Updated: Mar 10, 2021
It was 1973—the Vietnam War was ending slowly and the hippie movement had transformed into something else; we had no idea what. I had finished my Masters Degree in English in December 1972 and because I’d had the GI Bill, as a veteran, and had been a teaching assistant in graduate school, I ended up with more money than when I’d started work on my Masters in ’71. So, I did what many of my literary heroes did: I went to Europe.
My favorite authors had gone to Europe in search of self, or inspiration, or both. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Joyce and Beckett (from Ireland), Maugham, Stein, and others had done that, and I ached to follow in their footsteps. I was a romantic, and though I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a writer, I did want to explore and experience what they had. I wanted to see the world. Honestly, I thought it might be a way to find myself as well. The Army (see “The Army and My Love Affair With the Inscrutable East”) placed me near the DMZ in Korea during the Vietnam War—this had piqued my curiosity for travel and for Asia. I would travel to Asia later. Now I wanted to sample Europe. And cliché became reality.
During work on my M. A. in Fort Collins, Colorado, I’d become fascinated with camping, climbing, and mountaineering. Every spare weekend I’d drive up into the mountains with Chaka, my husky, and we would camp alone. I learned climbing techniques and I read about climbing and climbers like Joe Brown, Chris Bonnington, Dougal Haston, Hamish MacInnes, Doug Scott, Don Whillans, and others; they moved me to learn more. So, going to Europe wasn’t just my intellectual journey of self-discovery; it was a way to go to the Mountains of Scotland, and Switzerland and develop my climbing technique, learning from current master mountaineers.
I arrived in London and stayed with good friends Phil and Linda Ashill. Phil, a rail- thin Welshman, had come to the US for graduate school in English at Colorado State University and we had become friends. Phil and Linda showed me around London and environs. It was wonderful having friends like them to introduce London to me. I remember my first pub experience. Phil and Linda had picked me up at the airport and we went directly to the pub. It was a late Sunday morning and the pub had just opened. I had trouble opening the door to the pub and the publican yelled at me: “You need some stout to strengthen up!”
From London I went to Scotland for several weeks to climb and learn ice climbing. After almost a month in England and Scotland I moved on to the continent where I began meeting other travelers who had been to far horizons like Morocco and Kathmandu. It sounded so exotic and I envied them their experiences—this eventually would motivate me to venture ‘out there’ as well.
When I arrived on the Continent from England, I travelled by train quickly through France to Switzerland and the villages of Grindelwald and Kleine Scheidegg to see the infamous north face of the Eiger—no, I didn’t climb it, but people I knew (Dave Knowles, Ian Nicholson) had and I’d read stories about famous climbs on the north face. Going to see the Eiger was a pilgrimage that I, as many climbers before and since, had made. While there I met and hung out with Sheridan Anderson, the illustrator of Royal Robbins two books on climbing: “Basic Rockcraft” and “Advanced Rockcraft.”
A Related side story: Months later I was working at the airport in Aspen and met Clint Eastwood whom I was putting on a flight. The plane had been delayed and Clint asked me about it. That brief conversation was something I’ll never forget. Why it’s important here? That was the winter of 1973-74. He would have been working on the movie “The Eiger Sanction” that came out in May of 1975. Dave Knowles had been killed working on that movie as a stunt double and photographer. Please see: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0461514/bio?ref_=nm_ov_bio_sm
I wrote about Scotland and meeting Dave Knowles in “A Wee Bit of a Dram.” https://www.ricksilverman12.com/post/a-wee-bit-of-a-dram
From Grindelwald I took the train north to Aigle because a friend of mine back in Colorado, Cathy Galvin, had attended the Leysin American School, in the French speaking part of Switzerland. The small Swiss village of Leysin perches in the mountains above Aigle and is reached by the cog train that climbs up through pastures and vineyards on the mountainside. Cathy told me about the place before I left Colorado and she made me promise to visit Leysin. She had talked on and on about how beautiful it was and how her climbing instructor at the school there had been Royal Robbins.
Reaching Aigle I left the train and made my way nearby to the small cog train station where I bought my ticket. I boarded the cog train car and waited to begin the climb up to Leysin. I’d planned to camp at the campground in Leysin and explore the area. There were other places I wanted to see so I didn’t think too much about this visit as I was really doing it as a favor to Kathy Galvin. But this stop in Leysin proved to be one of those important milestones.
“Where are you headed?” asked a long hair traveler sitting across from me in the car.
“To the campground up in Leysin,” I said. “A friend of mine used to go to the school there and told me to check the area out.”
“You should stay at the “Vag,” said the traveler. “There are a lot of other travelers there and it’s not that expensive.”
“The Vag?” I asked.
“Yeah, Club Vagabond. It’s like a hostel for travelers and skiers. People come from all over and stay at the Vag. It’s a great place to hang out.”
What the hell, I thought to myself. I was learning to listen to the suggestions of other travelers. So when we reached Leysin I hoisted my rucksack and walked with the guy up the hill through the village to a several story building on a narrow street, almost an alley. Above the front door was a sign that read Club Vagabond. You couldn’t really tell from the street but the view from the other side of the building, across valley below, was spectacular.
Stumbling across Club Vagabond was a milestone because of the people I met there. These other travelers, who had also found Leysin, many making it their home, some for months and others for years, created a unique atmosphere. Many of them had been traveling for some time and found jobs at the Vag or in Leysin. By shoveling snow and washing dishes I was able to earn bar cards, the currency at Club Vagabond bars. The Vag was an oasis—a place to rest and exchange traveler’s tales. I remember staying up all night drinking at the bar singing songs as John Travers tried to teach me the rules to cricket. Over two days in the summer, Jorgen Valentin, Sterling Kamisky, and I climbed the Dent du Midi.
I began to use the Vag as a base and there, and as I traveled through Europe, I met other travelers who had spent time in Morocco, Kathmandu, and other exotic places. They made me envious and fanned the romantic fire in my breast—it was as if they were the real travelers, and I was a poser or the untried newbie. I longed to get out there and do those things myself—I envied them and wanted to be like that as well. but my focus was also on mountaineering, so I put aside my desire to backpack around the world. Somehow, someday though, I knew I’d be like them.
Returning to the States late in the summer of 1973, I moved to Aspen to work at the airport and pursue my mountaineering interests. Over the two years I lived in Aspen (1973-1975) people I’d met at the Vag came to visit. Brian Skehill and Jon Travers each dropped in for a few days for skiing. Jorgen Valentin came in the summer and hung out for a couple of weeks. I also saw Dougal Haston there when he came through to show a film of one of his climbs. I now live in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, and I know Caesar (Kevin Ramsay) who also lives here. We met at the Vag back in ‘73. Connections . . . amazing connections.
Forty-eight or so years later, I’ve worked in Australia (1776-77) and Singapore (1987-2014). I’ve traveled all through Asia, Australia, and New Zealand, and in ’78 drove a VW bus on the “Overland” from Kathmandu to Amsterdam. Most of my working life has been overseas and I’ve loved every minute of the adventure. I kept the promise I made to myself when I was 16 “not to wake up on a parkbench at 70 or 80 and think about the things I could have and should have done.” The Vag was one of my main inspirations.