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July 7, 1864: Roaring River

July 7, 2014

Big Brewer Alpenglow 06

Alpenglow on Mt. Brewer from Big Brewer Lake; by Tom Hilton, on Flickr

Camp 175

Slept until very late. In camp all day, writing, reading and observing, the dinner taking some time as short rations make more care in making a little go a long way. A clear lovely day and again the most glorious tints on the peaks, between a rose and salmon color….For three days the sky has been of the intensest blue, not a cloud in sight day or night.

Clarence King:
After a frugal breakfast, in which we limited ourselves to a few cubic inches of venison, and a couple of stingy slices of bread, with a single meagre cup of diluted tea, we shouldered our knapsacks, which now sat lightly upon toughened shoulders, and marched out upon the granite plateau.

We had concluded that it was impossible to retrace our former way, knowing well that the precipitous divide could not be climbed from this side; then, too, we had gained such confidence in our climbing powers, from constant victory, that we concluded to attempt the passage of the great King’s Cañon, mainly because this was the only mode of reaching camp, and since the geological section of the granite it exposed would afford us an exceedingly instructive study.

The broad granite plateau which forms the upper region of the Kern Valley slopes in general inclination up to the great divide….until it suddenly breaks off in precipices three thousand feet down into the King’s Cañon.

The morning was wholly consumed in walking up this gently inclined plane of granite…among labyrinths of alpine garden and wildernesses of erratic bowlders, little lake-basins, and scattered clusters of dwarfed and sombre pine.

About noon we came suddenly upon the brink of a precipice which sank sharply from our feet into the gulf of the King’s Cañon. Directly opposite us rose Mount Brewer…Straight across from our point of view was the chamber of rock and ice where we had camped on the first night. The wall at our feet fell sharp and rugged, its lower two-thirds hidden from our view by the projections of a thousand feet of crags….I dislodged a bowlder upon the edge and watched it bound down the rocky precipice, dash over eaves a thousand feet below us, and disappear, the crash of its fall coming up to us from the unseen depths fainter and fainter, until the air only trembled with confused echoes.

A long look at the pass to the south of Mount Brewer, where we had parted from our friends, animated us with courage to begin the descent, which we did with utmost care, for the rocks, becoming more and more glacier-smoothed, afforded us hardly any firm footholds. When down about eight hundred feet….the soles came entirely off Cotter’s shoes, and we stopped …to make him moccasins of our provision bags and slips of blanket….

Directly beneath, a sheer cliff of three or four hundred feet stretched down to a pile of débris which rose to unequal heights along its face, reaching the very crest not more than a hundred feet south of us. From that point to the bottom of the cañon, broken rocks, ridges rising through vast sweeps of débris, tufts of pine and frozen bodies of ice covered the further slope….

[I]nch by inch we crept along the granite until we supposed ourselves to be just over the top of the débris pile, where I found a firm brace for my feet, and lowered Cotter to the edge. He sang out, “All right!” and climbed over on the uppermost débris, his head only remaining in sight of me; when I lay down upon my back, making knapsack and body do friction duty, and, letting myself move, followed Cotter and reached his side.

From that point the descent required two hours of severe, constant labor, which was monotonous of itself, and would have proved excessively tiresome but for the constant interest of glacial geology beneath us. When at last we reached the bottom and found ourselves upon a velvety green meadow…we realized the amount of muscular force we had used up, and threw ourselves down for a rest of half an hour, when we rose, not quite renewed, but fresh enough to finish the day’s climb.

In a few minutes we stood upon the rocks just above King’s River…Looking down the stream, we saw that our right bank was a continued precipice, affording, so far as we could see, no possible descent…To the south of us, a little way up stream, the river flowed out from a broad, oval lake, three quarters of a mile in length, which occupied the bottom of the granite basin. Unable to cross the torrent, we must either swim the lake or climb round its head….

Around the head of the lake were crags and precipices in singularly forbidding arrangement….At its head the lake lay in an angle of the vertical wall, sharp and straight like the corner of a room; about three hundred feet in height, and for two hundred and fifty feet of this a pyramidal pile of blue ice rose from the lake, rested against the corner, and reached within forty feet of the top….The only alternative was to scale that slender pyramid of ice and find some way to climb the forty feet of smooth wall above it….

We found the ice-angle difficultly steep, but made our way successfully along its edge, clambering up the crevices…to a point not far from the top, where the ice had considerably narrowed, and rocks overhanging it encroached so closely that we were obliged to change our course and make our way with cut steps out upon its front….Upon the top of the ice we found a narrow, level platform, upon which we stood together…until the rest nerved us up enough to turn our eyes upward at the forty feet of smooth granite which lay between us and safety….

I planted myself against the rock, and [Cotter] started cautiously up the wall….He reached my farthest point without great difficulty, and made a bold spring for the crack, reaching it without an inch to spare, and holding on wholly by his fingers. He thus worked himself slowly along the crack toward the top, at last getting his arms over the brink, and gradually drawing his body up and out of sight….

It was only a moment’s work to send up the two knapsacks and barometer, and receive again my end of the lasso. As I tied it round my breast, Cotter said to me, in an easy, confident tone, “Don’t be afraid to bear your weight.” I made up my mind, however, to make that climb without his aid…I got up without difficulty to my former point, rested there a moment, hanging solely by my hands…then jerked myself upward with a swing, just getting the tips of my fingers into the crack….[I] climbed slowly along the crack until I reached the angle and got one arm over the edge, as Cotter had done. As I…looked up at Cotter, I saw that, instead of a level top, he was sitting upon a smooth, roof-like slope, where the least pull would have dragged him over the brink….

But a few steps back we found a thicket of pine overlooking our lake, by which there flowed a clear rill of snow-water. Here, in the bottom of the great gulf, we made our bivouac; for we were already in the deep evening shadows, although the mountaintops to the east of us still burned in the reflected light….

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