The High Sierra Centennial Climb

The flares on Mount Lyall, Clouds Rest and half Dome, with a full moon above

The flares on Mount Lyall, Clouds Rest and half Dome, with a full moon above

Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood!
— Daniel Burnham - 1904

Adventure in the mountains. The story of the High Sierra Centennial Climb.

A group of us Hewlett-Packard employees were, and are, members of the Sierra Club and enjoy climbing the Sierra Nevada, the magnificent range of mountains running north and south the full length of California. John Borgsteadt, another engineer and close friend, and I set ourselves a challenge, to climb a different Sierra peak each year. Through this challenge I discovered the pure magic of the mountains. John Muir became my hero. It was he who persuaded Congress to make Yosemite a national park in 1890.

 In the summer of 1962, we climbed to the top of Mount Hoffman, in Yosemite National Park, and found the Sierra Club logbook protected in a watertight, aluminum container. At the front we read:

This mountain was first climbed in 1863 by Professor Whitney, from Harvard University, and his team of geologists.

I think in amazement, "that is right in the middle of the Civil War".

Later I learned that Professor Josiah Dwight Whitney had been asked to make a complete land survey of the great State of California. Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous United States, is named after him. The team must have been great mountaineers as well as geologists for they were the first known climbers to scale the highest peaks in the Sierras. Professor Hoffman was one of Whitney’s team. We, of course, proudly signed our names in the log book.

On the way down, scrambling across a vast, steeply sloping field of scree, we realized that the coming summer, of 1963, would be exactly one hundred years since the first climb. What could we do to commemorate the 1863 event? The idea came quickly.  

John Borgsteadt or I (I cannot remember which) spoke out with imagination:

"How about a series of beacon flares, signaling from peak to peak from Mount Whitney in the south to Yosemite in the north?"

 The other chimed in, 

"Wasn’t that how the fall of Troy was signaled in ancient Greece and how England was warned of the arrival of the Spanish Armada in the reign of Queen Elizabeth the First?"

So, in a sense, we were about to relive history. Ideas have legs and as we hiked back to our campsite in Tuolumne Meadows, a possible plan took shape. Four weeks later my friend Doug Hayward and I sent a letter to all Sierra Club climbing groups in California with a list of the top Sierra peaks, asking for volunteer leaders to chose a peak and be there on the summit on the Sunday night of the upcoming Labor Day weekend. We organizers of The High Sierra Centennial Climb, the committee, (John Borgstead, Doug Hayward and I) would provide flares and coordinate the operation. Everything worked out well, and the response from the climbing clubs was uniformly enthusiastic.

I looked at John and Doug after we send out the circular and said ruefully:

"It’s easy to promise the flares but where do we get them? And how do we distribute them to our climbing leaders?"

Fortunately these are the days before 9/11, and after a feverish hunt and many phone calls, we found the Red Devil Fireworks Company willing not only to provide the green flares (green signifying peace), but also to deliver them to John Borgsteadt’s home in Palo Alto. We were thus able to deliver a set of six flares to each climbing group in plenty of time.

So we had twenty volunteer climbing parties preparing to summit the twenty highest peaks in the Sierra Mountains on September 1, 1963. Amazing!

The night of the climb the weather was perfect with a full moon flooding the mountain range. My group consisted of four climbers, Kent, from HP, George from Fairchild, and Mrs. Joyce Dunsheath, from England. (Joyce was the leader of the British Women’s Himalayan Expedition of 1956 and was visiting California on vacation. The Sierra Club told her about our plan and, although in her late sixties, she insisted on joining us. We, of course, were honored.) 

Our initial plan was to climb Mount Darwin but found a dangerous stretch of ascent which would need ropes and we were not prepared for that. Faced with a last minute change of plans, we settled on Mount Tom, over thirteen thousand feet above sea level. But we were well behind schedule and had to commit to a full day of nonstop climbing in order to reach the summit by 9 p.m.

Kent and George began experiencing altitude sickness so Joyce and I had to leave them three-quarters of the way up. The two of us were still climbing at 8:45 p.m., completely exhausted and nearly desperate. Could we get to the summit in time? 

Suddenly we reached the jagged summit ridge as it got dark. It is a knife edge and over that edge is a 3,000 foot precipice! The lights of the town of Bishop, nearly ten thousand feet below, twinkled up at us. It was an ecstatic moment.

After climbing doggedly in the dark up the steep, craggy ascent, the wonder of reaching our goal in this surprise instant brought a moment of exquisite joy. The combination of  relief that we made it on time to light our flares, the experience of being able to stop climbing and rest our weary limbs, and the beauty of range upon range of moonlit mountain peaks was almost too much to take in. Once again, I had a moment of exquisite joy. I was nearly overwhelmed by a sense of longing, a signpost to the infinite, to God, and to a vast Love behind the universe.

 At 9:10 we see a flare 25 miles south on North Palisade peak. Then we see another flare much further to the south and prepare to light our flares. A minute later our first flare is burning and Mount Abbott takes up the signal to the north. The third, on Mount Ritter is very faint, but definitely visible.

The first flare was lit at nine p.m. on Mount Whitney and at one and half minute intervals, flares were lit from peak to peak with the final one on Half Dome. This signaled the famous Fire Fall, the annual bonfire of burning embers that is tipped over the edge at Glacier Point, making a spectacular fall of fire visible all over Yosemite Valley.

We did it! Twenty climbing parties lit flares from peak to peak, from Mount Whitney to Half Dome, to commemorate 100 years of climbing in the California Sierra mountains!

Sleeping on or near the summit of a mountain peak is highly dangerous if there is lightning around, and as we unrolled our sleeping bags wedged between ledges of summit rock, under a brilliant full moon, we slept fitfully, and uncomfortably, but with deep satisfaction.

This was my first opportunity to organize an expedition since the journey with Jumbo over the Alps. It was with some relief and much joy that on our return to civilization we found that all the climbing teams met with success and, most importantly, nobody got hurt. I also had the extra benefit of meeting Ansel Adams (!), the famous naturalist and photographer, David Brower, President of the Sierra Club and Frances Farquhar and Jules Eichorn, well-known mountain climbers, both of whom have mountain peaks named after them. 

"Kaweah downValley" by Jane S. Richardson

"Kaweah downValley" by Jane S. Richardson