Popular Science Monthly/Volume 2/April 1873/Discovery of Mount Tyndall

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MY DEAR SIR: In answer to yours of the 6th, I may say that, being familiar with all the circumstances relating to the discovery and naming of Mount Tyndall, I was asked to respond to a toast alluding to this, at the dinner given in honor of Prof. Tyndall on the 4th, but which want of time prevented being called for. You now ask me for an abstract of what I intended to say. I will give it (as nearly as I can), and this the more willingly, as his success, as a mountaineer was not even alluded to by any of the speakers, nor was the fact that, in recognition of his discoveries in the Alps, one of the highest peaks in our country has been named for him.

In 1864 I had charge of a party exploring the group of highest peaks of the Sierra Nevada, in California—the highest, in fact, in the United States. For several years I had been familiar with its distant aspects, as seen from nearly every side. The group was entirely unknown, however, so far as any accurate knowledge of its height, topography, or interior scenery, was concerned. Previous attempts to reach it had failed. Once we had been prevented by floods, and once turned from its flanks by hostile Indians. But this time we were more successful. Our camp was at 10,000 feet elevation, the deep, blue-black canopy of sky our only shelter. From this point our first attempt failed. Two of us reached an altitude of nearly 14,000 feet, only to find the crest nearly five miles beyond, and separated from us by a cañon 3,000 or more feet deep, with vertical precipices of perhaps 1,000 feet below us, and, still farther below, frozen lakes of vivid blue. We turned back, weary and dispirited.

That night, the intrepid Clarence King earnestly begged that he be permitted to try, with Cotter, to reach the summit. I hesitated. We were short of provisions, and far from supplies. Moreover, I had seen the difficulties, and he had not, but he had read Tyndall's "Glaciers of the Alps," and thought no place inaccessible. Permission was at length given, but this meant partial starvation to those of us remaining, that they might have the necessary food, and to those who went it meant fatigue, sleeping among the rocks at 11,000 or 12,000 feet, hard climbing, and doubtful success.

Early dawn of July 4th found us on the way, with instruments and six days' provisions. We carried their packs up to 13,000 feet, to lighten their labors, then pointed out the way they must take, and, after a hearty shake of the hand, saw them descend into the canon and disappear. The evening of the fifth day saw their return; they had reached the summit, and were back in safety. By the light of the camp-fire that night I calculated the height as well as I could from their observations. It was the highest unnamed peak that had yet been measured in the country, so we called it Mount Tyndall.

This peak now finds a place on our maps. Its position is about latitude 36° 39' north, longitude 118° 19' west, and its height 14,386 feet. It is one of a group of peaks, several of which are above 14,000 feet, amid the most sublime surroundings. The peaks are buttressed with ridges of granite, streaked with the snows of ages, and furrowed with canons, the desolation of the scene increased rather than relieved by the many little blue lakes that repose in the ancient glacier-beds. This group is a part of that chain which stretches from Cape Horn to Behring's Straits, the grandest mountain-system on our planet. Here is the monument bearing the name of our honored guest.

Prof. Tyndall's books are now so widely read that the name is almost a household word where our common language is spoken. We cannot hope that it will be so a hundred years hence; with the advance of scientific knowledge, the new generations will read new books, and ours be buried or partially hidden in the great ocean of scientific literature. But I look forward in imagination, and see that the man will not be forgotten; he will be remembered as one who loved and advanced science. This peak will perhaps still more keep his memory green, and the coming generations of school-children conning their lessons in geography, and philosophers studying the grander features of our globe, will learn to pronounce the name of one who loved mountains even as he loved science.

  1. Letter to Prof. Mayer, Secretary to Committee of the Tyndall Banquet.