THE SIERRA CLUB BULLETIN.
SAN FRANCISCO, JANUARY, 1893
THE MT. WHITNEY TRAIL.
BY HUBERT DYER.
It is astonishing to learn how many Californians are ignorant of the fact that their State possesses the highest mountain peak in the United States; and, where one fails to know this, one thousand are ignorant of that unexplored wilderness of Alps, of which Mount Whitney, 14,522 feet high, is the culminating point; and yet, from the top of the mountain, the station buildings on the little Carson and Colorado Railroad, which runs south of Mound City and taps the Inyo quarries and the soda works of Owens Lake, are in plain view. These buildings are less than twenty miles distant. To one standing near these structures the stupendous mass of the Sierras seems hanging over them and the summit of Whitney but a little way off. Yet it is about seventy miles by the shortest trail to the summit. There are stories told of men who have climbed the great eastern face. Though possible, it is a dangerous under-taking. The usual way of reaching the top is to climb up the southwestern face, which is a gradual slope, offering no obstacles. In this case the problem is how to find the peak, because to reach this vantage point a long detour to the south is absolutely necessary, and that means a week's wanderings in an almost trackless wilderness; consequently only one wishing to ascend this peak must be prepared for the roughest kind of mountain work. But it is worth the trouble.
The trip is usually made from either Lone Pine, Owens Valley; or Visalia, San Joaquin Valley. Lone Pine was the center of the great earthquake of 1872, and even to-day the great earth fissure is conspicuous. From this dirty, run-down town the route to Whitnev follows the main wagon road south to the point of the Kearsarge Hills, and then passes over the Sierras by the Hockett trail, passable by good horses only. The Hockett trail was made in early days, and to-day it remains a plain, well-blazed track from Lone PiIle through to Visalia. After leaving the plains below Lone Pine this trail rapidly climbs the dreaded Hockett Hill. All travelers try so to arrange their journey that this hill is climbed either in early morning or late in the afternoon. The real hill begins where the desert sloping up from Owens Lake meets the main mountain wall. Here a stream from the snow higher up has made a feeble growth of shrubby trees which mark the last shade and water for a long- time. Unfortunately, the desert clings to the mountain, so the trail is sandy and warm, and withal a mountain's steepness.
The view from the trail, however, is magnificent. Far below is the narrow Inyo Valley stretching away to the north till blocked by the Fish Springs lava-flow, which crowds the river over against the White Mountains, a sublimely desolate range, ranking almost with the Sierras in elevation. The river then returns to the valley floor, and fifty miles south empties into the alkaline lake which lies at the traveler's feet. The White Mountains maintain their elevation along the Owens River Valley for one hundred and twenty miles, so the valley is but a thread of land sunk in a trench 10,000 feet deep. The mountains weaken opposite the lake and allow a glimpse towards Death Valley and the terrible triangle of lower Navada, the Devil's Play-ground.
The traveler will turn on the trail scores of times to look back. If it is in the late afternoon he may see the sun set, or, rather, see the great Sierra shadow rush across the narrow desert, and, climbing the mountain-side, pause an instant as the last light gleams one hundred miles along the Inyo Peaks. Resuming the climb, he will note how bravely the desert vegetation maintains its life to the very edge of the Alpine flora. And just as the pines begin to come in more and an occasional patch of snow is seen on the highest ridges (July) the trail will take a little drop and halt before a small stream, the first water since leaving the bottom. This is Little Cottonwood.
Here the trail branches, and there are two routes to Big Cottonwood, two or three miles further on. Both routes are plain. The one following up the east bank of the stream leads over a low divide between Little and Big Cottonwood, and brings one finally to the last-named. Here is an ideal camp; wood, water, grass, and trout are in plenty. The wonderful golden trout of the Sierras are here, in overwhelming abundance. It is no exaggeration to say that the poorest angler can here at almost any time of day catch strings which would drive the frequenter of local streams wild.
The headwaters of Big Cottonwood lie in a magnificent glacial cirque, about six miles south of Sheep Mountain, and it is an interesting side trip to follow the stream to its source--the snow-drifts which cling to the lofty walls of the basin. This cirque presents undoubted signs of glacial action; its form is typical, and, besides, the granite bottom is strongly scarred and polished in the manner so noticeable in the Tuolumne region. It is particularly interesting because it is one of the most, if not the most southern of glacial evidences in the Sierras.
From Cottonwood the Hockett trail, always well marked by travel and peculiar blazes, crosses the Horseshoe Meadows, known by sawmill depredations on the adjacent ridges, and surmounts the watershed at an elevation of 11,000 feet. The trail has now entered the great valley of
the Kern river, but only on its remote edges. Whitney is but another point similarly situated on the eastern edge, while Tyndall, Brewer, and Kaweah are located respectively at the northeastern, northwestern, and southwestern corners of this great valley, which opens southward.
From the summit of the watershed the trail traverses the famous Mulkey Meadows, named after a widely-known Sheriff of early days, and soon strikes the trickling source of the south fork of Kern river. It clings closely to its northern bank for a few miles and then comes out upon a narrow tongue of land, apparently a moraine, lying between two streams, branches of the south and north forks of the Kern, not more than three hundred feet apart.
This narrow, stream-bordered dike is the great landmark for all Whitney travelers, as here the Whitney trail leaves the Hockett. This hranching place is again indicated by a tunnel under the dike which transfers the northern stream almost wholly into the southern. The traveler approaching the forks (Tunnel forks) from either direction will notice the sudden increase in volume of the southerly stream. At the exact forking is a large cross blazed on a pine tree by the writer's party in I890. At this point a small stream comes in from the north, and it is up the eastern side of this stream. Whitney creek, by some also called Volcano creek, that the trail to the peak runs. A further sign of the right trail is that it loosely follows an old ditch which origi- nally diverted the water, as is now done by the tunnel. This work was done by irrigators in the San Joaquin Valley, a hundred miles away, to give the south fork more water, and it is a curious instance of the union of two drainage basins whose natural outlets are miles apart.
Tunnel forks may also be reached from Visalia over the Hockett trail. About a mile below the tunnel the trail forks. The northern branch passes over the north fork, and on to the Visalia region; the southern follows the south fork. At the crossing of the north fork is Kern Lake; a natural dam, formed by an earthquake landslide, backs up the water of the river and forms quite a lake. Here lives Old Dick, a widely-known character in this country, who makes a business of catering to the valley people who frequent the lake. He will even provide board at a reasonable rate, and, as there are perhaps few places in the State where one can enjoy such fishing, it deserves to be better known. Moreover, it is at the gateway of the Whitney Alps, a two days' ride bringing one to the base of the peak. Dick's is about ninety miles from Visalia, and, being located on a well-traveled trail, is easy to reach.
Whichever way the traveler reaches Tunnel forks the route thenceforward is the same. A party in I889 attempting to reach the mountain by following up the main bed of the north fork, besides having a very difficult trip, went far beyond the peak and had much trouble in finding it. In fact, they only did so after mistakenly climbing up another mountain only to be dismayed by seeing Whitney overtop them. It is therefore best, if Mount Whitney alone is your aim, to go to Tunnel forks, and from there follow the usual route. Unfortunately, the so-called Whitney creek does not head at Mount Whitney, but at Sheep Mountain, or Old Mount Whitney. The name was given to it during those years when Sheep Mountain was in error known as Mount Whitney, and when it was even down on the maps as such. When the error was found out and the name applied to the mountain now bearing it, and to which it had been originally given, the creek's name was unchanged, and it remains Whitney creek and Whitney Meadows to this day. Inasmuch as the name Whitney creek is now applied to the stream which actually draiIls that peak, it might be advisable to use the name Volcano creek for the false Whitney creek. Like Big Cottonwood, Volcano creek is full of the wonderful golden trout. It is at this last point that the greatest confusion is liable to arise, and unless the traveler is so fortunate as to meet a cattleman--not sheepman, because they seldom speak English--he had better hire a guide. It would be cheaper in the end. Unlike the Sierras about Dana and Lyell, the mountains about this trail all look alike, and it seems like an endless succession of "sand meadows," rocky flats and thinly-wooded ridges. It is only when the immediate base of the mountain is reached that the topographical features become more pronounced.
Leaving Tunnel forks, one follows up Whitney creek for five or six miles, and finally reaches the Whitney Meadows. Here begins a great gap in the trail; it is wholly blind. The writer's party avoided trouble here, because we had some days before secured a bird's-eye view of the whole country, and because we had been given a few pointers by an obliging cattleman. Upon reaching these meadows one must proceed up the north side of the indistinct stream by two or three small cañons coming in from the north, till an old sheep-corral is reached, when he must go directly up the ridges to an elevated rock-strewn plateau. If by chance one passes too far up the meadow and then cuts up the mountain-side the mistake will correct itself, as a deep, precipitous cañon will be encountered, which compels a detour to the left (west). This brings one naturally to the rocky plateau. The mountain seen a little to the east of north is not, as one is likely to suppose, Mt. Whitney, but Sheep Mountain or Mt. Corcoran. Its appearance is shown in the accompanying illustration (left). From the plateau there is seen four or five miles to the north-west a low gap through a long wooded ridge; the trail for Mt. Whitney runs through it. Descending from the plateau to a sandy meadow below, one notices a stream flowing to the west, and after following its left (south) bank a few yards a plain trail will be found. This trail crosses to the north bank after a few hundred yards and then follows it down to a place of moraines, where confusion is confounded. Here the trail will probably be lost, but by maintaining a general route toward the low wooded pass one will soon meet a stream flowing to the west, which washes the foot of the mountain sloping up to the pass. Crossing this stream near an old ruined sheep-corral, and searching the immediate mountain slope, one will find a blaze consisting ofthis: PIEB. This marks the beginning of the Whitney trail which passes through the gap above. Beyond this it continues northward through a sparsely wooded country till it descends from a ridge through a rock slide, down which it goes zig-zag into Whitney cañon proper. It then follows up a narrow sub-cañon to the east till it reaches a round, rock-walled meadow, traversed by two streams which meet in its lower edge; the larger one, entering from the north through a narrow gully, drains Mount Whitney, and the trail follows up its northern bank, through an open cañon, through a half-burned forest, to a little lake, between whose northern shore and the mountain-wall it finds a narrow course. The illustration (below) shows the true Mount Whitney as it appears from a point on the northern bank of the creek.
The rocky face of Mount Whitney is seen standing a little to the right (south) of the end of the cañon. Its face presents a broad, shovel-shaped front, thickly studded with granite spires. The famous mountain seems very small and low from the west. Beyond the little lake the first objective is Langley' s Camp, which marks the very base of the mountain and as the trail for the top starts here, and as it is the last camping-place, the traveler will do well to find it. The trail now run out in the granite and one must depend on general features. Not very far above the lake the cañon forks, and Whitney stands midway; Langley's Camp lies immediately underneath the mountain and but a little way to the right. It cannot be seen from below, though the eye may pass over it a thousand times, as it is on a granite shelf set deep in the mountain-side. But a short way below it, and right under Whitney's face, is another meadow, with a little pond at its south side. This is a good camp also, but it is not distinctive enough to mark the mountain, so one had better find Langley's Camp, which lies but a few hundred yards away and above to the southeast. From this lower meadow there is no indication of one higher up beyond a seemingly small depression in the granite, but by climbing up to it one is surprised to find an extensive flat with many signs of its previous occupation by some large party. Chief among these signs is a low wooden trestle, four hundred feet long, extending exactly north and south. This is what is ieft of the bolometer, an elaborate apparatus for measuring variations in the heat given out by the sun.
One will thus have no trouble in recognizing the meadow, and, once reached, all trouble is over, as the trail from here to the top --three thousand feet above--is plain and easy to climb. At the top there is a cairn six feet high, with its interstices filled with calls and papers. From here one looks down on Lone Pine, fifteen miles distant and 11,000 feet below. The whole Inyo Valley, the White Mountains beyond, Owens Lake, are all in plain view. Mount TyndalI, to the north a few miles, stands at the junction of the main Sierra crest and the Tyndall-Brewer divide, which separates the basin of the Kern from the south fork of the Kings River, or locally, Rubb's Creek. Mount Brewer stands at the western end of this divide, where it joins the great western ridge which culminates to the south in Kaweah Peak. Far to the north of Tyndall one can just see the high peak marking the celebrated Kearsarge Pass 12,050 feet high. Olancha, a dark-red, volcanic-looking mountain, is to the south beyond Sheep Mountain and beyond the Hockett trail. Sheep Mountain and Kaweah seem to be the two last true Sierra peaks, as Olancha resembles more a volcanic cone than a granite mountain. If one remembers that all the mountains named are over 13,000 feet, and that they are but one or two among hundreds of others almost as high, he may be able feebly to imagine the matchless grandeur of the scene.