Stuck on a Cliff

New York Herald Tribune, February 1, 1960

New York Herald Tribune, February 1, 1960

On the morning of January 30, 1960, Linus Pauling told his wife Ava Helen that he would be out checking the fence lines along the boundaries of their ranch near Big Sur, California. A little before 10:00AM, Ava Helen watched as Linus walked towards the coast south of their cabin but did not notice – as Pauling mistakenly believed she had – as he veered away from the fence line and toward Salmon Cone, a small mountain in the Santa Lucia chain near the Pauling home. Linus was dressed comfortably, wearing slacks, a light jacket, and his characteristic beret. He and Ava Helen had planned to meet for lunch and thought that a friend would perhaps stop by around noon, both expecting Pauling to be back by that time.

For several years Pauling had been interested in finding the mouth of nearby Salmon Creek. He got the idea that the mouth was around China Camp area instead of Salmon Cone, and climbed several ledges that allowed him to walk east to investigate his theory. After a time he found and followed a deer path up several hundred more feet. The deer trail came to an end, but Pauling thought that he saw a spot twenty or thirty feet above him where the path picked up again and began trying to make his way to it over loose rocks. Unable to move east as he had hoped, Pauling was unable to retrace his steps back down or go further up the slope safely. A sickening realization washed over him – he was stuck.

A map included with the Herald Tribune article.

A map included with the Herald Tribune article.

The ledge on which he was perched was about three feet by six feet. Loose rocks, leaves, and sticks covered the ledge; behind him was a sheer rock face. Pauling sat on the ledge for several hours thinking that Ava Helen would walk along the beach and see him stranded on the ledge but, as afternoon moved into evening, came to realize that he might have to stay the entire night perched on the little cliff. Having reached this conclusion, he began to dig a little hole with his walking stick in which he could sit. He dug until he had made the hole two feet by three feet and about a foot deep. He then used the extra dirt to create an eighteen-inch mound around the hole. His resting area completed, Pauling intently pondered a route off the ledge, only to become too frightened to continue on his own. Soon it was dark.

Pauling did not want to fall asleep during his long night on the cliff because, for one, he was afraid he would not hear the calls of searchers. More importantly, Pauling was very concerned that, in the midst of sleep, he might roll off of the precipice and into the crashing ocean below. In order to remain awake, Pauling engaged in a variety of mental tasks. For a while he lectured to the waves about the nature of the chemical bond. He also listed the various properties of the elements of the periodic table. As the night dragged on, Pauling counted as high as he was able in as many languages as he could – German, Italian, French and eventually English. He even used his walking stick to try to tell time based on the positions of the constellations. In an effort to stay warm as well as awake, Pauling tried to move one limb or another at all times.

Moving his arms and legs was only part of Pauling’s process of keeping warm on this January night. Earlier in the evening, having decided that it would be necessary and prudent to remain on the cliff in the small hole that he had dug, Pauling began pulling up some of the bushes that were located near his little ledge. He broke them up into smaller pieces and placed them on the damp bottom of the hole. He then laid some of the intact branches over himself. He was not happy with the results, however, as he had to constantly pull out small leaves and twigs from inside his clothes – eventually he just broke the bushes into twigs, which he used as both mattress and blanket. Still wishing to be a bit warmer, Pauling unfolded the map that he had brought with him and laid it over himself. He later told his family that the map helped immensely although, luckily, it was not as cold a night as could have been the case.

Notes by Ava Helen Pauling. January 30, 1960.

Notes by Ava Helen Pauling. January 30, 1960.

As Linus was settling in for the night, Ava Helen had sprung into action to find him. When he missed their lunch date, Ava Helen had assumed that he had simply lost track of time and did not worry too much. But when 4:15 PM rolled around and there was still no sign of her husband, she went to the nearby ranger station for help and to call her son-in-law Barclay Kamb. As it turned out, a ranger came close to Pauling’s ledge near Salmon Cone but Pauling was unable to attract his attention and the ranger moved on to search other areas. At 11:30PM, a deputy sheriff from Monterrey called off the search for the night. The weather conditions were not conducive to a search – intermittent clouds and fog enshrouded the area from early evening until well-after Pauling had been rescued.

Undeterred, Barclay Kamb reached the ranch around 2:30AM and began searching for an hour and a half in the direction that Ava Helen had last seen Pauling…the wrong direction. At 6:00AM, he began searching in the same area again. Just before 10:00AM, Pauling finally heard another one of the searchers – a man named Terry Currence who was walking along the beach below the ledge. Pauling called to him and Currence scrambled in Pauling’s direction. Terry then called to the deputy sheriff, who maneuvered to a spot a little ways above Pauling. Currence was sent by the deputy sheriff to tell Ava Helen that Pauling had been found alive and well, and to send some rope back. While waiting for the rope, Pauling and the sheriff made their way off of the cliff using one of the paths that Pauling had been afraid to follow unassisted.

New York Times, February 1, 1960.

New York Times, February 1, 1960.

Pauling was in good spirits as he was led back to his cabin, even joking with the rescue team. Upon returning home, Pauling had lunch and some coffee. Ava Helen shooed-away the reporters who had assembled and thanked everyone who had helped to find her husband. The two packed up their car and the following day drove back to Pasadena. On Tuesday, Pauling went to his Caltech laboratory to give a lecture. When he reached his office, he walked past the small party that his office had put together to welcome his return and went into his office without saying a word. He locked his office and shoved a note under the door requesting that his day be cleared. His staff was unsure of what to do so they called in Barclay Kamb. Barclay came to Pauling’s office and drove him home.

Once home, Ava Helen put him to bed and called the doctor. Pauling had gone into mild shock and was told to rest in bed for several days. He was likewise afflicted with a severe case of poison oak, an unfortunate side effect of his bedding on the ledge. Pauling remained in bed and barely spoke; he cried at the sight of his grandchildren when Linda brought them over for a visit. The emotional and physical exhaustion that he suffered from his night on the cliff forced Pauling to take a much-needed rest and to finally let out some of the emotions that he had been bottling up for so many years of relentless work as a scientist and activist. The trauma was relatively short-lived though, and two weeks later he was not only talking and responding to letters but also honoring speaking engagements again.

The media response to Pauling’s plight on the cliff was swift and rampant. By 9:30AM on Sunday, news of Pauling’s disappearance had spread across the radio, and a half hour later, at 10:00AM, an overzealous reporter told San Francisco Bay area residents that Linus Pauling was dead. Two of Linus’s children, Linda and Crellin, were informed of the radio broadcast and for an hour were unable to discern otherwise – they thought their father was dead. After Pauling was found, news reports of the past weekend’s events were spread around the world, from Oregon to Massachusetts, India to Australia. Over the coming month Pauling received well wishes from colleagues, friends, family, and even strangers who had heard of his ordeal. One such telegram read as follows:

Dear Dr. Pauling, Will you be so kind as to stay off precipitous cliffs until the question of disarmament and atomic testing is finished? A needy citizen. [Signed] Marlon Brando.

For more on the life and times of Dr. Pauling, see the Linus Pauling Online portal.

6 Responses

  1. What a wondeful story and such a beautiful note by Brando.

    I have especially fond memories of being graciously received by Pauling in late 1985 at his Stanford office, appropriately cluttered with books along with what appeared to me as undecipherible chemical scribblings chalked on a black board.

    But I must say it gave the whole room a look of busy intellectual activism and warmth.

    I was representing a major Northern California peace coalition and so happy to be personally received by the busy two-time Noble Laureate who lifted books off a soft, cushioned office chair and with a wave of his hand gestured for me to have a seat.

    Dr. Pauling enthusiastically agreed to help us obtain the signatures of other Nobel Prize winners urging President Reagan to debate the issues of the Contra War with Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega.

    Of course, such a suggestion was understood by all to be unlikely to be received very well by the White House, but we were, nonetheless, successful in getting a dozen or more other prominent signatures from Nobel winners all over the world based on Dr. Paulings’ name.

    He was very warm and enthusiastic about the project but it was only at the conclusion of our meeting after I mentioned how much I admired his pioneering research into Vitamin C and how he had taken on the medical establishiment that I saw a wide-eye sparkle appear in his eyes.

    Pauling reached over to another stack of books and gave me his recent book on “How to Live Healthier” and he said “I shall grace you with a special inscription that I have never used before.”

    To my surprise, it was signed “Linus Carl Pauling.”

    I have told this story many times to friends and it never ceases to charm all.

    I retain the utmost respect for his legacy.

    My Warmest Regards to the Family,

    Carl Finamore
    San Francisco

  2. […] When he and Ava Helen visited their Big Sur ranch the following January in 1960, Pauling decided to go for a walk early one Saturday […]

  3. […] – not only their own but also those of their spouses – Pauling’s experience of being trapped on a cliff, and various travel plans – many of which set up visits to each […]

  4. […] vision of Pauling was so tinted, that its immediate reaction to his fearful night stuck on the edge of a cliff was to suggest that it may have been orchestrated for publicity. Newscasts emanating from Monterey, […]

  5. […] leave it to Tom Hager to describe the fallout from a different and much more important cliff-related incident – during which Linus, at age 59, famously spent the night trapped on a ledge overlooking the […]

  6. […] the end of January 1960, Ava Helen experienced one of the most frightening episodes of her life. She and Linus drove up toward Big Sur on Wednesday, January 27, via Asilomar, where Linus attended […]

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