Mt. Whitney History

Mt. Whitney History 2015-04-07T11:03:21+00:00

“The culminating peak of the Sierra” was discovered in 1864, by a California Geological Survey team, and named “Mt. Whitney” after the teams leader, Josiah Whitney.

A member of the survey team, Clarence King, attempted to climb Whitney twice during their trip but was not successful. He returned in 1871 and successfully summited — or so he and everyone else believed for some time. In reality he had accidentally climbed what today is known as Mt. Langley. When his error was discovered two ears later, he returned to California to try again. He did summit Whitney on September 19, but made the fourth ascent.The first ascent was made by three local fishermen, Charley Begole, Johnny Lucas, and Al Johnson. These three friends reached the summit at noon on August 18, 1873.

Residents of the Owens Valley wanted to name the mountain “Fisherman’s Peak” to pay homage to the first summiters. When this name was challenged they proposed the name “Dome of Inyo”. Over the next two years, the local newspaper published many articles arguing this issue. Finally a bill which would make “Fisherman’s Peak” the official name was introduce d in the State Legislature. A strange twist of fate bought the bill before the Senate on April Fools Day, 1881, where they frivolously amended it to read “Fowler’s Peak.” The Governor ended the silliness by vetoing the bill, and so today the original name stands: Mount Whitney.

John Muir made his first ascent of Whitney on October 21, 1873. Muir was the first person to climb Whitney from the east via what is today known as the Mountaineers Route. He had attempted to summit via the southwest, as those before him, but had retreated to Independence after a cold night out, returning to summit by this new route.

Construction of the Mt. Whitney Trail and Summit Hut

In time the residents of Lone Pine began to realize the demand for a trail to the summit of “their mountain”, and through local fundraising efforts they financed a pack-train route up the east side. This trail was completed on July 22, 1904.

Lone Pine’s own Mr. Gustave F. Marsh engineered the trail, much of which is still in use today. The lower portion, from Lone Pine up to Whitney Portal, is now a National Historic Trail of the Smithsonian Institute.

Early explorers and mountaineers on their way up the slope camped at “Hunter’s Flat,” a clearing at the lower end of what is now Whitney Portal, below the Whitney Portal Road.

The idea to construct a hut on the summit of Whitney was formed after the first recorded death on the mountain on July 26 1904 of Bryd Surby. Three men from the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries had climbed up the brand new trail and while on top eating lunch, were struck by lightening. Plans for the hut were drawn by Dr. William Campbell in 1908. The original trail builder, Gustave F. Marsh was again contracted to rebuild the trail, and to construct the stone shelter at its end.

The summit shelter, was completed in the summer of 1909 with funding from the Smithsonian Institute. Modern day visitors may not be impressed by the sight of this humble house. Some assume its parts were flown in by helicopter. In reality wood was hauled up by mules, stone was broken, shaped, riveted and cemented with hand tools. Amazingly the whole project was completed in a little over one month.

Gustave Marsh worked tirelessly day and night, staying on the summit while others descended to rest or retreat from storms. He is credited wiht making Mt. Whitney available to science. Several scientific expeditions soon took advantage of the stone hut. In 1909 Dr Campbell visited the summit, bringing a 16″ horizontal reflective telescope and a spectroscope. The were able to end a significant controversy by determining that no water existed on Mars. Other parties have studied nocturnal radiation and the earth’s cosmic rays

In 1910, Haley’s comet passed by the earth. Mr. Marsh took advantage of the trail he had built to watch this astronomical event from the summit’s spectacular vantage point. He spent the night of May 23 watching not only the comet, but a total lunar eclipse.

As more people came to visit Mt. Whitney, more accommodations were built. The original Whitney Portal Road was constructed in 1933-35, making it possible for tourists to drive their automobiles up from Lone Pine. Public campgrounds, picnic areas, a store, a tract of summer homes, a pond, and a potable water system were all built in the 30s. During his period the summit shelter was restored by the National Park Service.

Today’s emphasis is not on improving the facilities at Whitney Portal, but on preserving them. Overuse of the fragile environment has made it necessary to limit the number of visitors through a quota system of permits.

Thanks to the folks at the Mount Whitney Store for providing much of this information.