MT WHITNEY (14,491 ft.)

Named by Whitney Survey in 1864

Also Pass, Creek, Meadow, Portal

"Josiah Dwight Whitney (1819-96), state geologist and chief of the California State Geological Survey ('Whitney Survey'), 1860-74; professor of geology at Harvard, 1865-96. (Brewster; portrait in SCB 12, no. 2, 1925: opp. 126.)

The mountain was named in July 1864 by Clarence King and Richard Cotter of the Whitney Survey from the summit of Mount Tyndall when they made the first ascent of Tyndall. 'On setting the level, it was seen at once that there were two peaks equally high in sight, and two still more elevated, all within a distance of seven miles. Of the two highest, one rose close by. ... The other, which we called Mount Whitney, appeared equally inaccessible from any point on the north or west side. ...' (Whitney, Geology, 386.)

'Whitney had forbidden his subordinates to name for him the mountain which is now called after the Rev. Lorentine Hamilton [just east of San Jose]. This time, in their chief's absence, they stood upon their rights of discovery, and called their great peak, Mt. Whitney.' (Brewster, 238.)

'For years our chief, Professor Whitney, has made brave campaigns into the unknown realm of Nature. Against low prejudice and dull indifference he has led the survey of California onward to success. There stand for him two monuments, -- one a great report made by his own hand; another the loftiest peak in the Union, begun for him in the planet's youth and sculptured of enduring granite by the slow hand of Time.' (King, 280-81.)

In 1871 King climbed what he thought was Mount Whitney, but he was actually on Mount Langley -- then known as 'Sheep Mountain,' a name applied by King himself in 1864. The real first ascent of Whitney was made on August 18, 1873, by John Lucas, Charles D. Begole, and Albert H. Johnson, all of Lone Pine, who made the climb from a summer camp on the Kern River. 'Charley Begole, Johnny Lucas and Al Johnson took a trip to the summit of the highest mountain in the range, and christened it "Fisherman's Peak." Some people are now trying to take the credit of their being the first there away from them, but they won't succeed. Prof. Whtney's agent has just returned from the mountain, and finds fault with the people here for their lack of romance in calling it "Fisherman's Peak." Ain't it as romantic as "Whitney?" The fishermen who found it looked mighty romantic on their return to Soda Springs. Wonder who that old earthquake sharp thinks is running this country, anyhow?' (Inyo Independent, September 20, 1873.) For a detailed account of the name controversy and of early ascents of the mountain, see Francis P. Farquhar, 'The Story of Mount Whitney,' SCB 14, no. 1, Feb. 1929: 39-52.)

The name 'Whitney Creek' was at first applied to what is now named 'Golden Trout Creek,' because the creek arose near Mt. Langley, which had been thought to be Mt. Whitney. Those who discovered the error tried -- in 1881 -- to correct it. 'The third day we camped on Whitney Creek, upon which we tried unsuccessfully to impress the named "Volcano Creek," as that stream does not rise in the vicinity of Mt. Whitney.' But later on, the same party applied the name to the correct stream, where it is today. 'We were at an altitude of about 11,500 feet, in a little meadow, through which flows the clear, cold water of a creek heading at the foot of the mountain. This is the stream which we thought should have been named Whitney Creek.' (W. B. Wallace in MWCJ 1, no. 1, May 1902: 2-3.)

When Joseph N. LeConte passed through Big Whitney Meadow in 1890 he referred to it as 'Whitney Creek Meadows.' It became simply 'Whitney Meadow' on the 1907 Olancha 30' sheet; the word 'Big' was added with publication of the 1956 Kern Peak 15' map. Little Whitney Meadow was called 'Long Meadow' on early editions of the Olancha 30' sheet; it was changed to its present name in 1938 by a BGN decision because the name was in common use.

'Whitney Pass' was the route of the first trail built to the summit of Mt. Whitney from Owens Valley, in 1904, and probably was named at that time.

The original name of Whitney Portal was 'Hunter Flat' or 'Hunter's Camp,' given many years ago for William L. Hunter, an early pioneer of Owens Valley and one of the two men who made the first ascent of Mt. Williamson, in 1884. The name 'Whitney Portal' was applied at the official opening of the new automobile road to the flat in June 1936. (USGS.) For a biographical sketch and portrait of Hunter (1842-1902), see Saga of Inyo County, 163-64."
- Peter Browning, Place Names of the Sierra Nevada

In July 1864 Whitney's four chief assistants -- William Brewer, Charles Hoffmann, James Gardiner, and Clarence King -- beheld from Mount Brewer what they rightly assumed to be the culminating peak of the Sierra Nevada. On this occasion they stood upon their privilege as discoverers and named it in honor of their chief. In 1871 Clarence King climbed the peak now known as Mount Langley, a few miles south supposing it to be Mount Whitney. His error was discovered by others two years later. He hastened to the scene; but before he could get there, three fishermen -- John Lucas, Clarles D. Begole, and A. H. Johnson, all of Inyo Co. -- made the first ascent on Aug. 18, 1873. There was an attempt to name the peak Fisherman's Peak in their honor; but the name Mount Whitney was firmly established by 1881, when the summit was occupied by Prof. S. P. Langley for observations on solar heat."
- Erwin Gudde, California Place Names

"To the Paiute Indians of the Owens Valley, Mount Whitney was known as Too-man-go-yah, roughly translated as 'very old man.' The Indians believed that the spirit responsible for the destiny of their people lived inside the mountain, and from his high perch he observed the Indians and noted their behavior.

To Clarence King of the California Geological Survey, the first ascent of Too-man-go-yah, would represent the ultimate mountaineering achievement.

There are very few peaks in North America whose first ascent has been the subject of more literature, publicity, disagreement, and controversy than Mount Whitney.

On July 27, 1873, W. A. Goodyear, a civil engineer, climbed Mount Langley with M. W. Belshaw, and discovered the silver half-dollar on which King's and Pinson's names were etched. Goodyear and Belshaw took observations and discovered the real Mount Whitney to be 300 to 400 feet taller and to the northwest of the mountain on which they stood. It was obvious that Clarence King had mistaken Mount Langley for Mount Whitney and that he had mistaken the true Mount Whitney for Mount Tyndall. Goodyear, whose academic training was nearly identical to King's and who had a dislike for King's showmanship and tendency toward hyperbole, especially when it came to climbing descriptions, saw an opportunity to slam King's reputation. An employee of the State Geological Survey, Goodyear immediately reported King's mistake to the California Academy of Sciences on August 4, 1873.

From Goodyear's report, Clarence King learned of his second, but most important mountaineering mistake. His first mistake was climbing Tyndall thinking it was Whitney, but this was never published. He had published his ascent of Mount Langley as a first ascent of Mount Whitney. At the news of Goodyear's report, King quickly headed for the Pacific coast to correct the situation. King, who was now seen as a prodigious blunderer, was given many sharp pokes by residents of the southern Sierra, and especially by the local newspaper editors.

Unfortunately for King, the locals of Inyo County, having already read the Goodyear report, were making attempts of their own upon the summit of Whitney. Charles Begole, Albert Johnson, and John Lucas, or the 'Fishermen,' as they called themselves, had left Lone Pine in order to escape the intense summer heat of the Owens Valley. They had planned nothing more than two weeks of fishing, drinking, and enjoying the cool air of the high country. As the Inyo Independent reported on September 13, 1873: 'On the 17th of August, these gentlemen were on the summit of Mount Whitney [really Mount Langley]. The other peak was evidently the highest, and they resolved to go to its top. The next day they started passing over two deep canyons, spending the entire day in labor, they finally succeeded in reaching its highest point, and have the honor of being first to stand on the greatest elevation in the United States.'

As with most mountaineering achievements, it didn't take long for the critics to be heard. In the September 20 edition of the Independent, a letter to the editor read:

'Abe Leyda, William Crapo, W. L. Hunter, and myself are the only persons that ever were on the summit of the present Mount Whitney. Mr. [Charles] Rabe took the altitude and found it to be over 15,000 feet, several hundred feet higher than Clarence King's Mount Whitney.
Yours, T. McDonough.'

Unfortunately for McDonough, Clarles Rabe later admitted in a report published in the Independent on October 11, 1873, to carving his name on a half-dollar and leaving it 'among the rocks of the monument.'

That Rabe had suggested a monument was soon pointed out by the Fishermen. Lucas, Johnson, and Begole claimed to have erected the monument on August 18, then added in the Inyo Independent on October 20, 1873, that 'Had any white man ever been upon the spot, we would have discovered some marks or tracks, but we examined the locality throughout and found nothing.'

On November 1, 1873, William Crapo claimed that he had climbed the mountain once before, on August 15. He tried to prove this by a written report of his ascent being present in San Francisco ten days before the Fishermen made their climb. Unfortunately for William Crapo, no records of his alledged August 15 ascent were ever found in San Francisco or anywhere else.

Twenty years later, William Crapo's character again appeared in a news item, but this time under less favorable circumstances. On January 5, 1893, the Inyo Register reports that Crapo had been charged with murdering the postmaster at Cerro Gordo. Apparently the murder was the result of a minor election dispute.

While the claims and counterclaims of liar and scoundrel were being printed into the history of Inyo County, one of California's most influential conservationists was quietly exploring the Whitney area, observing the wilderness, and climb the high peaks.

It was October 21 when John Muir ascended the disputed Fishermen's Peak. He climbed by a new route on the northeast side of the mountain, and he climbed alone. The climb Muir made, up the now well-traveled Mountaineers Route, was significant because it showed future climbers that the east side of Whitney was not impossible, and that climbing could take place there.

The first ascent of Mount Whitney by a woman was accomplished by the ebullient Mrs. Anna Mills on the third day of August 1878. In an article in the Mount Whitney Club Journal in 1902, she wrote:

'I can candidly say that I have never seen, nor do I expect to see, a picture so varied, so sublime, so awe-inspiring, as that seen from the summit of Mount Whitney on the third day of August 1878.'

The debate as to the best name for the newly discovered high peak was fought almost as fiercely as the battle for who the first ascensionists were. Names such as Dome of Inyo, Fowler's Peak (after Senator Fowler), and Fishermen's Peak were proposed and fought for. Finally, from arguments made by William Brewer, who had been Clarence King's supervisor, the name Mount Whitney was established.

During the last two decades of the nineteenth century, a second wave of curious individuals began to seek Whitney's high point. This group was not interested in the hoopla surrounding climbs made on the mountain, but, more importantly, how the peak could aid the advancement of science.

In 1880, Samuel Pierpont Langley, the director of the Allegheny Observatory in Pittsburg, Professor W. C. Day of Johns Hopkins University, and J. E. Keeler and Captain Michaelis of the U. S. Signal Service led an expedition to the summit of Whitney. Langley had received advice from Clarence King in choosing a site for his solar heat experiments. King, who was at that time directing the Survey West of the One Hundredth Meridian, suggested the summit of Whitney. Information from Langley's bolometer observations concluded that the solar constant was about three calories, while Professor Day determined that the carbonic acid content of the atmosphere was greater at low altitude than at high altitude. The two prominent spires to the south of Whitney were later named after J. E. Keeler and W. C. Day, respectively.

In the early 1900s, one man independently realized Mount Whitney's importance to the world, and he undertook steps to make the mountain more accessible.

Gustafe F. Marsh was an English miner who had emigrated to the United States in 1889 at the age of twenty. He had worked as a miner in Colorado and California, and was a devoted follower of Izaak Walton. He was also an avid fisherman and visited the Lone Pine area during several fishing trips around the Owens Valley. The Whitney Trail was constructed by Gustafe F. Marsh and the soldiers of the Mount Whitney Military Reservation, and was primarily financed by the people of Owens Valley. The first trail was completed on the evening of July 18, 1904. By the end of spring 1905, the Whitney Trail was already in a state of disrepair and needed attention. The town of Lone Pine raised more money and again, Marsh supervised the repairs to the trail.

Over the next twenty-two years, scientific research conducted on the summit of Mount Whitney determined that Mars has no water in its atmosphere and that cosmic rays strike the earth everywhere with equal intensity regardless of topography. It was during this time of research that a summit shelter was built. Financed by a considerable donation from the Smithsonian Instituion's Hodgkin's Fund and a grant from William H. Crocker, in less than thirty days G. F. Marsh built the observatory for the scientific teams stationed on the summit.

By 1926, Mount Whitney was becoming such a popular destination for tourists of all kinds that a plan was hatched to build a tramway to the summit. Apparently this tramway was to offer the nonathletic thrill seeker the same opportunities that his or her mountaineering brethren were already enjoying. An article describing the construction of the tramway was printed in Popular Mechanics. The proposed project was compared to the tram in Chamonix Valley, France, which goes to the top of the Aiguille du Midi. Sixty-three supporting towers, from 40 to 90 feet, along with cables and pylons, were described. Power was to be furnished by one of the Los Angeles power stations. Fortunately, this idea never came to fruition.

The next great would-be engineering feat to be proposed for the mountain occurred in 1951 when a group of Southern California television experts explored the summit as a possible site for a television antenna. Fortunately, the distance of the mountain from populated areas made it of little value to the television industry.

The first winter ascent of Mount Whitney was accomplished solo, shortly after the first winter ascent of Mount Langley, on January 10, 1929, by Orlando Bartholomew. Bart, as he was known, skied to the base of the western chutes on Whitney, and then replaced skis with ice creepers, which were simple, inexpensive crampons. Bart climbed up into the chutes, his skis dragging by a rope tied around his waist while he struggled in the ice and snow. Climbing the chute, Bart ran into an insurmountable headwall. Rather than retreat, he carefully crossed from one gully to another, avoiding steep dead-ends in the icy gullies. After escaping several dead-ending chutes, Bart had to admit that he was lost. He glanced up at yet another headwall and decided to exit the gully to the south, toward Mount Muir. He had reattached his skis, but when he climbed up a dangerous gully, knocking loose a small avalanche that fell for hundreds of feet, the ice creepers went back on. Bart realized he'd need his skis as climbing aids. Poking the back ends of the skis into the hardened snow, Bart used them much like a ladder rung, gaining a foot or two every time he planted the skis. Finally, as Bart surmounted the 13,000-foot level, the snow thinned and there was nothing but rock and ice.

Eventually, at the 13,600-foot level, Bart stumbled upon the Whitney Trail, the main route from Ibex Park (now called Whitney Portal). Bart now scrambled along the crest of the divide, eager to reach the summit quickly so that he might have plenty of time for the descent. In his diary, published in High Odyssey by Eugene Rose in 1974, he wrote:

'Though the scramble northward along the crest of the ridge required sustained effort, there was still much treacherous country to cross. The footing might be at one moment a narrow ledge of ice-covered granite, the next a wind-glazed drift. Impatient as I was to reach the summit, it seemed all obstacles known to mountaineers had been amassed to thwart progress. By the time Whitney's broad shoulder had been reached, the sun was alarmingly low.'

Two weeks at high altitude had given Bart great acclimatization, and with his skis flung across one shoulder, he moved quickly up the southern flank of the mountain. Within an hour he was standing upon the summit.

The first ascent of the east face of Mount Whitney was attempted only nineteen months later. Four experienced mountaineers, Jules Eichorn, Glen Dawson, Robert L. M. Underhill, and Norman Clyde, brought together by Francis Farquhar, made the attempt. The attempt was successful and this intrepid ascent is decribed in this chapter's East Face Route (route 10) [buy the book if you want the details].

Although the climb had not been particularly difficult, the ascent of Whitney's east face was significant for two major reasons. One, the climb heralded a new standard of technical competence in California rock climbing, and two, it turned the California climbing community's attention toward more challenging routes on the big established peaks.

As Glen Dawson wrote in the 1932 Sierra Club Bulletin: 'More and more we are becoming interested in new routes and traverses rather than ascents of peaks by easy routes.'

The eastern escarpment that radiates to the north and more prominently to the south of Mount Whitney is perhaps one of the largest continous walls in the Sierra Nevada. This wall is divided by Pinnacle Ridge, which runs dirctly west from Third Needle. To the south of Third Needle or Pinnacle Ridge, there are numerous aretes and walls that rise as smaller versions of Keeler Needle and Crooks Peak. Many of these aiguilles, as they have been designated, present solid grade 3 and 4 routes.

John Mendenhall was already well known for his strength and endurance in the mountains. In his 1930 first ascent of the northeast gully on Laurel Mountain, Mendenhall is credited as being the first American to make conscious use of a belay. Later, Medenhall would become known for keeping pace with difficult free climbing during the fifties as well as his contributions to mountaineering. During the thirties and forties, Mendenhall became the single most prolific climber of the Mount Whitney area. Between 1939 and '48, he explored the eastern escarpment by climbing four new routes on the eastern faces of Third Needle, Mount Muir, and Mount Whitney."
- Stephen F. Porcella & Cameron M. Burns, Climbing California's Fourteeners

"When the legislature of California established a Geological Survey, most of those who voted for it undoubtedly thought they were setting up an agency that would point out with scientific accuracy just where gold was to be found; nothing thereafter would be left to chance and everyone would quickly become rich. That was not the intention of the Act, however, and nothing in its wording gave any such implication. It was definitely scientific, not utilitarian in purpose, as expressed in its opening section: "to make an accurate and complete Geological Survey of the State, and to furnish maps and diagrams thereof, with a full and scientific description of the rocks, fossils, soils, and minerals, and of its botanical and zoological productions, together with specimens of the same." If this led to a knowledge of the mineral resources of the state, so much the better, but an understanding of the entire resources must come first. To achieve the desired results the sponsors of the Survey knew that experienced, scientific direction was required, and this meant the elimination of patronage and politics. The extraordinary thing about the Act is that it did just this, by naming the Director in the Act itself and giving him authority to appoint his assistants. The Act, approved on April 21, 1860, states at the very beginning, "J. D. Whitney is hereby appointed State Geologist."

How did this come about? Someone with high ideals and unusual influence must have been behind it. Such a one was Stephen J. Field, a former member of the state legislature and in 1860 Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court, later a Justice of the U. S. Supreme Court. His motives were beyond suspicion, even when he insisted in putting Whitney's name in the Act. He had long known the Whitney family and had confidence in the integrity as well as in the scientific qualifications of J. D. Whitney. Others played a part in devising the Survey -- John Conness, afterwards United States Senator, steered the bill through the legislature -- but it was Field's prestige and influence that secured its passage.

Josiah Dwight Whitney, a native of Massachusetts and a graduate of Yale, was forty-one years of age at the time. He had received some European education and had been engaged in geological surveys in New Hampshire and in Iowa and Wisconsin, and already enjoyed a high reputation among men of science. He was well aware of the importance of securing competent men to assist him in carrying out his new task. His first selection was an especially fortunate one: William Brewer, thirty-two, a native of New York State, had graduated from the Scientific School at Yale, and he, too, had studied in Europe. For four years he was Whitney's right-hand man and leader of the field parties. His letters, composed on the spot from his pocket notebooks, furnish a day-by-day account of the experiences of the Survey and give a vivid picture of California in the years 1860-1864. Whitney's second appointment was William Ashburner, whose European education in mining proved useful in the mineral aspects of the Survey. He became one of the original group to be appointed Commissioners to Manage the Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Big Tree Grove. A later appointment, which was to carry forward the influence of the Whitney Survey for many years, was that of Charles F. Hoffmann, a young German engineer with a talent for mapmaking.
- Francis P. Farquhar, History of the Sierra Nevada

The Whitney party spent the first three years traveling the Coast Range from Los Angeles to as far north as Mt. Shasta. Much of the work was done in and around the San Francisco Bay region, the most populated part of the state at the time. In 1863 and 1864 they turned their attention to the Sierras. Part of the first year was spent exploring Yosemite up through Tuolumne Meadows, down to Mono Lake, over Sonora and Carson Passes, and into the Lake Tahoe region, before returning down the American River to Sacramento and San Francisco.

1864 found the party in the Sierras again, this time exploring portions of the High Country. They traveled to the Grant Grove of giant sequoias, to the Kings River, over Kearsarge Pass, back over Mono Pass (the southern one, out of Little Lakes Valley), down the San Joaquin, and another trip through Yosemite.

"The work of the Survey was by no means completed, but the ambitious program of the early days could not be carried out. Funds were provided by the legislature only intermittently. Whitney wrote to his brother in February, 1866, "It is terribly up-hill work to drag this concern which I have been pulling at for five years, up the hill of difficulty. It is hard enough work to do to carry on the Survey even if it were appreciated and no obstacles were placed in my way. While I could not help being secretly gratified, or at least relieved, if the Survey were stopped, yet my scientific instincts make me fight for its continuance." For a few more years money was provided and the work went ahead, but with a changing personnel. Brewer went East to become Professor of Agriculture at Yale; King and Gardner did a little more work for the Survey, then engaged in other surveys in the West; Cotter, after another summer with King, went to Alaska before settling permanently in Montana; Hoffmann recovered and produced a series of maps that set a new standard and influenced cartography in America for years to come. Whitney continued to be the titular head of the California Geological Survey and supervised its publications, the final ones printed at his own expense. The final field work of the Survey was conducted under Hoffmann and W. A. Goodyear and involved an ascent, in 1870, of Tower Peak, north of Yosemite, as well as the hot contest over the ascent of Mount Whitney [where King failed for a second time to climb the correct summit]. The breach between Professor Whitney and the California legislature, coupled with the antagonism of Governor Newton Booth, brought the Survey to an end in 1874."
- Francis P. Farquhar, History of the Sierra Nevada

Other Emblem Peaks named by Whitney Survey:
  • Mt. Abbot
  • Mt. Brewer
  • Mt. Clarence King
  • Mt. Goddard
  • Mt. Humphreys
  • Mt. Lyell
  • North Palisade
  • Mt. Ritter
  • Mt. Williamson