Monday, August 17, 2020

Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada: a very short review

According to my notes, it's been well over 10 years since an entire summer went by and I didn't make it up into the mountains.

But this is an unusual year.

So, instead, I decided to spend most of August up in the mountains, through the eyes, and words, of Clarence King, and his still-relevant-after-150-years journal: Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada.

Clarence King might be one of the most interesting explorers you've never heard of. Born in New England, he studied the earth sciences at Yale University. Then, aged 21 years, in the middle of the Civil War, he tracked down his childhood friend James Terry Gardner and together they travelled all the way across the country to meet up with William Brewer and Josiah Whitney and join up with them as part of the California Geological Survey.

King and Gardner reached California just in time to join up with Professor Brewer in the 1864 Field Party survey of the central Sierra Nevada. Here's an absolutely wonderful picture of them, together with Richard Cotter, just as they are setting out on the trip.

Over the next half-dozen years, King (together with Cotter and Gardner, what a threesome they must have made!) summits many of the 14,000 foot peaks in California, making first ascents of several, including Mount Tyndall, which he gets to name, as well as Mount Shasta, Mount Langley, and of course Mount Whitney, which King discovers on the first trip and attempts to climb, but has to turn back slightly before the top (he finally reaches the summit 10 years later).

Oh, and he writes a book!

Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada was published in 1872. I don't read many 150-year-old books nowadays, and certainly I'd think twice about most 150-year-old non-fiction works, as so much has changed.

But it's quite remarkable how well Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada holds up.

There are definitely a few completely cringe-worthy parts, primarily in those sections where King veers away from Mountaineering and into discussions of the various people he meets along his trips. So just skip over those parts whenever you hit them, I suggest. (I'm not saying to forgive King for this, but certainly I was able to enjoy his book immensely by simply jumping over such sections as soon as I hit them.)

And maybe even give "Kaweah's Run" a try; that's the chapter where King describes the week-long adventure where he is chased by two robbers who pick up his trail in a foothills saloon and follow him for hundreds of miles on horseback before he finally gives them the slip. Cringe-worthy though parts of that chapter are, the overall story is remarkable.

But, oh, the mountains! King's writings about the actual experiences he had in the mountains are just wonderful!

Firstly, of course, there are the mountains themselves. Here, King and Cotter climb to the top of Mount Brewer, from which point they can then see their target, which they are soon to name Mount Tyndall:

The gorge turning southward, we rounded a sort of mountain promontory, which, closing the view behind us, shut us up in the bottom of a perfect basin. In front lay a placid lake reflecting the intense black-blue of the sky. Granite, stained with purple and red, sank into it upon one side, and a broad, spotless field of snow came down to its margin upon the other.

From a pile of large granite blocks, forty or fifty feet above the lake-margin, we could look down fully a hundred feet through the transparent water to where bowlders and pebbles were strewn upon the stone bottom. We had now reached the base of Mount Brewer, and were skirting its southern spurs in a wide, open corridor surrounded in all directions by lofty granite crags from two to four thousand feet high; above the limits of vegetation, rocks, lakes of deep, heavenly blue, and white, trackless snows were grouped closely about us. Two sounds—a sharp, little cry of martens and occasional heavy crashes of falling rock—saluted us.

Climbing became exceedingly difficult, light air—for we had already reached twelve thousand five hundred feet—beginning to tell upon our lungs to such an extent that my friend, who had taken turns with me in carrying my pack, was unable to do so any longer, and I adjusted it to my own shoulders for the rest of the day.

After four hours of slow, laborious work, we made the base of the débris slope which rose about a thousand feet to a saddle-pass in the western mountain-wall, that range upon which Mount Brewer is so prominent a point. We were nearly an hour in toiling up this slope, over an uncertain footing which gave way at almost every step. At last, when almost at the top, we paused to take breath, and then all walked out upon the crest, laid off our packs, and sat down together upon the summit of the ridge, and for a few moments not a word was spoken.

The Sierras are here two parallel summit ranges. We were upon the crest of the western ridge, and looked down into a gulf five thousand feet deep, sinking from our feet in abrupt cliffs nearly or quite two thousand feet, whose base plunged into a broad field of snow lying steep and smooth for a great distance, but broken near its foot by craggy steps often a thousand feet high.

Vague blue haze obscured the lost depths, hiding details, giving a bottomless distance, out of which, like the breath of wind, floated up a faint tremble,vibrating upon the senses, yet never clearly heard.

Rising on the other side, cliff above cliff, precipice piled upon precipice, rock over rock, up against sky, towered the most gigantic mountain-wall in America, culminating in a noble pile of Gothic-finished granite and enamel-like snow. How grand and inviting looked its white form, its untrodden, unknown crest, so high and pure in the clear, strong blue! I looked at it as one contemplating the purpose of his life; and for just one moment I would have rather liked to dodge that purpose, or to have waited, or have found some excellent reason why I might not go; but all this quickly vanished, leaving a cheerful resolve to go ahead.

From the two opposing mountain-walls singular, thin, knife-blade ridges of stone jutted out, dividing the sides of the gulf into a series of amphitheatres, each one a labyrinth of ice and rock. Piercing thick beds of snow, sprang up knobs and straight, isolated spires of rock, mere obelisks curiously carved by frost, their rigid, slender forms casting a blue, sharp shadow upon the snow. Embosomed in depressions of ice,

Yet King is not simply a man of rocks. He certainly appreciated the astonishing beauty and pageantry that are the Sierra Nevada in their full summer bloom. Here he is preparing to make his second attempt on Mount Clark, having failed two years earlier in the face of a fierce fall blizzard.

So now in June I climbed on a Sunday morning to my old retreat, found the same stone seat, with leaning oak-tree back, and wide, low canopy of boughs. A little down to the left, welling among tufts of grass and waving tulips, is the spring which Mrs. Fremont found for her camp-ground. North and south for miles extends our ridge in gently rising or falling outline, its top broadly round, and for the most part an open oak-grove with grass carpet and mountain flowers in wayward loveliness of growth. West, you overlook a wide panorama. Oak and pine mottled foot-hills, with rusty groundwork and cloudings of green, wander down in rolling lines to the ripe plain; beyond are plains, then coast ranges, rising in peaks, or curved down in passes, through which gray banks of fog drift in and vanish before the hot air of the plains. East, the Sierra slope is rent and gashed in a wilderness of cañons, yawning deep and savage. Miles of chaparral tangle in dense growth over walls and spurs, covering with kindly olive-green the staring red of riven mountain-side and gashed earth. Beyond this swells up the more refined plateau and hill country made of granite and trimmed with pine, bold domes rising above the green cover; and there the sharp, terrible front of El Capitan, guarding Yosemite and looking down into its purple gulf. Beyond, again, are the peaks, and among them one looms sharpest. It is that Obelisk from which the great storm drove Cotter and me in 1864. We were now bound to push there as soon as grass should grow among the upper cañons.

The air around my Sunday mountain in June is dry, bland, and fragrant; a full sunlight ripens it to a perfect temperature, giving you at once stimulus and rest. You sleep in it without fear of dew, and no excess of hot or cold breaks up the even flow of balmy delight. You see the wild tulips open, and watch wind-ripples course over slopes of thick-standing grass-blades. Birds, so rare on plains or pine-hills, here sing you their fullest, and enjoy with you the soft, white light, or come to see you in your chosen shadow and bathe in your spring.

Mountain oaks, less wonderful than great, straight pines, but altogether domestic in their generous way of reaching out low, long boughs, roofing in spots of shade, are the only trees on the Pacific slope which seem to me at all allied to men; and these quiet foot-hill summits, these islands of modest, lovely verdure floating in an ocean of sunlight, lifted enough above San Joaquin plains to reach pure, high air and thrill your blood and brain with mountain oxygen, are yet far enough below the rugged wildness of pine and ice and rock to leave you in peace, and not forever challenge you to combat.

One thing I found particularly striking in King's writing, is how much time he spent thinking about climate change.

Even in 1865, it was a major part of his thinking. As he travels, he observes over and over the effects of climate change. Glaciers have receded, marks of old rivers and lakes are still present in the driest of areas, and he repeatedly comments on the effects these changes have had on the trees, plants, animals, and birds of each region he travels through.

After the intense twenty year period that King spends in the west, his life changes dramatically. Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada doesn't cover any of this, but you can find plenty of information about it in various places, and I encourage you to at least have a look, as it is certainly important to have the full picture of the man, even if, as I do, you find yourself willing to dive most deeply into just his adventures in the mountains.

I am not sure when I will get back to these lovely mountains, myself. I hope it will not be too long.

In the meantime, I am glad I took the time to listen to Clarence King's voice from 150 years ago, as he vividly led me up, down, around, and through some of the greatest landscapes that the western edge of North America has to offer.

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