The Coronation of Clarence King

12 Sep 1999 - by Aaron Schuman

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.

The 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:

"It 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. On 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.

Up 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?

At 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.

Ron 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.

The 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 a bullet 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.

Rob Langsdorf adds:

When we did this a few years back, we used the 20 foot sling to go around a large boulder that is at the base on the east side of the summit block. To this we then attached a standard rope which we looped over the summit horn. The rope running from the boulder over the east face, around the NW facing slope of the summit block and off the south side. We used a prusik to "tie into" the rope. This left a tail that others could secure it the climber felt they might roll off the NW side.

John Wilkinson adds:

Wow! The Muse of the Mountains was there for you.

And you make it sound as if the bear followed us all the way to Sixty-Lakes.

Michael Gordon adds:

: The faces of mountains are as varied as the faces of men.

Very nice prose, Aaron.

John Bees adds:

Beautiful story but I don't know if it's the most daunting summit in the Sierra. It's a bit awkward but I think that there are more difficult and dangerous ones like Darwin, Thunderbolt, Gardiner, Black Kaweah, and Thunder among others.

Glad to see that you and the rest of the party were safe and successful.

Another Bolton Brown classic climb.

Alan Ritter adds:

Exciting climb...a bit beyond my current humble mountaineering skills...but maybe some day...

Christopher Barrington-Leigh adds:

Nice trip report on clarence king.

You were using a Kevlar ("gemini") rope??? I doubt it! Especially if you were leading on it or able to get it to slide through a rappel device. Your kernmantle rope is made of 100% nylon.

I too had a rope chopped through this past week by rockfall, on mt whitney's E Butt (covered in snow).

David Hough adds:

Made my palms sweaty. I'll stick to class 2.

Steve Eckert adds:

>I was the first one down the rope, and I took shelter behind a boulder.

Good choice to hide! I don't remember much loose rock on CK, but it's always wise to be out of reach.

>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.

Hmmm. That means Rich cut the rope by knocking rocks down, and then ran that cut rope thru his rappel device! That's the sort of thing (kinks, cuts, core damage) one should always look for and feel for with the tension hand... I remember one rope with crampon damage that was ONLY apparent when running it thru your hand: The mantle looked fine, but the fibers inside had been cut or bunched by a crampon point so it felt wrong when bending and sliding over your hand.

>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.

For the lead climber, I'd recommend throwing a rope completely OVER the summit block and belaying off the boulder which is available. (Sort of like Glacier Ridge, where we just used a hip belay aided by friction over the summit itself.)

Debbie Benham adds:

I finally sat down to read your story, and, the opening paragraphs were wonderful. Thanks Aaron!:)

Arun Mahajan adds:

Just a short note to commend Aaron on his trip report and his job as a leader on the Clarence King trip.

Ron did a great job on the lead for the jam/squeeze crack and I am still in admiration of the ease with which he did that little swing move to vault himself to the top and the patience with which he belayed us all off the top. If making that move to get onto the summit block is hard, then getting off it is even harder.

It was only sheer personal magnetism that made the likes of me cling to that summit block and attain it!

Phyllis Olrich adds:

Oh yeah, congratulations to you and Aaron on reaching the summit of Clarence King. I appreciate what an accomplishment that is. I attempted that peak nearly 20 years ago and didn't make it. Way too much exposure for me... I sat on a very precarious ledge waiting for my companions to finish. I remember some kind of bird flew very close to me as I was nodding off.

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