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April 22, 1861: Santa Lucia Mountains

April 22, 2011

Lopez Mountain

Lopez Mountain, Santa Lucia Range; photo by Bob Burd

Camp 26

We had been waiting for better weather for climbing and measuring the Santa Lucia Mountains. As [today] was a fine day, I got an early start, taking Guirado with me, and leaving Averill to observe barometer at camp—of course, carrying another barometer along with me. We rode about five miles to the base, left our mules, and climbed to the summit in four hours. For the first two thousand feet the way was up a very steep but perfectly grassy slope, covered with wild oats about a foot or foot and a half high, green as the greenest meadow. Then we struck a low chaparral. We gained the summit of the first ridge, but as usual a higher one rose farther toward the center of the chain, so we descended about five hundred feet, got on a transverse ridge, and in due time reached the highest peak. It was 2,605 feet above camp, or about 2,900 feet above the sea1. The day was lovely, cool, and the air clear—not so clear as it often is here, but it would be called very clear at home. Objects twenty or twenty-five miles distant seemed as plain as they would through four or five miles of our air at home. For example, the breakers on the shore were perfectly distinct twenty miles distant!

The view was very fine, finer than we shall have again soon. To the south we could see plain beyond plain, and hill beyond hill, although beyond the Cuyama Plain, thirty-five miles distant, things were indistinct through the dust from that plain. To the southwest and west lay all the lovely plain of San Luis Obispo, the buttes rising through it—over twenty were visible—brown pyramids on the emerald plain. Beyond were the coast hills, while beyond all was the blue Pacific, stretching away to the horizon. To the northwest was our chain of mountains; north, the valley of Santa Margarita and Salinas Valley, bordered with myriad hills, stretching away for sixty or seventy miles. We sat and contemplated the scene for over an hour before leaving.

Each mountain ascent has something peculiarly its own to distinguish it from the others. The feature of [today’s] trip was the unpoetic one of rolling rocks down the slope. Nature seemed to have made it for that—a smooth, grassy slope, with few obstructions on it, and plenty of rocks at the right place near the top. We could start them, they would go about six hundred to nine hundred feet at an angle of forty-five or fifty degrees, then roll down a slope of twenty-five to thirty degrees, going a mile from their starting place and falling probably nearly two thousand feet. Their velocity was incredible. As they would roll, large, angular fragments bounding in immense leaps through the air, they would whistle like cannon balls. We could hear them whistle half a mile! Their leaps would surpass belief. After rolling many, I went down to the foot of the first slope to see them come by—Guirado starting them. Some came within thirty feet of me; their whistling exceeded my belief. They would leap through the air on meeting slight obstructions—pieces flying off would fly a hundred feet in the air, whistling like bullets. One stone of over a hundred pounds leaped close to me. I measured the leap; it was sixty feet! Another, much larger, perhaps four hundred pounds, came thundering down, struck a flat stone bedded flat in the soil, which it crushed into a thousand pieces, then bounded one hundred feet, and then took its straight course down the slope.

1Probably Gay Mountain or Lopez Mountain.

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