Wahrhaftig was born in Fresno and raised there, a member of a pioneer California family whose early members planted orchards in the Sacramento Valley. He earned a bachelor's degree in geology at Caltech in 1941, and a Ph.D. in geology at Harvard in 1953. He worked for the U.S. Geological Survey, full-time or part-time, from 1941 until his death.
He taught at Berkeley for 22 years, from 1960 to 1982. His ties to Berkeley were much longer than the time of formal employment. They began in childhood, when he played along Strawberry Creek and hiked in the Berkeley Hills while his mother attended summer school, and they continued to his death.
He made notable contributions to understanding the coal deposits, geology, and glaciers of Alaska and the landforms, deposits, and bedrock geology of the Sierra Nevada and the California Coast Ranges.
In the mid-1980s heart problems slowed him down. When he was no longer able to work in the higher mountains that he loved, he switched his attention to the lower Coast Ranges of California. He then became intimately familiar with the hills and cliffs and rock outcrops from the Peninsula to the Marin Headlands. To hikers in the region he became a familiar sight, with his silver hair and bushy silver beard, tramping the terrain, followed by acolytes of every age.
For most of his life Wahrhaftig was a closeted homosexual in the macho world of field geologists. As such, he suffered a full measure of repression, self-doubt, and dissimulation. In 1989, he chose the occasion of accepting the "Distinguished Career Award" from the Geological Society of America (GSA), to come out and to urge his fellow scientists to accept homosexual students without bias and encourage them to enter the field of geoscience.
Wahrhaftig had a long relationship with geologist Allan Cox - the most important person in his life - one of the true giants of earth science in the second half of the twentieth century. In 1950 and 1951 Cox, as an under-graduate student in chemistry, worked for him as a field assistant. Wahrhaftig convinced him to pursue a career in the earth sciences, and steered him toward a Ph.D. at Berkeley.
Wahrhaftig's love for science and its uses was matched by his love for the arts. He loved the music of classical composers up through Brahms. Mozart was far and away his favorite. In the field he played Mozart on a recorder. At home he played Mozart pieces on the piano for friends, hours at a time, as long as they would listen.
He also had a talent for sketching. His sketches illustrate many of his informally published works. In 1993 the USGS in Menlo Park exhibited selected pen and ink sketches from his numerous sketchbooks. Clyde Wahrhaftig died the following year in San Francisco, of heart failure, at age 74.