July 4, 1864: Brewer Creek
[Today] all were up at dawn.
Never a man welcomed those first gray streaks in the east gladder than I did, unless it may be Cotter, who has in later years confessed that he did not go to sleep that night.
We got breakfast, and King and Dick packed their packs—six days’ provisions, blankets, and instruments made packs of thirty-five or forty pounds each, to be packed into such a region! Gardner and I resolved to climb the cone again, as I had left instruments on the top, expecting someone would go up. Our way lay together for five miles, and up to thirteen thousand feet. I packed Dick’s heavy pack to that point to give him a good start. I could never pack it as far as they hope to. Here we left them, and as we scaled the peak they disappeared over a steep granite ridge, the last seen of them.
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….
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….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….
I did not wonder that Brewer and Hoffman pronounced our undertaking impossible; but when I looked at Cotter there was such complete bravery in his eye that I asked him if he was ready to start. His old answer, “Why not?” left the initiative with me; so I told Professor Brewer that we would bid him good-by. Our friends helped us on with our packs in silence, and as we shook hands there was not a dry eye in the party. Before he let go of my hand Professor Brewer asked me for my plan, and I had to own that I had but one, which was to reach the highest peak in the range.
After looking in every direction I was obliged to confess that I saw as yet no practicable way. We bade them a “good-by,” receiving their “God bless you” in return, and started southward along the range to look for some possible cliff to descend. Brewer, Gardiner, and Hoffman turned north to push upward to the summit of Mount Brewer, and complete their observations. We saw them whenever we halted, until at last, on the very summit, their microscopic forms were for the last time discernible.
Gardner and I reached the summit much easier than Hoffmann and I had two days before. The sky was cloudy and the air cold, 25°. We were on top about two hours. We planted the American flag on the top, and left a paper in a bottle with our names, the height, etc. It is not at all probable that any man was ever on the top before, or that any one will be again—for a long time at least. There is nothing but love of adventure to prompt it after we have the geography of the region described.
There seemed but one possible way to reach our goal: that was to make our way along the summit of the cross ridge which projected between the two ranges….To reach it we must climb up and down over the indented edge of the Mount Brewer wall. In attempting to do this we had a rather lively time scaling a sharp granite needle, where we found our course completely stopped by precipices four and five hundred feet in height. Ahead of us the summit continued to be broken into fantastic pinnacles, leaving us no hope of making our way along it; so we sought the most broken part of the eastern descent, and began to climb down. The heavy knapsacks, besides wearing our shoulders gradually into a black-and-blue state, overbalanced us terribly, and kept us in constant danger of pitching headlong….In this manner we consumed more than half the afternoon in descending a thousand feet of broken, precipitous slope; and it was almost sunset when we found ourselves upon the fields of level snow which lay white and thick over the whole interior slope of the amphitheatre.
The gorge below us seemed utterly impassable. At our backs the Mount Brewer wall rose either in sheer cliffs or in broken, rugged stairway, such as had offered us our descent. From this cruel dilemma the cross divide furnished the only hope, and the sole chance of scaling that was at its juncton with the Mount Brewer wall….
It was evidently impossible for us to attempt to climb it that evening, and we looked about the desolate recesses for a sheltered camping-spot….[W]e at last found a granite crevice near the margin of one of the frozen lakes,—a sort of shelf just large enough for Cotter and me,—where we hastened to make our bed, having first filled the canteen from a small stream that trickled over the ice, knowing that in a few moments the rapid chill would freeze it. We ate our supper of cold venison and bread, and whittled from the sides of the wooden barometer-case shavings enough to warm water for a cup of miserably tepid tea, and then, packing our provisions and instruments away at the head of the shelf, rolled ourselves in our blankets and lay down to enjoy the view.
We were back before sundown; a hearty dinner and pleasant camp fire closed the day. We sang “Old John Brown” around the camp fire [tonight]—we three, alone in these solitudes. Thus was spent Independence Day. The last was with Hoffmann alone, in the Sierra farther north. We heard not a gun. Would that we might know the war news—we are over a month behind.