Across the Great Divide
by Clarence King
(new 8/3/98)

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Clarence Kings’s story of his first attempt to reach the highest point in the United States is one of the great classics of Sierra Nevada literature. The following was taken from his book, "Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada, James Osgood & Co., 1872 (reprinted from, "A Treasury of the Sierra Nevada," edited by Robert Leonard Reid, 1983, Wilderness Press, Berkeley, CA).

From 1864-1873, Clarence King made four attempts to be the first to climb Mount Whitney. This is his account of that first attempt (July 1864) in which he climbed the wrong summit--Mount Tyndall which was six miles to the north of his goal. Later in that year, 1864, King made a second attempt on Mount Whitney. This time he chose a route too difficult to climb and was stopped several hundred feet short of the summit. In 1871 he tried a third time and once again climbed the wrong summit (Mount Langley). On his final attempt in 1873, he was finally successful. However, he was not the first to climb Whitney as three other parties climbed Mount Whitney ahead of him.

When Clarence King and Dick Cotter bade goodbye to William Brewer and James Gardner on the shoulder of Mount Brewer on July 4, 1864, one of the great adventures in the Sierra Nevada history was underway. On the far side of the towering Kings-Kern divide, the four men, members of the California State Geological Survey, had spotted a peak that they correctly guessed to be the highest in the continental United States. It was some 15 miles to the south, beyond a forbidding rock and ice wilderness that had never been seen before, let alone traversed. With six days provisions, King and Cotter set out to climb the virgin peak, later to be named Mount Whitney.

Cotter had been hired as a packer for the survey. And King was the self appointed dean of American mountaineering and one of the most remarkable men of the 19th Century. Fresh out of Yale, he had crossed the United States in search of adventure and had signed on with the survey. Within a few years his exciting, and often highly sensationalized, articles about his climbs in the Sierra Nevada were appearing regularly in the Atlantic Monthly. When the U.S. Geological Survey was organized in 1879, King was appointed its first director.

I did not wonder that Brewer and Hoffman pronounced our undertaking impossible; but when I looked at Cotter there was such complete bravery in his eye that I asked him if he was ready to start. His old answer, "Why not?" left the initiative with me; so I told Professor Brewer that we would bid him good by. Our friends helped us on with our packs in silence, and as we shook hands there was not a dry eye in the party. Before he let go of my hand Professor Brewer asked me for my plan, and I had to own that I had but one, which was to reach the highest peak in the range.

After looking in every direction I was obliged to confess that I saw as yet no practicable way. We bade them a "good by," receiving their "God bless you" in return, and started southward along the range to look for some possible cliff to descent. Brewer, Gardner, and Hoffman turned north to push upward to the summit of Mount Brewer, and complete their observations. We saw them whenever we halted, until at last, on the very summit, their microscopic forms were for the last time discernible. With very great difficulty we climbed a peak which surmounted our wall just to the south of the pass, and, looking over the eastern brink, found that the precipice was still sheer and unbroken. In one place, where the snow lay against it to the very top, we went to its edge and contemplated the slide. About three thousand feet of unbroken white, at a fearfully steep angle, lay below us. We threw a stone over and watched it bound until it was lost in the distance; after fearful leaps we could only detect it by the flashings of snow where it struck, and as these were, in some instances, three hundred feet apart, we decided not to launch our own valuable bodies, and the still more precious barometer, after it.

There seemed but one possible way to reach our goal; that was to make our way along the summit of the cross ridge which projected between the two ranges. This divide sprang out from our Mount Brewer wall, about four miles to the south of us. To reach it we must climb up and down over the indented edge of the Mount Brewer. In attempting to do this we had a rather lively time scaling a sharp granite needle, where we found our course completely stopped by precipices four and five hundred feet in height. Ahead of us the summit continued to be broken into fantastic pinnacles, leaving us no hope of making our way along it; so we sought the most broken part of the eastern descent, and began to climb down.

The heavy knapsacks, beside wearing our shoulders gradually into a black-and-blue state, over-balanced us terribly, and kept us in constant danger of pitching headlong. At last, taking them off, Cotter climbed down until he had found a resting-lace upon a cleft of rock, then I lowered them to him with our lasso, afterwards descending cautiously to his side, taking my turn in pioneering downward, receiving the freight of knapsacks by lasso as before. In this manner we consumed more than half the afternoon in descending a thousand feet of broken, precipitous slope; and it was almost sunset when we found ourselves upon the fields of level snow which lay white and thick over the whole interior slope of the amphitheatre. The gorge below us seemed utterly impassable. At our backs the Mount Brewer wall either rose in sheer cliffs or in broken, rugged stairway, such as had offered us our descent. From this cruel dilemma the cross divide furnished the only hope, and the sole chance of scaling that was at its junction with the Mount Brewer wall. Toward this point we directed our course, marching wearily over stretches of dense frozen snow, and regions of debris, reaching about sunset the last alcove of the amphitheatre, just at the foot of the Mount Brewer wall. It was evidently impossible for us to attempt to climb it that evening, and we looked about the desolate recesses for a sheltered camping-spot. A high granite wall surrounded us upon three sides, recurring to the southward in long elliptical curves; no part of the summit being less than two thousand feet above us, the higher crags not unfrequently reaching three thousand feet. A single field of snow swept around the base of the rock, and covered the whole amphitheatre, except where a few spikes and rounded masses of granite rose through it, and were two frozen lakes, with their blue ice-disks, broke the monotonous surface. Through the white snow-gate of our amphitheatre, as through a frame, we looked eastward upon the summit group; not a tree, not a vestige of vegetation in sight,---sky, snow, and granite the only elements in this wild picture.

After searching for a shelter we at last found a granite crevice near the margin of one of the frozen lakes,---a short of shelf just large enough for Cotter and me,--where we hastened to make our bed, having first filled the canteen from a small stream that trickled over the ice, knowing that in a few moments the rapid chill would freeze it. We ate our supper of cold venison and bread, and whittled from the sides of the wooden barometer-case shavings enough to warm water for a cup of miserably tepid tea, and then, packing our provisions and instruments away at the head of the shelf, rolled ourselves in our blankets and lay down to enjoy the view.

A sudden chill enveloped us. Stars in a moment crowded through the dark heaven, flashing with a frosty splendor. The snow congealed, the brooks ceased to flow, and, under the powerful sudden leverage of frost, immense blocks were dislodged all along the mountain summits and came thundering down the slopes, booming upon the ice, dashing wildly upon rocks. Under the slopes, booming upon the ice, dashing wildly upon rocks. Under the lee of our shelf we felt quite safe, but neither Cotter nor I could help being startled, and jumping just a little, as these missiles, weighing often many tons, struck the ledge over our heads and whizzed down the gorge, their stroke resounding fainter and fainter, until at last only a confused echo reached us.

The thermometer at nine o’clock marked twenty degrees above zero. We set the "minimum" and rolled ourselves together for the night. The longer I lay the less I liked that shelf of granite; it grew hard in time, and cold also, my bones seeming to approach actual contact with the chilled rock; moreover, I found that even so vigorous a circulation as mine was not enough to warm up the ledge to anything like a comfortable temperature. A single thickness of blanket is a better mattress than none, but the larger crystals of orthoclase, protruding plentifully, punched my back and caused me to revolve on a horizontal axis with precision and frequency. How I loved Cotter! How I hugged him and hot warm, while our backs gradually petrified, till we whirled over and thawed them out together! The slant of that bed was diagonal and excessive; down it we slid till the ice chilled us awake, and we crawled back and chocked ourselves up with bits of granite inserted under my ribs and shoulders. In this pleasant position we got dozing again, and there stole over me a most comfortable ease. The granite softened perceptibly. I was delightfully warm and sank into an industrious slumber which lasted with great soundness till four, when we rose and ate our breakfast of frozen venison…

Picking up where they had left off, the two ascended a long steep snow field with the aid of steps cut with Cotter’s bowie knife. At last they reached a narrow ledge leading diagonally toward the top of a cliff.

There was no foot hold above us. Looking down over the course we had come, it seemed, and I really believe it was, an impossible descent; for one can climb upward with safety where he cannot downward. To turn back was to give up in defeat; and we sat at least half an hour, suggesting all possible routes to the summit, accepting none, and feeling disheartened. About thirty feet directly over our heads was another shelf, which, if we could reach, seemed to offer at least a temporary way upward. On its edge were two or three spikes of granite; whether firmly connected with the cliff, or merely blocks of debris, we could not tell from below.

I said to Cotter, I thought of but one possible plan: it was to lasso one of these blocks, and to climb, sailor-fashion, hand over hand, up the tope. In the lasso I had perfect confidence, for I had seen more than one Spanish bull throw his while weight against it without parting a strand. The shelf was so narrow that throwing the coil of rope was a very difficult undertaking. I tried three times, and Cotter spent five minutes vainly whirling the loop up at the granite spikes. At last I made a lucky throw, and it tightened upon one of the smaller protuberances. I drew the noose close, and very gradually threw my hundred and fifty pounds upon the rope; then Cotter joined me, and , for a moment, we both hung our united weight upon it. Whether the rock moved slightly or whether the lasso stretched a little we were unable to decide; but the trial must be made, and I began to climb slowly. The smooth precipice-face against which my body swung offered no foothold, and the whole climb had therefore to be done by the arms, an effort requiring all one’s determination. When about half-way up I was obliged to rest, and , curling my feet in the rope, managed to relieve my arms for a moment. In this position I could not resist the fascinating temptation of a survey downward.

Straight down, nearly a thousand feet below, at the foot of the rocks, began the snow, whose steep, roof-like slope, exaggerated into an almost vertical angle, curved down in a long white field, broken far away by rocks and polished, round lakes of ice.

Cotter looked up cheerfully and asked how I was making it; to which I answered that I had plenty of wind left. At that moment, when hanging between heaven and earth, it was a deep satisfaction to look down at the wild gulf of desolation beneath, and up to unknown dangers ahead, and feel my nerves cool and unshaken.

A few pulls hand over hand brought me to the edge of the shelf, when, throwing in arm around the granite spike, I swung my body upon the shelf and lay down to rest, shouting to Cotter that I was all right, and that the prospects upward wee capital. After a few moments breathing I looked over the brink and directed my comrade to tie the barometer to the lowe end of the lasso, which he did, and that precious instrument was hoisted to my station, and the lasso sent down twice for knapsacks, after which Cotter came up the rope in his very muscular way without once stopping to rest. We took our loads in our hands, swinging the barometer over my shoulder, and climbed up shelf which led in zigzag direction upward and to the south, bringing us out at last upon the thin blade of a ridge which connected a short distance above with the summit. It was formed of huge blocks, shattered, and ready, at a touch, to fall.

So narrow and sharp was the upper slope, that we dared not walk, but got astride, and worked slowly along with our hands, pushing the knapsacks in advance, now and then holding our breath when loose masses rocked under our weight…

King and Cotter had reached the crest of the Kings-Kern Divide. To their dismay, a glance ahead revealed that the slope they now had to descend was even steeper than the one they had just come up. As for the ridge itself, it was terrifyingly narrow and unstable. Uncertain of how to proceed, the two men exercised the time-honored choice of mountaineers in difficult situations, which is to sit down and eat lunch.

I suggested that by lowering ourselves on the rope we might climb from crevice to crevice; but we saw no shelf large enough for ourselves and the knapsacks too. However, we were not going to give it up without a trial; and I made the tope fast round my breast, and, looping the noose over a firm point of rock, let myself slide gradually down to a notch forty feet below. There was only room beside me for Cotter, so I made him send down the knapsacks first. I then tied these together by the straps with my silk handkerchiefs, and hung them off as far to the left as I could reach without losing my balance, looping the handkerchiefs over a point of rock. Cotter then slid down the rope, and, with considerable difficulty, we shipped the noose off its resting-place above, and cut off our connection with the upper world.

"We’re in for it now, King," remarked my comrade, as he looked aloft, and then down; but our blood was up, and danger added only an exhilarating thrill to the nerves.

The shelf was hardly more than two feed wide, and the granite so smooth that we could find no place to fasten the lasso for the next descent; so I determined by try the climb with only as little aid as possible. Tying it round my breast again, I gave the other end into Cotter’s hands, and he, bracing his back against the cliff, found for himself as firm a foothold as he could, and promised to give me all the help in his power. I made up my mind to bear no weight unless it was absolutely necessary; and for the first ten feet I found cracks and protuberances enough to support me, making every square inch of surface do friction duty, and hugging myself against the rocks as tightly as I could. When within about eight feet of the next shelf, I twisted myself round upon the face, hanging by two rough blocks for protruding feldspar, and looked vainly for some further hand-hold; but the rock, beside being perfectly smooth, overhung slightly, and my legs dangled in the air. I saw that the next cleft was over three feet broad, and I thought, possibly, I might, by a quick slide, reach it in safety without endangering Cotter. I shouted to him to be very careful and let go in case I fell, loosened my hold upon the rope, and slid quickly down. My shoulder struck against the rock and threw me out of balance; for an instant I reeled over upon the verge, in danger of falling but , in the excitement, I thrust out my hand and seized a small alpine gooseberry-bush, the first piece of vegetation we had seen. Its roots were so firmly fixed in the crevice that it held my weight and saved me.

I could no longer see Cotter, but I talked to him, and heard the two knapsacks come bumping along till they slid over the eaves above me, and swung down to my station, when I seized the lasso’s end and braced myself as well as possible, intending, if he slipped, to haul in slack and help him as best I might. As he came slowly down from crack to crack, I heard his hobnailed shoes grating on the granite; presently they appeared dangling from the eaves above my head. I had gathered in the rope until it was taut, and then hurriedly told him to drop,. He hesitated a moment, and let go. Before he struck the rock I had him by the shoulder, and whirled him down upon his die, thus preventing his rolling overboard, which friendly action he took quite coolly….

In this manner they painstakingly descended the cliff successfully crossing the Kings-Kern Divide. Now, on easy terrain, they hiked through meadows and lake basins to their goal. They climbed up smooth granite faces and hewed steps up fearfully steep slopes of ice to the summit. Upon the summit, it was immediately clear that King and Cotter were not atop Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the United States but rather Mount Tyndall, a peak far short of their goal. Of their startling discovery Clarence King wrote, "To our surprise, upon sweeping the horzion with my levell, there appeared two peaks equal in height with us, and two rising even higher."

Reaching Mount Whitney was now out of the question. With supplies running short the two men were forced to return to their camp near Mount Brewer. King’s account of the return trip is as thrilling and undoubtedly as greatly exaggerated as the story of his climb of Mount Tyndall. There is no slighting his accomplishments, however, despite the false bravo, his round trip with Cotter through virgin wilderness was clearly an extraordinary achievement.

Backcountry_Resource_Center--Paul Richins, Jr.

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