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A Climber’s Guide to the High Sierra (1954), edited by Hervey H. Voge

Tioga Pass to Mammoth Pass

The Clark Range and Adjacent Peaks

Richard M. Leonard

THE CLARK RANGE early attracted the attention of geologists, topographers, and mountaineers because of the commanding position of its peaks, standing as they do near the center of the granite wilderness of the headwaters of the Merced River. Clarence King wrote of its principal peak:

“From every commanding eminence around the Yosemite no distant object rises with more inspiring greatness than the obelisk of Mount Clark . . . its slender needlelike summit had long fired us with ambition. . . . There was in our hope of scaling this point something more than mere desire to master a difficult peak. It was a station of great topographical value, the apex of many triangles, and, more than all, would command a grander view of the Merced region than any other summit.”

Accordingly, after he had spent the summer of 1864 surveying the Yosemite Grant, the new park that had just been granted by the Federal Government to California, King started out on November 11, 1864, with Richard D. Cotter, and reached a fine camp near timberline in the cirque between Clark and Gray Peak just to the south. There a violent early winter storm nearly trapped them in a foot and a half of new snow. Their escape provides a fine tale of early mountaineering. More prudently, his next attempt was made in warm weather, July 12, 1866, with James Terry Gardiner. They made the ascent by a thrilling route along the southeast arête from the same cirque at the head of Gray Creek.


The Clark Range is a remnant of the ancient, folded, metamorphic mountains of Appalachian type that reached an elevation of approximately half that of the present range about 130 million years ago. The northwest-southeast trend of these peaks is roughly at right angles to the great southwest slope of the Sierra granite block, which was uptilted only ten million years ago. Remnants of the ancient metamorphic rocks can still be found in the quartzite of “Quartz Peak,” just north of Mount Clark, and in the ancient metamorphic lavas similar to those of the Ritter Range which give the dark color to Merced Peak and explain its earlier name, “Black Mountain.”

Mount Clark is composed of a very firm granite rather free of master joints, and would probably have become a dome except that it was severely glaciated on three sides. The absence of the black iron-bearing minerals gives Mount Clark an exceptionally light appearance. Gray and Red peaks, as the naives indicate, are strangely different. Their granites are similar to the white granite of Mount Hoffmann, but on Red Peak Hie black iron-bearing minerals seen in Gray Peak are weathered to an iron rust that colors the granite brilliantly. On Gray Peak these minerals are still predominantly black. Merced Peak is composed of extremely hard metamorphic lavas approximately 190 million years gold, similar to those that form the sharp crest of Mount Ritter and the Minarets. The mixture of red and white granite and the black rocks of Merced Peak combine with brilliant blue lakes and bright green meadows to form a bowl at Ottoway Lakes that is one of the most colorful in the Sierra.

Approaches and Campsites

The peaks of the range are easily accessible by fine trails and open inches on all sides. The easiest route is from Glacier Point or Mono Meadow to the point where the trail crosses the Clark Fork of Illilouette Creek, where there is fine camping and scattered animal feed. There are many additional camp spots above the trail along the west slope of the range, with a particularly fine site on the trail at Ottoway Lake; across Red Peak Pass there are good campsites by a series of fine lakes at timberline on the Merced Peak Fork of the Merced River. Mount Clark can also be reached from the Nevada Fall trail by the old Army trail to Starr King Meadow, or from Merced Lake Ranger Station up the other end of this early trail on Gray Peak Fork of the Merced River. The trail has not been maintained for nearly fifty years and therefore must not be considered as more than an indication of a feasible route. The southern peaks of the range are easily accessible from the roadhead at Clover Meadow Ranger Station, in Sierra National Forest, reached from the Bass Lake junction of the Fresno-Wawona Road.

There are four passes, each crossed by good trails, which bring one into the southern portion of the Clark Range and its adjacent peaks. See the Mount Lyell quadrangle (U.S. Geological Survey) for details.

Routes on the Peaks

This portion of the guide includes the peaks of the southern Yosemite National Park and northern Sierra National Forest from the Merced to the San Joaquin rivers. The peaks are listed alphabetically owing to their scattered location.

Mount Ansel Adams (11,760+n, 1 NE of Foerster Peak)

Class 3. First ascent July 11, 1934, by Glen Dawson, Jack Riegelhuth, and Neil Ruge. From the Lyell Fork meadows on the Merced River this is the most spectacular and beautiful peak in sight. Two days after the first ascent, Ruge led to the summit a Sierra Club High Trip party which proposed the name “Mount Ansel Adams.” The route ascends a prominent gully to the south of the peak, thence to the summit over the south face.

Black Peak (10,507). (See Madera Peak.)

Buena Vista Crest (9,712; 9,757n)

Class 1. An excellent ski ascent from Ostrander Lake Ski Hut.

Mount Clark (11,506; 11,522n)

Route 1. Southeast arête. Class 3. First ascent July 12, 1866, by Clarence King and James T. Gardiner. A thrilling account of this climb is given by King in Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada. Although a rope has probably never been used on this route, one should be available. The sharp southeast arête can be reached without difficulty from either west or east. On the arête, King’s thrilling gaps in the knife-edge will still be found, and it is at those points that a rope is welcome protection. Approach from Merced Lake: Cross over logs at the confluence of the Merced River and Gray Peak Fork and proceed up fishing trail along Gray Peak Fork to the upper basin (above the waterfall) and, keeping to the right, follow to a small creek (8,400 feet) running from Mount Clark into the Gray Peak Fork. Follow this watercourse to the lakes and thence to foot of Mount Clark over fairly open and gradual slopes. One can also proceed directly south from Merced Lake.

Route 2. Northeast face. Class 2. Although Mount Clark was a popular climb with at least four ascents before 1893, it was not until the solo ascent by Francis P. Farquhar on July 4, 1916, that the easiest route was clearly described. He climbed from Merced Lake, and observed, on reaching the head of the snowfield on the northeast face, that a series of broad ledges on the north edge of the face provided a simple route to the summit (SCB, 1917, 227).

Route 3. Northwest arête. Class 4. On September 8, 1935, Kenneth May, Don Parkin, and Howard Twining pioneered this difficult route, which is unmistakable to one with class-4 training and equipment. It consists of 1,500 feet of roped climbing on sound granite.

The true north face at the head of the great cirque has not been attempted so far as is known.

Winter Ascent. Class 4. On February 21, 1937, Kenneth Adam, David Brower, Kenneth Davis, and Hervey Voge skied from a camp low on the Starr King Plateau to the notch southeast of the summit, from which they continued on foot and belayed across the east face and thence to the summit, arriving at sunset.

Electra Peak (12,462; 12,442n)

Class 2. Ascents were made by Norman Clyde in 1914 and 1919, and one by Ansel Adams in 1931. Ted Waller led a Sierra Club High Trip party of eight to the summit on July 12, 1934. From the upper Lyell Fork of the Merced, climb to the ridge north of the summit, and thence southward to the summit.

Foerster Peak (12,062; 12,058n)

Class 2. Norman Clyde led a knapsack party in 1914, Robert Owen made an ascent on July 13, 1929, and three ascents were made on successive days by the Sierra Club High Trip in July 1934. The best route is on the southern slope. The west face is dangerous owing to rotten rock.

Gale Peak (10,690; 10,693n)

Class 2. The first recorded ascent was made in 1920 by Lawrence Fley, Freeman Jones, and Thomas Jones. The peak is well situated at the head of the beautiful Chain Lakes, almost at the southernmost boundary of the park, and can be climbed easily by ascending the ridge dividing the Chain Lakes from Breeze Lake to the north.

Gray Peak (11,581; 11,574n)

Class 2. In 1920 Ansel Adams placed a Sierra Club cylinder type register on the summit. The best route is up the broad southwest slope of the Illilouette Basin. From the Gray Peak Fork side, an ascent would be considerably more difficult.

Horse Ridge (9,600+)

Class 1. An excellent ski ascent from the Ostrander Lake Ski Hut. Fine view of the main crest peaks.

Isberg Peak (11,000; 10,996n)

Class 1. The first recorded ascent was made April 20, 1924, by Ansel Adams. It is an easy ascent from the upper basin of the Triple Peak Fork of the Merced.

Long Mountain (11,468; 11,507n)

Class 2. Ansel Adams made an ascent in August, 1922. The best route is from the south.

Madera Peak (10,507; 10,509n)

This is the approved name for the “Black Peak” of earlier editions of the topographic map. The peak is the southernmost high point of the northwest-southeast ancient ridge that formed the Clark Range. Class 2. Mr. and Mrs. Garthwaite, their 7-year-old son Ted, and Mrs. Hermina Daulton made the ascent in August, 1931. They “found a cairn but no records.” The Brewer Survey reports an ascent on August 19, 1864, but they were probably referring to Merced Peak, 7 miles to the north, which at that time was known as “Black Peak” owing to its dark volcanic rock. The peak may be ascended from the upper basin of the Black Peak fork of Granite Creek. An easier ascent can be made over the west slopes.

Merced Peak (11,722; 11,726n)

The highest peak of the Clark Range was an early favorite as a climbing objective. In 1870 the California Geological Survey wrote that “All these points [of the Clark Range] except Gray Peak have been climbed by the Survey.” In 1878 the peak was again occupied, this time by the Wheeler Survey party under Lieutenant M. M. Macomb. On July 29, 1897, Robert M. Price, his wife, F. W. Reede, and Theodore S. Solomons, placed Sierra Club Register number 56 on the summit. Fifty-two years later the tube was still there, though the records were missing. In 1871 the glacier in the cirque below the north face was found by Muir and described in detail in 1875 as the first living glacier to be found in the Sierra Nevada. His drawing of the great icicles in the bergschrund “12 to 14 feet wide” is a fascinating bit of recent Sierran geological history. The glacial milk in the lakelet below the cirque in 1949 prompted Alfred R. Dole and Richard M. Leonard to reëxplore the glacier. Ice was still present in good quantity, but they felt the glacier, one of the lowest glaciers in the Sierra, should probably be classed as “fossil” or inactive.

The early accounts do not give the route of climb.

Route 1. Northeast arête. Class 2. On a traverse of the peak in August, 1949, Alfred R. Dole, Stewart and Elizabeth Kimball, and Richard M. Leonard found the northeast arête the easiest. It is reached from fine camping on lower Ottoway Lake by following up the canyon to the class-2 pass between Ottoway and Merced peaks, and ascending the blocks of talus, keeping to the ridge crest to lessen danger from loose blocks.

Route 2. West arête. Class 3. This route is a half-mile in length and contains several steep pitches that require detours on the south slope down onto smooth 50 degree slabs of very hard ancient metamorphic lava. Traversed in August 1949 by Dole, the Kimballs, and Leonard.

Ottoway Peak (11,500+; 11,360+n)

Class 2. The first recorded ascent was made by Ansel Adams on September 16, 1934, when scouting the route for the present trail, just a half-mile to the west. The route from the summit of the trail is easily ascertained.

Post Peak (10,996; 11,009n)

Class 1. The first recorded ascent was by Ansel Adams. It was climbed September 7, 1930, by Walter A. Starr, Jr., who described it as “A fine vantage point from which to get a fine view of the upper Merced and San Joaquin region.” A branch of the old Isberg Pass Trail passes within a few hundred feet of the summit. The route is obvious.

Mount Raymond (8,548)

Class 1. Two miles by easy trail from Wawona Point, in the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees.

Red Peak (11,700; 11,699n)

Class 2 to 3. Presumably climbed by the California Geological Survey by 1870. In 1910 S. L. Foster made a solo ascent and found a cairn (SCB, 1911, 25-33). In 1920 Ansel Adams placed a Sierra Club cylinder type register. This peak has some steep cliffs on the north. The easiest route is via the canyon to the north of the three summits, or via the crest of this summit ridge. The cliff face is very difficult.

Redtop (9,900+; 9,840+n)

This peak, on the south boundary of Yosemite, was at one time known as “Madera Peak” (which see). William Frederick Badè made an ascent prior to 1919.

Rodgers Peak (13,056; 12,978n)

Class 3. This peak was known in early literature as “Kellogg Peak.” The first recorded ascent was made on August 5, 1897, by Robert M. Price, who climbed from the Lyell Fork of the Merced. Captain N. F. McClure made an early ascent, and in 1924 Ansel Adams placed a Sierra Club cylinder type register. The best route is from the east (Rush Creek Basin). It can be climbed from the upper canyon of the Lyell Fork of the Merced, but is more difficult from that side.

Triple Divide Peak (11,613; 11,600+n)

Class 2. The peak splits two forks of the Merced from the East Fork of Granite Creek, a tributary of the San Joaquin. It affords a fine view. It was climbed by Norman Clyde in 1920. Ansel Adams, Elizabeth Adams, and F. C. Holman placed a Sierra Club cylinder type register in 1922. The best route is from the upper valley of Triple Peak Fork. The summit should be approached from the northeast.

Peak 10,755 (10,823n; 2 SW of Triple Divide Peak)

Class 2. Climbed in August 1934 by Edwin L. Garthwaite, Ted Garthwaite, and Jean Scupham.

Peak 11,200+ (11,200+n; 1 SW of Triple Divide Peak)

Climbed August 3, 1934, by Edwin L. Garthwaite, Ted Garthwaite, and Jean Scupham.

Peak 11,500+ (11,535n; 1 S Of Foerster Peak)

Climbed July 13, 1929, by Robert Owen

Peak 12,000+ (12,000+n; 3/4 E of Foerster Peak)

Climbed July 13, 1934, by Marjory Bridge, Helen LeConte, and Louise Hildebrand.

Peak 12,500+ (12,560+n; 0.7 S of Rodgers)

Class 2. Climbed July 10, 1924, by Ansel Adams, Cedric Wright, and Willard Grinnell.

Other peaks

There is no record of ascent for Buena Vista Peak, Cattle Mountain, Green Mountain, Junction Butte, Lion Point, Moraine Mountain, Quartz Mountain, Quartz Peak, Sadler Peak, Sing Peak, or Timber Knob. Several of these summits should afford fine panoramas, and none of them is likely to exceed class 2 in difficulty. It is quite possible that ascents have been made of all these peaks, and in particular Green Mountain, since a trail passes almost over its summit.

Photographs in Sierra Club Bulletin

Mount Ansel Adams: 1922, 258. Mount Clark: 1917, 230; 1930, 59. Electra Peak: 1935, 31. Gray Peak: 1941, 94. Rodgers Peak: 1932, 23 and 26; 1935, 31.

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Online Library: Title Author California Geology History Indians Muir Mountaineering Nature Management