Local Legends: Q&A with Dave Nettle
Dave Nettle is a trailblazing American alpinist who has put up inspiring first ascents around the world and in North America. Nettle has also been an active member of the Truckee/Tahoe community for around 40 years. He’s made many contributions to the community, including presenting slideshows at the Winter Speaker Series that raises thousands of dollars each year for local nonprofits.
Q: Where are you working currently and what do you do for them?
A: I’m currently employed at Alpenglow Expeditions in Olympic Valley. I’m mostly a backcountry winter ski guide, although I have guided the Via Ferrata and do some rock guiding off and on. At this point in life I’m more into goofing off during the summer months. I try to carve that part of my year for personal climbing and expeditions.
Q: Where are you from and what attracted you to the Truckee/Tahoe area?
A: I’m originally from southern California, from Orange County. I always try to avoid using the words “grow up” because I haven’t yet done that. I’ve always had a connection with Tahoe from backpacking trips and so on. It wasn’t really until I was going to school up in Davis, California, and working at Alpine West, a mountain shop in Sacramento, that I got to be very close friends with Don Fife, who owned Alpenglow Sports in Tahoe City. What ended up happening is we became friends and I really wanted to move up to Tahoe. So I threw it out to him while I was in the backcountry on a radio from a high lookout, and he said, “Are you applying for a job from the backcountry?” He ended up discouraging me saying, “The pay is poor and the cost of living is high.” and I said “Perfect! I’ll work for you.” We became like the dynamic duo of Alpenglow Sports and I managed the shop for him for 17 years. That was a really great way to become a part of the Tahoe community, when you work at a mountain shop where a lot of kindred spirits come through. So that was what got my foot in the door in the Tahoe community. I was there in Tahoe City for 30 years and over the last decade moved down to Reno, but am still very closely tied to the Tahoe/Truckee community.
Q: What happened after Alpenglow Sports?
A: What ended up happening was a good friend of mine who is an entrepreneur in the Truckee area, also kind of a legend in his own circle of business, was starting a business teaching industrial rope access — training people to get certified on dams and bridges. He was looking to grow his business and knew that I was a big wall climber doing routes on El Capitan and thought it would be a good fit. So I left Alpenglow Sports ready for a change from outdoor retail. Retail is awesome, but after 30 years of it I was done. So we sat at his kitchen table and he said, “I really want to grow this business, but I can’t promise you full-time work” and I looked him in the eye and I said, “As long as you always keep that promise, I’ll work for you.” So I ended up partnering up with him and we built this company Ropeworks, which became one of the leading rope access companies in America. It was the glory years of rope access, so I did that for 17 years.
Q: You’re a guide for Alpenglow Expeditions. How long have you been a guide and how did you come to that profession?
A: Three years ago I ran into a good friend of mine, Logan Talbott, who is one of the owners of Alpenglow Expeditions and I just threw it out to him, “Hey if you ever need somebody to fill in and do a little bit of guiding, keep me in mind.” And he said, “Are you kidding? Come with me.” An hour later I’m walking out with all of this logo wear and thought, oh jeez, I think I just got a job. So I’ve been working with them ever since, and I’m really excited about helping them grow their business as well wherever I can pitch in.
Q: What first ignited your passion for climbing?
A: I started off climbing in 1973. A Boy Scout leader introduced us to rock climbing. I had always been an adventurer, climbing and getting in trouble as you do when you’re a kid, and so this really resonated with me. Not only the climbing and the excitement and the physical challenge, I really liked the technical aspect — the rope work and placing equipment. And reading about the history of all these alpinist climbers that had come before me, I was really enamored with the whole package. That’s what ignited my passion was getting a very early-in-life introduction and then not really focusing on any one particular discipline of climbing, but being excited about exploring all the aspects.
Q: What is the most memorable thing that has happened on an expedition?
A: One of the most memorable ones was climbing a direct variation on the Hummingbird Ridge on the south face of Mount Logan in 1990 with my friend Jeff from Canada. We were so in over our heads. The ridge had not seen a second ascent in 25 years, although it had been attempted by many, many strong teams. We summited and got off and it was this huge ordeal. That was an extremely memorable event in all my life, in all respects.
Q: What are some of your proudest accomplishments in the outdoors?
A: There was a long-shot on climbing Fitz-Roy in Patagonia. It was my first trip to Patagonia with a good friend. We went down to Patagonia on a shoe-string budget with only three weeks, which is a very short period of time, and we climbed a very early ascent of Super Couloir on Fitz-Roy against the odds and I was very proud of the fact that we hung in there and accomplished that. I think it had only had one or two alpine ascents ever at that point — so this was early years. Even the approach on how to get to it was a little bit foggy. So for us it was a huge, proud accomplishment. We had made two attempts and had gotten pushed off of it by storms. We had two more days until we were gonna have to leave, we were running out of time. We woke up this one morning and it was just nuking wind and rain. It looked like it was not gonna happen, we even were beginning to plan how to get out of there and leave with a tail between the legs. At five o’clock in the evening, all of a sudden we’re in this little tent and I said, “Jim, do you hear that?” and he said, “What? I don’t hear anything,” and I said, “Exactly!” We got out of the tent and the winds had died down, we looked up and the clouds were lifting up off the glacier in the distance. We could tell that the weather might actually be breaking as opposed to just a sucker storm, and I said, “I think we need to go now.” This was after we had our asses kicked twice and we were frazzled. It was evening and about to get dark in a couple of hours — we set off on this thing and summited. We climbed through the night, at sunrise we’re halfway up the Super Couloir and then we were on the summit. It was 64 hours round trip from camp to camp. We came back tattered and exhausted, it was awesome.
Q: What impact has climbing had on your life, both positive or negative?
A: Being a lifelong alpine climber and back country skier is a sure cure against boredom and long-term relationships. The positive impact of my life as a climber is that it has brought to me the best friends, the best partnerships, the closest relationships I’ve had in my life. I’ve shared it with best friends, I’ve shared it with lovers, it’s been an amazing, positive journey in my life. I have zero regrets at all on that journey. But also you’re not walking the normal path, you’re not a 9-to-5 guy who’s gonna do what people expect. I have had to hold my ground and just say, “This is who I am.”
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