Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada with Clarence King - He has n’t what old Ruskin calls for

Clarence King, Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada (1872).  What we have here is a series of informal, amusing and instructive articles written for popular magazines by a major American geologist.  The articles are about a scientific expedition in the mountains of California, mostly, during the 1860s of which King was a member.  King would soon after help create and serve as the first director of the United State Geological Survey.

King gives the strong impression that he is a geologist because it gives him a professional excuse to climb mountains.  The ascents of Mount Whitney, Mount Tyndall, and Mount Shasta are described in some detail, and there is a great deal of trooping around Yosemite Valley.  Fine adventuring in a spectacular landscape.

Under the later moonlight I rose and went out upon the open rocks, allowing myself to be deeply impressed by the weird Dantesque surroundings; - darkness, out of which to the sky towered stern, shaggy bodies of rock; snow, uncertainly moonlit with cold pallor; and at my feet the basin of the lake, still, black, and gemmed with reflected stars, like the void into which Dante looked through the bottomless gulf of Dis.  (Ch. IV, “The Descent of Mount Tyndall,” 92)

Then follows a short critique of the illustrations of Gustave Doré (“a conspicuous failure from an overbalancing love of solid, impenetrable darkness”) which I found odd, but King is a highly aestheticized naturalist, a follower, it is clear enough, of John Ruskin, introduced by name when a landscape painter appears in one of the book’s comic sketches:

“It’s all Bierstadt and Bierstadt and Bierstadt nowadays!  What has he done but twist and skew and distort and discolor and belittle and be-pretty this whole doggonned country?  Why, his mountains are too high and too slim; they’d blow over in one of our fall winds…  He has n’t what old Ruskin calls for.”  (Ch. X, “Cut-off Copple’s,” 210)

The comic intervals were not such a surprise after finding them in Murray’s contemporary book about camping in the Adirondacks.  I will present the punchline of Ch. V, “The Newtys of Pike,” which does a good job of showing off King’s is essentially one long joke:

He added, “Thet – thet – thet man what gits Susan has half the hogs!” (110)

Do you want to read up to that punchline or not?  Up to you.  I laughed, but that ain’t proof a’nothin’.

I read the Bison Books edition of Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada.  Its introduction by James Shebl includes a number of testimonials: “’along with Roughing It the high-water mark of frontier literature’” (Wallace Stegner), “as fine as The Oregon Trail or Before the Mast” (Van Wyck Brooks), and “’one of the obligatory books for readers who wish to know their country’” (Henry Seidel Canby).  Heaven save me from such overheated blurbage.  “Obligatory,” what twaddle.  And Brooks is nuts, too – Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years before the Mast is far richer.  Stegner is all right.  Funny that Roughing It, a book about a different kind of mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada, one that King holds in contempt, is also from 1872.

I am perhaps making King’s book sound ridiculous, but I am just taking the terrific nature writing and wilderness adventures for granted.  The descriptions of Yosemite Falls during the first fall blizzard, for example, a storm that nearly killed King but also rewarded him:

At one time a gust rushed upon the lip of the fall with such violence as to dam back all its waters.  We could see its white pile at the lip mounting higher and higher, still held back by the wind, until there must have been a front of from a hundred and fifty to two hundred feet of boiling white water.  For a whole minute not a drop poured down the wall; but gathering strength, the torrent overcame the wind, rushed out with tremendous violence, leaped one hundred and fifty feet straight out into air, and fell clear to the rocks below…  (Ch. VIII, “A Sierra Storm,” 168)

Even today, I doubt many people have seen this in person.  It’s a good book.


  1. Perhaps it is my blurred vision, but I detect a lovely whiff of Romanticism lurking in the geologist's prose. Please offer me corrective lenses if I am seeing something that is not there.

  2. That's exactly right, that's the aesthetic training via Ruskin. Muir was a great Romantic, too. I think many of the American naturalists were. I need to read Roughing It for an alternative point of view.