Tyndall in a Day — Page 3

Williamson, Whitney, & High Sierra Panorama

Interlude: A Little History

July 1864. A US Geological Survey team led by William Brewer treks up the western slope of the great and largely unexplored Sierra Nevada mountains.

Brewer and topographer Charles Hoffman climb what will later be named Mount Brewer—a towering peak with a commanding view of the range's southern sweep. As Stephen Porcella and Cameron Burns write in Climbing California's Fourteeners, they were "Perhaps the first white men to realize the extent of the great Sierra."

Mount Whitney Mount Tyndall - West Face Mount Langley - West Face Alpenglow

From the top of Mount Brewer, they noticed one peak rising conspicuously high above all others—Mount Whitney.

Back at camp, Brewer reported this discovery to a new hire in his party named Clarence King.

Ostensibly the young King was there to assist the survey in its scientific aims. But at heart King was an explorer and a budding mountaineer.

King reportedly became obsessed with the great mountain to the south, and determined to climb it at once.

One can imagine King's enthusiasm was met with no small resistance from survey leader Brewer (he is said to have described King's plan to climb Whitney as "madness").

But in the end, King prevailed.

Brewer allowed Clarence King and Dick Cotter to leave the group and head south, with the goal of climbing what was certainly the highest peak in the range, and quite possibly the highest peak in the country.

After three hard days of travel, King and Cotter reached what they believed to be the base of the peak they had scouted from afar.

The men successfully summited the peak, whereupon they discovered Mount Whitney still lay some miles beyond, to the south. In fact King had climbed Mount Tyndall (which King named after English geologist and mountaineer John Tyndall). Despite the error, King and Cotter had just gained the summit of what was then the highest peak ever climbed in the Sierra.

King, however, was determined to correct his error as soon as possible. He returned to Brewer, and now driven by incurable summit lust, launched a mission to climb Mount Whitney from the southwest. This time, only weeks later, King summited Mount Langley—without realizing he was on the wrong mountain.

King published a detailed account of his "successful" Whitney climb only to later learn he'd climbed the wrong mountain again—an oversight that his rivals took much glee in correcting. King rushed back to the Sierra to try once more to be first atop Whitney, but this time he was too late. A group of fishermen from Lone Pine had already summited America's highest mountain.

next: Shepherd Pass

About SierraDescents

When there is snow, SierraDescents is Andy Lewicky's California backcountry skiing and mountaineering website. Without snow, sierradescents becomes an ill-tempered hiking and climbing blog.

Pray for snow.