High Desert Memories - A Hometown Journal Commemorating Ridgecrest California
I remember leaving Lone Pine on the Whitney Portal Road which led us through a plethora of geologic changes. Stacks of granite boulders, the Alabama Hills and then the Sierra range. Going was slow due to the road winding around the boulders and the switchbacks. Finally at the end we came out at the Portals. It is from here that those who wish to climb the mountain take the trail. The last time I visited here was 1982 I hope its not changed too much. For a historic journal on Mt. Whitney and the surrounding area go Here
Here's an interesting story about one man's adventures while climbing Mt. Whitney. It is a rather lengthy story and has a few references to documents which amplify it. I really enjoyed reading about this adventure so I have included it here. I hope you enjoy it too!!!
Fifty-One Years to Closure
May 24, 1952
My first ascent of Mt. Whitney was on May 24, 1952. I had climbed a mountain only once before, a much smaller one near my home, a few weeks earlier. There were five of us who started up that day: high school chums Bob, Charlie, George, Jim, and me.
I don't remember when or why we decided to do this, but, thinking back to those days, I can guess. A day or two earlier someone had probably said, "Mt. Whitney is up there by Lone Pine. I've heard it's the highest mountain in the country. Let's drive up and find someone in town who can point the way."
At home in Ridgecrest, it was almost summer, so we wore T-shirts, Levis, and street shoes. We probably each took a sweater or light jacket. But no gloves or warm hats. Or canteens, or food beyond a few Hershey's bars, or packs, sunscreen, map, compass, or flashlights. Or bivouac gear. Of course, we had no idea what ice axes or crampons were. As I look back upon it now, the recurring thought is: Dumb!
We drove to Whitney Portal the night before, threw sleeping bags on the ground, and got going around 7:00 AM. The trail was obvious until close to Trail Camp , but it had been a big snow year and by the time we got there we were somewhat stymied. The snow was well consolidated so the walking was fine; but it covered up the trail. Now it was early afternoon, and Charlie and Jim had long since decided to stay below and fish.
Seeing no sign of the trail, we looked north and thought, "Well, that looks like the highest thing around. Must be it." So we headed in the direction of what I now know is Pinnacle Ridge and the southeast face of Third Needle.
As we climbed higher, we found ourselves on increasingly steeper snow. It was firm enough and holding us, but at one point Bob punched through. Being stopped by his outstretched arms, he scrambled out of the hole. Peering down, we could not see the bottom and knew this was not a good place to be. Besides, above us the snow gave way to even steeper rock-near vertical, it appeared.
From our vantage point we looked toward the south and now saw semblances of switchbacks ascending the snow above Trail Camp. Aha!
Switchbacks above Trail Camp. Trail Crest is right of center.
So, at about 3 PM, we turned around and headed over to the switchbacks. Bob had been complaining of a severe headache and decided to head down. George and I told him we would be back at the Portal before dark, and continued up.
As we climbed, the temperatures dropped because we were now in the shade, and we grew tired. But by 6 PM we had passed Trail Crest pass and were on the western slopes, in the sun again. Soon we could see the summit in the distance, and a building on top. We kept going but very slowly, stopping every few minutes to rest.
Then we realized we were in trouble. The sun would set in an hour or so and there was no moon. We were getting very cold, and knew we should have turned around long ago. But if we turned back now there wasn't even a remote chance of getting down this day. We had seen no other people, so had the entire mountain to ourselves. This also meant there was no one around to help us out.
On the west side, approaching the summit
Our only hope was to gain the shelter of the summit hut. We finally reached it at 9 PM, well after dark. We had hoped there would be a fireplace and wood inside, and water, and some food. Maybe even beds and blankets. But what we found instead was an open doorway leading to a single large, cold, empty and dark room. The door had been blown off by winter storms and was lying outside on the ground. Actually, the inside of the hut was not empty: It was full of snow.
We were very cold, and our fingers and toes were numb. And we were indeed in trouble!
But we developed a plan, obvious at the time. We would use rocks to chisel out a flat area in the snow, big enough to get the door inside and lay it horizontal. It took a long time because of the darkness and because the snow was so consolidated, but we finally got the job done. It was probably around 11 PM. We sat on the door, George at one end and me at the other, facing each other. I remember that when we removed our wet shoes and socks to hang them up, the socks were frozen solid within a minute. We placed our bare feet in each other's armpits to try to warm them up.
We shivered almost continuously and got hardly any sleep. I think I dozed off a few times, but for no more than a few minutes each time.
A little before 5:00 AM, through the doorway we could see the sky in the east showing a tinge of lightness. We looked forward to going outside soon to feel the sun's rays. Suddenly there was a bright flash of light-also in the east-and, about ten minutes later, a dull boom. We knew instantly what it was.
This was during the era of atmospheric A-bomb testing at Yucca Flat in Nevada. Tests were being conducted every few months under the aegis of the Atomic Energy Commission, directed by the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory in New Mexico. The reflection of the flashes off clouds could usually be seen from quite a distance and, in Ridgecrest, school officials had sometimes let us out to view them when they were expected during class time.
But we were not in Ridgecrest. We were at 14,496 feet above sea level, well situated for a flash from what turned out to be about 125 miles away !
We pounded our frozen socks and shoes into submission, put them on, and headed down. We got to Whitney Portal a little after noon, and our friends could relax. It's likely that our parents had driven up when we hadn't returned, but I'm not sure now. Anyway, what I am sure of now is that quite a few people had been worried about us!
I don't remember anything about George's injuries, but I had some frostbite on my fingers, toes, ears, and nose. I was sporting scabs and walking around in slippers for a couple of weeks: kind of embarrassing for a young high school football jock. It was near the end of the school year, and more than one of my teachers wrote in my yearbook: "Stay off of Whitney!"
The local weekly newspaper, The Rocketeer, printed a short article because climbing Mt. Whitney was not a particularly popular thing back then. The article concluded, "Although proud of their achievement, the group decided 'never again'." Well, we did go again-or at least I did.
Our attempt at a day climb had consumed 14 hours up: not very fast by current standards. And 7 hours down. Nevertheless, it was memorable for several reasons: my first climb of Mt. Whitney, my first time sleeping in the summit hut, my first encounter with frostbite, and the witnessing of that atomic blast.
I've told the 1952 story many times over the years, but the details have dimmed. Early on, I began to wonder about the reality of that atomic blast. Perhaps I had it confused with others that had been reported in the newspapers around that time. Or perhaps I had dreamed it. After all, my mental faculties were not particularly keen that morning!
George and I went our separate ways a few years after the climb, and he died in 1974. By the time I became really intrigued about this question, it was too late to ask him what he remembered.
Later, when going through my mother's things after she died in 1998, I found a copy of the newspaper clipping. There was also a picture she had taken of George and me leaving for the climb, with her notation at the bottom. She had saved them for all those years. The clipping verified that we had reported seeing the atomic flash, but that still didn't answer the "dream" possibility. So I have always been unsure.
May 24, 2002
I've climbed Mt. Whitney's trail quite a few times since, even managing a half dozen more ascents while it was still the nation's highest mountain . Another memorable ascent was on May 24, 2002-exactly fifty years after my first. Several of my friends heard about my plans to do that, and said they would ascend the Mountaineer's Route and meet me on top. They did, and even brought along some wine, greeting cards, and gifts to help celebrate. Unfortunately, George had died almost 30 years earlier, so he wasn't there. Or … was he?
I had purchased fifty $2 gift certificates for Baskin and Robbins ice cream and handed them out to everyone on the summit, writing on the back what the occasion was all about. I enjoy mountaineering for several reasons, but just having fun at it is on top of the list!
August 7, 2003
It was toward the end of a week's vacation in Santa Fe that my wife and I decided to drive the short distance to Los Alamos to visit the Bradbury Science Museum there. This museum features exhibits interpreting the accomplishments of the Los Alamos National Laboratory , including those during the Manhattan Project, the atomic tests in Nevada, and on up to the present time. The AAA Tourbook calls it a "Gem" attraction, and it certainly was that! Rather than the hour or so we expected to spend there, it turned out instead to be most of the day.
The volunteers staffing the museum were very helpful and friendly, asking repeatedly if they could answer any questions. At one point a thought popped into my mind and I quickly responded, "Do you keep good records of the events that have occurred, even as long as fifty years ago?" The answer was affirmative. I thought to call her bluff, but was at the same time hoping: "What can you tell me about the atomic detonation at Yucca Flat on the morning of May 24, 1952?" Unfazed, she said she would check on the computer, and disappeared into a nearby room.
A few minutes later, the answer: "There is nothing like that in the computer for that date." I was crestfallen.
But she said there was another remote possibility. She urged me to write to Dr. Roger A. Meade, the Laboratory's Archivist and Historian. "Pose your question to him. Under the Freedom of Information Act he will have to tell you what is known about it."
We came home and I began drafting a letter to Dr. Meade, but with little hope. I knew he would just go to the same computer records. Nevertheless, I wrote, asking first of all if there was indeed an atomic test on May 24, 1952. If so, could he please tell me the code name, the yield, the purpose, height-above-ground, etc.? I explained why I was interested.
Then, just before I mailed it, I realized I had the date wrong! We had indeed climbed Mt. Whitney on May 24, 1952-but we had witnessed the blast the following morning, the 25th! I sent the letter off, with the correction.
August 22, 2003
The letter from Dr. Meade arrived. It consisted of a single paragraph:
"At 1200 Zulu time (5:00 Pacific time) on May 25, 1952, TUMBLER-SNAPPER-Fox was detonated at the Nevada Test site with a yield of 11 kilotons. You are quite fortunate to have seen the shot, since it was originally set to be fired on May 20th. Fox failed to detonate on the 20th and was rescheduled for the 25th. I have enclosed a Colliers article from 1952 that describes the misfire. I hope this information is of use."
Well, the information certainly was of use! And the Collier's magazine article was absolutely fascinating. It was titled "When an A-Bomb Misfires" and describes the job that deputy test director Dr. John C. Clark faced on May 20.
So there is a story within this Mt. Whitney story.
They had no way to know what went wrong, just that somewhere in the labyrinthine web of tens of thousands of miles of wires and connections which led from the control room to the bomb, 10 miles away and 300 feet in the air, something had happened.
The bomb had to be disarmed, and Clark had to do it. While there was no reason why the bomb should explode now, there was also no certainty that it wouldn't.
An hour and a half later, Clark (a bachelor with no living kin), accompanied by bomb circuitry specialists Barney O'Keefe (wife and three children) and John Wieneke (wife and two children), were in a sedan heading for the test site.
At first they drove with the car's visors down, hoping to prevent blindness if the bomb decided to go off. A mile from the tower, they raised the visors. Being blinded was the least of their worries now.
At the tower, they climbed hand over hand on the 300-foot vertical ladder. They rested often. An elevator had been in place during construction and the preparation of the bomb, but it had been removed before the test.
The three men had their tools, including a hacksaw, attached to rope slings over their shoulders. The door to the bomb's enclosure had been wired shut to prevent access in the interim, and had to be sawed open.
Inside there was a telephone, and they used it to call the control room. They left the phone off the hook and talked as they worked. If the bomb exploded now, at least there would be some information upon which to try to reconstruct events.
To bring this story to a close, they were of course successful, and Tumbler-Snapper-Fox was finally detonated five days later-in time for two 16 year-old kids to see it from the top of Mt. Whitney.
An interesting sidelight is that this was not the first time for Dr. Clark. He had to similarly disarm an earlier atomic bomb, seven months previously! Collier's pointed out unnecessarily that no man should have to do this even once in a lifetime, let alone twice. He died at age 98 on July 20, 2002, in La Jolla, California.
Fox was the sixth test in the Tumbler-Snapper series, the others being Able, Baker, etc. The purpose of Tumbler-Snapper was to help develop tactical nuclear weapons for possible use during the Korean War.
The weight of Fox was 2,700 lb. Its yield was 11 kilotons, and the mushroom cloud reached 41,000 feet into the sky. In comparison, Little Boy-dropped on Hiroshima seven years earlier-weighed 9,700 lb and had a yield of 20 kilotons. Its cloud reached 55,000 feet.
A friend of mine who has developed a "sighting program" wrote me that geometry reveals we could have easily seen ground zero from our 14,496 foot vantage point. It would have appeared through the saddle between Keynot Peak and New York Butte in the Inyo Mountains. In fact, from Mt. Whitney, the top of the mushroom cloud would have been 2 degrees above the eye level! So we indeed were able to see the flash itself, not its reflection from clouds in the area.
Fox was the 18th atmospheric nuclear test at the Nevada test site, and there would eventually be about 80 more. Using Google, I found a lot of other information about the nuclear weapons programs of those days, and it was a fascinating look back into that aspect of our history. I was even able to purchase a recently declassified video of the Tumbler-Snapper series.
One last point. Without Dr. Meade's letter, this story wouldn't have been worth telling. But I came close to not receiving it at all! The envelope was addressed to a "Sam Rockwell," and the address was wrong: 100 Skylark Avenue instead of 1000 Skylark. The Post Office's standard procedure with misaddressed letters is to simply return them to the sender. The evolving use of automation, of course-relating to that bar code along the bottom of the envelope. But this time they hand-corrected it and brought it to me.
What prompted them to deliver it? There is so much fate that seems to be woven into this tale already, it is tempting to believe that fate had a hand here too. Ours is an interesting world.
October 3, 2004
I lost contact with Charlie, one of the five who had headed up Mt. Whitney with me that day in 1952, after we graduated from high school. He eventually settled down in a small town in Oklahoma, although of course I didn't know it at the time.
Through a fascinating and unlikely set of coincidences , Charlie chanced to come upon an earlier version of this story. He found my telephone number and called me. After a few minutes of reminiscing, Charlie said, "You don't remember why we went to Mt. Whitney, do you?" I had to agree, and he said, "Well, I do. It was to get as high as possible to see that atomic blast."
Charlie told me that we had learned about the upcoming test from the newspaper and-not content with simply seeing another reflection of the flash in Ridgecrest-we decided on the spur of the moment to see it directly, from as high up as we could get. This led us to Mt. Whitney, and you know the rest.
The various documents are on the web:
This story: HERE
Letter from Dr. Meade: HERE
Collier's article: Page 1 PAGE 2 PAGE 3
Pictures of the detonation, at 1 millisecond and shortly afterwards: HERE and HERE
About eleven o'clock on Sunday night, July 14, we turned away from the big High Trip campfire, at
Sierra Creek, and set off to climb Mount Whitney by moonlight and see the sunrise from the
summit. We hadn't had much sleep. Some had stayed around the campfire, others had gone on
ahead, while some of us had crawled into our sleeping bags for a little nap, just long enough to get
deliciously warm and drowsy then crawled out and into our boots. But no matter. You can sleep practically
any night, but you can't climb the highest mountain in the United States by moonlight any night and see the
sunrise from the top.
We got out of camp and over the first stream without too much difficulty. As we walked along the trail,
eager and hopeful, going in and out of the shadows, we had a feeling of gratitude tinged with a sort of wonder to
think that time and place and circumstances had coincided to make it possible for us to be where we were. Ever
since the Sierra Club's first outing down in the Kern country, in 1903, High Trip parties had been climbing
Mount Whitney. What a privilege, what a pleasure, what an excitement, to be carrying on that tradition, even
though our "climb" meant merely walking up the trail four thousand feet to the top.
Furthermore although we didn't yet fully realize it, we e were to carry on another Whitney tradition, namely,
shivering on the summit in the midnight-to-sunrise hours. Of course it was John Muir himself who started that
tradition back in 1873 on his first attempt to climb Whitney, when as Francis Farquhar tells us in "The Story of
Mount Whitney," "he was among the summit needles (perhaps in the neighborhood of Mount Muir by midnight
or eleven o'clock and had to dance all night to keep from freezing," -- and was still able to record that "the stars
and the dawn and the sunrise were glorious." But summit shiverings would come later. For the present,
although the night was cold, we were warm and quite comfortable
It really seemed like no time at all until someone was saying, "Do you realize we're at timberline ?" We
stopped and looked about us. There was one large tree skeleton standing off up the slope to the left of the trail.
We'd left the trees below all right. It had been suggested that we carry up wood if possible, so we gathered what
sticks we could find and went on.
Then came those wonderful hours of walking on and on in the world of granite and moonlight, climbing
higher and higher while the moon and the stars moved slowly in the cloudless sky above us. . In thinking of
those hours they seem to fall more or less into four parts a sort of Sierra symphony in four movements.
First was the part where the trail leads on and up through the "real cirque or amphitheatre. There were
ridges and peaks all about, forming interesting skylines but not hemming us in. It was a high, open, spacious
sort of place. Sometimes we'd see far above or below tiny pinpoints of light that were the flashlights of our
fellow climbers. Although we seldom needed our lights and got along better without them, we'd flash them on
occasionally for a moment, and apparently the others were doing the same. Those were cheerful lights, the ones
above indicating where the trail went, the one below indicating how far we'd come. Gradually we rose above
the still dark lakes, and what had been our skylines down below. We were getting up now, no doubt about it.
Another light that we'd see from time to time practically all the way to the top was a campfire, presumably
our own down at Sierra Creek. We wondered how it happened to be burning all night. It was pleasant to
picture the camp down there among the trees: that certain atmosphere and glow of a big campfire after
practically everyone has gone off to bed and the fire burns on through the night, casting its quiet warm light on
the branches of the trees; darkness around the commissary, with perhaps a few coals still glowing under a kettle
or two; moonlight on the meadows and the pine trees and the stream.
Next came something quite different, the fascinating part of the trail that goes around among the pinnacles.
What strange spires, what weird forms rising all about us. What an exciting place any time; what an enchanting
place in the moonlight! It was somewhere in this general part of the trip when we suddenly felt the faintest
touch of cold wind. Up to that moment it had been perfectly still and just pleasantly cold. This was some thing
different, the entrance of a theme heretofore merely suggested. From then on the wind became steadily colder
and colder as we climbed higher and higher, reaching its climax on the summit. It was also in this general part
of the trip that we found the first polemonium, then more and more of it.
Bright as the moonlight was, however, polemonium was little more the another clump of something growing until the additional light of a flashlight someone was carrying revealed its fluffy blue blossoms, its graceful green foliage
But now we were beginning to wonder what was happening over on east side. Hours had passed, and dawn
couldn't be far away. As we looked about us and out over the mountains to the west it was still night and full
moonlight. But wasn't the sky up to the right just a bit lighter? And what about our shadows? A fellow
climber had remarked, as he passed us on the trail, that there would come a moment when the light from the
east would be exactly equal to the light from the moon and then we wouldn't have any shadows. We looked for
them now. They were still there, but we wondered if they were quite as distinct as they had been before.
Another theme that had been running quietly but persistently through the whole trip, continually urging us on,
now became more insistent: could we reach the summit by sunrise ? We pressed on.
Then all at once came that unforgettable moment—and this was where the next part came in—when we
suddenly found ourselves looking out through the first window with its astounding, breathtaking view down the
east side. The valley was eleven thousand feet below. Most startling of all, however, was the strip of glowing
red sky, fading into orange and yellow, above the eastern horizon. We had hoped to be on the summit by this
time. Still, if we had been, as some of the party were, we'd have missed this dramatic view through the first
window. Wasn't it really better this way? But now it would be a race to see who reached the summit first, the
sun's rays or the mountaineers. We must hurry on, but not too soon. This was something to remember: the
way the mountain dropped off below us; the dim early morning light on the rock of the chimney; the valley and
mountains beyond it deep blue in night; the tiny cluster of lights that was Lone Pine; the color of the sky; the
contrast, so striking at this point, between the mountain world on the one hand and the desert world on the
other, between the feeling of night on the west side and of morning on the east side. Then too, for all the
spectacular qualities of the scene, there was something completely and utterly unpretentious about it, a
wonderful satisfying naturalness and quietness..
As we passed each window after that the eastern sky was brighter and there was more light on the spires
rising above the openings.. Then we'd go back into the moonlit world. As we approached the last window there
was so much light on the spire that we were sure we'd see the sun when we reached it, but we didn't. Only the
lighter eastern sky, the darkness of the valley, the little lights of Lone Pine.
Then came another distinctive part of the trip, the summit. It began with that last long drag. We tried to go
faster but simply couldn't at that altitude. We passed a snowfield. There was ice on the trail at one place. But
at last someone ahead was on the skyline, and soon we were on the final rock slabs just below the summit. Had we made it? We looked out over the east side. The sun was a round fiery ball coming over the skyline. The
first rays got there ahead of us. But no matter. It was the end of the moonlight climb, it was the top of the
United States, it was the top of the "Range of Light," and it was sunrise! It was also something else.
If Professor Langley, after selecting Mount Whitney (quoting Mr. Farquhar) "as the site for conducting
observations to determine the amount and quality of the heat sent to the earth by the sun," had confined his stay:
on the summit to a sunrise hour, as we did, I think he might well have been justified in concluding that the
amount of solar heat was, after all, so nearly infinitesimal as to be scarcely worth measuring. Yes, now more
than ever it was cold. It was bitterly, fiercely cold, and the wind cut through parkas and jackets as if they had
been sieves. Someone said the thermometer registered thirty degrees, but the wind made it seem even colder, so much so in fact that it would have been a bit difficult at times for some of us to re member what we'd come up
for, anyhow, if it hadn't been for the campfire over by the hut.
How grateful we were for that fire! Someone had gone up on horseback the afternoon before and taken a
pack of wood, and almost everyone had carried up a few pieces from timberline. It all added up to a little fire
that will long be remembered as the only warm thing on the summit, even if the wind did swirl smoke in all
directions at once.
As one stood by the fire it was interesting to note that the members of the party, many of whom had reached
the top long before, were in various states of activity. Some were lying fast asleep in a sort of rocky hollow,
stretched out flat, with just the tops of their heads sticking out of warm looking sleeping bags. Not a bad idea,
taking along your sleeping bag. Even if you didn't lie down and go to sleep in it you could drape it about the
body, as some were demonstrating, thus creating a stunning effect while providing additional warmth. At the
other extreme were those who seemed not unduly tired, sleepy, or cold. They'd stand there scanning the
landscape, looking through their binoculars, pointing in various directions, calling off the peaks.
Others of us were in about an average state. We'd stay by the fire for while, then go out in the wind and
look at things for a while. And what things as were there to be seen, what matchless views of the Sierra, north,
south, and west, what magnificent views of the east side, what mountains and passes and divides and canyons
and lakes to be identified! Not only were there all these superb summit sights, but there were also all the special
sunrise excitements, such as watching the various peaks light up as the first rays of the sun touched them.
Then there was the strange effect over to the west. All along the western horizon, just above the skyline,
was a narrow and clearly defined strip of sky that appeared lighter, clearer, than the sky above the strip. Yet
there seemed to be no clouds, no fog, no mist. It is difficult to describe, but the strip of sky and the sky above
the strip were somehow different, the light was different. Then directly in front of us on the horizon, as we
stood with our backs to the sun, was a pyramid—the shadow of Whitney, we were informed. Or was it?
Someone waved his arms, but no change or motion was visible on the pyramid shadow. After all, what's a mere
arm waving alongside of Whitney.
Of course we wanted to inspect the hut while we were there. Unfortunately the door had blown down and
there was a lot of snow inside. It was even colder in there than it was outside, so we didn't linger. Then, as was
to be expected, there were several in the party who still hadn't had enough excitement, so off they went to climb
Well, I guess that pretty well covers the trip—except that we came down of course, and saw everything by
sunlight that we'd seen by moonlight. After we got well down off the summit and out of the cold wind we
began to get warm, then very sleepy; so sleepy in fact that we actually dozed off several times while walking
along the trail. But one good look at Whitney dropping off below would always bring us out of it in a hurry.
Then too, we began to see the most beautiful polemonium, now completely revealed in all its loveliness of
color, form, and setting in the bright morning light.
It would have been pleasant to be back in camp in time for hotcakes, and perhaps some of the party were;
but that was not to be for us. However, we were perfectly satisfied to lie down in the warm sunshine under the
clear blue sky in a beautiful little alpine meadow and eat what we had in our lunch bags. Then a few more
hours on the trail, and we were back in camp in our sleeping bags, where we could look up and see the pine
needles shining in the sun, then close our eyes and dream about Mount Whitney, grand old mountain, with its
spires and pinnacles and chimneys and windows, its views, its history and tradition. Long may it rise in majesty
above a glorious unspoiled wilderness. May many happy climbers stand upon its windswept summit. May
many happy hearts rejoice in the range of light from Mount Whitney.
Excerpt taken from the Sierra Club Bulletin of May 1947
The Range of Light From Mt. Whitney
By Blanche Stallings
Polemonium is a plant which grows naturally at high altitudes in many western states