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Because it's there

The Spirit of Tehachapi


August 4, 2018

I have heard or maybe read that when asking folk who climb mountains why they do it, they sometimes reply, "Because it's there!" There are people who consider mountains a personal challenge. They say it's an accomplishment and that the view from the top is worth the climb. I'll take their word for it.

I have a friend who has climbed Mt. Everest – twice! That "sorta" separates the men from the boys, doesn't it? Today he is a retired professor of physiology. He didn't climb it because "it was there." He knew it was there all along. He trained rigorously for six months to get in shape. The first time he was gaining information for a new type of oxygen machine. The second time he was gathering facts to determine the effects of extreme cold and high altitude on the human body. He is a scientist and needed the mountain for his research.

There is another mountain right here in California that is the tallest peak in the contiguous United States: Mount Whitney. We don't even have to leave the state to climb it. At one time, in the 1860s it had not been climbed nor its elevation noted. At that time it was thought that Mount Shasta was the highest mountain in the U.S. (14, 161-feet). History books would testify to the fact. So much for history books.

Then, in 1861, a Geological Survey team headed by Josiah D. Whitney was surveying the mining districts near Mariposa on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. They were studying the resources of California including flora, fauna and minerals. Among the team of geologists he hired were Clarence King, William Brewer, James Gardiner and Richard Cotter.

King, was one of those who became excited when viewing tall peaks, always showing a penchant for climbing them, as well. The team had to ascend into the Sierra Nevada for their work and came back with news. After climbing the Sierra Nevada Mountains from the San Joaquin side, they viewed a wall of extremely high, snow clad mountain peaks blocking the view of the Owens Valley to the east. They were sure that the peaks would be 14,000-feet or higher.

Of course, the Native American of the Owens Valley area – the Paiutes and Shoshone – had known about the peaks for centuries. The miners, farmers and trappers were perfectly aware of the myriad of very high peaks at their doorsteps, which kept snow a good part of the year. However, since the printed word always wins out, the California Geological Survey claims credit for "discovering" the highest peak in the Sierra Nevada Range. They named the peak Mt. Whitney after the head of their Geological Survey Team.

From the San Joaquin Valley side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains the geologists continued their scientific surveying. King, however, was a geologist by training, but a mountaineer by spirit.

As he looked at the mountains he saw both the stratum and the challenge. He convinced his supervisor that to climb the west side of the new found peaks would have great scientific value.

He and Cotter began the climb with King's intention to reach the highest peak, which he believed to be higher than Mt. Shasta.

King and Cotter struggled through rocky canyons, teetered on knife edge ridges, fighting always the unbalanced loads of their knapsacks. They made camp on a shelf barely large enough for the two of them. Finally crawling to the summit of a peak they found that Mt. Whitney still loomed in the distance. King would have to wait to conquer what he termed the "top of the U.S." His geological team was headed to Northern California. King would climb Mt. Shasta while there. Why not? It was there!

It was 1871 before he would be able to travel, this time, to the Owens Valley with the intention of scaling what he termed the "inaccessible" Whitney.

His diary to the Owens Valley gives one a glimpse into his somewhat complex personality. Riding the stage for two and a half days from Carson City into the Owens Valley may have set the scene. His overnight stay in Independence was not satisfactory and he did not, "regret his departure." Then, on the stage ride from Independence to Lone Pine he wrote, "an impertinent woman pre-empted the choice seat next to the driver." Tsk Tsk!

On the day he arrived a storm swept over the Sierra and for three days he had to cool his heels in Lone Pine. Finally it cleared and he was able to map out the route he would take to the top of the granite peak, Mt. Whitney. He enlisted a Lone Pine resident, Paul Pinson, and a boy known only as Jose. They rode horseback up the gorge to the south of the peak until their way was blocked. Jose stayed behind with the horses while King and Pinson continued on. They were hit by another torrential rain and weathered the night under a rock shelf dreading snow or lightning. The next day the fog was what he described as, "impenetrable." After that the peak turned out to be a rather easy climb, except for a mis-hap where King broke through a crust and discovered a window looking down many thousands of feet.

After reaching the top King saw nothing but clouds and had to content himself with describing only the summit. What he did find was a mound of rock -a cairn- solidly built into an Indian arrow shaft pointing west. King realized that some Native American had been there before him but it did not dampen his spirit. He left a half dollar with his and Penson's name on it.

Back in Lone Pine he spread the news of his triumph. He had articles in The San Francisco Bulletin and the Atlantic Monthly. He had climbed to the highest roof of the United States. Going home to New Haven, Connecticut he thought himself the first man to climb Mt. Whitney except for the Indian who was there first. But, we don't talk about that.

The people of Lone Pine were incensed by his remarks about the citizenry of their city. Apparently the behavior of the "impertinent woman" was nothing compared to what he said of the citizens of Lone Pine. The Atlantic Monthly quotes King as saying, "...a large share of the most degraded citizens. People whose faces and dress and life and manners are sadder than any possibilities held up to us by Darwin. " Continuing, he says: "In a homeless fashion; sullen, almost arrogant neglect stared out from the open doors. There is no attempt at grace, no memory of comfort, no suggested hope for improvement."

Almost, as in retribution, some local Lone Pine citizens climbed to the summit that King had reached. They found the half dollar left in the cairn by King and Pinson. Then they looked upward to a much higher mountain in the distance: Mt. Whitney. King had climbed the wrong mountain in the fog.

The citizens called the highest peak Fisherman's Peak on Aug. 18, 1873. The first to climb to the, "roof of the United States." Who else but local Owens Valley folk. The name Mt. Whitney remained.

When King received word of his mistake he immediately left Connecticut for California. He traveled to Visalia and made arrangements to climb Mt. Whitney from the west side of the Sierra Nevada. Guess he figured the Lone Pine residents might not have the welcome mat out for him. He did climb it in September of the same year.

It does make one wonder why people want to climb a mountain. "Because it's there" doesn't really say much but it's as good a reason as any. Hikers climb Mt. Whitney regularly these days whose elevation is: 14,505-feet.

I wonder who the "impertinent" lady was?


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