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Know the West

The collected Sierra Nevada

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


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.