MT WILLIAMSON (14,370 ft.)
Named by Whitney Survey in 1864
Williamson, of the U. S. Topographical Engineers, was assistant to Capt. W. H.
Warner in 1849, and in 1853 was a member of the Pacific Railroad Survey.
- Erwin Gudde, California Place Names
"'Farther observatons, by Mr. King, showed that a point about two miles northeast of Mount Tyndall was a little higher than this mountain; it was named in honor of Major R. S. Williamson, of the United States Engineers, so well known by his topographical labors on the Pacific coast, especially in connection with the United States railroad surveys.' (Whitney, Geology, 382.)
Robert Stockton Williamson (1824-1882) led an expedition in 1853 to explore
the passes across the southern Sierra Nevada to find a suitable route for
a railroad. (Pacific Railroad Reports, vol. V.)"
- Peter Browning, Place Names of the Sierra Nevada
"Mount Williamson was named after Major Robert Stockton Williamson of the Army's Pacific Railroad Survey of 1853. Williamson was renowned for mapping and surveying skills that allowed a route for the Pacific Railroad to be built through California.
In 1875, James M. Hutchings and two others decided to try for the summit of Mount Williamson. According to the October 9, 1875, edition of the Inyo Independent, Hutchings and his companions "proposed to take a short cut across the country (if such gigantic, awe-inspiring mountains of rock can be called country), with a view of intersection the Kearsarge trail, and a possible ascent of Mount Williamson. Taking a small supply of 'grub', but no blankets, the three started afoot, the main party taking the back track. It was expected the three across country gentlemen would reach here [Independence] on the second day."
When the three intrepid adventurers didn't arrive on schedule, a search party was sent out to find them. It didn't take long. On October 11, 1875, the following item appeared in the Independent:
"By the time [the search party] had reached the mountains, the missing ones came trampling in, weary, footsore, and, oh, how hungry. Instead of a practical route for even expert footmen, they found sheer precipices thousands of feet high cutting square across the proposed line of travel, so that it was simply impossible to proceed in the desired direction. The mountains around appeared to tower as high above them as from this valley. By this time the party were looking for a way to reach the foot, not the top of the mountains."
John Mendenhall, in writing his 1940 Guides to Peaks in the Sierra Nevada, mentions that the first ascent of Mount Williamson occurred in 1881 but that the route and climbing party are unknown.
The first successful recorded ascent of Mount Williamson was performed by W. L. Hunter and C. Mulholland in 1884. They hiked up the rugged, trailless canyon known as George Creek Canyon and camped upon a high plateau deep in the canyon. From this plateau they climbed the talus of the southeast ridge to reach the south (main) summit. Although steep and loose, this route was nothing more than a long Class 2 trudge up to the summit.
Between 1892 and 1896, A. W. De La Cour Carroll and a group of four led by C. Mulholland, of the 1884 ascent party hiked up George Creek to a base camp high in the canyon. The next day they climbed the southeast ridge, enabling the first woman, Miss Skinner, to reach the summit. They were the fourth party to accomplish this feat, and were quite proud to be in the company of the first woman to the top.
One of the most intriguing ascents was accomplished by Bolton Coit Brown and his wife, Lucy, in June 1896. Brown recounted in an 1897-99 Sierra Club Bulletin series of articles that, after an incredibly difficult approach from the west, battered by wind and rain the whole way, they stood at the base of the mountain.
"Mount Williamson, which is not on the main crest, but to the east of it, towered in the morning light, dark, massive, and bristing -- a stupendous pile and a most impressive sight. Its shape may be likened to that of a house, with gables east and west. Having crossed the bowl, we attacked the mountain by climbing up 200 or 300 feet over a small, reddish slide at its extreme northwestern angle. Thence we followed a previously selected diagonal upward across the western end of the house, and gained a small notch near the eaves on the southwestern corner.
"The climb to this perch, though not especially dangerous, was exceedingly rough and very impressive because of the vast heights above, which seemed almost to overhang us, and the vast depths below, which we seemed almost to overhang. Looking through the notch, we saw the southern face of the peak -- a wilderness of vertical crags and gullies, seemingly impassable. Yet the hope of finding there a line of ascent carried us out among them, where, after some really ticklish cliff work, we got upon the lowest seat of a bottomless amphitheater with very high and steep sides. Wallowing up to the top of a big snowbank, we managed to squirm from it onto the next ledge; thence we edged up a crack to the one above, whose smooth slope was ascended by sitting down and shoving ourselves up backward with the palms of our hands. The next step we reached by cross-bracing ourselves against the sides of a vertical crack; everything the gymnasium ever taught us, and several things it neglected, now came into play. Eventually, up the bottom of a narrow, steep chute, over patches of snow and ice, with plenty of all-over climbing, we got up the highest and steepest part of the southern wall of the peak -- through the eaves, as it were -- and upon the more moderate slope of the roof."
John Mendenhall in his 1940 climbing guide to the Sierra Nevada credits Joseph N. LeConte and six other members of his party with the first ascent of the now standard and very popular West Face Route. We agree with the historical record that LeConte and his party were the first to climb this route in July 1903.
A speed ascent was first reported by Leroy Jeffers, who claimed, on July 21, 1916, to have climbed Mount Williamson from the basin in 2 1/2 hours.
Leigh Ortenburger and Bill Buckingham, on December 22, 1954, made the first winter ascent of the Southeast Slope Route and seven days later, on December 29, 1954, Warren J. Harding and John Ohrenschall began an incredible four-day epic involving the first complete ascent, in winter, of the northeast ridge of Mount Williamson.
Other guidebook authors have attributed the first ascent of the northeast ridge to Norman Clyde. However, while researching for information on a one-day ascent of the route from the valley, Dick Beach recounted to us that he discussed this matter with the legend himself.
"Sitting on the rear patio of the old Baker Creek Ranch in Big Pine, I focused on the bright blue eyes of Norman Clyde. I had often asked him about his routes and climbs in the hope of repeating some of them.
"I had read about Clyde's solo first ascent in H. Voge's first edition of the Climbers Guide to the Sierra Nevada. Yet, when I asked Clyde about his climb, his fondness for reliving past memories failed to appear. Instead, his eyes turned in with a troubled stare and his brow creased in dismay. 'I have never been up that darn ridge. I told those guys when they printed that book!'
On June 13, 1969, Dick Beach and Steve Rogero climbed the ridge that Norman wished he had
done. However, Beach made the ascent in the impressive time of 14 hours, a truly
remarkable achievement by any standard."
- Stephen F. Porcella & Cameron M. Burns, Climbing California's Fourteeners