Mt. Starr King P900 SPS / WSC
Mt. Clark P500 SPS / WSC

Fri, Jun 23, 2000

With: Michael Golden

Mt. Starr King
Mt. Clark
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 3 Profiles: 1 2 3 4
Mt. Starr King previously climbed Sat, Sep 11, 1999
later climbed Sat, Feb 8, 2003
Mt. Clark later climbed Fri, Nov 1, 2002

Mt. Clark (11,522 ft.)

Named by Whitney Survey in 1867

"Named for Galen Clark, mountaineer and first guardian of Yosemite State Park. The Whitney Survey had named the peak The Obelisk because of its odd shape. Clark's Station, a stage stop and home of Clark in the 1860s and 1870s, is now Wawona."
- Erwin Gudde, California Place Names

"Galen Clark (1814-1920), the first guardian of Yosemite State Park (1864), and discoverer of the Mariposa Grove. When in his forties he feared that he was going to die of a lung ailment. He went to the mountains for the sake of his health, built a cabin in the spring of 1857 at what became 'Clark's Station' (now Wawona), and lived another 43 years.

The mountain was once called 'Gothic Peak,' and later, the 'Obelisk,' a name given by the Whitney Survey. The name 'Mt. Clark' appears on the Hoffmann and Gardiner map, 1863-67.

'Mr. King, who with Mr. Garder, made the ascent of the peak [1866], says that its summit is so slender, that when on top of it they seemed to be suspended in air.' (Whitney, The Yosemite Guide Book, 1870, 109.)"
- Peter Browning, Place Names of the Sierra Nevada

"Galen Clark was one of its [Yosemite] earliest explorers, its first public guardian and one of its most revered hosts, tour guides and protectors for most of his life.

Or for nearly all of his second life, as it were. Clark was 42, a widowed, runaway father of five, chronically ill with lung problems, when he settled alone in a high-country meadow above Yosemite Valley in 1856.

He had just suffered what he later described as a 'severe attack of hemorrhage of the lungs and was given up to die at any hour.' So he quit his job as a packer and camp worker for the Mariposa Ditch Co., 'and went to the mountains to take my chances of dying or growing better which I thought were about even.'

The mountain environment he chose was alongside the South Fork of the Merced River, where he had camped a year earlier as a pioneer Yosemite tourist. To regain his health, he would surrender himself to nature's healing powers in as pristine a setting as he had ever seen. He would go bareheaded and barefoot, fish, hunt, and eat his favorite health food -- roasted deer liver.

It worked. Clark not only got better but lived another 54 years, discovering, studying and naming the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees, exploring Yosemite, greeting and educating its visitors, mediating disputes among its bickering concessionaires, establishing a reputation as a selfless, devoted servant and becoming an expert on the geography, geology and botany of the Yosemite region.

In his earliest, recuperative days, Clark had few visitors except for local Indians who brought him food to help him though his illness. His friendship with the Indians would serve him well in his later duties as Yosemite's official guardian, the person who had to enforce the white man's administration on people who had been worshiping Yosemite as their home for centuries.

Within a year of setting up his personal therapy camp, Clark decided to live in the mountains full time. He established a 160-acre homestead, built a small log cabin in 1857 and soon he was hosting travelers overnight. Whites called his crude but hospitable inn 'Clark's Station,' and Indians called it Pallahchun, meaning 'A good Place to Stop.' It was the forerunner of today's Wawona Hotel.

His official duties begon as early as anyone's in Yosemite. As Yosemite's first official guardian, or resident superintendent, Clark served from 1866 to 1880 during the turbulent and divisive days of private claims in the valley, challenges to the Yosemite commissioner's authority, and underfunding from the state.

When he didn't get paid -- for six years the Legislature failed to appropriate his $500-a-year salary -- he worked for nothing, maintaining trails and bridges, mediating disputes, enforcing fire precautions and making sure trees weren't cut down. ,p> Innkeeping afforded, at best, moderate and, at worst, negative income for Clark, a notoriously poor businessman. He mortgaged his Wawona property four times before selling out in the 1870s and moving with his second wife to Yosemite Valley, where he would be closer to most of the problems the guardian had to face. But before the move and after it, Clark spent most of his time hunting and exploring, building his knowledge of Yosemite and his love for it. His second wife, who probably didn't see as much of him as the bears did, was gone by the early 1880s.

John Muir, who arrived at Yosemite 12 years after Clark, called him 'the best mountaineer I ever met.' Strangers raved about his hospitality, and in his later years tourists flocked to his nine-seat buggy for rides to points of interest in the park and photographs of Mister Yosemite, the old man with the Santa Claus beard and wearing the rumpled suit.

He was known as a quiet man, unassuming, respected and respectful, but not one to keep strong opinions bottled up. For example, when Yosemite Valley got its first church, built near his valley home in 1879, Clark wrote in California Farmer magazine:

'It seems to me almost like a sacrilege to build a church within the portals of this grandest of all God's temples. It is like building a toy church within the walls of St. Peter's cathedral at Rome. But it will clearly show the contrast between the frail and puny works of man, as compared with the mighty grandeur and magnificence of the works of God, and I hope it will do good.'

Through most of the 1880s Clark ran his tour buggy and continued his hiking, hunting and studying. He was becoming a living legend, entertaining his coach riders with tales of Yosemite and posing for pictures in the Mariposa Grove-- especially in front of the famous Grizzly Giant and in the driver's seat of stages as they emerged from the Wawona tree tunneled in 1880.

He also was digging his own grave -- literally. In 1885, the 71-year-old Clark got the commissioners' permission to prepare his own spot in the Yosemite Cemetery. He picked an oak-shaded spot, transplanted four young sequoias and for several years improved the site. He dug a well and equipped it with a hand pump to water the trees. Then he trenched 6 feet deep around the grave and dropped in some broken glass to keep gophers from burrowing in.

But he wasn't going to get to use it for a while. Clark returned as guardian in 1889 and served another seven years. He was still hiking and riding horses in his 90s, and according to a Mariposa Gazette article until the last few years of his life he could shin up a tree as easily as a boy of 10.

The sequoias at his grave site were 12 years old when Galen Clark, the man who had almost died at the age of 42 but found rejuvenation and purpose at Yosemite, went to sleep for the last time in his daughter's home in Oakland in 1910. He was 95."
-Modesto Bee (online)

Clarence King and James T. Gardiner made the first ascent of Mt. Clark on July 12, 1866 by the class 4 Southeast Arete:

"of all the objects that inspired King's enthusiasm, the one that attracted him most was a peak which Whitney and his men called 'The Obelisk' from its peculiar shape as seen from the north rim [of Yosemite Valley]. It was shortly afterwards named Mount Clark. He longed to climb it, and made up his mind to attempt it 'at all hazards.' The boundary survey completed, he set out with Cotter on the climbing adventrue. But this time they were not to test their strength and courage upon high-angle rocks. It was November, and the first winter storm struck with full force. They retreated. The field season of 1864 was at an end.

After an interval in the East and a surveying assignment in Arizona, King returned to Yosemite early in the summer of 1866, eager to renew his explorations. The 'Obelisk' still fascinated him, and one afternoon in July he and Gardiner made camp 'in the self-same spot where Cotter and I had bivouacked in the storm.' 'There was in our hope of scaling this point,' he says, 'something more than a mere desire to master a difficult peak. It was a station of great topographical value, the apex of many triangles, and, more than all, would command a grander view of the Merced region than any other summit.' The story, told in King's best manner in Mountaineering [in the Sierra Nevada], is condensed as follows: 'At gray dawn Gardiner and I were up and cooking our rasher of bacon, and soon had shouldered our instruments and started for the top. At last we struggled up to what we had all along believed to be the summit, and found ourselves only on a minor turret, the great needle still a hundred feet above. From rock to rock and crevice to crevice we made our way up a fractured edge until within fifty feet of the top, and here its sharp angle rose smooth and vertical. One step more and we stood together on a little detached pinnacle, where, by steadying ourselves against the sharp, vertical Obelisk edge, we could rest. About seven feet across the open head of a cul-de-sac (a mere recess in the west face) was a vertical crack riven into the granite not more than three feet wide, but as much as eight feet deep; in it were wedged a few loose boulders; below, it opened out into space. At the head of this crack a rough crevice led to the summit. Summoning nerve, I knew I could make the leap, but the life and death question was whether the debris would give way under my weight, and leave me struggling in the smooth recess, sure to fall and be dashed to atoms. Two years ago we had longed to climb that peak, and now within a few yards of the summit no weak-heartedness could stop us. There was no discussion, but planting my foot on the brink, I sprang, my side brushing the rough projecting crag. The debris crumbled and moved. I clutched both sides of the cleft, relieving all possible weight from my feet. The rocks wedged themselves again, and I was safe. Gardner followed and we sprang up the rocks like chamois, and stood on the top shouting for joy.'

It is interesting to compare Gardner's account of the same episode: 'Passing the instruments up from one to another, we slowly worked our way up to within a short distance of the summit; then the face we were climbing became perfectly smooth and vertical. We moved along on a little shelf about three inches wide till we got to the edge round which we could look onto the other side of the thin flat wall of granite. Here was our only chance of reaching the summit. A little smooth knob protruded from the precipice face, and beyond it, but out of stepping distance, was a crack in an angle of the rock, and in it two or three loose stones had become jammed. One might possibly step on the knob and by a strong sure jump get half of one foot into the crack and then climb up. We looked at the smooth little knob and wondered if we should slip, and we looked at the trifling foothold at the other end of the perilous leap, and we looked for one instant down the fifteen hundred feet which it overhung. Then we looked at our instruments and thought of the results if we succeeded. It was, I think, duty's call that nerved us. That leap, like most dangers, seemed more perilous after it was made than before; it was not the length of the spring -- that was easy -- but to light in exact balance on a projecting rock that scarcely held half of one foot, while the remainder of the body hung over a precipice 1500 ft. deep, was a thing requiring most exact judgment. Another winter's frost may break those stones caught in the crack and then Mt. Clark is inaccessible.'

Gardner took note of the view in more detail than did King. 'Our view of the southern Sierra,' he continued, 'was very fine. In the extreme distance, yet clear and prominent, was the double-peaked summit of Kaweah Mountain, always most easily distinguished of the southern group.' Mount Goddard was visible, and several dark peaks east of it, almost as high. But the peak that seems to have attracted most attention was Mammoth Mountain [not the one presently so called. It probably refers to the Ritter-Banner-Davis-Rodgers group as seen from Mount Clark, before Ritter was singled out for a separate name], which Gardner calls 'one of the most striking peaks in the Sierra, from its great size and from the needle-like pinnacles that rise from a mountain at its souther end. King named them the Minarets.'
- Francis P. Farquhar, History of the Sierra Nevada

More on Galen Clark:

  • By John Muir

    References to can also be found in these files:

  • More of Bob's Trip Reports

    For more information see these SummitPost pages: Mt. Starr King - Mt. Clark

    This page last updated: Sat Apr 7 17:02:14 2007
    For corrections or comments, please send feedback to: