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Chapter XIIIndexChapter XIV

Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada
by Clarence King

There lay between Carson and Mount Whitney a ride of two hundred and eighty miles along the east base of the Sierra. Stage-driving, like other exact professions, gathers among its followers certain types of men and manners, either by some mode of natural selection, or else after a Darwinian way developing one set of traits to the exclusion of others. However interesting it might be to investigate the moulding power of whip and reins, or to discover what measure of coachman there is latent in every one of us, it cannot be questioned that the characters of drivers do resemble one another in surprising degree. That ostentatious silence and self-contained way of ignoring one’s presence on the box for the first half hour, the tragi-comic, just-audible undertone in which they remonstrate with the swing team, and such single refrain of obsolete song as they drone and drone a hundred times, may be observed on every coach from San Diego to Montana.

So I found it natural enough that the driver, my sole companion from Carson to Aurora, should sit for the first hour in a silence etiquette forbade me to violate. His team, by strict attention to their duties, must have left his mind quite free, and I saw symptoms of suppressed sociability within forty minutes of our departure.

The nine-mile house, if my memory serves, was his landmark for taciturnity, for soon after passing it he began to skirmish along a sort of picket line of conversation. To the wheel mares he remarked, “Hot, gals; ain’t it, tho’” and to his off leader, who strained wild eyes in every direction for something to become excited about, “Look at him, Dixie; wouldn’t you like a rabbit to shy at?”

With a true driver’s pride in reading men, he scanned me from boots to barometer, and at last, to my immense delight, said, with the air of throwing his hat into a ring, “What mountain was you going down to measure?” Had he inquired after my grandfather by his first name, I could not have been more surprised. At once I told him the plain truth, and waited for further developments; but, like an indifferent shot who drives centre on a first trial, he proposed not to endanger his reputation for infallibility by other ventures, and withdrew again to that conspicuous stupidity which coachmen and Buddhists alike delight in.

Left to myself, I spent hours in looking out over the desert and up along that bold front of Sierra which rose on our right from the sage plains of Carson Valley up through ramparts of pine land to summits of rock and ravines with sunken snow-banks.

So far as Aurora, I remember little worth describing. Sierras, or outlying volcanic foot-hills, bound the west. About our road are desert plains and rolling sage-clad hills, fresh, light olive at this June season, and softly sloping in long glacis down to wide, impressive levels.

Green valleys and cultivated farms margin the Carson and Walker rivers. Sierras are not lofty enough to be grand, desert too gentle and overspread with sage to be terrible; yet the pale, high key of all its colors, and singular a๋rial brilliancy lend an otherwise dreary enough picture the charm,—as I once before said,—of water-color drawings. There is no perspective under this fierce white light; in midday intensely sharp reflections glare from hill and valley, except where the shadow of passing cloud spreads cool and blue over olive slopes.

Alas for Aurora, once so active and bustling with silver mines and its almost daily murder! Twenty-six whiskey hells and two Vigilance Committees graced those days of prosperity and mirthful gallows, of stock-board and the gay delirium of speculation. Now her sad streets are lined with closed doors; a painful silence broods over quartz mills, and through the whole deserted town one perceives that melancholy security of human life which is hereabouts one of the pathetic symptoms of bankruptcy. The “boys” have gone off to merrily shoot one another somewhere else, leaving poor Aurora in the hands of a sort of coroner’s jury who gather nightly at the one saloon and hold dreary inquests over departed enterprise.

My landlord’s tread echoed through a large, empty hotel, and when I responded to his call for lunch the silentest of girls became medium between me and a Chinaman, who gazed sad-eyed through his kitchen door as in pity for one who must choose between starving and his own cookery. But I have always felt it unpardonable egotism for a traveller to force the reader into sharing with him the inevitable miseries of roadside food. Whatever merit there may be in locking this prandial grief fast from public view, I feel myself entitled to in a high degree, for I hold it in my power to describe the most revolting cuisine on the planet, yet refrain.

From Aurora my road, still parallel with the mountains, though now hidden from them by banks of volcanic hills, climbed a long, wearisome slope from whose summit a glorious panorama of snowy Sierras lay before us. From our feet, steep declivities fell two thousand feet to the level of a wide desert basin, bounded upon the west by long ranks of high, white peaks, and otherwise walled in by chains of volcanic hills, smooth with dull sage flanks, and yet varied here and there by outcropping formations of eruptive rocks and dusky cedar forests.

Just at the Sierra foot, surrounded by bare, gray volcanoes and reaches of ashen plain, lies Mono lake, a broad oval darkened along its father shore by reflecting the shadowed mountains, and pale tranquil blue where among light desert levels it mirrors the silken softness of sky and cloud. Flocks of pelicans, high against the sky, floated in slow, wheeling flight, reflecting the sun from white wings, and, turning, were lost in the blue to gleam out again like flakes of snow.

The eye ranges over strange, forbidding hill-forms and leagues of desert, from which no familiarity can ever banish suggestions of death. Traced along boundary hills, straight terraces of an ancient beach indicate former water-levels, and afar in the Sierra, great, empty gorges, glacier-burnished and moraine-flanked, lead up to amphitheatres of rock once white with névé.

I recognized the old familiar summits: Mount Ritter, Lyell, Dana, and that firm peak with Titan strength and brow so square and solid it seems altogether natural we should have named it for California’s statesman, John Conness.

We rumbled down hill and out upon the desert, plodding until evening through sand, and over rocky, cedar-wooded spurs, at last crossing adobe meadows, where were settlements and a herd of Spanish cattle which had escaped the drought of California, and now marched, northward bound, for Montana.

Frowning volcanic hills flanked our road as evening wore on, lifting dark forms against a sky singularly pale and luminous. Afar, we caught glimpses of the dark, swelling Sierra wave thrusting up “star-neighboring peaks,” and then, descending into hollows among lava mounds, found ourselves shut completely in. A night at the Hot Springs of Partzwick was notably free from anything which may be recounted.

Morning found me waiting alone on the hotel veranda, and I suppose the luxuries of the establishment must have left a stamp of melancholy upon my face, for the little, solemn driver who drew up his vehicle at the door said in a tone of condolence, “The hearse is ready.”

Stages, drivers and teams had been successively worse as I journeyed southward. This little old specimen, by whose side I sat from Partzwick to Independence, ought to be excepted, and I should neglect a duty were I not to portray one, at least, of his traits. He was a musical old fellow, and given to chanting in low tones songs, sometimes pathetic, often sentimental, but in every case preserved by him in most fragmentary recollection. Such singing suffered, too, from the necessary and frequent interruption of driving; the same breath quavering in cracked melody, and tossing some neatly rounded oath or horse-phrase at off or near wheeler, catching up an end of the refrain again in time to satisfy his musical requirements.

All the morning he had warned me most impressively to count myself favored if a certain bridge over Bishop’s Creek should not sink under us and cast me upon wild waters. Rightly estimating my friend, I was not surprised when we reached the spot to find a good, solid structure bridging a narrow creek not more than four feet deep.

As we rolled on down Owen’s Valley, he sang, chatted and drove in a manner which showed him capable of three distinct, yet simultaneous, mental processes. I follow his words as nearly as memory serves.

“That creek, sir, was six feet deep.

‘Oh Lillie, sweet Lillie, dear Lillie Dale.’

What the devil are you shying at? You cursed mustang, come up out of that;

. . . . . ‘little green grave.’

Yes, seven feet, and if we’d have fell in, swimming wouldn’t saved us.’

‘You, Balley, what are you a doin’ on?’

‘Neath the hill in the flowing vale.’

And what’s more, we couldn’t have crawled up that bank, nohow.

‘My own dear Lillie Dale.’

You’d like to kick over them traces, would you? Keep your doggoned neck up snug against that collar, and take that.

“We’d drowned, sir; drowned sure as thunder.

‘In the place where the violets grow.’”

Desert hills, and low, mountain gateways, opening views of vast, sterile plains, no longer formed our eastern outlook. The White Mountains, a lofty, barren chain vying with the Sierras in altitude, rose in splendid rank and stretched southeast, parallel with the great range. Down the broad, intermediate trough flowed Owen’s River, alternately through expanses of natural meadow and desolate reaches of sage.

The Sierra, as we travelled southward, became bolder and bolder, strong granite spurs plunging steeply down into the desert; above, the mountain sculpture grew grander and grander, until forms wild and rugged as the Alps stretched on in dense ranks as far as the eye could reach. More and more the granite came out in all its strength. Less and less soil covered the slopes: groves of pine became rarer, and sharp, rugged buttresses advanced boldly to the plain. Here and there a cañon-gate between rough granite pyramids, and flanked by huge moraines, opened its savage gallery back among peaks. Even around the summits there was but little snow, and the streams which at short intervals flowed from the mountain foot, traversing the plains, were sunken far below their ordinary volume.

The mountain forms and mode of sculpture of the opposite ranges are altogether different. The White and Inyo chains, formed chiefly of uplifted sedimentary beds, are largely covered with soil, and wherever the solid rock is exposed its easily traced strata plains and soft, wooded surface combined in producing a general aspect of breadth and smoothness; while the Sierra, here more than anywhere else, holds up a front of solid stone, carved into most intricate and highly ornamental forms: vast aiguilles, trimmed from summit to base with line of slender minarets; huge, broad domes, deeply fluted and surmounted with tall obelisks, and everywhere the greatest profusion of bristling points.

From the base of each range a long, sloping talus descends gently to the river, and here and there, bursting up through Sierra foot-hills, rise the red and black forms of recent volcanoes as regular and barren as if cooled but yesterday.

I had reason for not regretting my departure from the Inyo House at Independence next morning before sunrise; and when a young woman in an elaborate brown calico, copied evidently from some imperial evening toilet, pertly demanded my place by the driver, adding that she was not one of the “inside kind,” I willingly yielded, and made myself contented on the back seat alone. Presently, however, a companion came to me in the person of a middle-aged Spanish doña, clad altogether in black, with a shawl worn over her head after the manner of a mantilla. When it began to rain violently and beat upon that brown calico, I made bold to offer the young woman my sheltered place, but she gayly declined, averring herself not made of sugar. So the doña and I shared my great coat across our laps and established relations of civility, though she spoke no English, and I only that little Spanish so much more embarrassing than none.

In her smile, in the large, soft eyes, and that tinge of Castilian blood which shone red-warm through olive cheek, I saw the signs of a race blessed with sturdier health than ours. With snowy hair growing low on a massive forehead, and just a glimpse now and then of large, gold beads, through a white handkerchief about her throat, she seemed to me a charming picture: though, perhaps, her fine looks gained something by contrasting with the sickly girl in front, whose pallor and cough could not have meant less than the pretubercular state.

Clouds covered the mountains on either hand, leaving me only ranches and people to observe. May I be forgiven if I am wrong in accounting for the late improvement of political tone in Tuolumne by the presence here of so large a share of her most degraded citizens; people whose faces and dress and life and manners are sadder than any possibilities held up to us by Darwin.

My long ride ended in a few hours at Lone Pine, where, from the hotel window, I watched a dark-blue mass of storm which covered and veiled the region where I knew my goal, the Whitney summit, must stand.

For two days storm-curtains hung low about the Sierra base, their vapor banks, dark with fringes of shower, at times drifting out over Lone Pine and quenching a thirsty earth. On the third afternoon blue sky shone through rifts overhead, and now and then a single peak, dashed with broken sunshine, rose for a moment over rolling clouds which swelled above it again like huge billows.

About an hour before sunset the storm began rapidly to sink into level fold, over which, in clear, yellow light, emerged “cloud-compelling” peaks. The liberated sun poured down shafts of light, piercing the mist which now in locks of gold and gray blew about the mountain heads in wonderful splendor.

How deep and solemn a blue filled the cañon depths! What passion of light glowed around the summits! With delight I watched them one after another fading till only the sharp, terrible crest of Whitney, still red with reflected light from the long-sunken sun, showed bright and glorious above the whole Sierra.

Upon observing the topography, I saw that one bold spur advanced from Mount Whitney to the plain; on either side of it profound cañons opened back to the summit. I remembered the impossibility of making a climb up those northern precipices, and at once chose the more southern gorge.

Next morning we set out on horseback for the mountain base, twelve miles across plains and through an outlying range of hills. My companion for the trip was Paul Pinson, as tough and plucky a mountaineer as France ever sent us, who consented readily to follow me. José, the mild-mannered and grinning Mexican boy who rode with us, was to remain in care of our animals at the foot-hills while we made the climb.

I left a Green barometer to be observed at Lone Pine, and carried my short high-mountain instrument, by the same excellent maker.

Gauzy mists again enveloped the Sierra, leaving us free minds to enjoy a ride, of which the very first mile supplied me food for days of thought.

The American residents of Lone Pine outskirts live in a homeless fashion; sullen, almost arrogant, neglect stares out from the open doors. There is no attempt at grace, no memory of comfort, no suggested hope for improvement.

Not so the Spanish homes, their low, adobe, wide-roofed cabins neatly enclosed with even, basket-work fence, and lining hedge of blooming hollyhock.

We stopped to bow good-morning to my friend and stage companion, the doña. She sat in the threshold of her open door, sewing; beyond her stretched a bare floor, clean and white: the few chairs, the table spread with snowy linen, everything, shone with an air of religious spotlessness. Symmetry reigned in the precise, well-kept garden, arranged in rows of pepper-plants and crisp heads of vernal lettuce.

I longed for a painter to catch her brilliant smile, and surround her on canvas as she was here, with order and dignity. The same plain, black dress clad her ample figure, and about the neck heavy, barbaric gold beads served again as collar.

Under low eaves above her, and quite around the house, hung, in triple row, festoons of flaming red peppers, in delicious contrast with the rich adobe gray.

It was a study of order and true womanly repose, fitted to cheer us, and a grouping of such splendid color as might tempt a painter to cross the world.

A little farther on we passed an Indian ranchero where several willow wickyups were built upon the bank of a cold brook. Half-naked children played about here and there; a few old squaws bustled at household work; but nearly all lay outstretched, dozing. A sort of tattered brilliancy characterized the place. Gay, high-colored squalor reigned. There seemed hardly more lack of thrift or sense of decorum than in the American ranches, yet somehow the latter send a stab of horror through one, while this quaint indolence and picturesque neglect seem aptly contrived to set off the Indian genius for loafing, and leave you with a sort of æsthetic satisfaction, rather than the sorrow their half development should properly evoke.

Leaving all this behind us, our road led westward across a long sage slope entering a narrow, tortuous pass through a low range of outlying granite hills. Strangely weathered forms towered on either side, their bare, brown surface contrasting pleasantly with the vivid ribbon of willows which wove a green and silver cover over swift water.

The granite was riven with innumerable cracks, showing here and there a strong tendency to concentric forms, and I judged the immense spheroidal bowlders which lay on all sides, piled one upon another, to be the kernels or nuclei of larger masses.

Quickly crossing this ridge, we came out upon the true Sierra foot-slope, a broad, inclined plain stretching north and south as far as we could see. Directly in front of us rose the rugged form of Mount Whitney spur, a single mass of granite, rough-hewn, and darkened with coniferous groves. The summits were lost in a cloud of almost indigo hue.

Putting our horses at a trot, we quickly ascended the glacis, and at the very foot of the rocks dismounted, and made up our packs. José, with the horses, left us and went back half a mile to a mountain ranch, where he was to await our return; and presently Pinson and I, with heavy burdens upon our backs, began slowly to work our way up the granite spur and toward the great cañon.

An hour’s climb brought us around upon the south wall of our spur, and about a thousand feet above a stream which dashed and leaped along the cañon bottom, through wild ravines and over granite bluffs. Our slope was a rugged rock-face, giving foothold here and there to pine and juniper trees, but for the greater part bare and bold.

Far above, at an elevation of ten thousand feet, a dark grove of alpine pines gathered in the cañon bed. Thither we bent our steps, edging from cleft to cleft, making constant, though insignificant, progress. At length our wall became so wild and deeply cut with side cañons that we found it impossible to follow it longer, and descended carefully to the bottom.

Almost immediately, with heavy wind gusts and sound as of torrents, a storm broke upon us, darkening the air and drenching us to the skin. The three hours we toiled up over rocks, through dripping willow-brooks and among trains of débris were not noticeable for their cheerfulness.

The storm had ceased, but it was evening when, wet and exhausted, we at length reached the alpine grove, and threw ourselves down for rest under a huge, overhanging rock which offered its shelter for our bivouac.

Logs, soon brought in by Pinson, were kindled. The hot blaze seemed pleasant to us, though I cannot claim to have enjoyed those two hours spent in turning round and round before it while steaming and drying. But the broiled beef, the toast, and those generous cups of tea to which we devoted the hour between ten and eleven were quite satisfactory. So, too, was the pleasant chat till midnight warned us to roll up in overcoats and close our eyes to the fire, to the dark, sombre grove, and far stars crowding the now cloudless heavens.

The sun rose and shone on us while we breakfasted. Through all the visible sky not a cloud could be seen, and, thanks to yesterday’s rain, the air was of crystal purity. Into it the granite summits above us projected forms of sunlit gray.

Up the glacier valley above camp we slowly tramped through a forest of noble Pinus Flexilis, the trunks of bright sienna contrasting richly with deep bronze foliage.

Minor flutings of a medial moraine offered gentle grade and agreeable footing for a mile and more, after which, by degrees, the woods gave way to a wide, open amphitheatre surrounded with cliffs.

I can never enter one of these great, hollow mountain chambers without a pause. There is a grandeur and spaciousness which expand and fit the mind for yet larger sensations when you shall stand on the height above.

Velvet of alpine sward edging an icy brooklet, by whose margin we sat down, reached to the right and left far enough to spread a narrow foreground, over which we saw a chain of peaks swelling from either side toward our amphitheatre’s head, where, springing splendidly over them all, stood the sharp form of Whitney.

Precipices white with light and snow-fields of incandescent brilliance grouped themselves along walls and slopes. All around us, in wild, huge heaps, lay wrecks of glacier and avalanche.

We started again, passing the last tree, and began to climb painfully up loose débris and lodged blocks of the north wall. From here to the very foot of that granite pyramid which crowns the mountain, we found neither difficulty nor danger, only a long, tedious climb over footing which, from time to time, gave way provokingly.

By this time mist floated around the brow of Mount Whitney, forming a gray helmet, from which, now and then, the wind blew out long, waving plumes. After a brief rest we began to scale the southeast ridge, climbing from rock to rock, and making our way up steep fields of soft snow. Precipices, sharp and severe, fell away to east and west of us, but the rough pile above still afforded a way. We had to use extreme caution, for many blocks hung ready to fall at a touch, and the snow, where we were forced to work up it, often gave way, threatening to hurl us down into cavernous hollows.

When within a hundred feet of the top I suddenly fell through, but, supporting myself by my arms, looked down into a grotto of rock and ice, and out through a sort of window, over the western bluffs, and down thousands of feet to the far-away valley of the Kern.

I carefully and slowly worked my body out, and crept on hands and knees up over steep and treacherous ice-crests, where a slide would have swept me over a brink of the southern precipice.

We kept to the granite as much as possible, Pinson taking one train of blocks and I another. Above us but thirty feet rose a crest, beyond which we saw nothing. I dared not think it the summit till we stood there and Mount Whitney was under our feet.

Close beside us a small mound of rock was piled upon the peak, and solidly built into it an Indian arrow-shaft, pointing due west.

I climbed out to the southwest brink, and, looking down, could see that fatal precipice which had prevented me seven years before. I strained my eyes beyond, but already dense, impenetrable clouds had closed us in.

On the whole, this climb was far less dangerous than I had reason to hope. Only at the very crest, where ice and rock are thrown together insecurely, did we encounter any very trying work. The utter unreliableness of that honeycomb and cavernous cliff was rather uncomfortable, and might, at any moment, give the deathfall to one who had not coolness and muscular power at instant command.

I hung my barometer from the mound of our Indian predecessor, nor did I grudge his hunter pride the honor of first finding that one pathway to the summit of the United States, fifteen thousand feet above two oceans.

While we lunched I engraved Pinson’s and my name upon a half dollar, and placed it in a hollow of the crest. Clouds still hung motionless over us, but in half an hour a west wind drew across, drifting the heavy vapors along with it. Light poured in, reddening the clouds, which soon rolled away, opening a grand view of the western Sierra ridge, and of the whole system of the Kern.

Only here and there could blue sky be seen, but, fortunately, the sun streamed through one of these windows in the storm, lighting up splendidly the snowy rank from Kaweah to Mount Brewer.

There they rose as of old, firm and solid; even the great snow-fields, though somewhat shrunken, lay as they had seven years before. I saw the peaks and passes and amphitheatres dear old Cotter and I had climbed: even that Mount Brewer pass where we looked back over the pathway of our dangers, and up with regretful hearts to the very rock on which I sat.

Deep below flowed the Kern, its hundred, snow-fed branches gleaming out amid rock and ice, or traced far away in the great glacier trough by dark lines of pine. There, only twelve mile northwest, stretched that ragged divide where Cotter and I came down the precipice with our rope. Beyond, into the vague blue of King’s cañon, sloped the ice and rock of Mount Brewer wall.

Sombre storm-clouds and their even gloomier shadows darkened the northern sea of peaks. Only a few slant bars of sudden light flashed in upon purple granite and fields of ice. The rocky tower of Mount Tyndall, thrust up through rolling billows, caught for a moment the full light, and then sank into darkness and mist.

When all else was buried in cloud we watched the great west range. Weird and strange, it seemed shaded by some dark eclipse. Here and there through its gaps and passes serpent-like streams of mist floated in and crept slowly down the cañons of the hither slope, then all along the crest, torn and rushing spray of clouds whirled about the peaks, and in a moment a vast gray wave reared high, and broke, overwhelming all.

Just for a moment every trace of vapor cleared away from the east, unveiling for the first time spurs and gorges and plains. I crept to a brink and looked down into the Whitney Cañon, which was crowded with light. Great, scarred and ice-hewn precipices reached down four thousand feet, curving together like a ship, and holding in their granite bed a thread of brook, the small sapphire gems of alpine lake, bronze dots of pine, and here and there a fine enamelling of snow.

Beyond and below lay Owen’s Valley, walled in by the barren Inyo chain, and afar, under a pale, sad sky, lengthened leagues and leagues of lifeless desert.

The storm had even swept across Kern Cañon, and dashed high against the peaks north and south of us. A few sharp needles and spikes struggled above it for a moment, but it rolled over them and rushed in torrents down the desert slope, burying everything in a dark, swift cloud.

We hastened to pack up our barometer and descend. A little way down the ice crust gave way under Pinson, but he saved himself, and we hurried on, reaching safely the cliff-base, leaving all dangerous ground above us.

So dense was the cloud we could not see a hundred feet, but tramped gayly down over rocks and sand, feeling quite assured of our direction, until suddenly we came upon the brink of a precipice and strained our eyes off into the mist. I threw a stone over and listened in vain for the sound of its fall. Pinson and I both thought we had deviated too far to the north, and were on the brink of Whitney Cañon, so we turned in the opposite direction, thinking to cross the ridge, entering our old amphitheatre, but in a few moments we again found ourselves upon the verge. This time a stone we threw over answered with a faint, dull crash from five hundred feet below. We were evidently upon a narrow blade. I remembered no such place, and sat down to recall carefully every detail of topography. At last I concluded that we had either strayed down upon the Kern side, or were on one of the cliffs overhanging the head of our true amphitheatre.

Feeling the necessity of keeping cool, I determined to ascend to the foot of the snow and search for our tracks. So we slowly climbed there again and took a new start.

By this time the wind howled fiercely, bearing a chill from snow-crystals and sleet. We hurried on before it, and, after one or two vain attempts, succeeded in finding our old trail down the amphitheatre slope, descending very rapidly to its floor.

From here, an exhausting tramp of five hours through the pine forest to our camp, and on down the rough, wearying slopes of the lower cañon, brought us to the plain where José and the horses awaited us.

From Lone Pine that evening, and from the open carriage in which I rode northward to Independence, I constantly looked back and up into the storm, hoping to catch one glimpse of Mount Whitney; but all the range lay submerged in dark, rolling cloud, from which now and then a sullen mutter of thunder reverberated.

For years our chief, Professor Whitney, has made brave campaigns into the unknown realm of Nature. Against low prejudice and dull indifference he has led the survey of California onward to success. There stand for him two monuments—one a great report made by his own hand; another, the loftiest peak in the Union, begun for him in the planet’s youth and sculptured of enduring granite by the slow hand of Time.


The preceding pages were written immediately after my return from Mount Whitney, and without a shadow of suspicion that among the sea of peaks half seen, half storm-hidden, I could have missed the true summit.

Professor Whitney alone possessed sufficiently studied data to apply the annual corrections for barometric oscillation in the high Sierra, and to his office I at once forwarded my observations noted upon the Mount Whitney summit, together with the record of simultaneous readings at Lone Pine, the station upon which I relied for a base. As I was about mailing the chapter to our printer, from my camp in the Rocky Mountains, I received from Professor Pettee, who had kindly made a computation, the puzzling despatch that Mount Whitney only reached fourteen thousand six hundred and ten feet in altitude. Realizing at once that this must be an error, I attributed it to some great abnormal oscillation of pressure due to storm, and decided not to publish the measurement.

Then for a moment a sense of doubt came over me lest I had been mistaken; but on carefully studying the map it was reassuring to establish beyond doubt the identity of the peak designated on the map of the Geological Survey of California as Mount Whitney with the one I had climbed. The reader will perhaps appreciate, then, my surprise and disappointment when, travelling in the overland car to California in September, 1873, I read and re-read a communication by Mr. W. A. Goodyear, former Assistant of the Geological Survey, made to the California Academy of Sciences, in which he points out with great clearness that I had missed the real peak.

To explain most simply why Mr. Goodyear saw the true Mount Whitney when he reached the summit of my peak of 1871, it is only necessary to state that he had a clear day, and the evident fact stared him in the face. If the reader kindly refers to the preceding part of the chapter, descriptive of my 1871 climb, he will note that my visit was, unfortunately, during a great storm, through whose billows of cloud and eddying mists the landscape disclosed itself in fragmentary glimpses: to repeat the expression of my notebook, “as through windows in the storm.”

My little granite island was incessantly beaten by breakers of vague, impenetrable cloud, and never once did the true Mount Whitney unveil its crest to my eager eyes. Only one glimpse, and I should have bent my steps northward, restless till the peak was climbed. But, then, that would have left nothing for Goodyear, whose paper shows such evident relish in my mistake that I accept my ‘71 ill-luck as providential. One has in this dark world so few chances of conferring innocent, pure delight.

It must always remain a bond between Goodyear and myself that in the only paper he has written on the high Sierras it was his happy thought to point both pleasantry and argument with that most grotesque and sober of beasts, the mule; and, while my regard for all mules rises wellnigh into the realm of sentiment, I cherish no less a feeling than profound indebtedness toward the particular one who succeeded—with how great effort only a fellow-climber can know—in getting Mr. Goodyear on the now nameless peak, whence, like Moses from Pisgah, he beheld the Promised Land.

My gratitude is not all directed to the mule, either; from that just channel a stream is directed toward the clear, good judgment of my friend, who resolutely turned his back on the alluring summit, and promptly quitted the head of mule navigation to descend and hold me up in my proper light. Pleasantry aside, and method being largely a matter of taste, Mr. Goodyear deserves credit for having so clearly pointed out my mistake—credit which I desire to bear honest tribute to, since his discovery has already led several of us to climb the true peak, a labor requiring little effort and rewarded by the most striking view in the Sierra Nevada.

Of course I lost no time in directing my steps toward Mount Whitney, animated with a lively delight which was quite unclouded by the fact that two parties, who had three thousand miles the start of me, were already en route, and certain to reach the goal before me.

Perhaps there is no element in the varied life of an explorer so full of contemplative pleasure as the frequent and rapid passages he makes between city life and home: by that I mean his true home, where the flames of his bivouac fire light up trunks of sheltering pine and make an island of light in the silent darkness of the primeval forest. The crushing Juggernaut-car of modern life and the smothering struggle of civilization are so far off that the wail of suffering comes not, nor the din and dust of it all; and out of your very memory for a time—alas! only for a time—fade those two indelible examples of the shallowness of society, those terrible pictures of sorrow and wrong, and that perennial artifice which wellnigh always chokes with its weedy growth the rare, fine flowers of art.

All is forgotten: those murky clouds which in town life dispute the serenity of one’s spiritual air drift beyond view, and over you broods only the quiet sky of night, her white stars moving beyond fragrant pine-tops or lost in the dim tangle of their feathery foliage. Such is the mountaineer’s evening spent contemplatively before his fire; the profound sense of Nature’s tranquillity filling his mind with its repose till the flames give way to embers, and guardian pines spread dusky arms over his sleep. Not less a contrast greets him when from simple field life the doors of a city suddenly open, and the huddled complexity of everything jostles him. Either way, and as often as one makes this transit between civilization and the wilds, one prizes most the pure, simple, strengthening joy of nature.

Thus, when, from the heat and pressure of town in September, 1873, I suddenly plunged into the heart of the Sierra forest, a cool mountain sky of holy blue and my well-beloved trees, calm and vigorous as ever, communicated thrills of pleasure well worth my brief separation from them. Day after day through the green forest I rode on, leaving the mustang to choose his own gait, scarcely talking to my two campaign companions, who with the plodding pack-animals followed noiselessly behind. It was only when we ascended the east wall of the Kern Cañon on the Hockett Trail, and reached the nebulous plateau where pine and granite and cloud form the three elements of a severe picture, that I felt myself filled to the brim with my long draught of nature, and turned to my followers for society.

I was accompanied by Seaman and Knowles, two settlers of Tule River, who had been good enough to take a thorough interest in my proposed trip. One less used than I to the strong originality and remarkable histories of frontiersmen might have marvelled at the rich chat of these two men; for myself, however, I long ago learned to expect under the rough garb and simple manners of Western plainsmen and mountaineers a wealth of experience, with its resultant harvest of philosophy. Untrammelled by the schools, these men strike out boldly and arrange the universe to suit themselves. Not alone is this noticeable in matter of general interest; in the most special subjects it will not do to assume an ignorance at all in keeping with the primitive cut of their trousers or their idiom, which show strong affinities with the flint period. As an instance, volcanic action has of late years occupied much of my thoughts, and so dry a subject, one would think, could not have fixed the interest of many non-professional travellers. Judge of my feelings, therefore, on the night we reached the Kern Plateau and camped with a solitary shepherd, to hear without giving direction to it myself, the conversation turn on volcanoes, and realized, as the group renewed our fire and hours passed by, that my two companions had been in Iceland, Hawaii, Java, and Ecuador, and that, as for the sheep herder, he had rolled stones down nearly every prominent approachable crater on the planet. I was reminded of a certain vaquero who astounded Professor Brewer by launching out boldly in the Latin names of Mexican plants.

The Kern Plateau, so green and lovely on my former visit, in 1864, was now a gray sea of rolling granite ridges, darkened at intervals by forest, but no longer velveted with meadows and upland grasses. The indefatigable shepherds have camped everywhere, leaving hardly a spear of grass behind them.

To the sad annoyance of our hungry horses, we found this true until we entered the rough, rocky cañon which leads down from the false Mount Whitney, in whose depths, among glacier erratics and dark pines, we selected a spot where a vocal brook and patches of carex meadow seemed to welcome us. During a three days’ painful illness which overtook me here I felt that I should never lose an opportunity to warn my fellow-men against watermelon, which, after all, is only an ingenious contrivance of nature to converge the waves of motion from the midsummer sun, and, by the well-recognized principles of force conservation, transmute them into so much potential colic.

Across from wall to wall of our deep glacier cañon the morning sky stretched pure and blue, but without a trace of that infinite depth, so dark and vacant, so alluringly profound, when the sun nears its culmination. We arose early, and all three were marching up the gentle acclivity of the valley bottom, when, from among the peaks darkly profiled against the east, bold lances of light shot down through gloom and shadow, touching with sudden brightness here a clump of feathery fir, there a heap of glacier blocks, pencilling yellow lines across meadow-patch or alpine tarn, and working out along the whole rocky amphitheatre above us those splendid contrasts of gold and blue which are the delight of mountaineers and the despair of painters.

Knowles, with the keen eye of an accomplished hunter, became conscious, as we marched along, just how lately a mountain sheep had crossed our way, and occasionally the whispered sound of light footfalls along the crags overhead riveted his attention upon some gray mote on the granite, and with the huntsman’s habitual quiet he would only ejaculate: “Two-year-old buck,” or “Too thin for venison,” or some similar phrase, indicating the marvellous acuteness of his senses.

Among the many serious losses man has suffered in passing from a life of nature to one artificial is to be numbered the fatal blunting of all his senses.

Step after step the cañon ascended, with great, vacant corridors opening among the rocky buttresses on either side, till at last there were no more firs, the alpine meadows became mere patches, and a chilly wind drew down from among the snow-drifts.

Here savage rock-grandeur and splendid sunlight forever struggle for mastery of effect. A cloud drifts over us, and the dark headlands of granite loom up with impending mightiness, and seem to advance toward each other from opposite ranks; about their feet the wreck of centuries of avalanche, and above leaden vapors hurrying and whirling. All is dimness and gloom. Then overhead the clouds are furled away, and there is light—light joyous, pure, gloom-dispelling, before whose intense, searching vividness shadows unfold and mystery vanishes.

Through such alternating sensations we wound our way round the débris-crumbered margin of two lakes of deep, transparent, beryl-colored water, and up to the very head of our amphitheatre, reaching an elevation of about thirteen thousand feet. We had thus far encountered very little snow, and absolutely no climbing. All along it had seemed to us that from the cañon-head we might easily climb to the dividing summit of the Sierras, and follow it along to Mount Whitney. I had taken pains to diverge from my unsuccessful route of 1864, which lay now to the east, and separated from us by a high wall, terminating in fantastic spires.

Upon mounting the ridge-top we found it impossible to reach the true summit of the range without first descending into a deep cañon, the ancient bed of a tributary glacier of the Kern; the ice now replaced by imposing slopes of granite débris, partly masked by snow, and plunging down into a lake of startling vitriol color.

We toiled cautiously down over insecure wreck of granite, whose huge blocks threatened constantly to topple us over or to rush out from under foot and gather into an avalanche. A draught from the icy lake water, a brief rest on the sunny side of a huge erratic, and we began the slow, laborious ascent of the summit ridge. Unfortunately, the footing was bad, being composed chiefly of granite gravel. Of every stone in place and each snow spot we took advantage, making pauses for breath now and then, until at last we reached the crest, here a thin ridge, and hurriedly turned our eyes in the direction of Mount Whitney.

The sharp, dominating blade of granite rising a couple of miles northwest of us, over a group of spiry pinnacles, was unmistakable. The same severe, beautiful crest I had struggled for in 1864 rose proudly into the blue, and, though near, seemed as inaccessible as ever.

In the opposite direction, about three miles away, in clear, uncolored plainness, stood the peak where, in 1871, I had been led by the map, and my error perpetuated by the clouds.

In full view of both peaks it seemed strange I could have mistaken one for the other.

Infallibility in retrospect is one of the easiest conditions imaginable; yet when the ever-fresh memory of those seething cloud-forms comes back to me, when I see again the gloom made even wilder and darker by bolts of sunlight and illumined gauzes of mist, when I realize that the cloud-compelling peak itself never shone forth, I am free to confess that I should make the mistake again.

In charging this error upon the map, I do not in any sense intend to reflect on Mr. C. F. Hoffmann, the accomplished chief topographer of the Survey, to whose skilful hand we owe the forthcoming map of Central California. His location of Mount Whitney depended upon two compass bearings only—his own from Mount Brewer, which proves to have been unvitiated by local magnetic attraction, and mine from Mount Tyndall, which evidently is in error.

It is most curious to discover that my bearings made from a station on the northwest edge of Mount Tyndall, where I placed myself to observe on the peaks lying in that direction, are, when corrected for variation, true, while those taken from a block on the south edge of the summit not sixty feet from the first station are abnormal. This reminds me of the observations made by Professor Brewer during our hours of rest on the top of Lassen’s Peak, where he found the summit block a local magnet.

Thus the map location on which Mr. Hoffmann relied, and of which, in 1871, I took copy, to identify the peak, was vitiated in a way neither of us could have foreseen, and a serious error might have crept into current geography but for the timely visit of Mr. Goodyear.

Mr. Hoffmann stands clear of blame in this matter. Upon my shoulders and those of my particeps criminis, the storm and the local magnetic attraction, it all rests.

We sat for some time in that silence which even the rudest natures pay as an unconscious tribute to the august presence of a great mountain, and then began again the march toward Mount Whitney. Seaman, who had started ill, here felt so painfully the effect of altitude that we urged him to struggle no further against dizziness and nausea, but to return, which he did with reluctance. We parted at the very crown of the ridge, on the verge of a gulf which plunges down from Mount Whitney to Ownen’s Valley. Knowles, who is a sort of chamois, kept his head splendidly, and together we clambered round and up to the crest of a bold needle about fourteen thousand four hundred feet high, from which the discouraging truth dawned upon us that it was impossible to surmount the three sharp pinnacles which lay between us and the delicately sculptured crest beyond.

To the right and below, three thousand feet down from our tower, I could trace the line of my attempted climb of 1864, to where it disappeared around a projecting buttress at the foot of the great precipice, which forms the eastern face of Mount Whitney and the subordinate pinnacles to the south.

To the left, through crags and splintered monoliths, we could catch a glimpse of a deep glacier basin lying west of Mount Whitney, enclosing great sweeps of débris and numerous vivid blue tarns.

Between the minarets we could also see portions of the southwest slope of Mount Whitney, which was evidently a smooth, accessible face, and the one of all others to attempt. But the day was already too far advanced to leave us the remotest hope of even reaching the glacier basin west of Mount Whitney, and we decided to return to camp.

Before beginning our wearisome march I sketched the outline of the Mount Whitney group, which, so far as I know, differs from any other cluster of peaks. The Sierra here is a bold wall with an almost perpendicular front of about three thousand feet, which is crowned by sharp turrets, having a tendency to lean out over the eastern gulf; these are properly the crests of great, rib-like buttresses, which jut from the general surface of the granite front.

Mount Whitney itself springs up and out like the prow of a sharp ocean steamer. Southward along the summit my sketch is of a confused region of rough-hewn granite obelisks and towers, all remarkable for the deep shattering to which the rock has been subjected. It is a region which may even yet suffer considerable perceptible change, since a single winter’s frost and snow must dislodge numberless blocks from the crests and flanks of the whole group. Indeed, at the time of my visit, notably the period of least snow and frost, we often heard the sharp rattle of falling débris.

We varied our course homeward by climbing along a lateral ridge, whence we could look into the Mount Whitney basin, and here we were favored by a fine view, chiefly pleasing to us because the whole accessible slope of the peak came out, unobscured by intervening ridges.

It was evident that we must find a mule pass through the granite waves, from our present camp round into the great glacier basin, or else plan our next attempt with provisions and blankets on our backs and an uncertain number of days’ clambering over the intervening cañons to the foot of our peak.

The shades of twilight were darkening the amphi-theatre as we plodded homeward; ghostly cliffs and dim towers were hardly recognizable as defined against the evening sky, in which already a few pale stars shone tremulously.

I spare the reader the days of snow and sleet we spent under a temporary shelter constructed of blankets. I pass over the elaborate system of rivulets, which forever burrowed new channels and originated future geography under our tent. These were quickly forgotten the morning of the clear-up, as we quitted our camp under the shadow of the 1871 peak, and marched southwestward down the bowlder-strewn valley of our brook.

A fine series of lateral moraines flank this cañon on the left, moraines rising one above another in defined terraces, for the most part composed of granite blocks, but here and there of solid rock in situ, where the ridge throws out prominent spurs.

We ascended the north wall, zigzagging to and fro among pines, till, having climbed a thousand feet, we found ourselves upon a plateau of granite sand, among groves of pinus flexilis, which seemed (as to me the sequoias always have) the relics of a past climatic condition, the well-preserved octogenarians of the forest. Through open groves of these giant trees, whose red, gnarled trunks and dark green foliage stood out with artistic definition upon bare granite sand, we saw the deep cañon of the Kern a few miles to our left, and beyond it, swelling in splendid rank against the west, my old friends, the Kaweah peaks, their dark, pyramidal summits here and there touched with flashing ice-banks.

The bottom of Kern Cañon was hidden from us; its craggy edges broken and rounded by glacial action, and in part built upon by the fragments of great moraines, were especially powerful; and as a master’s sketch emphasizes the leading lines, so here each sharply carved ravine or rock-rift is given force by lines of almost black pines. Startled bands of deer looked timidly at us for a moment, and then bounded wildly away through the woods. All else was silent and motionless.

At evening we entered the long-hoped-for cañon, and threaded our way up among moraines and forest close to the foot of Mount Whitney, the peak itself rising grandly across the amphitheatre’s head, every spire and rocky crevice brought sharply out in the warm evening sunlight. With my field-glass I could see that it was a simple, brief walk of a few hours to the summit, and, all anxiety at rest, I lay down on my blankets to watch the effects of light.

As often as one camps at twelve thousand feet in the Sierra, the charm of crystally pure air, these cold, sparkling, gem-like tints of rock and alpine lake, the fiery bronze of foliage, and luminous though deep-toned sky, combine to produce an intellectual and even a spiritual elevation. Deep and stirring feelings come naturally, the present falls back into its true relation, one’s own wearying identity shrinks from the broad, open foreground of the vision, and a calmness born of reverent reflections encompasses the soul.

At eleven o’clock next morning Knowles and I stood together on the topmost rock of Mount Whitney. We found there a monument of stones, and records of the two parties who had preceded us,—the first, Messrs. Hunter and Crapo, and afterward, that of Rabe of the Geological Survey. The former were, save Indian hunters, the first, so far as we know, who achieved this dominating summit. Mr. Rabe has the honor of the first measurement by barometer. Our three visits were all within a month.

The day was cloudless, and the sky, milder than is common over these extreme heights, warmed to a mellow glow and rested in softening beauty over minaret and dome. Air and light seemed melted together; even the wild rocks springing up all about us wore an aspect of a๋rial delicacy. Around the wide panorama, half low desert, half rugged granite mountains, each detail was observable, but a uniform, luminous medium toned, without obscuring, the field of vision. That fearful sense of wreck and desolation, of a world crushed into fragments, of the ice chisel which, unseen, has wrought this strange mountain sculpture, all the sensations of power and tragedy I had invariably felt before on high peaks, were totally forgotten. It was the absolute reverse of the effect on Mount Tyndall, where an unrelenting clearness discovered every object in all its power and reality. Then we saw only unburied wreck of geologic struggles, black with sudden shadow or white under searching focus, as if the sun were a great burning-glass, gathering light from all space, and hurling its fierce shafts upon spire and wall.

Now it was like an opal world, submerged in a sea of dreamy light, down through whose motionless, transparent depths I became conscious of sunken ranges, great hollows of undiscernible depth, reefs of pearly granite as clear and delicate as the coral banks in a tropical ocean. It was not like a haze in the lower world, which veils away distance in softly vanishing perspective; there was no mist, no vagueness, no loss of form nor fading of outline—only a strange harmonizing of earth and air. Shadows were faint, yet defined, lights visible, but most exquisitely modulated. The hollow blue which over Tyndall led the eye up into vacant solitudes was here replaced by a sense of sheltering nearness, a certain dove-colored obscurity in the atmosphere which seemed to filter the sunlight of all its harsher properties. I do not permit myself to describe details, for they have left no enduring impression, nor am I insensible of how vain any attempt must be to reproduce the harmony of such subtle aspects of nature—aspects most rare and indescribable because producing their charm by negative means.

I suppose such an atmospheric effect is to be accounted for by a lower stratum of pure, transparent air overlaid by an upper one so charged with moisture (or perhaps one of those thus-far-unexplained dry mists occasionally seen in the high Sierra) as to intercept the blue rays of sunlight, and admit only softened yellow ones.

This is the true Mount Whitney, the one we named in 1864, and upon which the name of our chief is forever to rest. It stands, not like white Shasta, in a grandeur of solitude, but about it gather companies of crag and spire, piercing the blue or wrapped in monkish raiment of snowstorm and mist. Far below, laid out in ashen death, slumbers the desert.

Silence reigns on these icy heights, save when scream of Sierra eagle or loud crescendo of avalanche interrupts the frozen stillness, or when in symphonic fulness a storm rolls through vacant cañons with its stern minor. It is hard not to invest these great, dominating peaks with consciousness, difficult to realize that, sitting thus for ages in presence of all nature can work of light-magic and color-beauty, no inner spirit has kindled, nor throb of granite heart once responded, no Buddhistic nirvana-life, even, has brooded in eternal calm within these sphinx-like breasts of stone.

A week after my climb I lay on the desert sand at the foot of the Inyo Range and looked up at Mount Whitney, realizing all its grand individuality, and saw the drifting clouds interrupt a sun-brightened serenity by frown of moving shadow; and I entered for a moment deeply and intimately into that strange realm where admiration blends with superstition, that condition in which the savage feels within him the greatness of a natural object, and forever after endows it with consciousness and power. For a moment I was back in the Aryan myth days, when they saw afar a snowy peak, and called it Dhavalagiri (white elephant), and invested it with mystic power.

These peculiar moments, rare enough in the life of a scientific man, when one trembles on the edge of myth-making, are of interest, as unfolding the origin and manner of savage beliefs, and as awakening the unperishing germ of primitive manhood which is buried within us all under so much culture and science.

How generally the myth-maker has been extinguished in modern students of mountains may be realized by examining the tone of Alpine literature, which, once lifted above the fatiguing repetition of gymnastics, is almost invariably scientific.

Ruskin alone among prose writers on the Alps re-echoes the dim past, in ever-recurring myth-making, over cloud and peak and glacier; his is the Rigveda’s idea of nature. The varying hues which mood and emotion forever pass before his own mental vision mask with their illusive mystery the simple realities of nature, until mountains and their bold, natural facts are lost behind the cloudy poetry of the writer.

Ruskin helps us to know himself, not the Alps; his mountain chapters, although essentially four thousand years old, are, however, no more an anachronism than the dim primeval spark which smoulders in all of us; their brilliancy is that spark fanned into flame.

To follow a chapter of Ruskin by one of Tyndall is to bridge forty centuries and realize the full contrast of archaic and modern thought.

This was the drift of my revery as I lay basking on the hot sands of Inyo, realizing fully the geological history and hard, materialistic reality of Mount Whitney, its mineral nature, its chemistry; yet archaic impulse even then held me, and the gaunt, gray old Indian who came slowly toward me must have subtly felt my condition, for the crouched beside me and silently fixed his hawk eye upon the peak.

At last he drew an arrow, sighted along its straight shaft, bringing the obsidian head to bear on Mount Whitney, and in strange fragments of language told me that the peak was an old, old man, who watched this valley and cared for the Indians, but who shook the country with earthquakes to punish the whites for injustice toward his tribe.

I looked at his whitened hair and keen, black eye. I watched the spare, bronze face, upon which was written the burden of a hundred dark and gloomy superstitions; and as he trudged away across the sands I could but feel the liberating power of modern culture, which unfetters us from the more than iron bands of self-made myths. My mood vanished with the savage, and I saw the great peak only as it really is—a splendid mass of granite 14,887 feet high, ice-chiselled and storm-tinted; a great monolith left standing amid the ruins of a bygone geological empire.

Chapter XIIIndexChapter XIV

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