American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing
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Difficult Peaks of the Sierra Nevada

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  • Publication Year: 1931

Difficult Peaks of the Sierra Nevada

Norman Clyde

ON NUMEROUS occasions the writer has received inquiries as to the character of the mountaineering which the Sierra Nevada affords. In reply it might be said that compared with the Alps or the Canadian Rockies, difficult peaks are relatively few in this range. This is due partly to the lack of snow and ice in any great quantities during the summer, to the uniformity of weather conditions, to the dependability of the rocks and the presence of at least one easy route up the majority of the mountains. In the Sierra Nevada, however, from the vicinity of Mt. Whitney at the south, to the Yosemite in the north, there are about a score of rather difficult climbs.

Mt. Whitney in summer conditions is very easy by either of the two routes usually followed. But a few miles to the southeast of it is Mt. Le Conte (13,960 ft.), a somewhat stiff climb up a steep chute and a precipitous wall. Immediately to the north of Mt. Whitney is Mt. Russell (14,190 ft.) with several routes to the summit, all rather arduous, especially the one leading up a chimney on its south face. Scattered through the group are several lower, but craggy peaks, which afford interesting rock scrambles.

Almost directly westward from Mt. Whitney and across the Kern River are the Kaweahs, a spectacular and somewhat isolated group of mountains. Of these the Black Kaweah (13,752 ft.) is generally regarded a difficult climb. The standard route leads up a steep couloir on the south face. A second—accomplished but once—follows the jagged crest of the western arête. North of the Kaweahs, along the Great Western Divide, Milestone Mountain (13,643 ft.) is a spectacular scramble of moderate difficulty; Table Mountain (13,646 ft.) possesses some ice work in a couloir to the north and rock work up its south face, while to the north of it Thunder Mountain (13,646 ft.) has some excellent rock climbing on its summit pinnacles. On the Kings-Kern Divide, running east and west and joining the Great Western Divide and the main crest, there is some good climbing on Mt. Ericsson (13,635 ft.), Mt. Stanford (13,983 ft.) and Junction Peak (13,903 ft.). On the main crest is Mt. Williamson (14,384 ft.), one of the finest peaks in the Sierra and a somewhat strenuous climb. All of the peaks mentioned above are within or on the borders of the Sequoia National Park.

In the amphitheater of the South Fork of the Kings River, adjoining the Sequoia Park, Deerhorn Mtn. (13,275 ft.), the North Guard (13,304 ft.), the East Vidette and Mt. Gardiner (12,742 ft.) might be regarded as moderately difficult climbs, while in the next amphitheater to the north, the isolated pyramid of Mt. King (12,909 ft.) is generally looked upon as one of the best rock climbs in the Sierra Nevada.

Probably there are more interesting and difficult climbs in the Palisade group, at the headwaters of a branch of the Middle Fork of the Kings River, than in any other in the Sierra Nevada. The finest and loftiest of these is the North Palisade (14,254 ft.). From the south it is climbed by a very excellent route—in the main up a steep chimney—discovered some thirty years ago by Joseph Le Conte, Jr., while from the north it can be ascended by two recently discovered ones, the most easterly up a steep ice-filled chute, over a broken cliff-face and thence along a beautiful arête climb to the summit; the more westerly, by following another icy couloir for a few hundred feet and thence directly up the north face to the summit. In early summer, the ice in the couloirs is usually well-covered with snow and the bergschund bridged with it, but later in the season the latter is likely to be open and the couloirs filled with glare ice. These two climbs are among the best to be had in the Sierra.

A short distance to the east of the North Palisade is Mt. Sill (14,200 ft.). Although readily climbed from the south, two fairly difficult routes have been found up a cliff wall above the Palisade glacier and thence along an arête to the summit; a variation of this is up a steep snow chute to the northwest and along a broken wall to the same arête; still another, up a steep couloir to the northeast and from its head along the southeastern arête to the summit. To the southeast of Mt. Sill stands the Middle Palisade (14,049 ft.), next to the North Palisade the most spectacular of the group and one of the best climbs in the Sierra. A chimney and face climb from the south is the only known route to the summit. To the northwest of the North Palisade are Mts. Winchell (13,749 ft.) and Agassiz (13,832 ft.) : the former scalable only by several routes from the east which converge in a narrow knife-edge some distance below the summit; the latter by an easy route up its southeastern face and a difficult one up its northeastern one. In the glacial amphitheater to the north and east of the higher members of the group, there are a number of excellent rock climbs, the finest of which is Temple Crag (13,016 ft.), one of the most beautiful pinnacle crags in the Sierra. About midway down the Middle Fork of the Kings River are the Devil’s Crag (12,612 ft.), a difficult rock climb made but once.

Some twenty miles to the northwest of the Palisades is the Evolution group, a series of rugged, lofty peaks encircling a high basin almost entirely above timberline, an elevation of about 11,500 ft. above sea-level in this region. The most difficult of these peaks is Mt. Darwin, a flat-topped mountain attaining an elevation of 13,841 ft. Almost surrounded by inaccessible cliffs it can be scaled only by picking one’s way up numerous chimneys to the southwest or by one or more chutes to the north and thence along an arête to the summit. The highest point is a ragged gendarme standing out from the table-like top, which is rather difficult of ascent and has been climbed but few times. The next mountain to the south along the main crest is Mt. Haeckel, a beautiful peak of a Gothic type, whose tapering pyramid affords an interesting climb.

A few miles to the north of Mt. Darwin is a lofty, isolated peak with a craggy summit towering several thousand feet above a desolate basin mostly above timber-line. The last five hundred feet of its ascent leads up a steep knife-edge to the highest point, 13,972 ft. above sea-level. It ranks among the best climbs in the Sierra.

Northwest a few miles from Mt. Humphreys is the Abbott group. It encircles a basin almost entirely above tree line. The hardest peak to climb of these is Bear Creek Spire (13,705 ft.), whose steep Matterhorn-like summit affords an excellent face and arête-climb up the last several hundred feet. Mt. Abbott (13,736 ft.) and Mt. Mills (13,352 ft.) likewise are good rock climbs.

In the Yosemite region difficult peaks are rather few. On the southeastern border of the park Mt. Ritter (13,156 ft.) is a fairly hard scramble and the Minarets (12,278 ft.), a line of sharp pinnacles to the south of it, afford rather strenuous rock climbs. Mt. Lyell (13,090 ft.), the most beautiful mountain in the park, is only slightly difficult. To the south of the lower portion of Tuolumne Meadows are a number of granite pinnacles, some of which are difficult. The best of these, both from a scenic and a climbing standpoint, is probably Cathedral Peak (10,952 ft.). The upper portion of its spire is an excellent rock scramble. Mt. Clark (11,515 ft.), a handsome peak to the south of Merced River, has some interesting knife-edge climbing near the top.

Although the above sketch enumerates most of the difficult climbs found in the Sierra Nevada, doubtless others will be discovered by enterprising climbers. None of those described are extremely difficult, but most of them are sufficiently so to interest the skilful alpinist.

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