's been ruining the Mammoth region for so long, but has now collapsed, leaving people with no idea what to do next?

Why not wonder if the New Melones Dam ruined Sonora, led to the wretched sprawl and Wal-Mart-ization of the place?

Why not worry that the LADWP is going to try to renege on the deal that mitigated the dust from the dry Owens lake, in the name of responding to pressures from climate change?

Nabokov once said that 'only a sibilant separates the cosmic from the comic.' This applies well to the current spat.
Ya know...
David Page
David Page
Apr 30, 2009 09:44 AM
The critic James Wood once wrote that "we forgive Nabokov's aestheticism in a way we do not always forgive other writers' aestheticism, because we ourselves worship at the shrine of Nabokov." Why? Perhaps because not only does he (Nabokov) care so very deeply about the world and its tragedies, but at the same time can make us see the humor in all of it. It's a difficult balance, alas, and one which the rest of us can only strive for...
The Colloquial Sierra
Terray Sylvester
Terray Sylvester
Apr 29, 2009 05:26 PM
Thanks for the etymological low-down, David. I was just about to reach for my copy of "The Mountains of California" to begin exploring this a little further, but you beat me to it. I'll probably end up keeping an eye out for historical uses of "sierras" anyway though.

So here's what I think. I'm somewhat surprised to admit it, but until I started working as a reporter in the Tahoe-Truckee area a few years ago, I hadn't put much thought into this question. I grew up in Squaw Valley, and I doubt I ever dropped that last "s" until my editor made me do it. I don't think anyone I've ever spent much time talking to has dropped that consonant either. But of course, redundant pluralities don't fly in newsprint and nor should they -- at least, not unless you're repeating the words of a living person.

And really, I think that's what it comes down to. The Sierras are where you go to rock climb and poke around for petroglyphs, munch thimbleberries and soak in hot springs, scare yourself on snowfields and catch sight of a pika's haypile. The Sierra is somewhat different. In conversation, that's where you go to be pedantic.
The Colloquial Sierra
David Page
David Page
Apr 30, 2009 08:47 AM
Hear, hear! And a really lovely profile, by the way. Now back to my so-called life... :)