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July 5, 1864: Brewer Creek

July 5, 2014

Lake 9735 11

Lake 9735 (near camp 171); by Tom Hilton, on Flickr


Camp 171

[This] morning we lay in our blankets very late, after the fatigue of the previous day—in fact were in bed eleven hours. We stayed in camp and took latitude observations. It [is] a most lovely day.

[This] camp [is] in a valley that runs back to the cones. High granite ridges rose to above thirteen thousand feet on both sides; that on the south rose in great precipices, nearly perpendicular, over two thousand feet high. Patches of snow lay in the nooks and corners. This granite is of a uniform light ash-gray color, inclining to pearly, and by the lights of sunset showed the most beautiful rosy tints. Scraggy pines grew in the crevices up to eleven thousand feet, gnarled and twisted by the winter storms of these desolate regions. One new species I found here, not known to botanists. By day the sky is generally of a deep blue-black, by night almost black; the stars shine with a mild silvery luster almost without twinkling.

Clarence King:
[At four am] we rose and ate our breakfast of frozen venison.

The thermometer stood at two above zero; everything was frozen tight except the canteen, which we had prudently kept between us all night. Stars still blazed brightly, and the moon, hidden from us by western cliffs, shone in pale reflection upon the rocky heights to the east…[W]e shouldered our packs and started with slow pace to climb toward the “divide.”

Soon, to our dismay, we found the straps had so chafed our shoulders that the weight gave us great pain, and obliged us to pad them with our handkerchiefs and extra socks, which remedy did not wholly relieve us from the constant wearing pain of the heavy load.

Directing our steps southward toward a niche in the wall which bounded us only half a mile distant, we travelled over a continuous snow-field….

As we advanced, the snow sloped more and more steeply up toward the crags, till by and by it became quite dangerous, causing us to cut steps with Cotter’s large bowie-knife,—a slow, tedious operation…[W]e got to the top of the snow and sat down on a block of granite to breathe and look up in search of a way up the thousand-foot cliff of broken surface, among the lines of fracture and the galleries winding along the face….

Choosing what looked like the least impossible way, we started; but, finding it unsafe to work with packs on, resumed the yesterday’s plan,—Cotter taking the lead, climbing about fifty feet ahead, and hoisting up the knapsacks and barometer as I tied them to the end of the lasso….until we stood together upon a mere shelf, not more than two feet wide, which led diagonally up the smooth cliff. Edging along in careful steps, our backs flattened upon the granite, we moved slowly to a broad platform, where we stopped for breath….

About thirty feet directly over our heads was another shelf, which, if we could reach, seemed to offer at least a temporary way upward. On its edge were two or three spikes of granite; whether firmly connected with the cliff, or merely blocks of débris, we could not tell from below….I thought of but one possible plan: it was to lasso one of these blocks, and to climb, sailor-fashion, hand over hand, up the rope….The shelf was so narrow that throwing the coil of rope was a very difficult undertaking. I tried three times, and Cotter spent five minutes vainly whirling the loop up at the granite spikes. At last I made a lucky throw, and it tightened upon one of the smaller protuberances. I drew the noose close, and very gradually threw my hundred and fifty pounds upon the rope; then Cotter joined me….and I began to climb slowly….

A few pulls hand over hand brought me to the edge of the shelf, when, throwing an arm around the granite spike, I swung my body upon the shelf, and lay down to rest, shouting to Cotter that I was all right, and that the prospects upward were capital….Cotter came up the rope in his very muscular way, without once stopping to rest. We took our loads in our hands, swinging the barometer over my shoulder, and climbed up a shelf which led in a zigzag direction upward and to the south, bringing us out at last upon the thin blade of a ridge which connected a short distance above with the summit. It was formed of huge blocks, shattered, and ready, at a touch, to fall.

So narrow and sharp was the upper slope that we dared not walk, but got astride, and worked slowly along with our hands, pushing the knapsacks in advance, now and then holding our breath when loose masses rocked under our weight.

Once upon the summit, a grand view burst upon us….

West of us stretched the Mount Brewer wall, with its succession of smooth precipices and amphitheatre ridges. To the north the great gorge of the King’s River yawned down five thousand feet. To the south the valley of the Kern, opening in the opposite direction, was broader, less deep, but more filled with broken masses of granite. Clustered about the foot of the divide were a dozen alpine lakes; the higher ones blue sheets of ice, the lowest completely melted. Still lower in the depths of the two cañons we could see groups of forest trees; but they were so dim and so distant as never to relieve the prevalent masses of rock and snow….

The view was so grand, the mountain colors so brilliant, immense snow-fields and blue alpine lakes so charming, that we almost forgot we were ever to move, and it was only after a swift hour of this delight that we began to consider our future course.

The King’s Cañon, which headed against our wall, seemed untraversable—no human being could climb along the divide; we had, then, but one hope of reaching the peak, and our greatest difficulty lay at the start. If we could climb down to the Kern side of the divide, and succeed in reaching the base of the precipices which fell from our feet, it really looked as if we might travel without difficulty among the roches moutonnées to the other side of the Kern Valley, and make our attempt upon the southward flank of the great peak….

I suggested that by lowering ourselves on the rope we might climb from crevice to crevice; but we saw no shelf large enough for ourselves and the knapsacks too. However, we were not going to give it up without a trial; and I made the rope fast around my breast, and, looping the noose over a firm point of rock, let myself slide gradually down to a notch forty feet below….Cotter then slid down the rope, and, with considerable difficulty, we whipped the noose off its resting-place above, and cut off our connection with the upper world….

The third descent was not a difficult one, nor the fourth; but when we had climbed down about two hundred and fifty feet, the rocks were so glacially polished and water-worn that it seemed impossible to get any farther. To our right was a crack penetrating the rock, perhaps a foot deep….[W]e climbed into the crevice, and began descending with our faces to the cliff….In this way we got down about eighty feet of smooth, nearly vertical wall, reaching the top of a rude granite stairway, which led to the snow; and here we sat down to rest, and found to our astonishment that we had been three hours from the summit.

After breathing a half-minute we continued down, jumping from rock to rock…and in this manner made a quick descent over rugged débris to the crest of a snow-field, which, for seven or eight hundred feet more, swept down in a smooth, even slope, of very high angle, to the borders of a frozen lake.

Without untying the lasso which bound us together, we sprang upon the snow with a shout, and glissaded down splendidly, turning now and then a somersault, and shooting out like cannon-balls almost to the midle of the frozen lake; I upon my back, and Cotter feet first, in a swimming position. The ice cracked in all directions. It was only a thin, transparent film, through which we could see deep into the lake. Untying ourselves, we hurried ashore in different directions, lest our combined weight should be too great a strain upon any point….

After the continued climbing of the day walking was a delicious rest, and forward we pressed with considerable speed, our hobnails giving us firm footing on the glittering, glacial surface. Every fluting of the great valley was in itself a considerable cañon, into which we descended, climbing down the scored rocks, and swinging from block to block, until we reached the level of the pines….

After the stern grandeur of granite and ice, and with the peaks and walls still in view, it was relief to find ourselves again in the region of life. I never felt for trees and flowers such a sense of intimate relationship and sympathy….

[I]t was sunset when we reached the eastern ascent, and began to toil up through scattered pines, and over trains of moraine rocks, toward the great peak. Stars were already flashing brilliantly in the sky, and the low, glowing arch in the west had almost vanished when we came to the upper trees, and threw down our knapsacks to camp….

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