In my last column I introduced a group of influential men that came together in Visalia on the evening of July 14th, 1915. The following morning they motored up to the Giant Forest of Sequoia National Park and camped there for the next two nights.
Among the group were the federal congressman who chaired the House Appropriations Committee, the director of the National Geographic Society, the president of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, the chief geographer of the United States Geological Survey, and the state engineer of California.
Leading the party and serving as host as they prepared to ride into the backcountry on horses and mules was Stephen Mather, a Californian who had volunteered to spend a year helping the federal government organize its fledgling system of national parks.
Mather wanted the group to see the best and the worst of the High Sierra, and to consider what ought to be done next.
Finding the best was easy. Beginning in the Giant Forest, the group rode east on rough trails into some of the grandest scenery in the United States. Let’s join them.
From the Giant Forest they rode out the Alta Trail and then dropped down into the huge canyon of the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River. They spent their first night on the trail camped among the giant sequoias at Redwood Meadow. Immediately above their camp, the 12,000-foot-high peaks of the Great Western Divide seemed to scrape the sky.
In following days, they crossed Timber Gap, made a quick visit to Mineral King, then rode east over Franklin Pass and descended into the Yosemite-like Kern Canyon, where they spent a day fishing and recuperating in the 104° waters at Kern Hot Spring.
On the trail again, the group rode north up the floor of the great Kern Canyon past Junction Meadow, then climbed a steep, rugged trail that took them onto the alpine high country along the canyon’s eastern rim. By the evening of the 22nd, they had arrived at Crabtree Meadow at the western base of Mt. Whitney.
The following day had been set aside for climbing the peak – the highest in the forty-eight states. The well graded trail that today leads to the summit would not be constructed until 1930, and in those days, visitors climbing the peak from the west scrambled up a crudely constructed trail over loose talus and boulders – no little challenge for these urban men.
Twelve men nevertheless made it to the top of the peak that day, only to be chased from the 14,500-foot summit by a thunderstorm that pelted them with hail and snow and drenched them to the skin.
Returning to camp that evening, they were welcomed again by their support party. We’ve been discussing the group as if it consisted only of its guests, but the trip was succeeding because of the tireless efforts of a sizeable support party.
Leading the effort was Chinese chef Ty Sing, on loan from the U.S. Geological Survey, where he was known as one of the best backcountry cooks in the West. Supporting him in the camp kitchen was Eugene, another Chinese cook employed by the USGS. Every night, regardless of how far the group had traveled, these two presented freshly cooked dinners served on white linen tablecloths.
Keeping everyone and everything moving was a corps of muleskinners supplied by Sequoia National Park. Park packer Frank Ewing managed the effort, and park superintendent Walter Fry was along as a guide for at least the first part of the trip.
On July 27th, after eleven days of backcountry travel, the by-now both exhilarated and exhausted group rode down out of the high country into the desert lands of the Owens Valley. They had crossed the highest part of the Sierra and summited the range’s highest peak.
As promised, they had seen both the best and the worst. As a bonded group, they had marveled at the scenery and been equally impressed by miserable trails and meadows stripped bare by grazing cattle.
But what had they really learned? What would come of all this?
(To be continued)
© Wm. Tweed