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July 6, 1864: Roaring River

July 6, 2014

Roaring River Country 03

Roaring River drainage from Big Brewer Lake; by Tom Hilton, on Flickr

Camp 175

Packed up and came down into the canyon of the South Fork of the Kings1 to a fine grassy meadow about 2000 feet below our last camp, the last 1000 feet down the steep side of a gigantic moraine, the hardest trail yet reached. At sunset a most lovely rosy tint tinged the granite peaks above.

Clarence King:
Cotter woke me at half-past three…we arose, breakfasted by the light of our fire, which still blazed brilliantly, and, leaving our knapsacks, started for the mountain with only instruments, canteens, and luncheon.

In the indistinct moonlight climbing was very difficult at first…However, our march brought us to the base of the great mountain…From base to summit rose a series of broken crags, lifting themselves from a general slope of débris. Toward the left the angle seemed to be rather gentler, and the surface less ragged; and we hoped…to make an easy climb up this gentler face. So we toiled on for an hour over the rocks, reaching at last the bottom of the north slope….

The advancing daylight revealed to us a very long, comparatively even snow-slope, whose surface was pierced by many knobs and granite heads, giving it the aspect of an ice-roofing fastened on with bolts of stone. It stretched in far perspective to the summit, where already the rose of sunrise reflected gloriously, kindling a fresh enthusiasm within us.

Immense bowlders were partly embedded in the ice just above us, whose constant melting left them trembling on the edge of a fall….The sun rose upon us while we were climbing the lower part of this snow, and in less than half an hour, melting, began to liberate huge blocks, which thundered down past us, gathering and growing into small avalanches below.

We did not dare climb one above another, according to our ordinary mode, but kept about an equal level, hundred feet apart, lest, dislodging the blocks, one should hurl them down upon the other….

When midway up this slope we reached a place where the granite rose in perfectly smooth bluffs on either side of a gorge,—a narrow cut or walled way leading up to the flat summit of the cliff. This we scaled by cutting ice steps, only to find ourselves fronted again by a still higher wall. Ice sloped from its front at too steep an angle for us to follow, but had melted in contact with it, leaving a space three feet wide between the ice and the rock. We entered this crevice and climbed along its bottom, with a wall of rock rising a hundred feet above us on one side, and a thirty-foot face of ice on the other, through which light of an intense cobalt-blue penetrated.

Reaching the upper end, we had to cut our footsteps upon the ice again, and, having braced our backs against the granite, climbed up to the surface. We were now in a dangerous position: to fall into the crevice upon one side was to be wedged to death between rock and ice; to make a slip was to be shot down five hundred feet, and then hurled over the brink of a precipice….

The summit was now not over five hundred feet distant, and we started on again with the exhilarating hope of success. But…the smooth granite wall which rose above the snow-slope continued, apparently, quite around the peak…It was all blank except in one spot; quite near us the snow bridged across the crevice and rose in a long point to the summit of the wall,—a great icicle-column frozen in a niche of the bluff,—its base about ten feet wide, narrowing to two feet at the top. We climbed to the base of this spire of ice, and, with the utmost care, began to cut our stairway….At last, in order to prevent myself from falling over backward, I was obliged to thrust my hand into the crack between the ice and the wall, and the spire became so narrow that I could do this on both sides, so that the climb was made as upon a tree, cutting mere toe-holes and embracing the whole column of ice in my arms…I reached the top, and, with the greatest caution, wormed my body over the brink, and, rolling out upon the smooth surface of the granite, looked over and watched Cotter make his climb….

We had now an easy slope to the summit, and hurried up over rocks and ice, reaching the crest at exactly twelve o’clock. I rang my hammer upon the topmost rock; we grasped hands, and I reverently named the grand peak Mount Tyndall.

To our surprise, upon sweeping the horizon with my level, there appeared two peaks equal in height with us, and two rising even higher. That which looked highest of all was a cleanly cut helmet of granite upon the same ridge with Mount Tyndall, lying about six miles south, and fronting the desert with a bold, square bluff which rises to the crest of the peak, where a white fold of snow trims it gracefully. Mount Whitney, as we afterward called it, in honor of our chief, is probably the highest land within the United States. Its summit looked glorious, but inaccessible.

The general topography overlooked by us may be thus simply outlined. Two parallel chains, enclosing an intermediate trough, face each other. Across this deep, enclosed gulf, from wall to wall, juts the thin but lofty and craggy ridge, or “divide,” before described, which forms an important water-shed, sending those streams which enter the chasm north of it into King’s River, those south forming the most important sources of the Kern, whose straight, rapidly deepening valley stretches south, carved profoundly in granite, while the King’s, after flowing longitudinally in the opposite course for eight or ten miles, turns abruptly west round the base of Mount Brewer, cuts across the western ridge, opening a gate of its own, and carves a rock channel transversely down the Sierra to the California plain.

Fronting us stood the west chain, a great mural ridge watched over by two dominant heights, Kaweah Peak and Mount Brewer, its wonderful profile defining against the western sky a multitude of peaks and spires. Bold buttresses jut out through fields of ice, and reach down stone arms among snow and débris. North and south of us the higher, or eastern, summit stretched on in miles and miles of snow peaks, the farthest horizon still crowded with their white points. East the whole range fell in sharp, hurrying abruptness to the desert, where, ten thousand feet below, lay a vast expanse of arid plain intersected by low, parallel ranges, traced from north to south….

Having completed our observations, we packed up the instruments, glanced once again round the whole field of view, and descended to the top of our icicle ladder. Upon looking over, I saw to my consternation that during the day the upper half had broken off….I saw that nothing but the sudden gift of wings could possibly take us down to the snow-ridge. We held council, and concluded to climb quite round the peak in search of the best mode of descent….

When we reached the southwest front of the mountain we found that its general form was that of an immense horseshoe, the great eastern ridge forming one side, and the spur which descended to our camp the other, we having climbed up the outer part of the toe. Within the curve of the horseshoe was a gorge, cut almost perpendicularly down two thousand feet…its narrow bottom almost a continuous chain of deep blue lakes with loads of ice and débris piles. The stream which flowed through them joined the waters from our home grove, a couple of miles below the camp. If we could reach the level of the lakes, I believed we might easily climb round them and out of the upper end of the horseshoe, and walk upon the Kern plateau round to our bivouac.

It required a couple of hours of very painstaking, deliberate climbing to get down the first descent, which we did, however, without hurting our barometer, and fortunately without the fatiguing use of the lasso; reaching finally the uppermost lake, a granite bowlful of cobalt-blue water, transparent and unrippled….

Mile after mile we walked cautiously over the snow and climbed round the margins of lakes, and over piles of débris which marked the ancient terminal moraines. At length we reached the end of the horseshoe, where the walls contracted to a gateway, rising on either side in immense, vertical pillars a thousand feet high….Passing the last snow, we walked through this gateway and turned westward round the spur toward our camp. The three miles which closed our walk were alternately through groves of Pinus flexilis and upon plains of granite….

The sun was still an hour high when we reached camp, and with a feeling of relaxation and repose we threw ourselves down to rest by the log, which still continued blazing. We had accomplished our purpose.

During the last hour or two of our tramp Cotter had complained of his shoes, which were rapidly going to pieces. Upon examination we found to our dismay that there was not over half a day’s wear left in them, a calamity which gave to our difficult homeward climb a new element of danger. The last nail had been worn from my own shoes, and the soles were scratched to the quick, but I believed them stout enough to hold together till we should reach the main camp.

We planned a pair of moccasins for Cotter, and then spent a pleasant evening by the camp-fire, rehearsing our climb to the detail, sleep finally overtaking us….

1Actually the Roaring River.

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