Why climb mountains?
John Muir and Clarence King at a historical crossroads of American mountain climbing

by Erica Goldman

Note: This article was written for the Yale American Studies Seminar "Wilderness and the American Imagination" , Fall, 1995.

Our typical image of wilderness is rugged terrain; craggy peaks capped with snow, glacial streams running downhill, and forested land ending abruptly at treeline. Whether as foothills or 14,000 foot peaks, mountains feature prominently in the wilderness landscape and are necessarily encountered by all who venture into it. But, why do people choose to climb the mountains that they encounter and how have their reasons for climbing changed throughout history?

The modern sport of mountain climbing is distinct from its historical predecessor. Functional mountain climbing solely to map the topography of the land began to decline in the middle of the nineteenth century, leaving a void for the sport. Pioneer climbers John Muir and Clarence King helped to begin the historical transition from the geologist climber to the mountaineer in America, helping to instill the code of ethics and rules for mountaineering that enabled it to become a sport. This code of ethics originated from Muir 's and King's personal standards about what constitutes a good climb and what defines a true climber. Neither Muir nor King ever outlined a set of rules about climbing and both maintained their positions as geologist climbers but, future climbers, by looking closely at their motivations and personalities, could find a clearly iterated code of ethics and a model to follow. The nineteenth century marked a transformation in the character of American mountain climbing, from a private endeavor with public, scientific value to a private endeavor with value only for the climber and the climbing community. Mountain climbing, however, originated in Europe in the fifteenth century and followed a historical progression from science to sport, thus providing a paradigm for the American mountaineering experience. In 1492, Antoine de Ville, Counsellor and Chamberlain to Charles VIII of France, wrote a letter to the President of Grenoble explaining that he had been charged and financed by the King to attempt to climb Mount Aiguille, the mountain which "was said to be inaccessible" and had done so successfully 1 . De Ville climbed in the spirit of exploration and discovery, more closely resembling modern sport climbers than climbers of the eighteenth century. Neither de Ville or Charles VIII justified this climb under the guise of climbing for science.

Mountain climbing in the years between de Ville's ascent and the late eighteenth century aimed at navigating around barriers to trade and overland travel. The first real wave of mountaineering in Europe took place in the Swiss Alps, where the first climbs were accomplished by parish priests, who had plenty of time for exploration. British scientist/gentleman climbers, a product of the Industrial Revolution and the accompanying spirit of scientific exploration, accomplished the second wave of ascents. These climbers climbed carrying instruments to take trigonometric and barometric measurements and to collect botanical samples. In 1833, one would-be climber wrote, "It is a positive act of egregious folly for one not moved by scientific motives to endure the pain and danger of an ascent greatly above the line of perpetual congelation." 2 However, British climbers soon developed a attitude of scorn for scientific climbing, causing its rapid decline in the 1850s. Scientific exploration was replaced by imperialism and expansionist exploration and expansionism was supported by the recently evolved ideal of "muscular Christianity." In 1857, William Mathews, a eminent British climber, founded the Alpine Club and, over the next twenty years, the British climbers codified the sport of mountain climbing in Europe 3 .

Mountain climbing in America followed a similar pattern as Europe, although the transition from scientific climbing to sport climbing was not a clear break and relied on the impact of the writings of pioneer climbers, such as John Muir and Clarence King. Although in the mid nineteenth century, Pikes Peak in Colorado had become a tourist accent and pioneer climber John Fremont was making non-scientifically motivated expeditions, mountain climbing still served an important role in describing and characterizing the topology of the land and studying glaciers. The US. Geological Survey produced many of the eminent mountaineers, such as King's first employers, William Brewer and Josiah Dwight Whitney, and provided scientific reasons for climbing. These climbers climbed carrying instruments to measure barometric pressure and boiling temperature and took copious notes describing the layout of a particular mountain range, as viewed from the summit 4 .

As the descriptive geological work was completed and climbing mountains to view the topography of the land was replaced by satellites and remote sensing devices, modern mountain climbers have necessarily had to redefine some of their motivations for climbing. John Muir and Clarence King began this redefinition by developing a set personal answers to "why climb?" that incorporate geology only as one component of a climbing experience and instill value in climbing for climbing's sake.

Mountaineering provides an escape for the mind in the same way that the wilderness setting of mountaineering provides a physical escape. The mountaineer forces out all external stimuli in order to devote itself entirely to the task at hand. Escape in mountain climbing comes by removing the mind from the realm in which it is continuously bombarded by stimuli. Modern sociologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi outlines "flow theory" to describe the experience of climbing.

Flow refers to the holistic sensation present when we act with total involvement. It is a kind of feeling after which one nostalgically says: "that was fun," or "that was enjoyable." It is the state in which action follows upon action according to an internal logic which seems to need no conscious intervention on our part. We experience it as a unified flowing from one moment to the next in which we are in control of our actions, and in which there is little distinction between self and environment; between stimulus and response; or between past, present, and future." 5

'Flow theory' accounts for the element of intense concentration involved in climbing, that shuts out external stimuli and occurs at an altered state of consciousness, but it does little to address the quality of the relationship between self and the environment. Csikszentmihalyi suggests that the relationship between self and environment is one of indistinguishability 6 . Csikszentmihalyi does not, however, address the qualities of the wilderness environment itself that motivate a climber to climb. During a climb, self may become indistinguishable from the environment, but this indistinguishability is derived equally from the self's relationship to the environment as the environment's effect on the self.

Clarence King and John Muir were pioneers in the sport of mountaineering because they sought to achieve this reciprocal relationship between self and environment and did not hesitate in expressing this desire as a reason for climbing. Both interacted strongly with the environmental aspect of climbing. Both were geologists and both had a deep love and appreciation for the wilderness. However, both also were aware of the self aspect of climbing and, at the end of the nineteenth century, this was a novel perspective from which to view the question ''why do people climb mountains?'. Muir and King approached their awareness of self in mountain climbing from fundamentally different perspectives. From their respective understandings of self, each developed a personal code of ethics and rules on mountain climbing that were later instrumental in defining mountain climbing as a sport.

Clarence King identified himself as a geologist, not as a mountaineer. He was educated at Yale, where he excelled in both the sciences and in languages. He moved west to California after graduation. On the steamer ride from Sacramento to San Francisco, he met Professor William H. Brewer, chief assistant in the California State Geological Survey. Brewer offered King a position and thus determined his future career as a geologist. It was through his experiences with the California Survey that King first gained his experiences in mountaineering. In 1864, King accompanied the Survey as an assistant in a topographical survey of the High Sierras, climbed his first mountain, and first discovered his 'summit fever.' He developed a passion for the act of climbing and ventured into far more difficult terrain than his predecessors, with no precedents to guide him. However, critic Francis Farquar argues that King may have dramatized his experiences to a certain degree. He also criticizes King for having made climbs more difficult than they had to be as the result of poor planning. Nonetheless, his accomplishments in geology are critically tied to his experiences in mountaineering and his career with the California geological survey added a scientific justification for his 'summit fever' 7 .

King describes his ascent and descent of Mount Tyndall in great detail, offering a dramatic account of his 'perilous' climbing experience.

"There was a constant dread lest our ladder should break off, and we be thrown either down the snow-slope or into the bottom of the crevasse. At last, in order to prevent myself from falling over backwards, I was obliged to thrust my hand into the crack between the ice and the wall, and the spire became so narrow that I could do this on both sides; so that the climb was made as upon a tree, cutting mere toeholds and embracing the whole column of ice in my arms. At last I reached the top, and, with the greatest caution, wormed my body over the brink. . . ." 8

King relishes for the drama of mountain climbing and has a clear taste for bravado, For him, the criteria for a good climb are closely related to the degree of danger experienced during the climb.

Upon reaching the summit of Tyndall, however, King abruptly alters the tone of his narrative. In his mountaineering memoir, King first outlines the topography of the area, rather than write about his impressions of the view from the summit or comment about his accomplishment in having reached it. He writes, "The general topography overlooked by us may be thus simply outlined. Two parallel chains, enclosing an intermediate trough, face each other. Across this deep enclosed gulf, from wall to wall, juts the, but lofty and craggy ridge, or "divide," before described. . . ." 9 He continues with a thorough description of the area and takes barometric and boiling point measurements at the top. King's descriptive geologic writing spans the first several pages of the chapter at the summit of Tyndall, having actually reached the summit in the last chapter. He does not describe the view from the summit until after his description of the topography, illustrating his true fascination with the scientific aspect of mountaineering and his perception of the 'aesthetic' of the wilderness critically linked to geologic rather than artistic sublimity. When he does describe this view, his description is characterized by his fascination with form. "Yet, as I sat on Mount Tyndall, the whole mountains shaped themselves like the ruins of cathedrals, - sharp roof-ridges, pinnacled and statued; buttresses more spired and ornamented than Milan's; receding doorways with pointed arches carved into blank facades of granite...I thoroughly enjoyed the silence, which, gratefully contrasting with the surrounding tumult of form, conveyed to me a new sentiment." 10

King's narrative reveals his passion for the science of geology. He was a legitimate "geologist climber" and throughout his scientific career made many contributions to geologic theory, including the theory of evolutionary "catastrophism." Although influential, King's critics often fault his geologic work for its impetuousness, its clarity over shadowed by an "imagination that worked too fast." 11 His theory of "catastrophism" has been criticized by the scientific community for its lack of supporting evidence and he has also been faulted for his stubborn resistance to John Muir's exposition of glacial activity in Yosemite. Additionally, King's writings were specifically directed to an audience, during a time when the literary style demanded emotional adventure writing, which led him to embellish measured statistics 12 .

King's narrative directly illustrates his love of geology, his literary and scientific imagination and his taste for reporting the drama and adventure of climbing. However, a closer look at his writing, both at his geologic descriptions and his anecdotal writing about his climbs, uncovers a clear characterization of himself as climber and an understanding of his personal code of climbing ethics. King's principal climbing ethic was never to give up in the pursuit of a summit. King's mountaineering career began when William Brewer, King's boss and chief assistant in the California State Geological Survey, and Charles Hoffmann, another member of the Survey, climbed their first peak in the High Sierras, Mount Brewer, and achieved a first glimpse of the entire range. They named the highest peak in the range Mount Whitney, after Josiah Dwight Whitney, the organizational head of the California State Geological Survey. For the remainder of the 1864 expedition, King was wholly consumed with climbing Mount Whitney and made repeated attempts to achieve the summit 13 .

Mount Whitney is now considered to be an easily-climbed peak and King is known as one of the boldest climbers in the history of mountaineering, yet it took him three attempts to reach the summit. King's failed attempts to climb Whitney reveal two facets of his character. First, that he would eventually reach the summit at any cost, a persistence that has come to be a prerequisite for the sport of mountain climbing. Second, that his love of the drama and adventure of mountain climbing led him either to plan his expeditions poorly, without fully evaluating the available options, or that he was seeking to push his limits by climbing what he already understood to be a relatively easy peak in the most challenging way possible.

In his first two attempts to climb Mount Whitney, King probably did rush into his climbs with poor planning, in his attempt to "bag" this peak, rather than deliberately having constructed a challenge for himself. On his first attempt, he wasted his energy in forcing a passage of the Kings-Kern Divide; on the second, he chose a route too far to the east and missed the easy way. On his third and finally successful attempt, in 1871, he climbed Whitney via the only difficult route on Mount Langely, the smaller peak that provides access to the summit of Whitney, when, even in poor weather, examination of the peak would have disclosed an easy route to the summit. Farquar argues, in the preface to Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada , that "King made a very hard job of a very easy mountain because he thought he was climbing a difficult one." 14 It is unlikely that, by the third attempt, King still simply rushed into the climb without planning. King's greatest talent as a geologist was his ability to be a keen observer of geologic form and there is no question that before his third attempt at the summit of Whitney, he had a clear picture of the topology of the peak. In 1873, King learned that he had missed the real peak when he read a communication by W.A. Goodyear, former Assistant of the Geological Survey, who had seen the true summit of the peak on a clear day. King responds, "My little granite island was incessantly beaten by breakers of vague impenetrable cloud, and never once did the true Mount Whitney unveil its crest to my eager eyes. Only one glimpse and I should have bent my steps northward, restless till the peak was climbed.

Two other groups of climbers had already set out to climb Whitney after reading Goodyear's statement. King realized in 1873, after two years believing that he had been the first to summit, that these two groups would reach the summit first. Hence, he made a conscious choice to climb Whitney the "hard way," seeking a challenge for himself that had not already been successfully met. He was not seeking additional recognition from outside sources for his difficult route, but it was clearly important for him to push himself in novel ways. John Muir also sought to challenge himself in similar ways. King's drive to "make things difficult" for himself is characteristic of his personal ethics about climbing. He sets these standards only for himself to meet and does not make any judgments about what objectively constitutes a good climb. Still, the drive to complete a novel challenge has permeated strongly into the "mountain climbing ethic". In part, this is due to the psychology of mountain climbing and the centrality of challenge to the act of climbing itself. In part, however, the transmission of this ethic is also due to the role model influence played an early mountaineering heroes like Clarence King.

By example, King contributes the ideals of 1) "Never quit before reaching the summit" and 2) "Always find new ways to challenge yourself" to the sport of mountain climbing. Also, unlike Muir, King never climbed alone. He always climbed with a trusted partner, usually another member of the Geologic Survey, and placed a lot of faith in his climbing companions. This example has become central to the 'rules' for modern mountain climbing. Michael Tobias writes on modern mountaineering, "For the most part climbers climb together and there is a communication which transpires between them, an immutable mutuality of experience." 15 King climbed with ropes on technically difficult portions, tied to his partner. In his climb of Mount Tyndall King was climbing with Richard Cotter, a packer and utility man for the Geologic Survey. King recounts one experience that demonstrates an understanding of the interdependence and reciprocity involved in climbing with a partner. He and Cotter lasso themselves together in order to climb a particularly difficult part of the slope. Cotter climbs first, using his long arms to his advantage to reach what he thought was a flat top of the peak. Cotter remains calm and does not let the tone of his voice reveal the true situation. King, encouraged by Cotter's poise, reaches him unaided. Cotter was sitting, instead of on a level top, on a smooth, roof-like slope, without a brace for his feet or hold for his hands and King understands the real importance of Cotter's calm demeanor. "In all my experience of mountaineering I have never known an act of such real, profound courage as this of Cotter's. 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" 16 . Cotter's bravery in this episode makes King acutely aware of the importance of mutual trust and true interdependency involved with climbing with a partner. This incident with Cotter causes King to codify the "do not climb alone" ethic for himself. The sport of modern climbing values the "do not climb alone" ethic and extols the mutual experience shared by climbing partners.

King made significant contributions both, as a scientist, to developments in geology and, as one of the first mountaineers who climbed mountains for the pleasure of climbing, in developing ethical precedents and rules for future climbers to follow. Without deliberately outlining a "climbing dogma," King's mountaineering literature served as such for an adventure-hungry literary audience.

John Muir, today, is deified by the American modern climbing community. From a historical perspective, Muir, even more so than King, embodies the transition from the "geologist/naturalist climber" to the modern mountaineer, and is regarded in the highest esteem by both camps. Similar to King, Muir develops a climbing ethic for future climbers simply by holding himself to a rigid set of standards and constantly presenting himself with new challenges to meet. Muir's adventures in the mountains of California and Alaska lack any pretentiousness and clearly reflect his intense curiosity, awe, and wonder of the wilderness.

Muir was born in Scotland in 1838 and remained there until 1849, when his family moved to Wisconsin. He grew up loving the outdoors and spending his free time in the woods, studying the surrounding flora and fauna. Muir's father, a strict Calvinist, significantly influenced his development, endowing him with an "iron endurance and an insatiable curiosity" 17 . He was strict with Muir, insisting on long hours of work in the fields and long hours of Bible study. Muir's early wanderings in the woods met with his father's disapproval and ultimately caused Muir to leave home at the age of 22. He entered the University of Wisconsin, supported himself through college, and received some formal training in geology, philosophy and literature. After leaving Wisconsin, he had an accident which nearly blinded his right eye and prompted him to spend the rest of his life studying in the wilderness. In 1867, he walked a thousand miles from Indiana to Florida to study the flora and fauna. During this trip, Muir became aware of his love for mountains and he spent the next thirty years studying the mountains and glaciers of California and Alaska 18 .

Muir iterates his initial understanding of the power of mountains at the end of A Thousand Mile Walk , outlining the same phenomenon of "indistinguishability" presented by Csikszentmihalyi in his description of "flow theory." Muir writes, "You cannot feel yourself out of doors; plain, sky, and mountains ray beauty which you feel. You bathe in these spirit-beams, turning round and round, as if warming at a camp-fire. Presently you lose consciousness of your own separate existence: you blend with the landscape, and become part and parcel of nature." 19 Muir's reasons for climbing are closely connected to his desire to achieve this indistinguishability with his environment. He approaches climbing with a sense of spirituality and curiosity, allowing his knowledge of the natural world to establish the foundation for the sense of sublimity he derives from his experiences.

Muir's perception of the interconnectedness of self and environment in mountain climbing places him at the historical crossroads in the evolution of mountaineering. Earlier climbers, like Josiah Whitney, William Brewer and even King, pursued an understanding of the natural and geologic environment as their principal motivation for climbing. Modern climbers adhere strictly to the "climbing for climbing's sake" justification for mountaineering. Muir, by synthesizing the reciprocal relationship between self and environment, provides a clear justification for non-scientists to begin climbing.

Muir's love of the environment gives purpose and strength to his self. "I ran home in the moonlight with firm strides; for the sun-love made me strong. All of this mountain wealth in one day! --- one of the rich ripe days that enlarge one's life; so much of the sun upon one side of it, so much of the moon and stars on the other." 20 Conversely, Muir's endurance, strength of self, enables him to study the environment to the extent to which he did. He was able to produce his detailed characterizations of glaciers only because his love of pushing his self to its physical limits. He recounts the start of his sled trip on Muir glacier, feeling sure that he would learn something and at the same time get rid of a severe bronchial cough that followed an attack of the grippe and had troubled him for three months. Muir writes, "throat grew better every day until it was well, for no lowland microbe could stand such a trip." 21 Muir views his body as an organism and its successful operation on the connected working of its separate parts. He conceives of an interdependency of his organism with the wilderness, not only in using it to push his limits, but in trusting the wilderness to heal him. Muir's faith in the wilderness is so unfaltering that any failing of his body in the wilderness, must be the result his deficiency, not the result of an environmental force.

Muir rigidly defines a set of personal standards for himself and these standards form the premise of a climbing ethic that transcends Muir's experiences and his historical period. Muir's stoic belief that his organism should never falter translates to the mountaineering ethic of "Always seek to find new challenges" and "Always find new limits to push yourself beyond." Muir would never expect anyone else to meet his rigid standards, but would never tolerate any weakness in himself.

Muir dogmatically expects that his body should not have to be told to act in a certain way by his mind and, usually, his body and mind do operate in effective synchrony. In "A Near View of the High Sierra" Muir describes a dangerous situation nearing the summit of Mount Ritter. He was brought to a dead stop, with arms outspread, clinging close to the face of the rock, unable to move his hands or feet either up or down.

My doom appeared fixed. I must fall....When this final danger flashed upon me, I became nerve-shaken for the first time since setting foot on the mountains, and my mind seemed to fill with a stifling smoke. But this terrible eclipse lasted only a moment, when life blazed forth again with preternatural clearness. . . . The other self, bygone experiences, Instinct, or Guardian Angel, -call it what you will, -came forward and assumed control. Then my trembling muscles became firm again, every rift and flaw in the rock was seen as through a microscope, and my limbs moved with a positiveness and precision with which I seemed to have nothing at all to do. Had I been borne aloft upon wings, my deliverance could not have been more complete. 22

In the rare instance that his body does not function this perfectly, Muir seeks to punish it when it falters. He recounts an incident that occurred in Yosemite during a winter expedition during which he fell, almost fatally, climbing over an easy part of the trail. He is angry and frustrated at his perceived clumsiness that caused this fall.

"There," said I, addressing my feet, to whose separate skill I had learned to trust night and day on any mountain, "that is what you get by intercourse with stupid town stairs, and dead pavements." I felt degraded and worthless. I had not yet reached the most difficult portion of the canyon, but I determined to guide my humbled body over the most nerve-trying places I could find; for I was now awake, and felt confident that the last of the town fog had been shaken from both head and feet.

...No plushy boughs did my ill-behaved bones enjoy that night, nor did my bumped head get a spicy cedar plume pillow mixed with flowers. I slept on a naked boulder, and when I awoke all my nervous trembling was gone." 23

Muir's experience in Yosemite clearly illustrates his extreme degree of stoicism. The physical demands of climbing alone dictate some degree of stoicism and, as a near-deity of early mountaineering, Muir embodies this stoicism and establishes it as an understood precedent for future mountain climbing.

In the same way that King sought to climb mountains by difficult trails, in spite of known easier paths of ascent, only to devise new challenges for himself, Muir "pushed the season" for climbing in order to increase the difficulty of his climb. He considers a climb to be better if it was completed in spite of great hardships. Perhaps these are only the climbs that he has determined were worthy to write about but, in the majority of his memoirs, Muir discusses climbs that he has completed late in the season, after the first snow has fallen, with an increased likelihood of getting caught in a storm. Muir writes about an episode in the Sierras when he is asked by two artists to lead them to a suitable landscape for a large painting. After leading them to the place that he had had in mind, Muir sets off on his own to climb Mount Ritter, the highest mountain in the middle portion of the High Sierras, a peak which had not yet been summitted. Muir registers some concern about the weather conditions but proceeds nonetheless. He realizes that "passionate storms, invisible as yet, might be brooding in the calm sungold." Once on the peak, nearing the summit, Muir again disregards his awareness that he is taking a large risk with the weather. "I could not distinctly hope to reach the summit from this side, yet I moved on across the glacier as if driven by fate. Contending with myself, the season is too far spent, I said, and even should I be successful, I might be stormbound on the mountain; and in the cloud darkness, with the cliffs and crevasses covered with snow, how could I escape?" 24

Muir continues with the climb in spite of his doubts and does successfully reach the summit, driven in part by the same "reach the summit at any cost" ethic as King, without the weather turning on him. On many occasions, however, Muir writes of being caught in "perilous" storms and being nearly frozen to death, yet always managing to persevere. Muir does not intend his writing to be dramatic in the same way as King. Most of the experiences in the High Sierras and in Alaska that Muir writes about occurred between 1868 and 1879. Muir kept an extensive journal of his experiences but did not publish any of his memoirs until 1894, at the encouragement of his wife 25 . Hence, since Muir was not consciously writing for the adventure-hungry literary audience, the drama in his writing can be taken as a realistic portrayal of events.

But why does Muir "push the season"? He was not motivated by a need for public recognition or he would have published his memoirs in a more timely manner and without external encouragement. Muir, although genuinely in awe of his wilderness surroundings and their ecological and geological details, was also driven by them. He developed a set of climbing standards for himself that pushed him to test himself at every opportunity. Muir's rigid personal dogma, in this respect, is much more strongly evident than King's, who was more brash and less methodical in seeking his challenges. Muir and King both leave the legacy of "seek new challenges" to future climbers, but their motivations are highly specific to their respective personalities.

Muir's rigid personal dogma also explains why he always preferred to climb alone than with a partner: he did not want to hold anyone else to his standards of climbing and he assumed that he would have to loosen those standards in order to accommodate a climbing companion. Muir writes of an attempted climb of Glenora peak in Alaska with Mr. Young, a missionary who had asked permission to accompany him. Muir strongly advises Young not to climb with him, explaining that the climb involved a walk, coming and going of fourteen or sixteen miles, and a climb through the brush and boulders of seven thousand feet. Young insists on going with Muir and asserts his confidence in his ability to keep up with him. Muir says, " 'Well, I have warned you,' I said, 'and will not assume the responsibility for any trouble that may arise.'" 26

Young did prove to be a "stout walker". By the time that they were nearing the summit Muir had gained confidence in Young and they made rapid progress.

when we were near a cluster of crumbling pinnacles that formed the summit, I had ceased to feel anxiety about the mountaineering strength and skill of my companion, and pushed rapidly on. In passing around the shoulder of the highest pinnacle, where the rock was rapidly disintegrating and the danger of slipping was great, I shouted in a warning voice, 'Be very careful here, this is dangerous.' 27

At this point, Mr. Young falls and dislocates both arms. Muir and Young made it back down to camp only after a slow and very painful descent for Young. Muir obviously regretted the incident a great deal writing, "I made no record of it in my notebook and never intended to write a word about it; but after a miserable, sensational caricature of the story had appeared in a respectable magazine, I thought it but fair to my brave companion that it should be told just as it happened." 28 Muir regretted this incident both because of the accident that occurred and because he recognized his unfair treatment of Mr. Young, who proved to be a climber worthy of climbing with Muir. He chose, as a preference, to climb alone because he understood that he was intolerant of anyone of lesser climbing ability and did not want to, even inadvertently, force his standards on a climbing companion. Unlike King, he did not recognize the power of the interdependency aspect of mountain climbing, and preferred his wilderness experiences to be solitary ones.

Muir, like King in his ascent of Whitney, could not leave Mount Glenora unsummitted. His personal rules on climbing also dictated to "reach the summit at all costs." He writes, "Next morning I set out from Glenora to climb Glenora Peak for the general view of the great Coast Range that I failed to obtain on my first ascent on account of the accident that befell Mr. Young when we were within a minute or two of the top. It is hard to fail in reaching a mountain-top that one starts for, let the cause be what it may. This time I had no companion to care for, but the sky was threatening. . . ." 29 Muir's narrative iterates two facets of his personal climbing dogma. First, that he would be unable to climb with a partner because he is unable to trust anyone but his own body to support him. He perceives that anyone that he climbs with would have to be "cared for." He does not value the mutuality of experience shared by King and Cotter in their difficult descent of Mount Tyndall. With few notable exceptions, Muir's motivation to climb alone is an aspect of his personal code that has not been transferred to the modern climbing community, both because of the desirable nature of shared climbing experiences and because of the increased safety concerns of solitary climbers 30 . Muir's second ascent of Mount Glenora also returns to the theme that has been repeatedly codified in the personal ethics of climbers: "Never quit before reaching the summit." This ethic remains central to the sport of mountain climbing because it is pivotal to most individuals who undertake mountaineering.

John Muir and Clarence King represent a historical crossroads in mountaineering. They were the first to span the divide between the geologist climber and the climber who "climbed for climbing's sake," forging a place for the sport of mountaineering by leaving behind a set of climbing ethics, derived from their personal dogmas, for future climbers to follow. Muir and King had different climbing ethics and different reasons for climbing. King's primary motivation for climbing was still scientific, with geology driving him to climb and his brashness and quest for adventure fueling his "summit fever." Muir contributed significantly to geology, especially in glaciology, and to the characterization of the flora and fauna of California, Alaska, and the Southern Appalachians. His scientific contributions in glaciology were qualitatively more significant than King's, but they were not as central to his desire to climb. Muir's drive to climb had a spiritual character, he clearly received spiritual fulfillment from climbing, and he approached climbing with a personal dogma as severe as the Calvinist religion that he had left behind. Muir upheld similar climbing ethics as King:

  1. "Always seek to push your limits"
  2. "Never give up before reaching the summit"

He differed from King in never climbing with a partner and in the severity with which he held himself, and only himself, to his set of rules.

Muir and King climbed mountains passionately. Both transmitted this passion through their writing and, as a result, left a legacy that formed an ethical base for the sport of mountaineering. By their examples, they gave and continue to give subsequent climbers answers to the question "why do people climb mountains?".


King, Clarence. Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1871.

Mitchell, Richard G., Jr. Mountain Experience: The Psychology and Sociology of Adventure. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.

Muir, John. Travels in Alaska. New York: AMS Press, 1978.

Muir, John. Mountaineering Essays. Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith Books, 1980.

Muir, John. Steep Trails. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1918.

Muir, John. The Mountains of California (Vol. I, II). New York: The Century Co., 1894, 1898.

Unsworth, Walt. Hold the Heights: The Foundations of Mountaineering . Seattle: The Mountaineers, 1994.


  1. Unsworth, Walt. Hold the Heights: The Foundations of Mountaineering. Seattle:The Mountaineers, 1994, p. 22.

  2. Unsworth, p. 54.

  3. Unsworth, p. 68.

  4. King, Clarence. Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1871, p. 95.

  5. Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly in Mitchell, Richard. Mountain Experience. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1983, p. 153.

  6. Ibid.

  7. Farquar, Francis in King, Clarence. Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada. W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1871, p. 13-15.

  8. King, p. 87.

  9. Ibid, p. 95.

  10. King, p. 99.

  11. Farquar in King, p. 14.

  12. Ibid, p. 15.

  13. Ibid.

  14. Ibid, p. 17.

  15. Mitchell, p. 12.

  16. King, p. 109.

  17. Fleck, Richard in Muir, John. Mountaineering Essays. Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith Books, 1980.

  18. Ibid.

  19. Ibid, p. xi.

  20. Muir. "A Geologist's Winter Walk," Mountaineering Essays , p. 64.

  21. Muir, John. "My Sled-trip on the Muir Glacier," Travels in Alaska . Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1915, p. 294.

  22. Muir. "A Near View of the High Sierra," Mountaineering Essays , p. 43.

  23. Muir. "A Near View of the High Sierra," Mountaineering Essays , p. 57-58.

  24. Ibid. p. 41.

  25. Fleck, R. in Muir. Mountaineering Essays . p. xv.

  26. Muir. "The Stickeen River," Travels in Alaska . p. 50-51.

  27. Muir. "The Stickeen River," Travels in Alaska . p. 50-51.

  28. Ibid. p. 55.

  29. Muir. Mountaineering Essays . p. 136-137.

  30. Mitchell, p. 12.

This document was acquired from the wildernet Web site with the kind permission of the author and Thomas Thurston.

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