Mt. Clarence King is a striking peak when viewed from all sides, particularly from the Woods Creek drainage and Sixty Lake Basin. It's 5.4 summit block was the most difficult rock climb in nineteenth-century America (according to Secor). Bolton C. Brown used a knotted rope to pull himself up the summit crux in August of 1896.
Mt. Clarence King is a popular peak, and can be reached from all sides. The south side provides the easiest access, and the difficult section is confined to the summit blocks. Because the peak is on the King Spur, a separate range from the Sierra Crest, it commands a terrific view of not only the Sierra Crest to the east, but much of SEKI, from the Palisades in the north, to the Kaweahs to the south.
The peak is named for one of the earliest and more famous Sierra mountaineers. Clarence King, a member of the Whitney Survey Party, wrote a best-selling book entitled, "Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada" in 1872. His embellishments of his adventures helped ensure the popularity of the book and its literary success. Clarence was also well-known for his early attempts to be the first to climb Mt. Whitney, failing twice by climbing the wrong mountains.
Clarence King can be reached from the west via Highway 180. Drive past Cedar Grove and park in the large lot at Roads End (literally). From the east, the peak is most easily approached via Kearsarge Pass, down to Charlotte Lake, up over Glen Pass, and over to Sixty Lake Basin.
There is a $20 fee to enter Sequoia NP from the west. Permits are required for overnight stays in the wilderness whether entering from the west or east side. Permits are obtained from the Park Service for west-side entry, and from the Forest Service for east-side entry.
For an east side entry, everything you need to know about permits and regulations can be found on the Eastern Sierra - Logisitcal Center
When To Climb
Climbing is usually done May-Oct. Highway 180 on the west side is closed during the winter, as is the Onion Valley Road on the east side.
Camping is allowed in most places in the SEKI Wilderness that surrounds Mt. Clarence King. Both entry points are home to habituated bears, and bear cannisters are currently required when entering from either point if you are planning an overnight visit. For a climb of Clarence King, this is almost a requirement.
Mountain ConditionsEastern Sierra Road
conditions, plus permit information
"Named Mount King in 1864 by the Brewer party of the Whitney Survey, for Clarence King, a member of the party. King (1842-1901) was connected with the State Geological Survey from 1863 to 1866 and later became the first chief of the USGS, 1879-81. The full name is recorded in the 1939 edition of the Mount Whitney atlas sheet, but King Spur, named after the mountain, retains the shorter form.
- Erwin Gudde, California Place Names
"The first ascent was made by Bolton C. Brown in 1896. 'It is a true spire of rock, an uptossed corner at the meeting of three great mountain walls ... The top of the summit-block slopes northwest, is about fifteen feet across, and as smooth as a cobblestone. If you fall off one side, you will be killed in the vicinity; if you fall off any of the other sides, you will be pulverized in the remote nadir beneath.' (SCB 2, no. 2, May 1897: 96-97.)"
- Peter Browning, Place Names of the Sierra Nevada
"It was a delight to travel by rail again, the first time since I left the states. At Sacramento I took steamer, and meeting an old friend, had a pleasant trip. On the way down two young men came up to me, asked if my name was Brewer, and introduced themselves as two young fellows just graduated last year in the Scientific School at Yale College, who this summer have crossed the plains. Their names are Gardner and King."
- William Brewer, Up and Down California
"Clarence King became perhaps the most widely known man connected with the Survey. From the moment of his meeting with Brewer he advanced directly and rapidly to the head of geological survey work in America. He served on the Whitney Survey until 1866, organized and directed the United States Geological Survey of the Fortieth Parallel (1867-78), and was largely responsible for the consolidation of various federal surveys into the United States Geological Survey, becoming its first chief (1879-81). His later career as a mining geologist was disappointing. He traveled extensively, was a conoisseur of art and literature, and was an intimate friend of John Hay and Henry Adams. Two of his publications indicate the position he might have attained in literature had he applied himself to writing: Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada (1872); and "The Helmet of Mambrino," in Century Magazine (May, 1886). The latter was reprinted in Clarence King Memoirs -- The Helmet of Mambrino, published for the King Memorial Committe of the Century Associaton, New York, 1904. The definitive biography is now Thurman Wilkins, Clarence King. A Biography, New York, 1958."
- Francis P. Farquhar, in a footnote in Brewer's Up and Down California
Brewer and Hoffmann climbed Mt. Brewer on July 2, 1864, believing beforehand that it was the highest part of the Sierra. Upon summitting, they found that there were others in the distance that were quite a bit higher.
"Sunday, July 3, we lay until late. On calculating the height of the peak, finding it so much higher than we expected, and knowing there were still higher peaks back, we were, of course, excited. here there is the highest and grandest group of the Sierra -- in fact, the grandest in the United States -- not so high as Mount Shasta [later found to be incorrect], but a great assemblage of high peaks.
King is enthusiastic, is wonderfully tough, has the greatest endurance I have ever seen, and is withal very muscular. He is a most perfect specimen of health. He begged me to let him and Dick try to reach them of foot. I feared them inaccessible, but at last gave in to their importunities and gave my consent. They made their preparations that day, anxious fro a trip fraught with so much interest, hardship, and danger."
- William Brewer, Up and Down California
The same scene in King's more colorful, if exaggerated style:
"but now that the truth had burst upon Brewer and Hoffmann they could not find words to describe the terriblenss and grandeur of the deep canyon [Kern Canyon], nor for picturing those huge crags towering in line at the east. Their peak, as indicated by the barometer, was in the region of thirteen thousand four hundred feet, and a level across to the farther range showed its crests to be at least fifteen hundred feet higher. They had spent hours upon the summit scanning the eastern horizon, and ranging downward into the labyrinth of gulfs below, and had come at last with reluctance to the belief that to cross this gorge and ascend the eastern wall of peaks was utterly impossible.
Brewer and Hoffmann were old climbers, and their verdict of impossible oppressed me as I lay awake thinking of it; but early next morning I had made up my mind, and, taking Cotter aside, I asked him in an easy manner whether he would like to penetrate the Terra Incognita with me at the risk of our necks, provided Brewer should consent. In a frank, courageous tone he answered after his usual mode, "Why not?" Stout of limb, stronger yet in heart, of iron endurance, and a quiet, unexcited temperment, and, better yet, deeply devoted to me, I felt that Cotter was the one comrade I would choose to face death with, for I believed there was in his manhood no room for fear or shirk.
It was a trying moment for Brewer when we found him and volunteered to attempt a campaign for the top of California, because he felt a certain fatherly responsibility over our youth, a natural desire that we should not deposit our triturated remains in some undiscoverable hole among the feldspathic granites; but, like a true disciple of science, this was at last over-balanced by his intense desire to know more of the unexplored region. He freely confessed that he believed the plan madness, and Hoffmann, too, told us we might as well attempt to get on a cloud as to try the peak."
- Clarence King, Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada
King and Cotter made it over the Kings-Kern Divide, across the Kern Canyon, up the Sierra Crest, and eventually landed themselves on Mt. Tyndall, having mistaken it for Mt. Whitney. Realizing their mistake too late to attempt Mt. Whitney, they returned after five days to rejoin the survey party.
Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada
, by Clarence King