Mount Irvine (First Ascent), Mount Mallory (First Ascent)

March 1928 Courtesy: American Alpine Club, Arkel Milton Erb Mem

By: Norman Clyde


To the southeast of Mt. Whitney there are a number of peaks, lower than it, but yet extremely interesting to the mountaineer. The views of Mt. Whitney obtainable from their summits are perhaps more impressive than those to be had from any other direction. A deep intervening canyon greatly enhances the apparent height of Mt: Whitney with its eastern vertical cliff, several thousand feet in elevation and surmounted to the south of the main peak by a line of pinnacles not greatly inferior to it in elevation. This vicinity, however, is seldom entered, most visitors being content with a hurried visit to the highest peak.

Toward the end of June on one occasion I was camping on the border of a small tarn, locally called Mirror Lake. Situated in a deep amphitheater-like depression almost entirely surrounded by granite crags that rise high above it, the spot possesses a weird and unique charm, particularly on moonlit nights when cliff and peak gleam with a soft white radiance. In the bottom of the great bowl nestles a small deep blue lake. Above it to the southeast there is a belt of ragged foxtail and tamarack pine. In other directions a few wind torn specimens straggle up a few hundred feet and then stop. About the lake and along the brooks that enter it there is a strip of meadow, the grassy sward of which is varied by beds of red heather, scattered groups of cyclamens and dense thickets of willow.

Early one morning I left camp intent upon scaling a then unnamed peak immediately to the southwest. Although the sky was clear, there was no forecasting what might occur before the day should be over, as for some lime past the weather had been amazingly unsettled for this season of the year in the Sierra Nevada.

The best route to follow was also somewhat of a question. The mountain-wall extending north and south, a short distance from camp, presented a formidable front but appeared to be scaleable, either by working one's way directly up it or by following any one of a number of chimneys that cut into its precipitous front. After ascending a steep talus slope, I reached the base of the wall and made my way up its face, sometimes following a ledge, at others, ascending a chimney for some distance, and then again scaling the cliff by means of narrow shelves and projections. After perhaps a thousand feet of this sort of progression, I reached the crest of the ridge. In the meantime the weather had changed. Great fluffy masses of clouds floated about and the atmosphere possessed a heavy, humid feeling unusual at this elevation. To the west, across a deep canyon, rose the craggy eastern face of Mt. Whitney and nearby peaks. Great volumes of clouds that rolled about its summit rendered it doubly imposing.

The peak toward which I was advancing could be plainly seen at times, but at others was obscured by heavy clouds. Although it broke away to the east in sheer cliffs, apparently it could be approached from the ridge on which it was standing. As I proceeded up the narrow ridge, great volumes of vapor floated lazily past the mountain summits or lay heaped about them in formless masses, but at length they cleared away somewhat, and the peak was visible a short distance ahead. Several horns of mountain sheep were seen lying on the broken scree along the crest perhaps never trodden before by any except these bold and hardy mountaineers. I soon reached the summit, a narrow rocky point 13,790 feet above sea level, and was there regaled with the view of the rugged array of craggy cloud-enveloped peaks that spring up in chaotic confusion to the north and the south along the main crest of the Sierra, in massive grandeur across a profound canyon.

A narrow arete led to a second peak of about the same elevation as the one already scaled. Although eager to climb it also, I was under obligation to return to the Owens Valley that day and therefore postponed it to a later occasion.

Within a few days I was again at the same camp and on the following morning set out in quest of the second peak, a day that proved to be stormier than the previous one. By the time that I had reached the base of the peak, storm clouds were hanging heavily about all the higher mountains. After advancing up loose chimneys and broken cliffs I paused a while on a rock shelf a few rods below the summit, as the heavy wind and the play of electricity on the latter did not invite one to proceed farther. Snow flew past in scurrying gusts. Across the canyon to the west a lofty pinnacle formed a striking picture, as dense clouds rolled and settled about its summit. At length, the sky clearing somewhat, I scrambled up to the highest point of the mountain--a narrow, broken knife-edge 13,872 feet above sea-level. For some time I remained, exhilarated by the view of the storm swept mountains, but soon left its exposed summit and returned to camp.

Both of these peaks were unnamed and apparently had not been scaled on any previous occasion, but they have since been called Mt. Mallory and Mt. Irvine in honor of the two English mountaineers lost on Mt. Everest.


SPS Archives Index | Sierra Peaks Section