Mount Whitney—The Early Climbs
by Francis P. Farquhar

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This article is taken from the "History of the Sierra Nevada," by Francis P. Farquhar, University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 1969.

The competition to be the first to climb Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the United States, was fierce in the early 1870s. For two years, Clarence King and the world believed that he had successfully climbed Mount Whitney. In 1873 came the surprising news that he had not climbed Mount Whitney but Mount Langley, a peak six miles away. After nine years and four Mount Whitney attempts, he finally succeeded. However, it was a hollow success as three other parties had beaten him to the summit, the first by only 32 days. This article chronicles some of the early climbs of Mount Whitney including John Muir's first ascent of the Mountaineer's route in October 1873.

We left Clarence King in June, 1871, standing on the summit of the peak that he supposed to be Mount Whitney, immensely pleased with himself. For two years he enjoyed the satisfaction of believing that he had reached the highest point in the United States. Neither he nor anyone else doubted that Mount Whitney had been climbed. Then came a shock. At a meeting of the California Academy of Sciences, August 4, 1873 (Professor J. D. Whitney in the chair), a paper was read by W. A. Goodyear "On the Situation and Altitude of Mount Whitney." He came directly to the point: "On the 27th day of July, 1873, Mr. M. W. Belshaw and myself rode our mules to the highest crest of the peak southwest of Lone Pine, which for over three years has been known by the name of Mount Whitney and which was ascended and measured as such by Mr. Clarence King. I know this peak well, and cannot be mistaken in its identity." Moreover, he found King’s record on the summit. "I do not mention the fact that Mr. Belshaw and myself reached the summit in the saddle as being one of any new or special interest, for Mr. Sheriff Mulkey, of Inyo County, accomplished the same thing on the 6th day of August, 1872, with his wife and daughter, and since that time it has also been done by several other parties."

Then came the astonishing statement: "This peak is not Mount Whitney." Goodyear went on to prove that another peak five or six miles away, and considerably higher, was the one named by the Brewer party in 1864. "Certain it is," he said, "that the peak which for over three years has borne the name of Whitney, has done so only by mistake, and that a new name must be found for it; while the name of Whitney must now go back to the peak to which it was originally given in 1864, and which is, in reality, the highest and grandest of this culminating cluster of the Sierra Nevada. It is safe to say that no man will ever ride a horse or mule to the summit of that peak, unless it be by a costly as well as dangerous trail. Whether the peak is utterly inaccessible or not, is still a question. I am disposed to think that it can be climbed; but it will certainly involve a great deal of hard and, very possibly, some dangerous work for anybody who shall attempt to reach its gigantic crest."

When Clarence King received this disconcerting news in the East he was naturally greatly surprised and disappointed. He hastened to California, engaged two men at Visalia to accompany him, and he was soon riding over the familiar Hockett Trail to the Kern. At eleven o’clock in the morning of September 19, 1873, he stood at last on the summit of the true Mount Whitney. But, alas for him, he was too late for the first ascent.

At the end of September 1873 the record of ascents of Mount Whitney stood: (1) August 18—Charles D. Begole, Albert H. Johnson, John Lucas; (2) late August—William Crapo, Abe Leyda; (3) September 6—William Crapo, William L. Hunter, Tom McDonough, Carl Rabe; (4) September 19—Clarence King, Frank Knowles. These ascents were made from the southwest, coming north from the Hockett Trail; King and Knowales from Visalia, the others from Lone Pine by way of Cottonwood Pass.

A new epoch begins with the coming of John Muir in October of that year. When Muir left his companions at the foot of Kearsarge Pass, he rode alone southward along the foot of the range and took the usual route from Lone Pine over Cottonwood Pass. Leaving his horse in a meadow, he climbed the false Mount Whitney (Mount Langley) and from there saw, as others had done, the higher peak a few miles away (Mount Whitney). Without delay he ran down, moved his horse to another meadow, and by a very rough way up and down ridges and canyons reached the base of the true Mount Whitney at sunset the same day. As there was not wood for a fire, he made up his mind to spend the nigh climbing. "I was among summit needles by midnight or 11 o’clock," he writes in his diary. "Had to dance all night to keep from freezing. Was feeble and staving next morning and had to turn back without gaining the top. Was exhausted ere I reached horse and camp and foot." He returned to Independence, ate, and slept all next day; then, not to be defeated, "set out afoot for the summit by direct course up the east side."

He camped in the sagebrush the first night and next morning made his way up the north Fork of Lone Pine Creek and camped at timberline." On the morning of October 21, at eight o’clock, he was on the summit of Mount Whitney. There he found Clarence King’s record and a momento left by Rabe with a note, "Notice Gentleman however is the looky finder of this half a Dollar is wellkom to it Carl Rabe Sep 6th 1873". Muir sketched, gained glorious views, left the half a Dollar where he found it, and descended to the foot of the mountain by the way he came. He was back at Independence next day.

Many years later Muir wrote, "For climbers there is a canyon which comes down from the north shoulder of the Whitney peak. Well-seasoned limbs will enjoy the climb of 9000 feet required for this direct route, but soft, succulent people should go the mule way." Should someone of the present generation of mountain climbers feel inclined to make light of John Muir’s exploit, let him endeavor to duplicate it, starting from Independence (not Lone Pine) on foot, with or without sleeping bag and modern concentrated foods—Muir had neither.

Muir’s second visit to Mount Whitney came two years later. This time he took his two companions with him to the top. He knew the way and could proceed unerringly. He followed his former route up the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek until he came to the final climb. There he made a variation, crossing the main crest a little to the north, and descended to a lake on the western side. They passed along the rocky shores, "gradually climbed higher, mounting in a spiral around the northwest shoulder of the mountain, then directly to the summit." Their arrival was "duly announced by Bayley as soon as he was rested into a whooping condition. Undemonstrative Washburn examined the records of antecedent visitors, then remarked with becoming satisfaction, ‘I’m the first and only student visitor to visit this highest land in North America.’" The descent is described by Muir in one sentence; "We left the summit about noon and swooped to the torrid plains before sundown, as if dropping out of the sky."

Although Mount Whitney had been climbed in the first few years of its history by fishermen and others from Inyo County, by Clarence King, by John Muir, by a "scientist," a botanist, a photographer, by Hutchings of Yosemite, and by a college student, it does not appear that any woman reached the top until 1878.

In the summer of that year a group of men and women from Porterville, Tulare County, made an expedition to the mountain. One of the four women in the party, Miss Anna Mills (later, as Mrs. Johnston) wrote a reminiscent account of the trip. At the Soda Springs in Kern Canyon they found over thirty people from Inyo County, "as jolly a crowd as one would wish to meet." William Crapo was there and offered to guide the Porterville party to Mount Whitney. They followed the usual route to the base. "Just before reaching camp," writes Mrs. Johnston, "my horse took a notion to jump over a small stream, very unexpectedly to me, and my back was so severely injured that I could hardly step without experiencing severe pain. Having been lame from early childhood, everybody said it would be utterly impossible for me to climb to the summit of Mt. Whitney. But I was not easily discouraged, and had always held to the idea that I could do what other people could—my surplus of determination making up for what I lacked in the power of locomotion. But now at the eleventh hour, like Moses, I had gotten where I could see the promised land, but the chances for getting there were indeed few. In that hour of anguish I remembered my sins, and carefully walking to an obscure place, away up there so near heaven, where none but God could hear, I knelt, facing the great mountain, and prayed—prayed as I had not for years; prayed with the spirit and the understanding also. When I had finished, the mountain-top seemed closer, and I returned to camp with a much lighter heart."

The following day, August 3, 1878, the pain nearly gone, she started on alone ahead of the party in order to rest before the steep portion of the climb. All reached the top without too much difficulty, including the other women, Miss Hope Broughton, Miss Mary Martin, and Mrs. Redd. "The supreme joy I felt," writes Anna Mills Johnston, "when I realized that my prayer had been answered, and that I was at last really standing on the summit of Mount Whitney, knew no bounds. For the time being I forgot that I ever was tired; one glance was enough to compensate for all the trials of the trip."

Backcountry_Resource_Center--Paul Richins, Jr.

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