Challenge of the Big Trees
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Chapter Three:
Exploration and Exploitation


The Government Surveys

In all this activity there remained a gap. Trails and even a wagon road now took travelers around the southern end of the Sierra. Sheep and cattlemen, each jealously guarding their own discoveries, poked through much of the range seeking forage; mineral prospectors, too, combed the ridges seeking their fortunes. No one, however, had yet attempted to explore and map the heart of the southern Sierra for public purposes. Into this gap stepped the staff of the California Geological Survey. Created by the state legislature in 1860 "to make an accurate and complete Geological Survey of the State, and to furnish maps and diagrams thereof, with a full and scientific description of the rocks, fossils, soils, and minerals, and of its botanical and zoological productions, together with specimens of the same," the survey was California's first formal public attempt to inventory its resources. [18] In charge was Josiah Dwight Whitney, forty-one years old and a graduate of Yale. Under his supervision were several brilliant selections, especially William Brewer, thirty-two at the time of his appointment and also a graduate of the Yale Scientific School. To Brewer fell responsibility for supervising the actual field activities of the survey.

Although the survey began work late in 1860, it was not until 1864 that it turned its attentions to the Sierra Nevada. During that wartime summer, while the fate of the nation was being decided, Brewer and his men explored and mapped the Yosemite and Lake Tahoe regions. At the end of the field season, Brewer added to the survey team another young Yale Scientific School man, Clarence King. Finally, in 1864, the survey focused on the largest remaining blank spot on the map of California, the high country of the southern Sierra. From the drought-ravaged San Joaquin Valley, Brewer led his men up into the mountains along the divide between the Kings and Kaweah rivers. In early June, they camped just west of modern Grant Grove near a recently established logging enterprise called Thomas' Mill which was beginning the assault on the timber resources of the Sierra. After reprovisioning, and making a visit to the Big Trees now called Grant Grove, the survey party struck out to the southwest following the ridges toward the higher mountains. As they climbed high enough to begin to get a sense of the country to the east and south, they noted many high peaks. Their plan, based on the false assumption that the southern Sierra was structured much like the Yosemite country, was to follow the Kings-Kaweah Divide to the crest of the Sierra. Soon the ridge they were following rose up to form a sharp granite peak. After a difficult scramble they attained the summit, and the nature of the country ahead became much more apparent.

It was June 28, 1864, when Brewer climbed and named Mt. Silliman after the son of one of his Yale professors. From the summit, now measured at 11,188 feet, Brewer got his first real impression of the complexity of the southern Sierra. To the east and north, forming the headwaters of the Kings River, could be seen an endless jumble of canyons and barren, serrated ridges. To the southeast, much closer, rose other peaks, equally high. To Brewer's surprise, a number of the visible summits were obviously as high as anything in the Yosemite country. The party named the highest visible summit in the Kings River area Mt. Brewer, and since their original geographical strategy for exploring the country had proven flawed, they now struck out for this peak, which they hoped to ascend.

Several days of rough travel took the survey down off the Silliman crest, across the Sugarloaf Valley and Roaring River Canyon (which they called the South Fork of the Kings River) and up the canyon at the west base of Mt. Brewer. On July 2, Brewer and Charles Hoffman struggled up the steep, talus-guarded peak, and after several dead ends finally found their way to the summit, which they correctly estimated to be over 13,000 feet. The view stunned Brewer:

Such a landscape! A hundred peaks in sight over thirteen thousand feet—many very sharp—deep canyons, cliffs in every direction almost rival Yosemite, sharp ridges inaccessible to man, on which human foot has never trod—all combined to produce a view of sublimity of which is rarely equaled, one which few are privileged to behold. [19]

When they returned exhausted that evening to their camp in the sparse, rocky forest below, Brewer and Hoffman shared the important things they had seen. Mt. Brewer was not the highest peak in the region, at least eight or nine were visibly higher, and the barren alpine region they had glimpsed was totally unlike anything they had seen elsewhere in the Sierra or expected to find here. From the summit of Mt. Brewer they also had finally glimpsed the true climax of the southern Sierra. The highest peaks in the Sierra, they now realized, lay in a second ridge, hidden behind the peaks that formed the headwaters of the Kaweah River. That night at camp, Brewer called the newly discovered mountains the "Snow Group." Other had seen these mountains from the Owens Valley, and they were visible also from points along the Hockett Trail, but until Brewer and Hoffman's discovery, no one had seen them from the west and recognized their true significance.

The "Snow Group," possibly the highest mountains in the United States, captivated King immediately. Initially Brewer resisted King's pleas to be allowed to make a closer reconnaissance. Supplies were short and the intervening country looked impossibly difficult. King was persistent, however, and Brewer, truthfully, every bit as fascinated. On July 4, with Brewer's blessing and crude knapsacks filled with six days' provisions, King and Dick Cotter set out to explore the highest mountains in the United States.

map of CA Geological Survey explorations
(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

From the shoulder of Mt. Brewer, they attempted to follow the Brewer Ridge (now called the Great Western Divide) south to the Kings-Kern Divide. Finding this impossible, they dropped down into the headwaters country of East Creek, and then climbed onto the Kings-Kern Divide. On the second day they got over the divide, using ropes to lower themselves down the cliffs, and then headed out across the alpine landscape that gives birth to the Kern River. The "Snow Group" was now immediately before them, and they made for what had appeared to be the highest peak from Mt. Brewer. Reaching the summit after considerable difficulty (which was exaggerated rather shamelessly in King's later writings), they found themselves again frustrated. From the summit yet higher mountains were visible immediately to the south. From Mt. Brewer they had named the summit they had already climbed Mt. Whitney after their chief, and the new highest peak King called Mt. Grant in his notes. Several days later, however, when they finally made their way back to Brewer's camp, it was decided that the highest peak should be Mt. Whitney and the lower mountain became Mt. Tyndall. Also named at the same time were Mt. Williamson, Table Mountain, and Milestone Mountain.

From their reunited camp at the foot of Mt. Brewer, the surveyors moved on. They dropped into the great canyon of the South Fork of the Kings River, where they met some prospectors. They attempted to cross the Monarch Divide into the Middle Fork Canyon, but found the country too difficult. Noting and naming Mt. Goddard and the Palisades, still the preeminent landmarks of the upper Kings, they made their way east over the Sierra Crest via Kearsarge Pass and dropped into the Owens Valley. Later in the summer they explored the headwaters of the San Joaquin, located Mt. Goddard from the north, and then tied that country in with the already known Yosemite peaks.

In one summer, the California Geological Survey permanently changed the map of California. It confirmed the presence, already locally suspected, of the highest mountains in the United States, located and named the major landmarks, and, unlike nearly everyone else who had been into the high country, made its discoveries public. From the surveyors' efforts came the first reasonable maps of the southern Sierra and a number of popular and broadly read books. Even today, Brewer's Up and Down California and King's Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada remain in print. Yet, in another way they added very little to what had already been discovered by Jedediah Smith, Joseph Walker, and John Fremont—the heart of the southern Sierra was a rugged, hostile place, best avoided unless one could find something of value within its forbidding granite recesses. [20]

King's fascination with Mt. Whitney did not end. He unsuccessfully attempted to climb Whitney from the southeast later in 1864, and returned in 1871, when, in a climb obscured by clouds, he made a successful attempt on what he thought was Whitney, but actually was later proven to be what is now Mt. Langley. After that confusion was publicized in 1873, King returned again and made it to the top of Whitney, only to discover that others had preceded him that summer. [21]


Challenge of the Big Trees
©1990, Sequoia Natural History Association
dilsaver-tweed/chap3d.htm — 12-Jul-2004