The faces of mountains are as varied as the faces of men. Some
are broad, some craggy, some frail, and some furrowed. They can
be fresh, wizened, bulky, weak, open, penetrating, familiar, secretive,
tender, radiant, unexpected and unknowable.
face of Mount Clarence King is an illustration from a children's
story. It rises sheer and narrow, gathering itself in as it lifts
itself towards its featureless, furious, conical culmination.
Clarence King is a mountain of myth, a mountain of dreams, a mountain
that should never have existed in such a rock-real country.
We set out to limn its ledges, to challenge its chimneys, and, if the mountain would allow us, to stand on the boulder where first ascender Bolton Brown stood, when he declaimed:
is a true spire of rock, an uptossed corner at the meeting of
three great mountain walls ... The top of the summmit-block slopes
northwest, is about fifteen feet across, and smooth as a cobblestone.
If you fall off one side, you will be killed in the vicinity;
if you fall of any of the other sides, you will be pulverized
in the remote nadir beneath."
We were Ron Karpel, John Wilkinson, Arun Mahajan, Rich Leiker, and me, Aaron Schuman.
September 11, 1999, we blithely sauntered forth from Onion Valley.
An adult male bear saluted our crossing over Kearsarge Pass, over
Glen Pass, over Rae Col, and into Sixty Lakes Basin. Fatigued
but impatient, we watched the galaxy-dappled and meteor-streaked
dome slowly turn away. At dawn we rose to disturb a flock of pheasants
and explore the mountain's lower reaches. We gained the saddle
of the ridge uniting Clarence King with Mount Cotter.
slopes strewn with blocks of granite the size of hibernating bears
we slipped in silence. The angle steepened. We were funnelled
onto a diminishing ridge by a blank face on our left and a precipice
on our right. We arrived at the jam crack and squeeze chimney
described by our predecessors. With the help of a rope, we surmounted
this obstacle, but to make the thin passage we were obliged to
leave our backpacks behind. Would the next challenge be so narrow
as to force us to abandon our clothing and climb as naked as newborns?
last we stood before the forehead of the mountain, tall, smooth
and vertical. We slipped a few steps down and to the right. Ron
led, I belayed. A crack followed by one ungainly move put Ron
in front of Bolton Brown's spire. Possessing only one hand hold
and one foot hold, Ron stepped out over the abyss. The emptiness
beneath him seemed to extend all the way to the center of the
earth. The space was so large, so compelling, that it was as though
the vacant void had substance and the mountain was mere ether.
A circling pair of golden eagles looked up at Ron in bewilderment.
Then there was a scarcely audible tap of rubber sole on stone,
and Ron stood on the ceiling.
wrapped King's crown with a twenty foot loop of webbing. He secured
himself to this anchor and belayed each of us up to the platform.
For a moment - who can say how long it endured - we five sat together
outside of earthly space, outside of time.
eagle squawked a warning about the rising storm clouds. Her cry
broke the spell. We descended from the block. One rappel took
us down to a ledge. A second long rappel would take us onto easy
scree. I was the first one down the rope, and I took shelter behind
a boulder. Rich fastened his harness and prepared to drop. The
doubled rope, dangling beneath him, knocked loose a hefty rock.
Four voices yelled at me in terror as a ton of granite ricocheted
down the mountainside. I cowered in my makeshift booth and stared
as the waterfall of stone roared past me. Rich came off rappel
nearby. Arun, the next man down, stopped three quarters of the
way to the end, and called out that the rope had been cut. Indeed
it had. Climbing ropes are made from the same fiber as bulletproof
vests. Kevlar is hard to cut, but this rockfall succeeded where
would have failed. The sheath was almost completely gone, and
the frayed fibers of the core protruded dangerously. Arun disengaged
and downclimbed the remainder of the way to where Rich and I waited,
then John and Ron joined us.
After a visit to eternity and a brush with mortality, we walked down the slopes of the mountain to our camp.
Monday morning, we awoke with tired bodies, a damaged rope, and a profound sense of accomplishment. Though we had come to climb Mount Gardiner as well as Mount Clarence King, we decided that we didn't need to climb both in order to feel satisfied. We went home one day early. After all, we had been to the most daunting summit in the Sierra Nevada.
Ron Karpel adds:
Secor recommends a 20 foot sling to protect the summit. I found this to be somewhat insecure, because the summit horn is quite flat and the sling is held by gravity alone. There are no cracks or any other means to set up pro up there. As a last resort, I threw a 4 foot sling to back up the 20 foot one over the summit horn. Turned out that the 4 foot sling got jammed in place better than the 20 foot one. I think the best way to get down is to downclimb the climbing route under tension and protection from above. The last person can downclimb with protection provided from below and the rope running through the slings on the summit. Once everybody is down a good jerk from below will get the slings down.
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