Page Type Page Type: Trip Report
Location Lat/Lon: 37.16692°N / 118.67217°W
Date Date Climbed/Hiked: Sep 14, 2009
Activities Activities: Hiking
Seasons Season: Fall

An Evolutionist in the Evolutions

Google Image Search

It’s not often that you have a Google Image Search to thank for identifying the location of your next mountain trip. I teach evolutionary biology and history of science and am more dependent than I should be on Google for the images I use in the classroom.  

Finding Haeckel & Darwin

The Image Search that started it all

Early in 2009, I was developing a set of lectures on the response to the publication of Charles Darwin’s ideas in Europe and the US. A major figure in this story is Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919), a German biologist (he coined the term “ecology”) who was one of Darwin’s earliest and most enthusiastic followers. Haeckel traveled in 1866 to England to meet Darwin at his home in Kent, Down House. There are a few photographs of Darwin (his son Leonard was an early amateur photographer) and my hope was that the historic encounter would have merited a photograph. I was disappointed – there are no photos of Darwin and Haeckel together – but my eye was immediately drawn to several photos in the image search results that lacked even a hint of history of science: mountains, spiky ones, set against clear blue skies. Even if Charles and Ernst never posed together in front of the camera, at least their mountain namesakes, Mounts Darwin and Haeckel, were apparently not camera shy.


It didn’t take long – courtesy of SP – to find out about these peaks. They are part of the Evolution Range in the High Sierra of California, on the North Eastern edge of King’s Canyon Nat’l Park. For a fabulous panoramic photo (not shot by me) taken from the summit of Mt. Spencer, one of the peaks, see here. And a rather less fabulous panorama:

The Evolutions
The Evolutions

The area was first explored in 1895 by Theodore Solomons, the man who was arguably more responsible than anyone else for establishing the John Muir Trail (he was a friend of Muir). 

Theodore Solomons

Theodore Solomons, 1895, from Solomons of the Sierrra by Shirley Sargent

Coming from a well heeled and well educated Jewish San Francisco family, Solomons was unusual by the standards of the mountain pioneers of his day in being motivated by a simple passion for the wilderness, rather than by, say, commercial/mineralogical considerations. Perhaps because of this, Solomons took a rather more intellectual (or geekier, depending on your perspective) approach to naming mountains than most explorers. Let’s face it, mountain-naming is not always the most imaginative of enterprises: you choose the name of the President (Mount Washington), or of your employer (Mount Harvard), or of the surveyor, your boss (Mount Everest), or you incorporate physical features of the mountain into its name (Red Mountain). In contrast, confronted with an impressive set of unexplored peaks in the heart of the High Sierra, Solomons wrote that he was determined that the naming of this “fraternity of Titans” should “bear in common an august significance. And I could think of none more fitting to confer upon it than the great evolutionists, so at-one in their devotion to the sublime in Nature.”


The results were six Evolution peaks. Mount Darwin (13,831’) is, appropriately enough, the highest point in the region. Mount Wallace (13,377’) is named for Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) who, along with Darwin, was the co-discoverer of the theory of evolution by natural selection. History has not been kind to Wallace: while Darwin has become ever more lionized, Wallace has been condemned to the obscurity of an occasional footnote in a biology textbook. Mount Spencer (12,431’) honors Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), who gave us the term “survival of the fittest” but who tends these days to be forgotten save for his unfortunate association with “social Darwinism”, a kind of unattractive marriage of eugenics and the worst excesses of capitalism. Mount Haeckel (13,418’) lies between Mounts Darwin and Wallace, with the ridge continuing beyond Wallace to Mounts Fiske and Huxley. John Fiske (1842-1901) is the only member of the Solomons Six who has well and truly disappeared from view – I am supposedly an expert on this stuff, but had to resort to Wikipedia to track him down. He was an American philosopher who popularized Darwin’s ideas in the US, most notably in a wonderfully titled book, Outlines of Cosmic Philosophy. Mount Huxley refers to T. H. Huxley (1825-95), Darwin’s most vocal defender in the debates that followed publication of On the Origin of Species. It was Huxley who in 1860 famously put down the Bishop of Oxford: "If then the question is put to me whether I would rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man highly endowed by nature and possessed of great means of influence and yet employs these faculties and that influence for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion, I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape."

The Solomons Six

The Solomons Six (beard or over-developed sideburns a prerequisite)

Solomons also named the region’s main body of water, Evolution Lake. Subsequently, two additional peaks in the region have picked up evolution-related names. Mount Lamarck (13,147’) honors Darwin’s most influential predecessor as an evolutionary theorist, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829). Lamarck is primarily famous for being wrong – he is the one who believed incorrectly that characteristics acquired in a lifetime (the beefy right arm of a blacksmith) could be transmitted to offspring – but, regardless, he was a pioneering and bold biological theorist. It’s only proper that he should have been added to Solomons’ evolutionary pantheon. Gregor Mendel (1822-84), the monk whose studies of pea plant breeding gave us our first coherent vision of how heredity works, wasn’t an evolutionist per se but his contributions were vital to the development of the modern theory of evolution.  

R A Fisher
Pre-qualified by his beard. Sir Ronald Aylmer Fisher, photographed by Walter Stoneman (bromide print, March 1943) NPG x24052 © National Portrait Gallery, London. Used with permission



Steve Gould

S J Gould. A moustache is not enough

Mt Mendel (13,710’) is essentially a continuation of the main Mt Darwin ridge; there is now a suggestion that a third peak on the ridge, beyond Mendel, should be named Mount Gould, in honor of a modern day evolutionist, Stephen Jay Gould (who died in 2002). I don’t like this idea (despite Steve’s having been a colleague and friend) because Steve will be regarded by posterity, I suspect, as a Fiske, not a Darwin or Huxley. He was a superb popularizer but his scientific contributions are not, in my opinion, likely to withstand the test of time. Sorry, Steve. A much more appropriate honoree would be R A Fisher (1890-1962), the British population geneticist who did more than anyone else to bring together Mendel’s ideas with Darwin’s to create our current theory of evolution. To have Mounts Mendel and Fisher as named sub-peaks on a ridge culminating in Mt Darwin would nicely complete Solomons’ goal of honoring visionary scientific thinkers “at-one in their devotion to the sublime in Nature.”


Now, I have two major passions in life. The first, which, happily, pays the bills, is my interest in evolutionary biology and the history of science. The second, which more typically creates bills (usually in the form of flights to Colorado), is mountains. Sadly, the venn diagrams representing these two passions in my life do not typically overlap: one happens on weekdays and the other on weekends or vacations… Here, however, I had stumbled upon a spectacular instance of overlap…. By climbing Mounts Darwin and Wallace (Wallace is my particular hero), I would be bringing the scientific and mountain-y components of my life together. OK, so it’s a bit of a stretch, but the idea was irresistible. Moreover, it had to be 2009, the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth (and the 150th anniversary of the publication of the Origin of Species). The evolutionary biology community marked the occasion in the way in which academics mark occasions: with conferences at which we sit around and listen to our colleagues talk about their latest and greatest insights before, at last, the talks are over and the bar is open. In fact, I was already rather fed up with Darwin jamborees by half way through the year: every institution wanted a slice of the action -- its own Darwin event -- meaning that there was an endless round of conferences, each one attended by, give or take, the same set of usual suspects. It had all become rather repetitive. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy a good academic get together as much as the next nerd – but I had developed a desire to do something more personal, more intimate, to honor the grand old man who still towers over my field of evolutionary biology. What better way to do so than to climb Mt Darwin?

From SP and a newly acquired copy of Secor’s guidebook, I discovered that the plan wasn’t as straightforward as I’d hoped. I am a hiker, not a technical climber, and I am scared of heights. Wallace, an ugly pile of loose rock, would be fine but Darwin has its own special obstacle, its awkward summit pinnacle, complete with some reasonably serious exposure. For anyone with any climbing experience, this is no big deal, but for me, I realized, it could be a deal breaker. And I for one was not going to traipse all the way out to California from the E Coast all for the privilege of getting to within a few frustrating feet of the summit of Darwin. I needed help. Dunbar Carpenter. Dunbar, an ex-student of mine who’d graduated a year or so before, had taken a course from me in evolutionary biology, so (hopefully) he’d get the whole honoring Darwin thing, but, more importantly, he had been a leading light of the Harvard Mountaineering Club. I contacted Dunbar with the tentative suggestion that he drag his old professor up some Evolution-themed Sierra peaks. His response was to send me a copy of an article about Peter Croft’s climb in the Evolutions. One of the great N American climbs is a full traverse of the Evolution ridge, “Fisher/Gould” -> Huxley: about 8 miles, 10,000’ of elevation gain, and plenty of pitches of exposed 5.9. In 1999, Croft had succeeded on his third attempt, completing the route in 15 hours. Relative to El Capitan, Croft rated it “way, way harder.” I explained gently to Dunbar that he should reduce his expectations (by several orders of magnitude): anything that took Croft 15 hours would take me rather more than 15 days and, anyway, I would have fallen off and expired before the route got anywhere near serious. Sorry, Dunbar, this is a hiking trip, not a climbing trip. Dunbar, fortunately, was still keen: not only did the Darwin thing resonate, but he was eager to check out a part of the US mountain world he’d not spent time in before. And I guess there’s something to be said for the role reversal: the professor becomes the student, and the student the professor…

Looking along the ridge S from Darwin
Looking along the ridge S from Darwin

In late spring ’09, Dunbar spent a Saturday morning at Quincy Quarries putting me through my paces on some climbing basics. I’d done some climbing before but never become remotely competent. As I clumsily rappelled off the cliff top (as a Brit, I insisted on calling it abseiling), I could almost hear Dunbar’s silent inward groan as he pondered the prospect of spending a few days in the mountains with this sack of potatoes… At least there was now absolutely no question in Dunbar’s mind about the possibility of completing even modest segments of the Croft traverse….

Next came the issue of scheduling. I spend the summer in the UK teaching a summer school program (more Darwin…) and have to head back directly to Cambridge MA for the start of the Fall semester. Dunbar was going to be out West anyway in Aug (on a Harvard Mountaineering Club trip to the Wind Rivers and Tetons) and was planning on visiting his folks in Oregon at the beginning of September. Early September it would be, then. Complicated, though. University commitments meant that I wouldn’t be able to get away until the end of the day on Fri Sept 11, and even then it was going to be awkward to reconfigure my teaching for the following week… So it would be out on the evening of Sept 11 (turns out it’s a good day to get cheap flights…), back on the red eye on Weds 16th, in time to put in an appearance, bleary and jet-lagged, in the classroom on Thursday morning.

Getting there

I nearly missed my 5pm flight out of Boston on 11 Sept, as I scrambled to get things done in my office. I met up with Dunbar at LAX, we rented a cheap and extraordinarily ugly car, and headed North East-ish to Bishop. Four hours later we were checking in to one of Bishop’s most dubious motels. Then came a full morning and more of logistics: permits and bear canisters at the Parks Office in Bishop, food/fuel shopping, and picking up those odds and sods that you should have packed but hadn’t. We ended up getting to the Lamarck Lakes trailhead at North Lake rather later than we’d hoped, but now, finally, we were under way.


Route; red dots mark campsites

Strange how everything changes once you have a pack on your back. Up ‘til now, everything had simply been about getting to this point – about making it all happen – but now a whole new set of priorities and concerns loomed. Would Dunbar, about half my age, find hiking with Grandpa too wildly frustrating? Would the weather hold? It was starting off fine – a few clouds here and there – but there was a hint of thunderheads in the valley behind us. And what about the altitude? This was a major concern. Because of my time constraints, we didn’t have time to acclimatize, but I’ve had enough experience of altitude to appreciate its unpredictability. It was a gamble: possibly altitude issues would kill off the whole endeavor. I’ve had serious altitude problems before (in Pakistan) and, on a couple of occasions, run into minor problems on first arriving at altitude in Colorado. Dunbar was in the Winds a couple of weeks previously but that acclimatization would pretty well have evaporated by now; and I was coming from… sea level. Starting at around 9,400’, our first objective was Lamarck col, just shy of 13,000’, and from there we would drop down into Darwin Canyon, whose floor is at about 11,600’. I was hoping that we’d be able to walk out of Darwin Canyon to Darwin Bench, from where we could drop down to a lower spot for the first night.


Heading up




Above Lamarck Lakes

A bite to eat at the Lower Lamarck Lake and I took a dip; Dunbar, I discovered, is cold water averse. We picked up the excellent use trail that departs the main Lamarck Lakes trail between the two lakes and headed on up towards Lamarck Col. As we sweated our way up towards the pass, under the watchful eye of the flakey golden-yellow Paiute Crags, my worst altitude fears began to materialize in the form of that telltale headache.

Nearing Lamarck Pass

Approaching Lamarck Col

The pair that made it up to Lamarck Col at around sunset was an unhappy shadow of the jaunty duo that had set off from the car a few hours earlier. At least the steep little snow field immediately below the pass hadn’t posed a problem as we could simply follow the deep groove created by a summer’s worth of Lamarck Col-ers. Nauseated and head-ache-y, we weren’t really in the mood the enjoy the glorious view laid out before us: Mounts Darwin and Mendel bathed in the last of the sun’s rays, and Darwin Canyon’s series of lakes pointing westwards towards the setting sun.

Mount Darwin from Lamarck Col

First views of Mount Darwin

Nope, it was just a matter of getting down as fast as we could. It was dark by the time we had reached the second lake, and it was quite apparent, as we stumbled over the large boulders that formed all too often the lakes’ shores, that we were not going any further that night. My goal of sleeping rather lower – somewhere below Darwin Bench beyond the end of the canyon – was thwarted.

Sunset in Darwin Canyon

Sunset over Darwin Canyon

Having made the decision to stop, we had to find somewhere to pitch the tent. Not easy in that boulder-y, dark universe. When finally we found a site that was halfway acceptable, a new problem arose. We were using an old two man tent of mine. I’d not used it for a long while because all the backpacking I've done for the past several years has been with my offspring (two daughters) in a rather larger tent. I should (of course) have checked out the old tent before heading out… The tent itself was fine, but the elastic connecting the pole sections was utterly perished; now we had to cut out the useless, flaccid elastic from each of the 18 segments before assembling the poles, which, as we floundered around on the rocks in the dark, would then promptly fall apart in the absence of the tension imparted by the elastic… Ugh, the last thing you want to deal with at the end of a long day. Food? God, no. Sleep, but fearing the worst. I was certain that we were sleeping way too high, and that the morning would find us worse – more altitude-y – rather than better.

Wrong. Very wrong. Not a comfortable night by any measure, but we awoke to a new day and, relative to the night before, to new bodies. Both of us felt fine, if a little groggy. Yay! My worst imaginings of the night before -- having to crawl, oedema-crushed, down valley to the nearest Ranger Station -- were not to be realized. Perhaps my Darwin pilgrimage was going to fly after all. Or perhaps not: we spent 45 minutes struggling to reconfigure a key part of the tent that, we discovered, was connected to the missing elastic… But then, sun shining, on past the lakes, those huge boulders of last night now magically rather smaller when viewed by day…


Darwin Bench




Where we *should* have camped

We headed down on to the lovely plateau-y, lake-studded open spaces of Darwin Bench and from there dropped diagonally down (to minimize altitude loss) to the main Evolution Valley. Here we met for the first time the John Muir Trail (JMT), and after the loneliness of Darwin Canyon we had rejoined the human race, as we encountered JMT-ers making their way up and down the trail. Our first views of Evolution Lake and the region as a whole: gorgeous! Mt Spencer thrusting up like some kind of wannabe Sugar Loaf in the foreground and the great craggy buttress of Mendel-Darwin on the left.

Evolution Basin
Evolution Basin

It had only taken us a couple of hours to reach Evolution Lake (10,800'); we set up camp as soon as we could, right near the N end of the lake on a rather attractive promontory jutting into the lake. Blue skies... Maybe we should try for Wallace (the less challenging of our two target peaks) today? Now some bad news. Some other backpackers visited us as were sorting our kit and asked whether we had spoken to the Park Ranger. No. Seems a ranger had been through that morning warning people that heavy snow was forecast for that evening, starting around midnight... Ugh. Seemed that anyone who could was forsaking the region and heading to lower ground. Just what we needed... One especially dismal fellow appeared and shook his head when we mentioned that we were planning on sticking it out before returning over Lamarck col. "Several people died up there a few years ago in a storm. Hypothermia." Well, thank you for that. Oh well, nothing for it. Time to head to Wallace.


A long approach, initially on the JMT, along the shores of Evolution Lake and Sapphire Lake, crossing to the west of the drainage at the south end of Sapphire. Then a gentle ascent into a broad basin flanked by Mts Spencer to the north and Huxley to the south. I have a particular fondness for Wallace (I once wrote a book about him), so it is with regret that I have to report that Mt. Wallace is not the most impressive of peaks -- it is rather overshadowed by its spiky neighbor, Haeckel.

Wallace Approach

Heading East from the JMT into the Wallace-Haeckel-Huxley basin

Haeckel & Wallace

Wallace is the rather uncharismatic peak on the right

Alfred Russel Wallace was an extraordinary man, a self-taught naturalist who left school at 13 barely educated. His first great scientific adventure (1848-52), which took him deep in to the unexplored realms of the Amazon, ended in catastrophe when the boat he was returning to England in caught fire in the middle of the Atlantic. On board were his thousands of hard won specimens, his notes and journals, and some 30 living animals that he was hoping would help make a name for him in scientific circles in London…. All lost. In fact, Wallace had to flee the burning wreck so precipitously that his hands were rope-burned. He spent ten days at sea in an open boat before being rescued.  


Alfred Russel Wallace

Having lost everything, he had to do it all over again, going next to South East Asia and New Guinea on a remarkable eight year journey (1854-62). Half way through this trip, isolated on one of the Spice Islands and wracked by malaria, he stumbled feverishly upon the idea of natural selection. The luckiest thing that ever happened to Charles Darwin was that, instead of submitting the manuscript he produced as soon as the fever had abated directly to a scientific journal, Wallace decided to send it to Darwin. The result was the joint publication of Wallace’s paper with some material of Darwin’s (Wallace, far off in Indonesia, was not consulted about this arrangement), and Darwin scrambled to assert his priority by publishing, little more than a year later, The Origin of Species.


Wallace’s brother John had emigrated from the UK to California in 1849, lured like so many by the prospect of finding gold. Alfred, by then a revered senior scientist, visited the US on a lecture tour in 1887, and met up again with John, whom he had not seen for nearly 40 years. During this visit to California, Alfred met John Muir, with whom he visited a grove of redwoods (ie Sequoia trees). Perhaps influenced by Muir, Wallace wrote passionately and presciently on their conservation:

“Neither the thundering waters of Niagara, nor the sublime precipices and cascades of Yosemite, nor the vast expanse of the prairies, nor the exquisite delight of the alpine flora of the Rocky Mountains--none of these seem to me so unique in their grandeur, so impressive in their display of the organic forces of nature, as the two magnificent "big trees" of California. Unfortunately these alone are within the power of man totally to destroy, as they have been already partially destroyed. Let us hope that the progress of true education will so develop the love and admiration of nature, that the possession of these altogether unequalled trees will be looked upon as a trust for all future generations, and that care will be taken, before it is too late, to preserve not only one or two small patches, but some more extensive tracts of forest, in which they may continue to flourish, in their fullest perfection and beauty, for thousands of years to come, as they have flourished in the past, in all probability for millions of years and over a far wider area.”

It is wonderfully appropriate, then, that Mount Wallace lies within the joint National Parks, King’s Canyon & Sequoia.

Climbing Wallace

On Wallace


On top of Wallace

Dunbar atop Wallace


Mt Wallace Summit Register

Mt Wallace Summit Register

Back to climbing Wallace. Dunbar was keen to take a gulley forming a diagonal gash across the west face, but I preferred the look of Wallace Col to the south of the peak. In this instance, at least, prof trumped student. Not that it was an especially good choice: the ascent to the col was a nasty, steep, slide-y scree field. That took us on to the main Evolution ridge that connects all these peaks – Peter Croft had come this way! -- and from there it was an easy scramble to the top. We were there by about 4. The very top is a slightly awkward boulder, which Dunbar had to help me clamber on to. I preferred to sit astride it; Dunbar was happy standing up. Photos, including a long lens shot of the summit of Darwin some mile or so distant to the North. There indeed is that nasty vertiginous summit pinnacle. A fun descent, a scree run, and we were back at the tent, hungry, shortly after 7. Everyone we met on the JMT as we descended was on their way down – seems that snow warning had done the rounds. Time then to brace for that snow. Funny to think that anything we leave outside might be buried and difficult to find again... I hadn’t even packed gaiters.


Haeckel seen from Wallace; Darwin is behind




Long lens shot from Wallace of the summit of Darwin

Descending Wallace

Descending Wallace


Below Wallace




Huxley to the left




Evolution Lake

Evolution Lake


The snow? It never came. In fact, Monday dawned fine. It did however begin to cloud over rather rapidly, causing one old timer whom we walked past early in the day to remark that we were sure to have that storm later that afternoon... But we were going for Darwin. I had by now familiarized myself with its daunting West face (we had walked past it on the way to and from Wallace) and I was, well, daunted. Looked steep and nasty. Dunbar, however, was confident, though somewhat concerned about the weather.

Starting up Darwin

Heading up

Mt Darwin: West Face gulley

In the West Face gulley

Photocopied pages of Secor in hand, we headed for the most southerly of three west face chutes before clambering out of it -- ah, a mini-cairn! How reassuring -- into the middle of the three chutes, which runs like a diagonal slash across the face. A steep haul on loose rock. We veered off near the ridge line in to a gully on the right. At the top of this Secor said we would join a "knife edge" ridge, which would take us up to the summit plateau. I was worried about this, especially after having seen for myself, on Wallace, that the region knows a bit about knife edginess...

Approaching the Mendel-Darwin ridge crest

Approaching the Mendel-Darwin ridge

But the ridge turned out to be fine. It was easy enough to negotiate and soon we popped out on the summit plateau. Darwin was ours! Well, not quite. Don't forget the summit pinnacle. We made our way over to the SE corner of the plateau and there it was, as advertised. At least the weather was holding. We could see tops around in cloud, but Darwin itself was unaffected. Should we pause for some food before going for the top, or should we get to the top first? Easy call: let’s get this done.

Mt Darwin, Summit Pinnacle

The fabled summit pinnacle, up close & personal

The closest, direct approach looked OK but involved a couple of short pitches of vertical almost-holdness climbing. Dunbar went to investigate, dropping off around the west side of the tower, and disappearing around the back. I waited. Suddenly his red helmet emerged on the top... For Dunbar, there were no serious issues. For me, however, there were some... I edged round and down as far as I was willing. The crux involved descending diagonally a narrow ledge some 8' long with, well, a long way to fall. Very little in the way of hand holds. Here, I announced to Dunbar, I required some protection. At least this single short pitch would provide justification for having schlepped all the climbing gear with us… I sat on the edge and waited, feeble client waiting for ever-patient guide, while Dunbar set up the protection. I hardly dared glimpse down at the dizzying plunge beyond my boot toes.

Darwin Summit Pinnacle: going down and round to the west

Dropping off to go round the west side of the pinnacle

The "Darwin Awards": “In honor of Charles Darwin, the Darwin Awards commemorate those who improve our gene pool by (accidentally) removing themselves from it. The Award is generally bestowed posthumously.” Hmm. Not an award I’m keen to acquire. But I could see the headline in my mind’s eye: “Harvard Evolutionary Biologist Commemorating Darwin’s Birth Falls to Death on Mount Darwin” plus a subheading, “Natural Selection? Loser!” I had to admit that, under those circumstances, I would deserve a Darwin Award…

Dunbar put in place a couple of anchors, showed me where to place my feet, step by step, and let me get on with it. Here's SP-er Deb doing this exact move and showing how it should be done. I did things rather differently: definitely not, in my case, an elegant piece of climbing -- 'clambering' might be a better word for it -- but I made it across. That Darwin Award will have to wait! Now all that remained was the relatively straight forward climb up 30 feet or so to the top of the pinnacle. Dunbar went to the top, set up more protection, and up I went. The top of Mt Darwin!

Atop Darwin

Dunbar atop Darwin

Mt Darwin Summit

Happy 200th, Charles!

There was no summit log that we could find. In honor of Darwin’s 200th, I left a copy of the Origin of Species. Naturally, I subscribe to leave-everything-as-you-find-it maxim of environmental impact in the wilderness but this, I felt, was a legitimate exception. Crosses at the tops of European summits are OK; and prayer flags on Himalayan peaks; why not a copy of the Origin on Mt. Darwin? [That’s a rhetorical question]. Happy 200th Birthday, Charles! It felt wonderful to be up there, an airy perch in the midst of some of the finest scenery in the world… Croft’s fantastic ridge snaked away from us towards Haeckel and Wallace.

The Origin on Mt Darwin



Charles Darwin

Darwin, not surprisingly, is a name that has been applied to plenty of pieces of geography.  



Geology in Cwm Idwal

Studying geology where Darwin studied it: Cwm Idwal, Snowdonia, Wales

The city of Darwin in Australia was named for him, and by the officers of the HMS Beagle, but on a later voyage, not on the one that Darwin went on. To mark his 25th birthday, on 12 February 1834 aboard the Beagle in Tierra del Fuego, Captain Fitzroy named Monte Darwin, the high point of the Cordillera Darwin, in his honor.


Darwin grew up in Shrewsbury within striking distance of the mountains of N Wales. At the age of 17, he recalls in his Autobiography, he “took a long walking tour with two friends with knapsacks on our backs through North Wales. We walked thirty miles most days, including one day the ascent of Snowdon [the highest peak in England and Wales].” For much of his early scientific career, Darwin considered himself primarily a geologist, not a biologist, and it was in those same Welsh mountains that he received his geological training from his Cambridge University geological mentor, Adam Sedgwick. It was when he got home to Shrewsbury after a post-Cambridge tour of Welsh mountain geology with Sedgwick that he found awaiting him the letter inviting him to join the Beagle voyage. One location in Snowdonia that had particularly appealed to him was Cwm Idwal, and it was here that he returned, post-Beagle, in 1842 to see for himself whether the then new theory of Ice Ages – and therefore of the glacial sculpting of landscapes – was sound. He was easily convinced, writing “a house burnt down by fire did not tell its story more plainly than did this valley,” and marveling at his failure, eleven years prior, to recognize the telltale signatures of glacial action on the landscape. The sad aspect of this return to Wales is that it gives us a chance to calibrate the impact of Darwin’s ill health on his physical activity. Whereas in 1826, he could cover with ease 30 rough miles in a day, he was barely able in 1842 to make it up 1000’ of vertical gain. Whatever it was – and the causes of Darwin’s mystery illness remain a hotly debated point in the history of science – it marked the end of Darwin’s mountain days.


The summit block of Mt Darwin was big enough to give us plenty of space to move around – some pics and an almost surreal sense of achievement. Here we were, less than 48 hours after leaving the trailhead, having, despite the headaches of altitude (literal in this case) and the threatened snowstorm, made it up both our target peaks. Now for the business of getting down. To spare me that nasty pitch, Dunbar set up an abseil for me, so that I could drop off the direct route, facing the summit plateau. Possibly the most inelegant descent ever, but it was something of a thrill to abseil off Darwin (arguably everyone who calls themselves an evolutionary biologist is symbolically abseiling off Darwin because of the way his thinking continues to dominate the field...). Lunch on the plateau. We found the summit log book and the official US Geological Survey marks for the top; bit of a cop out, that, not placing them on the actual summit.

I don’t have especially fond memories of the descent. We returned the way we had come up, sliding down the long, loose gully towards the lake. This time we were down at a reasonable hour, around 5, with time for what might optimistically be called a refreshing swim in Evolution Lake. I can’t say I have especially fond memories of that either. Brrrr. But it was a good evening: ample time, as we watched the sunset paint the hills orange, to savor our triumph. 

Darwin Summit Plateau




Beginning the descent





Sunset of Mt Spencer

The last rays of the sun catch the top of Mt Spencer


Having done what we set out to do rather sooner than we had expected, Tuesday was essentially a rest day. We took the morning to climb a slabby hill on the opposite side of the lake from the Mendel-Darwin massif, giving us handsome views into the heart of Darwin (Mt Darwin, that is...).

Evolution Basin

Evolution Basin

Above Evolution Lake

Above Evolution Lake

Above Evolution Lake

Climbing Slabs

Mt Darwin viewed from across Evolution Lake

Mt Darwin viewed from across Evolution Lake

Then we packed up and headed back to Darwin Canyon, arriving in rather different circumstances (and state of mind) from before... We found a fine campsite at the head of the top-most of the main string of lakes. We were positioned just below Lamarck col, our destination once more on Weds morning.

Darwin Canyon

Darwin Canyon

Campsite, Darwin Canyon

Darwin Canyon campsite

Dinner, Darwin Canyon

Darwin Canyon at its best







Dawn, Darwin Canyon

Sunrise, Darwin Canyon

Up early at first light, pack up, and straight up to the col; finally – rather late in the day -- we were actually fit and acclimatized. There we left our packs and clambered over the boulders and slabs along the ridge to the summit of Mt Lamarck, 13,417’. Nice to pick up a third bonus peak so easily. Lamarck might not, at least with hindsight, quite stand shoulder to shoulder with Darwin and Wallace in the evolutionary pantheon, but we shouldn’t forget that science is invariably an on-the-shoulders-of-giants business. Evolution is no exception: Lamarck was a key precursor to the Darwin-Wallace insight.



Reflection, Mt Mendel


Early morning, Darwin Canyon


Mt Mendel, Darwin Canyon

Looking back into Darwin Canyon

Heading to Mt Lamarck from Lamarck Col

Heading from the Col to Lamarck

Mt Lamarck: heading down to the Col

Heading back to the Col

And then it was down, down, down... It can't have taken us much longer than a couple of hours to cover the territory -- in the reverse direction -- that had been so brutal on Saturday. North Lake, we discovered, is popular with fishermen who drive there and sit there inertly all day; we spoiled their peace and quiet by doing our best to wash off the sweat and soil of the past few days in their lake...

Lamarck Col

Below Lamarck Col

Heading back down to North Lake

Heading down

Lunch in Bishop and a stop at the Parks Office to return their bear canisters and to re-sort all our gear in their hot, hot parking lot. Not a bad drive back down south, though – surprise! -- we hit traffic on the LA freeways. The red-eye was an hour and half late leaving and was full, every seat (aren’t they always?). Not the most relaxing of ways to get back to Boston... but, having said goodbye to Dunbar (*thank you*, Dunbar. The perfect companion on the hill) at the airport, I was in my office by 9am. And then it was straight back into the swim of my normal life. Within an hour, despite that dry-sticky rumpled feel that you’re left with after the red eye, Darwin-Wallace-Lamarck and Theodore Solomons had dwindled. Those few days were such a departure from my regular existence that they seemed almost other worldly. That’s why, just a little more than a year on, I’ve decided to post this sprawling not-quite TR – to record an exhilarating few days in which my life’s two venn diagrams, evolution and mountains, did indeed converge. Happy 200th (well, now 201st), Charles!

Darwin birthday


Post a Comment
Viewing: 1-20 of 21
Sierra Ledge Rat

Sierra Ledge Rat - Sep 26, 2010 7:02 am - Voted 10/10


Well written and entertaining. 'Tis one my favorite areas of the Sierra. That slog over Lamarck Col is a killer!


ajberry - Oct 3, 2010 10:42 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Entertaining

Thanks, SLR! (Sorry for slow response). re Lamarck Col: agreed. But it is a rather more humane approach to the region than some of the alternatives, like Haeckel or Wallace cols...


mike_lindacher - Sep 26, 2010 9:57 am - Hasn't voted

Excellent Report

Brings back memories. Thanks for sharing!


ajberry - Oct 3, 2010 10:48 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Excellent Report

Thanks, Mike (sorry for slow response). Thanks for reading!


Noondueler - Sep 27, 2010 1:29 pm - Voted 10/10

A note

The pic on the main page, 'first views of Mt. Darwin' says 'first views of Mt. Harvard'. Nice pic by the way and nice trip report with great pics!


ajberry - Sep 27, 2010 2:24 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: A note

Oops! Many thanks -- fixed. Curious Freudian slip, that one...


spence - Sep 27, 2010 7:24 pm - Voted 10/10

Nice report

I am the one who took the Mt Spencer summit panorama. I also have a panorama from the summit of Mt Wallace, which happens to be one of my favorites.


ajberry - Sep 27, 2010 9:33 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Nice report

WOW, Spence, your Wallace panorama is Spectacular. Thank you for commenting (and for creating such a remarkable photo). I just went to your site and have been blown away by what you have there. I had assumed that it was some kind panorama-hosting site and wondered why I couldn't get a fix on the names of those who had taken all the different images. Finally I figured out that *you* had taken them *all*. WOW, again.


Mountain_girl - Sep 29, 2010 2:40 pm - Voted 10/10


Beautiful pictures and really nicely written. Thanks for sharing!


ajberry - Oct 3, 2010 10:49 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Great!

Thanks M_g! Glad you enjoyed it -- and thanks for reading (I've just looked it over again, and it does go on a bit...!)


fossana - Sep 29, 2010 7:24 pm - Hasn't voted

nicely composed

Great set of pics & write-up.


ajberry - Oct 3, 2010 10:52 am - Hasn't voted

Re: nicely composed

Thanks, fossana. Looks like it's a region you know really, really well. My next goal in the Evolutions: To sign that rarely signed register on Peak 13,332. (Don't hold your breath, though...!)


ktnbs - Sep 30, 2010 9:09 am - Hasn't voted

Most enjoyable

was a great late night read and photo viewing.


ajberry - Oct 3, 2010 10:54 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Most enjoyable

Thanks, ktnbs! Saves on sleep medication, I suspect...! Great that you enjoyed it.


Saintgrizzly - Sep 30, 2010 11:45 pm - Voted 10/10


...what you wrote regarding mountain naming: "Let’s face it, mountain-naming is not always the most imaginative of enterprises: you choose the name of the President (Mount Washington), or of your employer (Mount Harvard), or of the surveyor, your boss (Mount Everest), or you incorporate physical features of the mountain into its name (Red Mountain)."

How true! In this regard, Native peoples always (so very effortlessly) put us white Europeans to blushing shame (or they would if we ever gave it much thought). Why, I'd even go so far as to say that—for example—the highest point on the N. American Continent originally had a perfectly good name. And then along came.... Oh well.

Good job. Both climb and report! (Nice pictures, too.)


ajberry - Oct 3, 2010 11:08 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Interesting...

Agreed, Saintgrizzly. Names are fascinating. Half of geography and half of history are wrapped up in name choices because the mere act of giving a feature a name is (or at least was) tantamount to claiming that you've "discovered" it. And discovery is one step away from ownership... I am reminded of Eddie Izzard's brilliant routine about the British Empire which involves "explorers" plonking down a flag and claiming an area for King & Country.


labgloves - Sep 30, 2010 11:53 pm - Hasn't voted


for Great narrative about one of my favorite areas.


ajberry - Oct 3, 2010 11:11 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Thanks

Thanks, labgloves! It's a pretty irresistible area, I have to say!


climbingchic - Oct 1, 2010 3:03 pm - Hasn't voted


Thank you very much for sharing this. I'll be reading more of it later. Excellent article and the pictures are astounding. I absolutely LOVE that area of the is my favorite so far!!


ajberry - Oct 3, 2010 11:12 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Excellent

Thanks, climbingchic! Great that you enjoyed it. You're right: fantastic part of the world. Why, oh why, do I live on the E Coast?! [Don't answer that!]

Viewing: 1-20 of 21



Parents refers to a larger category under which an object falls. For example, theAconcagua mountain page has the 'Aconcagua Group' and the 'Seven Summits' asparents and is a parent itself to many routes, photos, and Trip Reports.

Evolution GroupTrip Reports
Mount DarwinTrip Reports
Mount LamarckTrip Reports
Mount WallaceTrip Reports