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“Exploration of the Sierra Nevada” (1925)
by Francis P. Farquhar

Mount Whitney

From the time when Mount Whitney was first men and named by the Brewer party of the Whitney Survey in 1864, and the two unsuccessful attempts of Clarence King to reach its summit the same year, it means to have been neglected until 1871. In that year, King, no longer connected with the State Survey, took the stage South from Carson City by way of Aurora to Independence and Lone Pine; whence, with Paul Pinson, whom he had engaged to accompany him, he set out for the mountain. 74 King had with him a sketch made from a map prepared by Hoffmann, who had spent the summer of 1870 in the Owens Valley. Hoffmann had observed the mountains only from the valley and was thus led into an error which anyone visiting the region of Lone Pine can readily appreciate; for Mount Whitney stands back of other more prominent peaks and appears lower than some of its neighbors, so that Hoffmann, partly influenced by inaccurate bearings, placed the name Mount Whitney on his map too far to the south. 75

After a night near timberline, King and Pinson set out for the summit. As they climbed, clouds closed in upon them and by the time they stood on the crest they were able to obtain only a few intermittent views of the surrounding peaks. They could see down into the Kern Canyon and recognize Mount Brewer and, for a moment, they caught sight of what King supposed to be Mount Tyndall, but which was probably the true Mount Whitney. 76

Two years later, King was rather severely taken to task by W. A. Goodyear for describing a view which he never saw; 77 nevertheless a careful reading of King’s account convinces me that his description fits the situation very well. King undoubtedly thought himself upon the summit of the highest peak in the range, but, unable to take accurate bearings because of the clouds, he did the best he could to describe the view as he really saw it. As a matter of fact, the view from the point on which he stood—which was the summit of what is now known as Mount Langley, is not at all dissimilar to the view from the summit of the true Mount Whitney when seen through the shifting mists of a stormy day. Of course, King made the most of all of the difficulties of the route, both ascending and descending, and had many narrow escapes which modem travellers with the way marked out and a good contour map can easily avoid, and which a better mountaineer than King would have avoided without these aids. The fact that King had not been on the summit of the true Mount Whitney detracts not at all from his reference to Josiah Dwight Whitney: “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.” 78

After King’s ascent, a number of parties followed the same route and no doubt supposed that they too were upon the highest peak, although they may have been perplexed by seeing one that was apparently higher a few miles away toward the north. The ease with which the ascent could be accomplished must also have been a surprise to those who had heard of King’s desperate effort to reach the summit in 1864. Indeed, on August 6, 1872, Cyras Mulkey, Sheriff of Inyo County, accompanied by his wife and daughter, rode to the summit in the saddle. But it was not until July 27, 1873, when W. A. Goodyear, a member of the State Geological Survey, and M. W. Belshaw, a mining man from Cerro Gordo, rode their mules to the same crest, that the difference in altitude between the peak on which they stood and the one a few miles to the north was detected. The news was at once given out that Mount Whitney was not the highest peak of the Sierra at all, and Goodyear communicated his findings to the California Academy of Sciences, sending a letter which was read at a meeting of August 4, 1873. 79

Meanwhile, the discovery stimulated a rivalry in Owens Valley and several parties hastened to climb the reported higher peak. The credit for the first ascent is usually given to John Lucas, Charles D. Begole, and A. H. Johnson, whose record of August 18 was still on the summit when members of the Wheeler Survey visited it two years later. 80 By right of first ascent, they attempted to fix the name of “Fisherman’s Peak” to the mountain. The best way to dispose of this attempted nomenclature is to quote from a letter written by W. A. Goodyear on July 30, 1888 to the editor of the Inyo Independent: 81

I do wish, however, to add a few words concerning the discreditable “Fisherman’s Peak” affair. It appears that when Prof. Whitney was in Owens Valley himself in 1872 for the purpose at studying the effects of the great earthquake of March 26th of that year, he became quite unpopular with a good many people in the Valley, some of whom took a very strong personal dislike for him. When, therefore, a year later it was suddenly discovered that a lower mountain had for three years been called Mt. Whitney by mistake some of these people thought it could be a fine opportunity for revenge upon the man whom they disliked by making his name stick to the lower peak forever and calling the highest one something else. Therefore they dubbed Mt. Whitney “Fisherman’s Peak,” and tried hard and long to make it stick. But it will not stick.

Mt. Whitney was named, and almost climbed by Clarence King in 1864 and was described by him in 1865. It is the highest mountain in the country, and Mt. Whitney it will remain! The “Sheep Mountain” also named by King in 1864, and that name will adhere to it. The other high peaks in that neighborhood have names given to them many years ago, so that there is no place nor habitation in these mountains for any such name as “Fisherman’s Peak”—which will doubtless fall into the utter oblivion which it deserves.

The news of big mistake and the criticism that had been directed against him reached Clarence King in the east and he lost no time in visiting the scene himself. From Visalia he came over the Hockett Trail to Kern Canyon and at length succeeded in reaching the base of the true Mount Whitney. On the following morning, September 19, 1973, King, accompanied by Frank Knowles of Tulare County, stood at last upon the summit he had sought So long. There he found the records of the parties that had preceded him. He reports only two: first Hunter and Crapo, second Rabe. 82 Hague gives the credit of the first ascent to Crapo and a companion (presumably Hunter), on August 15, but the claim of Lucas, Begole and Johnson has been generally accepted.

Following the discovery of Goodyear and Belshaw, it became a matter of great interest to determine the altitude of the new highest peak. Belshaw financed an expedition for this purpose, and Carl Rabe, an assistant in the State Geological Survey, carried a barometer to the summit on September 6. He was. accompanied by William Cosine, William L. Hunter, and Thomas McDonough. From Rabe’s account it would not appear that Crapo and Hunter had been on the mountain before. He says they were the first of his party to reach the summit on that day and this may account for King’s version of their record. 83

From Rabe’s readings Goodyear calculated the elevation above the Sea to be 14,898.5 feet. Subsequent measurements were as follows: Wheeler Survey (1875), 14,471; Langley (1881), 14,522; McAdie and Le Conte (1903), 14,515; United States Geological Survey (1905), 14,501. The last was from precise levels and is regarded as the most accurate. Although the heights of several of the highest peaks in the United States have gone up and down in the records as the reports of the several surveys have been announced, Mount Whitney has managed to hold its lead and today it is established beyond a doubt as the highest point within the forty-eight states of the Union, exceeded only in the territory of the United States by the mountains of Alaska. Mount Elbert in Colorado stands second with an elevation of 14,420, and Mount Rainier in Washington third at 14,408 feet.

Mount Whitney may have been climbed during the season of 1874, but the records reported by the Wheeler Survey show nothing between King’s ascent of September 19, 1873, and the names of Belshaw, Crapo, and Johnson on July 71 1875, Muir’s name not being inscribed on the occasion of his visit on October 21, 1873. On July 22, 1875, John Muir, George B. Bayley and C. E. Washburn left their names, Muir’s doubtless being written by one of the other members of the party. Members of the Wheeler Survey were on the summit September 24, 1875 and again on October 13, and J. M. Hutchings of Yosemite and W. E. James were there October 3. 84 The record reported by the Wheeler Survey makes no mention of Rabe’s half-a-dollar, which by this time had probably been appropriated by Someone who cared more for this world’s goods than did John Muir.

One of the most interesting episodes in the history of Mount Whitney is the visit in August and September 1881 of a party under Samuel Pierrepont Langley, then director of the Allegheny Observatory, later Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution famous as well for is experiment in aviation. His principal assistants were J. E. Keeler and W. C. Day, both afterwards prominent in astronomical work. Captain Otto E. Michaelis and a few soldiers acted as escort. The results of Langley’s researches on solar beat were published in a report under the auspices of the United States Army Signal Service. 85 In that report is a map of a proposed military reservation embracing the treat of the Sierra from Mount Williamson to Sheep Mountain (named Mount Langley in 1905). This reservation for the purpose of a signal station was declared established by proclamation of President Arthur, September 26, 1883.

Mount Whitney was again used for scientific observations a number of years later. Alexander G. McAdie, Professor of Meteorology in the University of California, made a report on the mountain at the request of the Chief of the United States Weather Bureau in 1903, and declared it as; possibly the most suitable of all the extremely high peaks on the Pacific Coast for a meteorological observatory. 86

With the object of continuing Langley’s work on solar heat and for other purposes, Dr. William Wallace Campbell of the Lick Observatory and Dr. C. G. Abbot of the Smithsonian Institution made a preliminary trip to the summit of Mount Whitney in August 1908 and spent the night on the summit. As a result of their report, the Smithsonian Institution authorized the building of a small observatory and shelter. This was erected in July 1909 under the supervision of G. F. Marsh of Lone Pine, and in August of that year Campbell, Abbot and McAdie spent about a week on the summit making observations. Dr. Campbell was particularly successful in his observations of the planet Mars. 87 The Smithsonian Institution continued the studies during 1910 and 1913.

The first record of any woman climbing Mount Whitney appears to be that of a party from Porterville which ascended the peak August 3, 1878 and included Miss Anna Mills, later Mrs. Johnston, who wrote an account of the trip many years later in the Mount Whitney Club Journal.

74 King: Mountaineering, 1874, pp. 264-275.

75 James D. Hague, in Overland Monthly, November 1873.

76 King: Mountaineering, 1874, pp. 276-275.

77 Goodyear in Proceedings of the California Academy of Sciences, 1873-74, V, 139-144.

78 King: Mountaineering, 1874, p. 291.

79 Proceedings of the California Academy of Sciences, 1873-74, V, pp. 139-144.

80 U S. Geographical Surveys West of the 100th Meridian, I, Geographical Report, 1889, p. 100.

81 Reprinted in Eighth Annual Report of the State Mineralogist, 1898, pp. 231-732.

82 King: Mountaineering, 1874, pp. 281-293.

83 Sierra Club Bulletin, 1911, VIII, 2, pp. 137-138.

84 U. S. Geographical Surveys West of the 100th Meridian, I, Geographical Report, 1889, p. 100.

85 Researches on Solar Heat. By S. P. Langley. Professional Papers of the Signal Service, No. XV, 1884; see also, Sunlight Mysteries, by William C. Wyckhoff, in Harpers Magazine, June 1883.

86 Sierra Club Bulletin, 1904, V, 2, pp. 37-97.

87 Sierra Club Bulletin, 1910, VII, 3, pp. 141-148; Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution, 1910, pp. 65-66.

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