Crushing on the KingThe heart races, the palms sweat, and the face is flushed as I scramble for a better look. No, not at some heart throb walking down the street, but at Clarence King hanging out on the horizon soaking in a sunny Sierra day. And yes, I’m crushing on a mountain. For some, the association between a hormonally driven male crush and an endorphin driven mountain crush may seem a stretch and more like a product of desperation. Well, from the perspective of a lady painfully insecure in wooing the opposite sex, a mountain seems much more attainable and it cannot be denied that there is something sexy about being on top. One still runs the risks of rejection, pain, and disappointment in pursuit of this mountain crush, but it is a different breed that generates empowerment rather than insecurity.
The mountain sex appeal from the male perspective has been in the pursuit of the elusive virgin summit to plant his name upon. From my female perspective it is less about the summit and more about the courtship and foreplay. The summit can be a momentary orgasmic moment, but the anticipation and adventure leading to it are much more lasting enjoyment.
For every mountain lady daydreamer there is the prince charming of mountains that is to be found on some distant horizon. There are endless scenes to explore in search of this fantasy mountain. The Himalayas are the ivy league high class peaks that require a good amount of money, gear, and guiding to date. With little ambition to summit a peak that is asphyxiating me I steer clear of this scene. The Andes too much of a temper, the European Alps too social, the Rockies too insecure, the Alaskan ranges too aloof. While the exotic is fun to mingle with, my search for the fantasy mountain lies somewhere in the familiar granite spines of the Sierra Nevada.
Personally what catches my eye are prominence, character, and attitude. And that is how Clarence King sent me scrambling for a better look. There is a mountain and there is a man both captured in name and granite form. While King’s 12,905 ft measurement is not impressive his presence among the surrounding mountains is. His pyramidal summit is set apart and easy to spot from great distances in all cardinal directions. He stands out as the founder of the United States Geological Survey with his pen playing a hand in exploring and examining the geological history of vast western lands . There is also character in his rising flanks that are more than a boring heap of talus. Every aspect has a new surprising quirk depending on the angle, rock, color, and form. Here is a scientist, writer, explorer, mountaineer who colors a raw crude western lifestyle with refined strokes of artistic reflections and taste. It is never enough to see one side and he keeps one curious about what is around the corner. I can find a bond with “…a fellow who preferred to sit on a peak and dream all day over snow mountains in the distance instead of hunting fossils in the gold belt”(Wilkins 61). Attitude is in the challenge perhaps even playing hard to get with some exposure, long approach, and technical climbing. Here was a man that could outrace Mexican outlaws, leap over crevasses, pursue vertical unknown rock, and lasso summit pinnacles, while also charm native children and hog farmers. Clarence King must have seen me sneaking a peek as he flexed his exposed granite ridges and swelled his sheer faces in the fading Sierra sun.
For weeks the flirtation continued. The blown up topo map featuring his lines hung in the hallway to study and admire upon passing. I would go on an innocent day hike in the front country and happen to pass by a viewpoint with him in the horizon. Or I would summit a neighboring peak to the West just to see his reaction. He would build thunderheads above his crown and snatch lightning bolts in an impressive show of jealousy. He was no easy catch that I could do in a day push. I needed to buy my time to make my move. There is delicate timing to making the first move on a mountain. Timing in the season, gear, weather, and personal attitude all must be in top form. In preparation I would check the weather website like an addict, fidget and repack the camping gear multiple times, and then trace topo lines practicing my casual introduction. Despite my confidence I took a guilty glance at the Sierra mountain version of Cosmo Magazine, Secore’s guide. Here one can find all the tips on how to land the mountain with insider tips and descriptions. For the first move I settled on a solo journey up the defining south ridge that required little gadgetry besides the strength of my four limbs and some poise for the final move.
The window of opportunity presented itself in the form of a long weekend and good weather. The entire first day of hiking he was hidden behind the tall valley walls and I restrained myself from blowing over the pass to catch sight of his East face for the first time. There was no sense in rushing and I would make a much better composed impression in the morning after rest. Clarence and I hit it off great the next day as I entered his home basin and explored his collection of lakes and admired his new angle from the East. Before continuing on my solo rendezvous it seemed proper to check in with someone in case my plans went sour. Half expecting a young dreamy backcountry ranger dude I approached the Ray Lakes ranger cabin. Instead I found a character far better than any fantasy. Bent over a bucket washing a large pile of dirty brown socks was an older grayed and weathered man. Backcountry ranger Dario has spent his summers in the Sierras for over 30 years and knew Clarence King’s neighborhood well. Curfews and nosey parents might have been a pain in high school, but it was comforting to have Dario keeping track of my mountain date. “So you plan on summiting? Ya know about that tricky summit block?”
“Yeah, I don’t need the summit block if it looks too risky. I’ve learned how to not succumb to summit fever” I reply.
“I’ll warn you that it is one of those summit blocks that is hard to resist. Just be careful if you go all the way.” I was thankful to find Dario to not be the over protective paranoid parent type full of doubt and anxiety. He understood the need for solo adventure with a little reign and risk.
That night in a full moon Clarence King cuddled me in warm mountain air beside one of his high lakes. I was in good company with Clarence King, Cotter, Gardiner, and Brewer together glowing in moonlight intoxication yelling across the basins, joking, and reliving their days of Sierra exploration. Today a train of summer backpackers march like ants on manicured trails around their bases on the Ray Lakes Loop. In 1864, though, this was a blank spot on California’s map and these four headed up a Geological Survey team to explore what King suspected to be the most elevated summits of the range. Cotter rises from a ridge shared with Clarence King into youthful sheer granite arêtes and a distinct summit. Cotter is King’s youthful “croney from the plains” who laid his life on the line several times serving as his climbing partner in trying for the top of California. “Stout of limb, stronger yet in heart, of iron endurance, and a quiet, unexcited temperament, and, better yet, deeply devoted to me, I felt Cotter was the one comrade I would choose to face death with, for I believe there was in his manhood no room for fear or shirk” King recalls of his partner. Gardiner sits across a basin to the North with his long sleek sheer ridges rising to 12,907. King refers to Gardiner as brother since they have been long lasting friends and partners in exploration since adolescence. They become professional partners for the California Survey and now took their explorations together to the new heights of California. Standing slightly aloof of the rowdy youngsters across the Bubbs Creek drainage is Brewer. He feels a sort of fatherly instinct over these young characters that look up to him as a teacher and inspirational guide. Brewer headed the 1864 expedition and was the first to report back about the endless Sierra panorama from the top of his 13,570 summit.
“Your minds were full of pure madness those days. I figured you might as well attempt to get on a cloud as to try Tyndall Peak. ” Brewer recalls.
“You must have had some shred of confidence in our mission?” Cotter wonders.
“Ha!”Gardiner bellows. “Brewer here had even started a letter to King’s family to inform of his untimely death.”
“I feared that my desire to know more of the unexplored mountains had led to the lonely untimely deaths of you boys.” Brewer admits with lowered eyes.
“Your worries were warranted. We pushed our luck to the brink several times.” Cotter admits.
“Remember when your shoes disintegrated and you slipped above that 400 foot precipice!” King exclaims with a little shake on Cotter’s shoulder.
“How you managed to grab me and a tuft of a tree at the same time is beyond me! You easily would have taken the tumble with me.” Cotter replies.
“That was nothing compared to your gymnastic leap to that finger crack and then the deadly belay of me up the summit technical crux.” King responds while mimicking the remarkable crux move.
“It was a bit disconcerting to find only a featureless granite slope above, but I figured you would climb in a calm collected manner with the impression of safety at the end of the rope. That is how much confidence I had in your skills and ability to also climb the crux unaided.” Cotter counters in the battle of modesty.
King settles down and grabs Cotter in an intense gaze. “It is one thing, in a moment of excitement, to make a gallant leap, or hold one’s nerves in the iron grasp of will, but to coolly seat one’s self in the door of death, and silently listen for the fatal summons, and this all for a friend,-for he might easily have cast loose the lasso and saved himself,-requires as sublime a type of courage as I know”(King 90).
“And you all did this as unpaid volunteers in the name of exploration!” Brewer shakes his head in bewilderment.
The summit block looms above, and yes I want it. What seems like a technically simple climb up to the wonderfully exposed gigantic and balanced block becomes slightly hairy and exciting with worn out hiking boots and no rope. If I were with Bolten Brown back in 1896 at the time of the first ascent, Clarence King’s summit would be the hardest climb in 19th century history (Secore). It seems silly to balk with a racing heart before a 5.4 move, but the consequence of my worn down boot sole slipping is plummeting 1000’s of feet to instant death off the side or becoming wedged and broken in the gap below awaiting Dario’s rescue.
“At that moment, when hanging between heaven and earth, it was a deep satisfaction to look down at the wide gulf of desolation beneath, and up to the unknown dangers ahead, and feel my nerves cool and unshaken”(King 63). Kings words come to mind enabling me to gather the aplomb and give his high climaxing block a go. The seemingly desperate traction on my worn boots becomes secure in light of King’s climbing feats in worn hobnail shoes. I succumb to summit fever as my hands search for holds on the block top and my foot grasps the fateful nubbin before the committing mantelish move.
In a flash I’m atop Kings intimate summit at last with a spinning view of the high sierra landscape under full sunshine and the “waveless calm of space”. So is this the end of the mountain fairytale? Had I found my mountain prince charming in Clarence King? Was I content to set up camp and not desire the next mountain over?
Judging by the glimmering reflection of the surrounding peaks in my eye this was not the case. Already my eyes are tracing attractive contours and the mind is spinning with new possibilities. Is this senseless pursuit of mountain crushes sending me nowhere closer to contentment and happiness? “; but looking from this summit with all desire to see everything, the one overmastering feeling is desolation, desolation!”(King 79). Perhaps THE mountain is not to be found in the highest peaks where my imagination prowls, but some summit that gently beckons me up soft slopes to embrace me at the summit. Perhaps in order to recognize and appreciate such a mountain one has to get blown and beat off many others.
Ah yes, the mind returns to my present summit and the prospect of tactful descent without offending Clarence. Luckily Clarence understands my need and drive to try new and challenging summits and he allows me to slide off and land safely from his summit block. He understands that sitting contentedly atop his sunny windless summit would never bring me happiness. It is the pursuit that brings us promiscuous mountain ladies bliss.