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Mt. Solomons (13,034 ft.)
Named by BGN in 1968
"Few of the prospectors, adventurers, and sheepmen who roamed the Sierra during the last third of hte nineteenth century displayed any enduring interest in the overall geography of the great mountain chain. Not since William Brewer's time had anyone seriously surveyed the centeral and southern portions of the Sierra. In the 1890's, however, a handful of curious adventurers independently decided to penetrate the range, discover its secrets, and announce the results to the world. The first of these pioneers to contemplate a major expedition into the unknown heart of the range was Theodore Seixas Solomons.
The boy of thirteen who gazed at the Sierra Nevada on a pristine spring day in 1884 was totally unaware that any human had ever set foot in the range. From his uncle's ranch near Fresno, young Solomons stared at the distant mountains, for the first time seeing them not merely as background objects, but as 'the most beautiful and mysterious sight' he had ever beheld. THe Holsteins grazing in the vast fields of alfalfa faded from the foreground, and he envisioned himself 'in the immensity of that uplifted world, an atom moving along just below the white, crawling from one end to the other of that horizon of high enchantment.' These sentences, written fifty-six years after the fact, are obviously a romanticized version of a youth's vision. Still, one would like to believe Solomons' claim that it was on this very day that he first imagined the 'idea of a crest-parallel trail through the High Hierra.'
It was not until 1892 that Solomons had enough money and time to set out on his quest for a high mountain route. With one companion, Sidney Peixotto, he journeyed to Lake Tahoe in mid-May. Their plan, Solomons wrote later, was 'no less than the complete subjugation in a single season of the entire High Sierra.' Even though the winter had been milder than usual, deep snowfields continually slowed the progress of the men and their two mules; they took six weeks to reach Yosemite Valley. There, by fortuitious coincidence, they encountered Joseph Nisbet LeConte, the twenty-two-year-old son of Joseph LeConte, the reknowned geologist. (Twenty years earlier, the elder LeConte, along with John Muir, suggested that glaciation, not cataclysm, was responsible for canyons such as Yosemite Valley.) The younder LeConte, beginning a distinguished career as a professor of engineering at the University of California, was embarking on a series of trips -- forty-four in all -- into the highest and most remote sections of the range.
Solomons and Peixotto teamed up with LeConte for an excursion south toward Mount Ritter, that dark beacon that looms immediatly southeast of the present Yosemite National Park boundary. Following in the footsteps of John Muir, the three youths climbed the peak from the east; it w as only the third time its 13,157-foot summit had been reached. Pleased with this conquest, the trio returned to Yosemite Valley.
By the beginning of August, Solomons felt the time had come to further 'subjugate the High Sierra.' But LeConte had business in the city, and Peixotto had doubts about continuing south. Perhaps the view from Mount Ritter's summit had discouraged Peixotto; perhaps he was weary after eighty straight days in the wilderness. It seems unlikely that the cause of his hesitancy was that he thought the 'season was late.' the polite excuse Solomons gave in 1940. It was, in fact, the ideal time to travel in the High Sierra. Whatever the reason for Peixotto's defection, Solomons decided to push south with only a mule for company.
Heading south from Tuolumne Meadows along the same route he had traveled in late July, Solomons again climbed Mount Ritter, this time from the west. Fascinated by photography, the youth managed to transport a heavy and awkward 8x10 view camera all the way to the top, a feat that resulted in a set of alpine pictures that proved to be the first high-quality photographs ever taken of the High Sierra.
The wide, forested valley of the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River beckoned next, so Solomons broke camp and headed downstream to Devil's Postpile, a geological curiosity previously known only to local miners and sheepmen. After skirting the southern ramparts of the Ritter Range, Solomons curved west, reaching civilization in early September.
During the course of his 1892 trip, Solomons either crossed or saw all three of the major forks of the San Joaquin River. He had camped at the headwaters of the Middle Fork; from Mount Ritter's summit he had gazed straight down upon the source of the North Fork. But of the South Fork -- the High Sierra's longest river -- he had obtained only an enticing glimpse. Solomons realized that this major watercourse likely sprang from a great cluster of peaks thirty miles to the south. The vision of this unexplored landscape haunted him for the two years that passed before he was able to return.
The 1894 expedition undertaken by Solomons and nineteen-year-old Leigh Bierce -- son of author Ambrose Bierce -- was something of a disappointment in that the two men failed in their principal objective: to reach the famed gorge of Kings Canyon via a route close to the Sierra crest. 'Such a high mountain route,' Solomons wrote in 1895, 'practicable for animals, between the two greatest gorges in the Sierra, has never been found -- nor, indeed, sought -- so far as my researches have revealed.' Yet the visionary was confident not only that such a route existed but that it 'would be a journey fit for the gods.' He further predicted that 'as a scenic mountain tour, I doubt if the world affords its like.'
Instead of heading directly for the South Fork of the San Joaquin River -- their avowed goal -- Solomons and Bierce lingered in Yosemite, exploring and photographing the high country. It was not until mid-September that the two men, along with three pack animals, began ascending the South Fork towards the Sierra crest. Warned by sheepherders of the hazards accompanying autumn storms, the small expedition nevertheless worked far up the river, eventually curving east up Mono Creek, a major tributary. Soon the men reached a lovely valley which Solomons named Vermilion Valley because of the color of its soil. Almost exactly thirty years earlier, William Brewer and his comrades had attempted Mount Goddard from this idyllic place. (In the mid 1950s the valley became Lake Thomas A. Edison, courtesy of the Southern California Edison Company.)
Solomons and Bierce next crossed into the Bear Creek watershed, following this turbulent stream first east, then south as it snaked toward its source. It was September 20 when they reached the base of an isolated peak christened Seven Gables because of its eccentric shape. That afternoon the pair ascended the 13,075-foot mass and from its top stared in awe at the panorama. A multitude of peaks, mostly unclimbed and unnamed, rose in every quadrant. Immediately to the east lay a cluster of towering summits, below which nestled dozens of jewellike lakes. The two men were quite probably the first humans ever to peer down into the wild set of cirques known today as Bear Lakes Basin, one of the most striking landscapes traversed by the High Route.
Spectacular though the terrain was, Solomons knew they had reached an impasse, for their impending route, visible for the first time, looked feasible only to 'mythological beasts with wings,' as he wrote later in the Sierra Club bulletin. Solomons soon conceived a bold plan: they would leave their pack animals with a sheepherder recently met downstream and set off south with fifty pounds each on their backs.
Before this plan could be effected, a major storm intervened, depositing several feet of snow. 'We were on top of the Sierra,' Solomons wrote, 'some seventy-five miles of nearly waist-deep snow between us and the nearest settlements.' It was obviously time for retreat. Unfortunately, the deep snow meant trail's end for the two remaining animals (the third had broken its leg and had been shot). One mule had strayed; it would either freeze or starve in the coming weeks. After shooting the other beast, the men hurried downstream. In the shambles of their camp lay the still-warm mule, Solomons' giant camera, all his exposed negatives, and quantities of waterlogged bedding. Days passed as the exhausted pair retraced their route downstream; finally, on the fifth day, they stumbled upon a stranded herder who plied them with mutton. Their 1894 expedition came to an end shortly thereafter.
Apparently undeterred by this experience, Solomons returned the following year, this time with Ernest Bonner. (Solomons never traveled with the same person twice, a fact that may have several possible interpretations.) With fresh memories of the previous autumn, the obsessed twenty-three-year-old made sure to arrive in the mountains early. Ignoring Yosemite this time, the two men arrived at the site of the former camp belown Seven Gables in late June 1895. During the following two weeks, while waiting for the snowpack to diminish, Solomons systematically explored the surrounding countryside, leaving Bonner to tend camp and their one pack animal. Exactly where Solomons wandered during this period will never be known, for his notes, donated to the Sierra Club Library in San Francisco, were destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and fire. It seems likely that he would have ascended into nearby Bear Lakes Basin while searching for a passable route to the south; perhaps he even visited Feather Pass.
It is known that Solomons spent four days exploring the headwaters region of Mono Creek, and his photograph of the Mills Creek Lakes and Gabbot Pass ['Gabbot' is a blending of the names of the two peaks on either side of the pass, Mounts Gabb and Abbot], published in the May 1896 issue of Overland Monthly, indicates that he ascended Peak 12,691, a landmark on the ridge between the Second Recess and Third Recess. (These great U-shaped valleys -- there are four -- were called 'magnificent alpine recesses' by Solomons in his article; thus place names are born.)
Solomons was now, more than ever, aware that rugged mountain travel could be accomplished far more effectively without pack animals. With this in mind, he and Bonner worked their way down to Jackass Meadow, on the South Fork of the San Joaquin River. Leaving their mule with a sheepherder on July 12, they began following the river south into new territory. The journey of the next two weeks ranks equally in Sierra history with the King-Cotter adventure of 1864. Solomons' accounts of this trip, published in various magazines and journals, are by no means as overblown as Kings'; indeed, his readable prose is eminently believeable, and his enthusiasm for the High Sierra radiates from every page.
On July 14 the two explorers cached most of their equipment at the junction of the South Fork with the major tributary now known as Evolution Creek. Working their way up this stream, they soon emerged into an enchanting valley, where for three miles they strolled through pine forests interrupted by enormous meadows. Above what is now Evolution Valley -- the 'fairest paradise' Solomons had ever seen -- the two men clambered up alongside innumberable cascades that raced down vast granite slabs. Reaching timberline at last, they beheld 'a fine sheet of water,' Evolution Lake. So impressed was Solomons with the magnificent scenery that he prompty bestowed names on nearly every peak in sight. These names, honoring philosopers and scientists prominent in the new field of evolution studies, included Mounts Darwin, Spencer, Huxley, and Fiske.
From their camp near Sapphire Lake the two men climbed a prominent peak, quickly named Mount Wallace, on the crest to the east. From the summit they could see that Mount Darwin was the region's highest peak, and later that same day they made a bold dash for it, failing several hundred feet below the top when steep cliffs loomed. 'Farther ascent,' the usually rational Solomons wrote later, 'is barred to all human beings.'
On the following day Solomons and Bonner reluctantly departed the Evolution country, returned to their cache on the South Fork of the San Joaquin, and started south up the river. On July 19 they reached its source, the goal Solomons had been pursuing for three summers. Here, in an austere world of rock and snow, Solomons stood mesmerized by the looming black crags that surrounded him. Foremost among the peaks was Mount Goddard, the solitary monolith named by William Brewer's group thirty-one years earlier.
Solomons, of course, knew he wasn't the first person to stand in the shadow of the great peak. He had seen evidence of sheep not far down the canyon. He knew, too, that Cotter and Spratt must have passed the headwaters on their 1864 attempt, and he realized John Muir had been somewhere in the area in 1873. Finally, Solomons was quite aware that Mount Goddard had been climbed in 1879 by Lil Winchell and Louis Davis. Nevertheless, it was a striking landscape, and Solomons must have been extremely pleased to have completed this segment of his dream route.
The next morning proved even more awe-inspiring, for the pair climbed the 13,568-foot Mount Goddard, obtaining the finest view they ever had seen in the Sierra. Virtually every major peak in the range, from Mount Conness to Mount Whitney -- a distance of 110 miles -- was etched against the cobalt sky. Four hours passed as the two men absorbed the view, oblivious to an approaching storm. Rain poured down upon them as they stumbled down the steep talus. At 12,000 feet they reached the highest pines and stopped for the night. 'We had no sooner built a fire,' Solomons wrote later, 'than the snow began to fall, and though for a time it was nip and tuck between the two elements, our pitch-saturated logs conquered at last.'
In the dawn light the two men began traversing east through what is now the Ionian Basin. Their immediate goal was a pass Solomons had spied earlier from the vicinity of Evolution Lake. If they could reach this broad saddle -- now called Muir Pass -- Solomons felt certain they could then descend into the headwaters region of the Middle Fork of the Kings River. But the storm's intensity increased, thwarting these plans. After struggling across slippery talus for several hours, Solomons resolved to flee the inhospitable alpine world and drop south into a deep gorge he had noticed from Mount Goddard's summit. Passing between two guardian peaks -- immediately named Scylla and Charybdis -- the adventurers began their descent. Acres of enormous boulders blocked the canyon floor, making their progress painfully tedious. In the rain, the slate forming the canyon walls shone like lustrous metallic plates. This narrow canyon -- both sinister and beautiful -- was named the Enchanged Gorge. (So remote is this feature that only three more parties were to pass through it during the next half-century.)
It was midafternoon on the following day when Solomons and Bonner emerged from the confining canyon into the flat meadowlands bordering the Middle Fork of the Kings River, having made a bonejarring descent of 7,600 feet in only two days. They had crossed the divide separating the San Joaquin watershed from the Kings drainage by about the most difficult possible route. The remainder of the trip from Simpson Meadow, on the Middle Fork, to Kings Canyon, on the South Fork, was anticlimactic, for a well-established trail led across the Monarch Divide.
Solomons realized that pack animals could not be taken through the Enchanted Gorge, and since his ambition had always been to discover a crest-parallel route negotiable to stock, he was back in the mountains the following summer. His companions in 1896 were two teenaged students from the University of California: Walter Starr and Allen Chickering. The three men, along with four horses, left Yosemite Valley on July 3. In mid-July, however, Solomons became ill and decided to leave the expedition near Jackass Meadow. The other two men, evidently not as obsessed as Solomons with a high mountain route, continued south through the forested country far to the west of Mount Goddard. Reaching Kings Canyon on August 3, the pair became the first party ever to travel continuously with pack animals form Yosemite to Kings Canyon. Although this was a praiseworthy accomplishment, they had traveled almost exclusively in the lowlands, far from the Sierra crest.
Solomons was not destined to return to the watershed of the Kings River. Perhaps he
finally became discouraged with furthering his high mountain route; in his later
writings he does not mention his reasons for abandoning his quest when it was but
halfway accomplished. In 1897, instead of pushing south into the Kings River
headwaters, as one might have expected, he 'made improvements in the northern part
of the route.' It's possible that only the San Joaquin drainage truly fascinated him;
certainly his name will be linked forever to this immense wilderness. During his
five journeys between 1892 an 1897, Solomons bestowed approximately 100
place names, about 60 of which remain today. A short time after these Sierra
trips, he moved to Alaska (and, a decade later, back to San Francisco), revisiting
the upper San Joaquin watershed only once again, in 1932 -- at age sixty-two. In
1933 he wrote that he had departed the Sierra in 1897 assured about the completion
of his high mountain route: 'As for the Kings River section ... I knew that with
LeConte, Bolton Coit Brown,
and one or two other indefatigable ones, it was in safe hands.'"
- Steve Roper, High Sierra Route -- Traversing Timberline Country
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Scylla - Mt. Solomons
This page last updated: Sat Apr 7 17:02:15 2007
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