His trailblazing was no cakewalk

It's been 100 years since Gustave Marsh made a name for himself and Lone Pine by forging a path up Mt. Whitney.

Christopher Reynolds

July 27, 2004

If you stood awhile at the traihead beneath the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States on July 17, you saw sun, rain, falling rocks and flowing mud. You saw Doug and Earlene Thompson, keepers of the Whitney Portal Store, lay out three trays of birthday cake, then retrieve them, lest Richard Harris return from the dead and start singing. You saw rain-suited hikers careening down the hill like tumbling Hefty bags, thunder booming behind them, lightning bolts dancing in the charged air.

And if you're a regular on Mt. Whitney, maybe none of these developments impressed you because once or twice every summer, these things seem to happen. But July 17 was more than thin air, gorgeous views and sudden thunder. Consider those birthday cake trays. And picture Theodore Roosevelt in the White House. The 20th century has just opened. Los Angeles holds about 100,000 souls, and none of its big shots have grabbed any of the Owens Valley's water rights. Meanwhile, up here in this valley, about 200 miles northeast of the big city, an English immigrant named Gustave Marsh is thinking big.

Marsh, an engineer who has only just become a U.S. citizen, is busy running a stage line. But he and his neighbors want to put Lone Pine on more maps. They want to build a trail to the top of Mt. Whitney, where the first ascent had been recorded three decades before. This trail, sure to boost the local economy, would cover perhaps 13 miles and climb 8,500 feet from the valley floor to the peak at 14,497 feet above sea level.

It also would render the January 1893 Sierra Club Bulletin obsolete. In that issue, author Hubert Dyer described a 70-mile route to the top, requiring "the roughest kind of mountain work." (Dyer also found Lone Pine to be a "dirty, run-down town.") So a party from Lone Pine collects about $700 and a crew trudges up the hill. (National Park Service historians also credit African American Buffalo Soldiers of the U.S. Army's 9th Cavalry for "considerable contributions" to the trailblazing, but details are hazy.) The trailblazers get within three miles of the summit, then run out of steam.

But Marsh, who turned 30 in 1899, is a dogged guy. He has worked on mines, designed water systems, built phone lines. He pulls together another crew. An additional $200 is raised for pack animals, dynamite and such. This crew pushes farther, then it too runs out of money and resolve.

On marches Marsh. The town scrapes up $275 more — the fundraising may have included bake sales — and he recruits another crew. And on or about July 18, 1904, with $1,175 spent and no men or mules lost, the startled citizens of Lone Pine and Independence look up to see a strange light over the jagged slopes to the west. It's Marsh and company, sparking a signal fire from the summit to let the world know they've finished.

And so the faithful gathered 10 days ago for a 100th anniversary party: rangers; hikers; county, state and federal worthies; matriarchs; patriarchs and newer shoots from pioneer family trees. Lone Pine celebrated the big anniversary with free screenings of Whitney-related films at the high school, historical talks at the town hall and a ribbon-cutting to celebrate a new structure at the trailhead. Among the celebrants was Gustave Marsh's grandson George, who still remembers Thanksgiving dinners on his grandpa's ranch.

Now 77, retired to Laguna Woods and likely to do well in a John Gielgud look-alike contest, George Marsh brought along half a dozen of his grandchildren. He also brought an update on the 13,550-foot mountain that's been named for his grandfather (about a mile south-southeast of Whitney) and an old letter from Gustave.

Five years after completing the trail, George Marsh explained, Gustave pulled together another crew and went back up to build a stone shelter at the summit for Smithsonian scientists, which still stands. To build it, he stayed atop the mountain for 43 days, watching his crew shrink from 15 to five. They were days from finishing when a violent thunderstorm arrived.

"Our cook was knocked down by a flash of lightning at 9 o'clock one night and another flash almost finished us all … " Gustave wrote. "So you can guess how scared we was." That storm subsided, but at 5 the next afternoon, "we heard the muttering of thunder way over toward Arizona and the clouds rolled up the mountain just as the sun went down. I wish you could have seen those clouds in red suns rays [sic]. If Hell was ever turned loose it was in those clouds. I told the men to get under cover and we would be alright. But one by one they ran down the mountain and left me alone. So I went to bed and covered up my head, like a kid, till the storm passed over. I was alone three days. Then the men came back and we was glad all around."

The trail is different these days. Rangers say only about one-fourth of it is in alignment with the original route, and in summer you can drive right up to the trailhead at Whitney Portal, 8,365 feet above sea level. Gonzo hikers can climb it in four hours, and daredevils take the Mountaineers' Route.

Pack animals have been banned since the 1970s, and bears have learned to burgle food from parked cars. The Forest Service, desperate to cope with all manner of human impacts, grants permits to no more than 60 overnight hikers and 100 day hikers per day from May through October.

But some things aren't so different. That Saturday morning, when the dignitaries gathered at the trailhead and rushed through their remarks while the clouds massed, George Marsh's turn came. He said his few sentences, and then, within seconds, BOOM! The day's first thunder clap. Soon the cake trays were evacuated, the mud running, the hikers tumbling.

"It was a big clap," George Marsh said.

"Right on top of us," Earlene Thompson said. "It was great punctuation. I told him that was his grandpa saying thanks."

Maybe. Or maybe, on this day celebrating the summit's semi-domestication, it was the mountain gods, clearing their throats.