Go to Part One of this article
Harv Galic:

Chronicles of Early Ascents of Half Dome
Part II: From 1884 to 1919

1884: Two daredevils

Ascenders: Alden Sampson, Phimister Proctor

James M. Hutchings wrote in his In the Heart of the Sierras:

During the severe winter of 1883-84 the ice and snow sliding down the smooth back of the great Half Dome, carried with it over four hundred feet of the rope Anderson had put up with so much care and risk, and several of the iron eye-bolts with it. This deprived every enthusiastic climber of the pleasure of ascending to its wondrous summit, and of obtaining the unequalled view from that glorious standpoint. No one seemed imbued with sufficient ambitious courage to replace it...

Rope or no rope, two young daredevils decided to reach the top in the summer of 1884. Those twin heroes were Alden Sampson, then of New York City, and A. Phimister Proctor, then of Denver, both avid hunters and outdoorsmen. Proctor would later become internationally renowned sculptor, and Sampson an author and naturalist. Sampson and Proctor would meet again in the fall of 1910, for an antelope hunting trip in Edmonton, Canada. Proctor also named his second-born son Alden, in honor of his Half Dome companion.

Here is a part of a letter about the Half Dome ascent that Sampson sent to J. M. Hutchings, while the latter was preparing his book about the Sierra:

In the Heart of the Sierras, Chapter 26, (Sampson's Letter):

...From Wawona, we had come in by the Glacier Point trail, and had pitched camp for the night at Glacier Point. Here we had the good fortune to meet Mr. Galen Clark, one of the pioneers of the Valley, and in answer to our inquiries as to the view from the Half Dome, which was the most prominent feature of the landscape, were told that there had formerly been a rope to the summit, put up by Anderson, but that it was down, and would probably so remain until some venturesome member of the English Alpine Club should come along and have the goodness to replace it... When we had at last made up our minds to do [the Half Dome ascent], we quietly reconnoitered the place, and made all necessary preparations in entire secrecy, so that no one should have the satisfaction of laughing at us if we failed. Then taking two hundred feet of picket rope, a handful of lunch, and a lemon apiece, in the early morning we rode from our camp in the Little Yo Semite to the base of the dome.

Sketch from Proctor's scrapbook, 1884.

Sketch from Proctor's 1884 scrapbook.
Courtesy of the A. Phimister Proctor Museum,
posted with permission. See more sketches.

Fortunately, in making this ascent, my companion and myself supplemented one another's work. He would throw the reata like a native Californian, so that when a pin was not thirty feet off, he would be sure to "rope it" the first cast. The end of the reata once fast, one of us would pull himself up by it, then stand upon the pin, ready to take up and make fast the old rope, when the other had tied the lower end of the reata to it. But after a while we came to a clean stretch of a hundred feet, where every pin had been carried away; yet, at this point a difficult corner of the ledge had to be turned. My companion, being barefooted, found that he could not cling to the surface as well as I could, with hob nails under my feet, so I had the pleasure of attempting this all to myself. The sensation was glorious. I did not stake my life upon it, for I was sure I could make it. If I had slipped in the least I should have had a nasty fall of several hundred feet. To be sure, I was playing out a rope behind me attached to my waist, but supposing I had fallen, with all this slack below me, my weight would have snapped it, or the rope would have cut me in two. The difficult part here was that a point had to be rounded on naked granite, that was both steep and slippery; not the coarse, rough variety that one sometimes sees, but polished by beating Sierra storms, and the snow-slides of innumerable winters. In the hardest place of all, a little bunch of dwarf Spirea, six or eight inches high, which was growing in a crevice, gave me friendly assistance. What it lived on up there I cannot imagine, as it grew in such a narrow crack of the ledge. However, its roots had a tenacious hold; and a piece of partially rotten bale rope afforded me a pull of ten or twelve pounds, quite enough to steady one at the most dangerous moment.

My companion exercised great skill and patience in making throws with the reata, often having to sit on the edge of a seemingly perpendicular precipice, morally supported, to be sure, by a rope from his waist, attached to the pin below him, but for actual physical support relying solely upon his foothold on the iron eyebolt under his feet. I dare say that his experience in one thing was similar to my own,—the feeling that when he clung to the face of the rock it was seemingly trying to push him off from it. We succeeded in putting up about half the rope the first day, and spent the night at our camp below. In the afternoon of the second day we came to a long, smooth stretch, without eyebolts or anything to offer assistance, not as steep as we had encountered, but very slippery. After many unsuccessful attempts to lasso the first pin a hundred feet away, with such precarious foothold as we had, nearly two precious hours were consumed, and the task was apparently hopeless, which would have given us another rather dangerous climb without any assistance whatever to rely upon; at last by a fortunate cast the reata caught the distant pin firmly, and as we made it taut, we could not repress a shout of joyful exultation, for the enemy was now conquered and the remainder of the ascent could be made with ease. We were soon upon the summit, signaling those that we thought might possibly be watching us from below.

In 1895, Sampson very briefly mentioned his Half Dome ascent in a book edited by the future President Roosevelt. He wrote: "A few years ago, a friend and I were cruising for our amusement California, with outfit of our own, consisting of three pack horses, two saddle animals, tent and camp furnishings... [We] crossed the San Joaquin Valley and visited the Yosemite, where the good fortune of finding Half Dome, with the Anderson rope carried away by ice, gave us the opportunity for one delicious climb in replacing it". (from Sampson's article, "A Bear-Hunt in the Sierras", in Hunting in Many Lands, edited by Theodore Roosevelt and George Bird Grinnell, New York, 1895, pp. 187-219).

Much later, Proctor published his description of the ascent in a booklet (pamphlet) An ascent of Half Dome in 1884, Grabhorn Press, San Francisco, 1945. ("After a good summer and fall of sketching at Grand Lake and Flattop Mountain my horses' heads were, in the autumn of 1883, pointed toward Denver. I had a studio on Laramie Street preparatory to a winter's work in engraving and painting, and was about ready to put out my shingle when, to my surprise, Alden Sampson, of New York, with whom I had been on a couple of hunting trips, dropped in. He was anxious for a sketching and hunting trip and invited me to join him. As prospects for making a living in Denver that winter were exceedingly slim, I accepted the invitation with alacrity. It was December, however, and the Rockies were out of the question and Mexico at that time was infested with bandits. We finally decided on California. I looked forward to new scenes for sketching, new experiences, and some hunting. So, with sketching and hunting outfits, we boarded a Santa Fe train for Los Angeles..."). Due to copyright restrictions, I cannot reproduce the rest of his dramatic description here. Proctor's text, under the same title and identical in content, was reprinted a year later in the Sierra Club Bulletin, Vol. 31, No. 7, 1946, pp. 1-9.

Alden Sampson (1853-1925), was 31 at the time of his Half Dome ascent. He was a student, and a brilliant orator at Haverford College from 1869 to 1873, then a student at Harvard from 1874 to 1880. He had wide interests in philosophy, literature, painting, and art in general, and was an early advocate of preservation of wild life and nature. In 1905, he held the title "Game preserve expert of the U.S. Biological Survey". In February 1906, he gave lecture at the Appalachian Mountain Club in Boston, and talked, among other things, of his Half Dome ascent in 1884. Read Sampson's obituary from the New York Times of January 7, 1925.

Alexander Phimister Proctor (1860-1950), was a noted American sculptor, mostly specializing in portrayal of animals. His life is well documented on the Web. Even better, check his interesting autobiography, Sculptor in Buckskin, University of Oklahoma Press, 1971, published posthumously. Proctor grew up in Denver, Colorado, and made his Yosemite trip with Sampson a few weeks before his 24th birthday. About a year after his Yosemite trip, the Denver News describes young Phimister as an honor to Colorado. After living and working in New York and Paris, Proctor moved to Palo Alto, California in 1918. For a while, Stanford University leased him a large space in the engineering building for his studio. Stanford sport teams are called the 'Cardinals' today, but they used to be known as the 'Indians' before. In 1922, Proctor designed an early mascot for the 'Indians', and Mrs. Proctor and Mrs. Williams (wife of the Chairman of the Board) embroidered the design and helped to get it sewn on teams' blankets. For the rest of his life, Proctor stayed mostly on the West Coast, and died in Palo Alto, at his daughter's house, in 1950. He was buried in the Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Seattle, Washington. An exhibit devoted to Phimister Proctor is opening in the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming, in June 2009.

1892: Banner year

Ascenders: Henry Reynolds, Samuel Foster (plus a guide, perhaps)

I thank Dennis Kruska for sharing his copy of the following article from The Tourist:

Yosemite Tourist, Yosemite Valley, Vol. 3, Thursday, April 14, 1892

A Daring Feet
Two Chicago Tourists Climb to the Summit of the South Dome

Of the many dangerous attempts at mountain climbing..., we have heard of none quite so foolhardy and perilous as the feat so successfully accomplished yesterday by Dr. Henry J. Reynolds and Samuel B. Foster, both of Chicago... Actuated, we presume, by a courage and spirit of audacity, characteristic of Chicago people, they found that the most difficult feat to do in Yosemite, was to climb to the summit of the South Dome, which had not been done before since 1879, and then only by the aid of a rope ladder[!], long since rotted away...

The side of the dome above Mirror Lake, and below its crest, is perpendicular... On the other or east side the dome is cone-shaped, and here is where the rope ladder was built, extending... for 900 feet, attached to iron bolts. And to this point the two Chicago visitors wended their way at an early hour yesterday morning. They took with them an old guide, who is an expert at throwing the lasso or rope. They had heavy pointed spikes attached to their shoes, and each carried a strong pole, steel pointed. They reached the foot of the old ladder at 11 o'clock, and at once commenced their perilous ascent. The guide cautioned them of the danger of the climb. The promise of a good fee quieted his fears. For about 600 feet they experienced very little trouble, their spiked shoes and poles being sufficient. Here, however, they ran against an almost abrupt face of granite at least thirty feet high. The only way to get over this was for the guide to attach his rope to some object on top of the ledge, which, after many fruitless efforts, he did, and then climb up, hand over hand. In the meantime they had painted, with crayons, on the face of the cliff, the words, "Visit the World's Fair in Chicago, in '93".

Once on top of the cliff the remaining 300 feet was made without much trouble, and at 12:35, P.M., they reached the summit of the South Dome. Here they spent an hour gazing upon the wondrous scenery 5000 feet beneath them. The return trip was made in about 40 minutes, and they reached the Stoneman [Hotel] in good time for dinner, not much the worse for their climb. Now, we hope the authorities will take all precautions to prevent any more such foolhardy attempts, not even by Chicago people; and, although successful in this instance, it would, in all probability, be attended with fatal results in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred.

Parts of the above text were reprinted in other newspapers:

The Daily Inter Ocean, April 27, 1892, p. 5:

World's Fair Doings
On Mountain Top

Chicago tourists are promoting the Columbian World's Fair even upon the highest mountain ranges. A paper published in the Yosemite Valley contains an account of a daring feat accomplished by two Chicago tourists, Dr. Henry J. Reynolds and Samuel B. Foster, who have climbed to the summit of the South Dome, a mighty granite cliff, on the face of which they have painted the words, "Visit the World's Fair in Chicago, in 1893".

To climb the summit of the South Dome is a most difficult feat to do, and many a member of the Alpine Club has cast a longing look at the mighty mountain of granite whose crest is over 5,000 feet above the floor of the valley.

The letters on the banner were getting bigger and bigger as the story was spreading from paper to paper, and the east side cliff eventually became the main, west face of the Dome:

Bismarck Daily Tribune, North Dakota, May 11, 1892, p. 2; also
Worcester Daily Spy, Massachusetts, May 15, 1892, p. 6

Dr. Henry J. Reynolds and Samuel B. Foster, Chicago tourists, recently climbed to the summit of South Dome, one of the highest points of the Yosemite range, and painted in enormous letters on one of the most conspicuous cliffs the words: "Visit the World's Fair in Chicago, in 1893".

Reynolds and Foster were good friends, frequently mentioned together in Chicago newspapers. Their visit to California happened in mid-April of 1892. Samuel Foster arrived "with his wife, two young children, a sister, and a nurse" (The Los Angeles Times). Both men were born in Canada, and both were good athletes. Henry Reynolds was also the family physician of the Fosters. It remains unclear who was the "old guide" who was with them atop the Dome.

Samuel Baxter Foster (1861-1896), was 30 years old at the time of his 1892 Yosemite visit. Just a few months before that trip, he was appointed local attorney for the Chicago and Grand Trunk Railway Company. He unexpectedly died a few years later of typhoid fever, at age 34. Henry James Reynolds (1852-1949), was one of two Reynolds brothers who practiced medicine in Chicago. His trip to Yosemite took place just few days before his fortieth birthday. Henry was the first Professor of Dermatology at the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Chicago (later University of Illinois College of Medicine). In his later years he became a businessman and author of a book dealing with earliest known literary relics (World's Oldest Writings, Chicago, 1938) From a biographical sketch of the author we learn that he had "invented the Reynolds envelope sealer, patented in 1909, which is still in world wide use". However, the Half Dome ascent is not mentioned. He died in Chicago, in 1949.

1895: The Magee–Rawlings party

Ascenders: Thomas Magee Jr., Stewart Rawlings

Magee and Rawlings made their ascent on July 8, 1895. A story about their climb, written skillfully by Daniel Foley, appeared the next day in Foley's newspaper, the Yosemite Tourist, printed in the Valley. It is a very detailed report, with no exaggerations so abundant in many other early descriptions.

Yosemite Tourist, Vol. 6, Tuesday, July 9, 1895, p. 1

A Flag Floats From Half Dome.
The Summit of the Great Dome is Scaled.
Thos. Magee, Jr., and Stuart L. Rawlings Make the Ascent.

Eighteen years ago today, John Muir, of glacial fame, Thos, Magee, one of the well-known pioneers of San Francisco and the late Geo. G. Anderson, the latter acting as guide, ascended the Half Dome [see Part 1 of these Chronicles]. Mr. Thos. Magee, Jr., then a mere boy, was left at the Anderson cabin, near the dome, for he was too small to attempt so perilous a feat.

But yesterday he, too, ascended the Half Dome, and looked down upon the Yosemite's wonders from its summit.

At an early hour yesterday morning he and friend, Stuart L. Rawlings, left camp Etnemere to attempt to do that which had been done but once in about fifteen years, reach the summit of the Half Dome. They took horses and followed the Cloud's Rest trail about two miles beyond the Nevada Falls. Here they followed the old Half Dome trail to the Anderson cabin, the latter being about a half mile from the dome. In the good old days when those so inclined could reach the top of the dome this cabin was the starting point. Many, too, would come here and remain over night, and then be ready for the climb in the morning. Here they left their horses yesterday and after a not unexciting trip across the "saddle", where on either sides were the yawning canyons of the Merced and Tenaya, they found themselves at the foot of the climb, as it were; or rather at the point where the old rope ladder or support commenced, many of the iron spikes of which yet remain.

Here they arrived at about 9 o'clock. The Half Dome at this point is cone-shaped and has a slope of about 50 degrees. It is of solid granite with a rather rough surface, tho' crevices and spurs of rock are few and far between. They carried with them about 200 feet of one-half inch rope, a sixteen-foot pole and a hatchet. Here they spent some time looking for some signs of the trail or spikes leading to the frowning summit 1000 feet above them. But they looked for some time in vain and were almost on the point of giving up the attempt and returning. But 100 feet or more up the side of the dome they saw an iron pin or spike and they assumed that they were supposed to walk to this point which they did with some little difficulty. Here they took off their shoes and hung them on the pin, for they knew that safety and shoe wearing did not go together climbing the Half Dome.

At the cabin they had found two iron spikes, and to these principally they owe their triumphal ascent of the dome.

Before leaving their comparatively safe position at the first pin they had determined upon all reasonable precautions for safety. They saw that the old iron pins were from thirty to fifty feet apart and they knew that if the pins wore solid and a rope could be attached in any way to them that the ascent could be made quite safely. But those spikes had been in there twenty years. They agreed that Mr. Magee should take the lead and that in working from one spike to the one above the rope should be attached to him while Mr. Rawlings held the other end and saw that it was securely fastened to the pin below. Then, too, the pole helped them to reach the points above. And as Mr. Magee found a safe lodgment for the rope Mr. Rawlings followed safely and quickly. At one point they threw the rope around a pin and pulled it out. That will be kept as a souvenir of the trip. In its place they drove one of the iron pins they brought from the cabin. Thus hand over hand, working, creeping from ledge to ledge, spike to spike, they climbed up the side of the eastern slope of the Half Dome and about 1 o'clock they had reached the summit and the 1000 foot incline was below them.

Down at Camp Etnemere there were anxious eyes watching the summit of the mighty dome, whose crest is almost 5000 feet above their grounds. Had they reached it in safety, or had they made a false step and been hurled into the awful gorges on either side of the dome? Slowly the seconds and minutes went by, more sharply than ever were their eyes directed toward its beautifully rounded but awfully dangerous summit and at about 2 o'clock Willie Hush fired the signal gun for there floating from the sixteen foot pole was the white flag, the latter being about 5x8 feet. Then there was joy in Camp Etnemere for the two hazardous climbers were safely up there. The flag can be quite plainly seen from the floor of the valley, and no doubt but that it will remain there until the storms of next winter come.

On the summit they found a bank of snow. There are three juniper trees up there, two living and one dead. There is no soil, except pulverized granite, and John Muir says the juniper is the only tree that could live under such conditions. On one of the trees they cut their names and '95, and on another one they cut the name of the party, mentioned above, that visited there eighteen years ago today. They also brought back a small piece of the dead tree. One of the most wonderful things they saw or did was to crawl out to edge of the ledge and look down on Mirror Lake nearly 5000 feet below. Those who have gazed over the iron railing at Glacier Point can appreciate what an addition of nearly 2000 feet more means.

"I have been all through Switzerland", remarked Mr. Magee, at their camp last evening, for they made the return trip quickly and safely arriving at Camp Etnemere at 6 o'clock, "and I consider the view from Half Dome equal to the combined grandeur of Switzerland. I would not take $1000 for the trip, were I not able to duplicate it. I think the commissioners should replace the rope guard that was formerly there. In fact the State Legislature should make a special appropriation to put a guardway, stairway or something of that sort, up to its summit".

Now that the ascent has been safely made, new pins put in and the old ones tightened, others are contemplating an early trip to its crest.

The many visitors now here would have been treated to a fire from the top of the dome last evening but for the fact that their matches had become damp.

"Camp Etnemere", mentioned in the text, puzzled me for a while. There is/was no official camping place in the Valley with that name. Turned out, the Magees had owned a property called "Etnemere Villa" in Fruitvale, and they had simply assigned the same name to their favorite camping spot in the Valley.

The same trip report, properly credited to the Yosemite Tourist, was reprinted in the Sacramento Daily Record–Union, on July 20, 1895, p. 2. Two San Francisco papers also covered the climb. A very short note was printed in The Call on July 26, and a few days later the Chronicle published a much longer and illustrated article about Magee and Rawlings' feat. The text in the Chronicle is basically a repetition of the Yosemite Tourist article (although slightly shortened and re-worded), but the source is not mentioned. Similarly, two illustrations from an earlier, 1881 article in the Pacific Rural Press, are copied, but again without any credit to the original source. Check the Chronicle article, if you wish.

Thomas Magee, Jr., (1867-1914), was about ten years old when he accompanied his father to Anderson's Cabin at the foot of Half Dome's "Saddle" during his father's climb in 1877. Junior's age was 28 at the time of his first ascent in 1895. He would make it to the top at least once more (in 1903, see below). Like his father, he had a successful career in real estate business. He was killed when his automobile overturned in Cloverdale, in May 1914.

Stuart Lamar Rawlings (1875-1940), was 20 at the time of this ascent. He was born in Virginia City, Nevada, and died in Alameda County in California. His obituary describes him as "Piedmont social and business leader". He is probably the author of a popular Cal "Palms of Victory" song (1896). The story of its composition is told by Brick Morse: "Rawlings, an extremely tall, lanky, mining engineer, certainly did not look like a poet. He was a member of the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity, and as was the custom, the boys would gather around a keg of beer at night and sing. Rawlings and the boys would hum a song and improvise some words. One night, one of the boys said to him, 'I see where The Daily Cal is offering $5.00 for a Cal song — Why don't you submit it?' He did and won the $5.00, which he took and quickly converted into another keg of beer. Each night they sat around singing, but no new song ever came to him." The song has remained essentially unchanged to this day, and it is still played after any successful Cal football game. Since its lyrics is anti-Stanford in character, I don't care to reproduce it here.

1895-1899: Call of the Wild

Ascenders (perhaps): Jack London, George Applegarth, Bert Applegarth

In April of 1900, Jack London submitted his story Dutch Courage to Boston's Youth's Companion. It is a short text about two friends who arrive in Yosemite Valley hoping to be the first to climb Half Dome in many years. Their disappointment is "deep and grievous" when they realize that somebody else had made it to the top earlier that day, "robbing them of the chief pleasure of their trip". However, the victor is stranded atop the Dome, and they rush to help him. They climb the mountain and save the man.

When reading this narrative, my first impression was that the author had only second hand knowledge of Anderson's route. Perhaps he saw it from the Saddle, perhaps he even tried to reach some of the pins and eyebolts on the steep slope, but his description does not read like the account of somebody who really did complete the ascent. I include several passages from London's text below, and let you the reader make the judgment.

The above analysis would have been the end of the story, had I not found the following biographical note by David Parry about a San Francisco architect, George Adrian Applegarth: "Applegarth in his youth was a friend of Jack London's. They would sail together on the Oakland Estuary and once cycled all the way to Yosemite and then climbed Half Dome". David helped me to get in touch with George Applegarth's son Jerrold, who, without reservations, confirmed the family tradition about the Half Dome climb: "What David Parry said was accurate. My father often told stories about Jack London and their growing up together in Oakland. George, his brother Bert, and Jack London, did bicycle to Yosemite, and they used a borrowed rope to climb Half Dome. I don't recall much more about the trip. This must have occurred when they were in their teens".

Was Jack London really one of the early Half Dome climbers? We shall have a closer look at this intriguing possibility later. But first, here is London's description of his two young fictional characters, Gus Lafee and Hazard Van Dorn, reaching the base of the Dome at dawn:

Dutch Courage, by Jack London
The Youth's Companion, Boston, November 29, 1900, Vol. 74, Iss. 48, pp. 622-623

Original illustration from Jack London's 'Dutch Courage' story in the Youth's Companion.

Original illustration
for London's story from
the Youth's Companion,
Thanksgiving issue, 1900.

...Dawn was brightening into day when the panting lads threw themselves down at the summit of the Saddle and began taking off their shoes... And above them, bathed in the full day, rose only the majestic curve of the Dome... Some seventy feet above them projected the first eye-bolt. The winter accumulations of ice had twisted and bent it down till it did not stand more than a bare inch and a half above the rock—a most difficult object to lasso at such a distance. Time and again Hazard coiled his lariat in true cowboy fashion and made the cast, and time and again was he baffled by the elusive peg. Nor could Gus do better. Taking advantage of inequalities in the surface, they scrambled twenty feet up the Dome and found they could rest in a shallow crevice...

The peg was now fifty feet away, but the path they must cover to get to it was quite smooth, and ran at an inclination of nearly fifty degrees. It seemed impossible, in that intervening space, to find a resting-place... They knotted the two lariats together, so that they had over a hundred feet of rope between them; and then each boy tied an end to his waist... [Gus] struck out like a cat, on all fours, clawing energetically as he urged his upward progress, his comrade paying out the rope carefully. At first his speed was good, but gradually it dwindled. Now he was fifteen feet from the peg, now ten, now eight—but going, oh, so slowly! Hazard, looking up from his crevice, felt a contempt for him and disappointment in him. It did look easy. Now Gus was five feet away, and after a painful effort, four feet. But when only a yard intervened, he came to a standstill—not exactly a standstill, for, like a squirrel in a wheel, he maintained his position on the face of the Dome by the most desperate clawing.

He had failed, that was evident. The question now was, how to save himself. With a sudden, catlike movement he whirled over on his back, caught his heel in a tiny, saucer-shaped depression and sat up...

...The second time, just as it seemed as if his slide would be repeated, he made a last supreme effort and gripped the coveted peg. By means of the rope, Hazard quickly joined him. The next peg was nearly sixty feet away; but for nearly half that distance the base of some glacier in the forgotten past had ground a shallow furrow. Taking advantage of this, it was easy for Gus to lasso the eye-bolt. And it seemed, as was really the case, that the hardest part of the task was over. True, the curve steepened to nearly sixty degrees above them, but a comparatively unbroken line of eye-bolts, six feet apart, awaited the lads. They no longer had even to use the lasso. Standing on one peg it was child's play to throw the bight of the rope over the next and to draw themselves up to it.

[The boys then get to the top, meet the stranded "bronzed and bearded man", and they all safely descend back to the Saddle].

Read the complete text of Dutch Courage.


Jack London atop Half Dome?

The Applegarths
Did London know George Applegarth? Absolutely! Jack London's first love, Mabel Applegarth, was George's cousin (Mabel and George shared the same grandparents: John Applegarth and Jane Clarkson Applegarth). George was born in 1875, his brother Herbert ("Bert") in 1873, and Jack in 1876, so they were well matched.

Was Jack London a bike enthusiast? Yes! However, he got his first bike and learned to ride only as late as 1895. Before that year, he simply could not have made a bicycle trip to Yosemite. His first bicycle was a present from his half-sister. Her main motivation was to make it easier for Jack to get to his high school, but it did not take long before Jack began making extensive bike trips all around the Bay Area and beyond.

Did London ever visit Yosemite before his story Dutch Courage was published in 1900? He may have visited Yosemite more than once in the 1890s, but only one such trip is well documented and dated. It took place in early August of 1895, when London and his friends ended up in a camp near the Bridal Veil Falls. Russ Kingman quotes the Yosemite Tourist newspaper, and lists the party as: "John C. Dewey, Mrs. Edward Applegarth of Riverdale, Miss Mabel and Ted Applegarth, and Jack London of Oakland, Bert Applegarth of Hanford, and Tom Ling late of China". The paper does not say which means of transportation they used to get to Yosemite. Note that George Applegarth is not on the list, and there are other indications suggesting that the Half Dome ascent which Jerrold Applegarth refers to, did not happen during the 1895 trip.

Jack was an adventurous young man, and it would be no surprise if he had considered a Half Dome ascent during his teen years. It is quite possible that his original plan was to do that climb during the 1895 trip. However, recall that Magee and Rawlings made a successful ascent of Half Dome just a few weeks before the arrival of the London party (see above). Rather than follow in someone else's footsteps, Jack may have decided to change his plans and focus on an entirely different goal: El Capitan! The editor of the Yosemite Tourist, Daniel J. Foley, was so impressed by the subsequent daring adventure, that he printed the following story in all August 1895 issues of his paper:

Yosemite Tourist, Friday, August 2, 1895, p. 1

Out All Night

Down near the Bridal Veil there are two camping parties... Tuesday they joined forces and [decided to make] a side trip to the top of El Capitan... At an early hour that morning Misses Mabel Applegarth, Jessie Supplee [of Chicago] and R. Parrow [of Selma, California], Bert and Ted Applegarth and Jack London, left camp. In the distance, far above their heads, to the left of El Capitan, was an apparent open space. By reaching the top of the wall at this point they could then go quickly to the rear of El Capitan and then come out to its summit. But they didn't. They took along sixty feet of rope. Their first attempt to gain the top of wall was a failure and so they changed over to an other one. Here they clambered, step by step, hand over hand, for hours. Fortunately, Jack London knew how to handle the rope, for he would attach it to a spur of rock and then they would crawl up. In many instances the girls had to be "boosted" by some of the boys. Late in the afternoon they gained the top of the wall. Too late to go to the top of El Capitan, they started to reach the road at Gentry's; but night coming on they camped for the night. Around a blazing fire, supperless and blanketless, they passed the night... An early morning start brought them back to camp in time for breakfast.

We don't know the exact route that the party followed to the rim. It could have been a scramble along one of several difficult chutes just west of El Capitan, perhaps up the Ribbon Creek or El Capitan Gully. The latter is a class-4 route, with some serious exposure in places (see Bob Burd's picture and description).

Could London and friends have climbed Half Dome immediately after their El Capitan adventure? That is not very likely. Editor Foley, of the Yosemite Tourist was quite religious in reporting all exciting climbs made by tourists in and near the Valley, but the only Half Dome related event he lists in 1895 is the Magee-Rawlings ascent.

Alternatively, if Jack London did not come to the Valley with a plan to climb Half Dome in 1895, he could have been inspired by Magee and Rawlings, and could have decided to use his skills and courage to pursue the Half Dome ascent the next time he was in Yosemite.

Could London have climbed the Dome with the Applegarth brothers in later years? If he made the ascent, presumably that would have happened before 1900, the year when his story Dutch Courage was published. Here is a brief timeline of London's life from 1896 to 1899. In the summer of 1896 he was quite busy preparing for the entrance exams at the University of California, Berkeley. Could he have taken a few weeks off to visit Yosemite again? There is no evidence supporting or excluding this possibility. However, the Yosemite Tourist did not register any Half Dome climb in 1896, and it did not have Jack London mentioned in its lists of visitors. In July 1897, Jack leaves Oakland for Alaska, where he stays for almost a year. He could have made a quick trip to Yosemite before his departure, but I found no evidence of this. Unfortunately, I do not have access to post-1896 issues of the Tourist, and so could not consult this rich source of information about Yosemite visitors in the last years of the nineteenth century. In July 1898, Jack London is back in California. He briefly tries prospecting in the Sierra foothills, then starts writing about his gold rush experiences in the Klondike. Did he find time for Yosemite that summer? Sadly, possible clues seem to have been lost. There was an original photo at one time in the Special Collections at Stanford University, showing Jack London with Mabel Applegarth and John Herbert Applegarth (George's brother) in the Yosemite Valley. According to Library records, the photo was taken in 1898. However, when I tried to confirm that date, which allegedly had been written on the back side of the photo, it turned out that the original print was missing, and only a negative remained. Without that print, it was impossible to confirm that the photo was really from 1898, and not, e.g., from that earlier trip in 1895. The evidence of a London trip to Yosemite in 1898 is therefore inconclusive. The following summer, in 1899, Jack London was mostly staying in Oakland and writing. An opportunity for a biking and mountaineering trip to the Valley was certainly present, but no firm evidence of such a trip in 1899 has been found so far.

The previous paragraphs are mostly based on published material (or lack of thereof). Is there anything about Yosemite and Half Dome in Jack London's private notes? Two letters from London's correspondence indeed confirm a trip to Yosemite, but unfortunately, the trip date is not given, and we do not know if this was the 1895 trip, or a different one. One letter is from London himself. On April 22, 1899, he writes to Cloudsley Johns: "I once rode a saddle horse from Fresno to the Yosemite Valley, clad in almost tropical nudity, with a ball room fan and a silk parasol..." Jack also tells that there were women and a Chinese cook in his party, and that they visited the Mariposa Big Trees grove along the way, but it remains unclear to which year this is referring. The same trip seems to have been mentioned in a letter from John Herbert Applegarth to Jack London, dated November 25, 1906, when Bert talks about London "on horseback with a lace curtain for a shirt, and a pink parasol... on the way to the Yosemite". Again, no date is indicated. (Bert's letter, recently rediscovered by Ms. Russell, is cataloged as "JL 1933", in the Huntington Library collection).

In spite of some intensive searching, no other written source was found confirming London's bicycle trip from Oakland to Yosemite with George Applegarth, or his ascent of Half Dome. In contrast, his climb near El Capitan, a mountaineering feat in its own right, is established beyond a doubt, thanks to the report in the Yosemite Tourist. One could argue that perhaps "El Capitan" and "Half Dome" somehow got mixed up as the story was retold in George Applegarth's family, but the intriguing possibility that there was no mixup, and that Jack London made it to the Dome, is by no means ruled out. If anybody has more information, please let me know.

I thank Natalie Russell, from the Huntington Library, and Dennis Kruska, for their help in my Jack London related research.

1901: Anxious to make the ascent

Ascender (perhaps): Kittie Tatsch

Miss Kittie Tatsch and her balancing act.

Skirt dance on Glacier Point. Illustration from the Atlanta Constitution
showing Kittie Tatsch and her balancing act. (Photo: Julius Boysen).

Jack London (previous paragraph) and Katharina "Kittie" Tatsch, a heroine of this segment, may or may not have climbed Half Dome, but there is certainly another (weak) thread that connects them. In October of 1902, Jack London traveled to Europe, initially hired as a war-correspondent to write about the Boer War in South-Africa. In August of 1904, Kittie Tatsch married a British soldier from that war, John Backhouse. Kittie was a local celebrity in the Yosemite Valley at the end of the nineteenth century. Sadly, her last name was incorrectly transcribed in some early records on Yosemite history as Tatch, and this incorrect spelling has been used frequently ever since. Her fame was established by a series of photographs by Julius Boysen, showing her balancing in various poses on the overhanging rock at Glacier Point. In one of newspaper interviews with Kittie, she announces her plan to climb Half Dome in 1901:

Atlanta Constitution, March 24, 1901, p. A5

Some of the Perils of Modern Photography,
by M. C. Craft [Mabel Clare Craft]

Of all the remarkable photographs taken of that eight wonder of the world, the Yosemite Valley, none is more amazing than a series of photographs recently taken of the overhanging rock at Glacier Point by Julius Boysen, a local photographer.

...In the accompanying series of photographs, Miss Kittie Tatsch, head waitress of the Sentinel hotel, a young woman with a cool head and, apparently, entirely destitute of nerves in the ordinary sense, did a high kick on this perilous perch and took the pose so calmly and so accurately that not even a tremor occurred to disturb the photograph.

...Miss Tatsch is a Milwaukee young woman who lived in California for years. She is slender, muscular, blonde and loquacious... [She] has worked for several seasons in the valley, and her adventurous spirit has taken her to all the high places thereabouts. She has climbed all the trails again and again both on horseback and afoot. She is one of the very few who have climbed to the top of Sentinel Dome... Miss Tatsch merely laughs at those who would make a heroine of her, and says that she does not know what fear is and announces her intention to climb Half Dome this spring, if possible. No one has been up the Half Dome for years. Some years ago an old sailor was engaged for several summers drilling rings into the rock. In these rings a rope was run and by means of the rope venturesome stocking-footed climbers, to the number of about fifty, including several women, made their way over the shelf of rock, which affords not the slightest foothold. The heavy snows of several winters so rotted the rope that it was pronounced unsafe and was taken down.

Katharina Kittie Tatsch, around 1890.
Katharina (Kittie) Tatsch,
around 1890.

Since then no one has been up, but Miss Tatsch is anxious to make the trip.

Katharina Tatsch (1867-19??), born in Iowa, was one of several children in the family of a Prussian immigrant Jacob Tatsch. Shortly after Katharina mother's death, her father remarried, and the family moved from Iowa to Wisconsin (Milwaukee). Katharina then came to California, and found a job as a waitress in Yosemite. In 1904, she is invited to work in California Hall at the World's Fair in St. Louis. On her first day in St. Louis, she meets John Backhouse, an Englishman from Leeds, a few years younger than her. He also works at the Fair in a "live exhibition" that recreates scenes from de Boer War in which he had participated. Several days later, in mid August 1904, they get married. The nuptials have attracted attention of many reporters who came to St. Louis to cover the Exhibition. Who could have guessed that only three months later, just before the closing of the Fair, John would be killed when trying to mediate in a fight between two other Fair's employees. I couldn't find anything about Mrs. Backhouse after her husband's death. She is not listed under that name in the 1910 or 1920 U.S. censuses. Did she die? Did she remarry? Did she move to Leeds to live with John's family? Kittie's youngest sibling, her half brother Otto Phillip Tatsch, died in Pennsylvania in October 1968, at the age of 88. He worked as litographer and printer in Erie, but apparently didn't have any children. I couldn't locate descendents of Kittie's other siblings. Would we ever learn anything about Kittie in her later years?

1903: Tom Magee Again

Ascenders: Thomas Magee Jr, Richmond Hobson

Daily Nevada State Journal, May 20, 1903, p. 5

A Daring Feat

Special to The Journal:

Yosemite, May 19.—Capt. Hobson, hero of the Merrimac, and Thomas Magee of San Francisco yesterday accomplished the remarkable feat of scaling Half Dome, which is five thousand feet high. The men were equipped with ropes and spikes. Many times a slip meant death. The trip covered an entire day.

This was an excellent example of a badly planned trip. It was probably scheduled too early in the season (May 18), on heels of a snow storm that had hit the Valley a day and a half earlier. Even more troubling, the climbers had reached the base of the eastern slope only at 3 p.m., and yet they continued on. No wonder, night caught them still high on the cliff. In the end, they also ran out of pins. It was only by sheer luck that they escaped serious injuries or deaths:

San Francisco Chronicle, May 20, 1903, p. 1

Climbed Up Half Dome
Tom Magee and Captain Hobson Successfully Attempt Difficult Feat

Special Dispatch to the "Chronicle".

Yosemite Valley, May 19.—Captain Hobson, the hero of Santiago, and Thomas Magee, a well-known society and club man of San Francisco, have performed one of the most daring exploits ever accomplished in the Yosemite valley, successfully climbing the almost inaccessible heights of perpendicular Half Dome. It was early in the morning when Hobson and Magee, accompanied by ex-Mayor Phelan of San Francisco, started out for the bottom of the dome by the way of the Vernal and Nevada Falls trail. The trail, even to the foot of the gigantic dome, is considered a good day's journey, but the party was energetic and pressed on with such vigor that the steep ascent was reached by 3 in the afternoon.

Here Phelan gave one look at the mass of smooth rock rising for 3000 feet above him, and, deciding that discretion was the better part of valor, returned to Sentinel Hotel, reaching there late in the afternoon.

Hobson and Magee then began the ascent. Magee, who was the last to make the climb, some five years ago, although under much more favorable conditions, going on before. After leaving the trail at the end of the Saddle the smooth granite curves over at an angle of 40 degrees.

To keep their footing and prevent sliding over the immense precipices below, Magee went ahead with a stout rope and a bundle of iron spikes on his shoulder. With one hand he would hang on to some small fissure in the rock, and with the other drive his spikes into the openings in the white granite. This accomplished, he would secure the rope and Captain Hobson climb up from below. Then Magee would tie the rope about his waist, and with the other end tied to the stake below him and held secure by Hobson go up another steep ascent. Sometimes they would lose their footing and slide for several yards before being caught and held by the rope. Their clothing was torn and their flesh bruised and bleeding. Still they kept on toward the top.

The sun was just setting when the top was reached and before its last beams had disappeared a twenty-foot flag was flying from the small pole which they had lugged up the mountain side. Hobson said the sight was the grandest he had ever seen.

Then the difficult descent was begun in the evening twilight, which deepened into total darkness as the two slowly made their way down the steep sides. Magee said it was only a question of the pins holding out, for they were forced to take up part of the number because of their inability to carry so much dead weight. Near the bottom they ran short of pins and their only extra one slipped from Magee's hand. Hobson, bending far over the 1000-foot ledge, grasped at the pin as it fell, and succeeded in seizing it. Had he missed the pin it would probably have meant death, for the penetrating cold of the night would have made it impossible for them to hang on the narrow ledge until morning.

Capt. Hobson, around 1903
Captain Richmond P. Hobson,
around 1903

The heights of Half Dome were originally climbed years ago by a man named Anderson, who spent a week making the trip performed by Hobson and Magee to-day. He used pitch on his shoes to keep from falling and drove spikes into the rocks as he went along. This feat was considered a miracle then, and the Indians, seeing his camp fire at night, almost went crazy from fright[!]. Later several other persons tried the ascent, one of them fainting from fright on the way. Guardian Clark of the valley had all the old pins removed to prevent future accidents. Both Magee and Hobson are very much worn out tonight, but will be all right with a good night's rest.

Richmond Pearson Hobson (1870-1937), age 32 at the time of the ascent, was a celebrity touring the country, following his release from a Cuban prison after the Spanish-American War. His life is well documented on the Web. During the weekend of May 16-17, 1903, Capt. Hobson, Tom Magee, and many other dignitaries, gathered in Yosemite Valley, hoping to meet President Roosevelt. However, Roosevelt, together with Muir, camped out of the Valley, near the Glacier Point, and avoided the crowd. Hobson, who had some previous mountaineering experience, apparently decided to make the best of this trip to Yosemite by joining Magee in the Half Dome climb.

1903: The Gibson Brothers

Ascenders: Otis Gibson, Ted Gibson, their friends

Apparently, there were some doubts among the inhabitants of the Yosemite Valley about Magee's and Hobson's accomplishment (above), because nobody had seen them climbing or summiting the Dome. Some oldtimers even regarded the whole story as a hoax. Then, to everyone's surprise, two young boys repeated the feat on July 11, 1903, and several other teens joined them at the top on July 12. Here is how the Oakland Tribune described the event in their popular "The Meddler" column:

Oakland Tribune, July 25, 1903

...The sceptical denizens of the valley have [finally] been convinced, and the two heroes [Magee and Hobson] are indebted to two boys, neither of whom is over sixteen years of age, for corroboration of their sensational story. The boys are the sons of the late attorney, Gibson, who had a hand in the framing of the charter. They made the ascent of the Half Dome on Saturday two weeks ago and remained on the summit all night. They built a fire that was seen by scores of campers in the valley. The following day three other lads, friends of the Gibsons, also made the perilous journey up the perpendicular cliff, bringing food to the hungry youngsters and the five returned together. They reported that they had found evidence of the visit of Magee and Hobson.

The first person known to have scaled that cliff was an adventurous Scotch tourist[!] who went up by means of pegs which he imbedded in the rock. He carried a rope which he fastened to a peg on the summit, and after that many people made the trip with the assistance of the rope, but in time it rotted and therefore nobody essayed the perilous journey until Hobson and Magee pioneered it once more.

"The Meddler", whose primary interest was in restoring Tom Magee's and Richmond Hobson's reputation, had only vaguely identified the boys. However, after some careful searching, it became clear that "the late attorney Gibson", referred in the article, could only have been a noted San Francisco lawyer, William Franklin Gibson (1855-1902). Among his other activities, he was a member of the Board of Freeholders which prepared a new Charter of the City and County of San Francisco in the mid 1890s. William and his wife Caroline had seven children: five girls and two boys. It then became easy to establish the identity of the Gibson brothers. Unfortunately, their three friends would remain nameless. Note that the Gibsons (and their friends) were the youngest Half Dome climbers in the post-Anderson era.

Otis Gibson (1884-1950), was the second child of Caroline and Will Gibson. He was eighteen at the time of his Half Dome ascent. One year later, he graduated from the California School of Mechanical Arts in San Francisco. He identified himself as "civil engineer" in the 1920 and 1930 Censuses, and was an associate member of the American Society of Civil Engineers. In 1917, he married Viola Bennett, and they had three children, all born in San Francisco: Francis Ward Gibson (1918-1977), Viola Elizabeth Gibson (1919-2009), and Otis George Gibson (1921-1956). I am adding those names with the hope that some of their descendants may have more information about Otis' and Theo's Half Dome ascent.

Theodore Gold Gibson (1886-1965), was the third child in William F. Gibson's family. Theo was 16 in the summer of 1903. He was the best student in his class in the Wilmerding School of Industrial Arts, in San Francisco, where he graduated as a "cabinet maker" in 1904. Between November 1912 and November 1914 (and possibly beyond), Theodore had a Yosemite National Park concession to operate an auto "stage line". His "Yosemite Auto Stage Company", was nominally connecting Stockton and Yosemite Valley, and brought in 46 people during the summer of 1914. However, a National Park report shows that all of his traffic originated at Crockers (Sequoia post office), and there were no direct passengers from Stockton that year. In the 1920 and 1930 Censuses, Theodore identified himself as "draftsman". He moved to San Mateo and married Della Orpha Widner in 1919 or earlier. They had five children. Their firstborn, John Roscoe Gibson, also known as Jack Gibson, was born in 1920. Other children in the family were Caroline Annette Gibson (1922-1945), Walter Gold Gibson (1924-2002), Virginia Margaret Gibson (1927-2008), and Robert Gibson (1930-2000).

Note added March 2012: Theodore Gibson's granddaughter, Diane, found and kindly sent the following paragraph from the family maintained "Memories of the Gibson Family", related to the Half Dome climb:

"Around 1900, Ted and Otis took a Sierra trip with two or three of their buddies. They left San Francisco with two burros laden with all their gear... On they went across the canyon that is now Hetch Hetchy, and eventually to the back side of Half Dome. Pipes had been seated in the granite of this dome to support ropes serving as hand supports to reach the top. By the time they got there, the ropes had rotted away or had been removed. So the group used a pack rope to lasso from pipe to pipe to get up the steepest slopes. Those on top stayed the night, and enjoyed the comfort of bonfire that was seen down in the Valley. This is of little importance except that Burton Holmes, a well known travel writer and lecturer of his day, was one of those in the Valley who saw it. When he appeared later in San Francisco he had the "boys" as his guests and mentioned them in his lecture. They brought the burros back with them to their house on Dolores Street [in San Francisco] and grazed them on various vacant lots until they were sold..."

1904: Dynamite and rockets—Celebrating the 4th

Ascenders: Jack Kelsey, Lester Jordan, Milton Main

The Call, San Francisco, July 5, 1904, p. 2:

Fireworks on Half Dome.
Yosemite, July 4.—Jack Kelsey, Lester Jordan and M. C. Main left here yesterday morning to scale Half Dome, the loftiest, most sublime pile in the Yosemite. The Kelsey party took along a large quantity of dynamite and fireworks and last night the people in the valley were treated to a sight seldom witnessed.

Evening News, San Jose, July 11, 1904, p. 8:

Climbed the Famous Half Dome
Perilous feat accomplished by San Jose boy in Yosemite

M. C. Main of this city is one of the few who have scaled the famous half dome at Yosemite park. The following account of the ascent is given in a telegram from Yosemite:

When Lester Jordan of Whittier, Jack Kelsey of San Francisco and M. C. Main of San Jose climbed the famous Half Dome (renamed Le Conte Half Dome in honor of the late Professor Joseph Le Conte, under the auspices of the Sierra Club[!]) on the Fourth of July for the purpose of setting on dynamite and fireworks in celebration of the Nation's birthday anniversary, they accomplished a feat very seldom attempted by others.

The boys left the valley early on the morning of July 3d, and were until 4 o'clock in the afternoon making the ascent to the summit. The first impression the people on the floor of the valley had of their success was the flashing of a mirror to them. At 7 o'clock in the evening a bright red light was observed burning on the top of the summit, and the firing of dynamite and rockets proceeded very quickly afterward.

It was a sight worth going many miles to see and was enjoyed exceedingly by the tourists and residents of the valley. The feat of the young men brings to mind other equally daring adventurers who have succeeded in accomplishing the task... [A brief review of Hutchings', Anderson's and Miss Dutcher's ascents, based on Hutchings' In the heart of the Sierras follows].

Note added in October 2010: Recently I found Jack Kelsey's detailed and dramatic report of this climb in another San Francisco paper.

Immediately following his Half Dome climb, Milton Main was involved in an early search and rescue mission in Yosemite:

Milton Main's pilot license, 1925

Milton Main's pilot license, signed by Orville Wright, 1925.
From the collection of his great grandson,
Coral Springs, Florida, posted with permission.

San Francisco Chronicle, July 12, 1904:

Forced to camp on North Dome all night
T. L. Brown of this city gets lost in the Yosemite and causes much anxiety

Yosemite, July 11,—Much anxiety was occasioned last night by the disappearance of T. L. Brown and his son of San Francisco. Late at night a searching party, consisting of A[d?]an Bates of Palo Alto and Burt Corbin of Fair Oakes, started out to find them. This morning Milton Main of San Jose, who achieved distinction last week by climbing South Dome, joined in the quest to relieve the anxiety of Mrs. Brown.

Mr. Brown returned to camp to-day at noon, having missed both searching parties... Arriving on top [of North Dome] he could not find his way back down the mountain side and was compelled to spend the night there without blankets or food, though the temperature was below the freezing point.

Note: San Francisco Call of July 14, 1904, identifies the two members of the search party (above) as Burke Corbett, Jr., a son of Burke Corbet of San Francisco, and Allen Bates of Palo Alto.

Milton Charles Main (1884-1963), was a 20 years old student at the time of his Half Dome ascent. He was born in Santa Cruz, and studied in San Jose. Following his studies, he worked as an engineer, then developed interest in flower industry and founded "Seabright Bulb Company" at the Santa Cruz coast. He was also an early airplane enthusiast, and flew his own engine up and down the coastline. After WWII, he moved to Florida, where he died in 1963. Check several photos from his family album.

Jack Milton Kelsey (1883-1955), was born in Texas, but he was a member of an old Southern California family. He was a resident of San Francisco in the early decades of the twentieth century, then living in the Los Angeles area, where he died in 1955.

"Lester Jordan of Whittier" is Lester Orin Jordan (1880-1959), who lived in Huntington Park (near Whittier), during the 1910 Census. He was born in Kansas. His WWI registration card shows his occupation as 'fireman'. After WWI, he and his wife Margaret moved to Exeter, Tulare County, California, where he died in 1955.

Royal O. Quesnel?

Royal Quesnel(?), cca 1914.
1912: Kodak moment

Ascenders: Royal Quesnel, Aaron Walker, other people

For a long time, my only evidence of this ascent were several undated photos published in the 1914 edition of John Harvey Williams' book Yosemite and Its High Sierra. The "Foreword" of the book bears the date November 15, 1914, and the photos could have been from 1914, or any earlier year. Caption for the photos on page 86 reads "Climbing the Half Dome", and on page 87, "Overhang at Summit of Half Dome". The photos are credited to "R. O. Quesnal", but there is nothing in the text of the book that would explain circumstances or date of the climb, or any other detail about the photographer.

Search of the Mariposa County voter registers revealed the true name of the alleged photographer: Royal O. Quesnel [not Quesnal] was an electrician registered in the Yosemite precinct in Novembers of 1912 and 1914. He lived in the Valley and probably worked for the Yosemite National Park when Williams was collecting material for his book. Roy may have offered a few photos from his collection to the author. His climb probably took place some time between 1912 and 1914. It is unclear if Quesnel was the climber shown on the photos, or if he was the person behind the camera, but at least two people must have been involved in the ascent. Who was the other person? We may never know. Those Half Dome pictures were no longer used in the 1921 edition of Williams' book.

Royal Otto Quesnel (1882-1958), may have been in his early thirties at the time of the ascent. He and his younger brother Forrest were born in California, but before the turn of the century his parents moved from Saticoy (near Santa Paula, Ventura County) to Seattle, where his father found job as carpenter. Roy returned to California and worked as electrician in Yosemite Valley until about 1915 or 1916. He married Johanna Sagmeister, and their first son, Frank Robert Quesnel was born in San Francisco in 1917. Another family relocation followed soon thereafter, and Roy became electrician for the Ford Motor Company in Seattle. Daughter Jean and son Theodore were born in Seattle in 1919 and 1921. Before 1930, Johanna and Roy were divorced, and she got custody of their children. He may have briefly lived in Santa Paula, where his mother had resided. In 1942, during the WWII draft, he was registered in Bronx, NY. Following this east coast excursion, he returned to California, where he died in the Placer County in 1958.

Note added in October 2010: A letter by Royal Quesnel to his future wife, Johanna, and his notes on back sides of photographs taken while he was in Yosemite, give more details about this climb (in fact, series of climbs!): On Saturday, August 17, 1912, one Mr. A. Walker summited Half Dome, probably the first man atop the Dome since 1904. Four days later, on the 21st, Walker made another ascent, this time with Roy. They both climbed Half Dome once more that season, "on a Sunday", but the exact date couldn't be determined. Roy had his camera with him on both of his trips, and wrote: "I had a pleasure of taking the first camera upon the dome... it was my old stand-by..." We know that this was not the "first camera upon the dome", but it was probably the first time when a modern camera, with flexible rolled film, not plates, made it to the top of Half Dome. A special 'thank you' to Marily Quesnel for finding and sharing this interesting document.

A. Walker could have been Aaron Murrey Walker (1887-1923), who was born in Oklahoma, but lived most of his life in the Sierra foothills, in or around Yosemite. Aaron would be 24 years old during that 1912 Half Dome ascent. Mr. Walker was killed in a work related accident in 1923. He was married, and had many brothers and sisters who lived in North Fork, Mariposa, and San Francisco at the time of his death. I am hoping that some of his relatives would see this note and corroborate Aaron's involvement in a series of Half Dome climbs in 1912.

1914 or later: Angry father

Ascenders: Mary Curry, Donald Tresidder

The following episode is described in several books and articles about Donald Tresidder, a one-time president of Stanford University. It is not quite clear if it happened during Donald's first year in Yosemite (1914), or later. Donald Tresidder (1894-1948), a young student from Indiana, first arrived in Camp Curry in Yosemite Valley in 1914. He learned to cook, and lived and worked in the Valley every summer during his college years. Mary Curry (1893-1970) would eventually become his wife. Here is a brief mention of their Half Dome ascent from Sandstone and Tile, Stanford Historical Society Newsletter, Vol. 6, No. 2, Winter 1982:

On one occasion he [Tresidder] was fired by Mr. Curry for taking his daughter Mary Curry with him on an ascent of Half Dome, which at that time did not have the cables that now make it a fairly routine excursion...

Shirley Sargent in her Yosemite & Its Innkeepers adds:

Father Curry was much less gentle when he discovered that Don had taken Mary up the hazardous ascent of Half Dome, even though Mary explained that she had persuaded Don to let her go...

1915: Pillsbury's Rope

Ascenders: Pillsbury, Murray, Marx, Anspach, Templeton, Putnam, Brake, Vandervort, eight or nine others

The first brief note about Arthur Pillsbury's Half Dome ascent appers to have been printed in the Mariposa Gazette:

Mariposa Gazette, August 7, 1915, p. 1:

A.C. Pillsbury headed an interesting group of climbers who made ascent of Half Dome recently. In the party of seventeen were six ladies. A ladder of spikes was their means of accomplishing this dangerous and difficult feat. Mr. Pillsbury took motion pictures of the scene.

Seven days later, the Los Angeles Times had more to say about this trip:

Pillsbury's party at Half Dome in 1915

The Pillsbury party at Half Dome,
in August 1915

Los Angeles Times, August 15, 1915, p. V12

Where Human Foot Had Never Trod
Angelenos scale the famous Hanging Rock,
Regarded as an Impossible Climb Even by Expert Mountaineers

Fighting their way to the top of Half Dome, the most inaccessible point on any of the mountains about the Yosemite Valley, A. C. Pillsbury and seventeen college students, several from this city, spent last Saturday night on the summit and made the descent the next day.

This is the first time on record that a party of tourists has ever scaled the mountain, and reached the top of the dome. The summit is 9500 feet above sea level and the last 1000 feet of the climb was made with rope ladders[!] The grade is said to average 75 per cent.

The picture shows the party at the point of the dome, which rises hundreds of feet above a massive rock on the top of the mountain proper[?!] The rock itself is 1000 feet high. The overhanging rock at the summit of the dome projects out from the wall eighty feet and the rock slab on which a venturesome student is seated sticks eight feet out into yawning space. There is a sheer drop of 3000 feet from this point.

The party spent one night on the point and built a huge bonfire that lighted up the surrounding heights for miles, to the delight of many tourists on the floor of the valley who had observed the climbers through field glasses during the afternoon. At midnight the bonfire was pushed over the point, making the longest stream of falling fire in the history of the State.

A. C. Pillsbury, who was guide for the party, is a well-known photographer. He packed his motion-picture camera to the top and took several reels of film depicting the cloud and moonlight effects, as well as the vista observed from that point.

Six girls were in the party. All of them are students at Stanford University...

(Also reprinted in the Charlotte Daily Observer, North Carolina, September 9, 1915, p. 4)

There was a quick reaction to this extremely sloppy written report. In a letter to the Editor ( Los Angeles Times, August 17, 1915, p. II5), Henry Osborne, who climbed the Dome in the early 1880s, wrote: " The feat of seventeen college students, several from this city, accompanied by the photographer A. C. Pillsbury, of climbing the Half Dome in the Yosemite Valley..., is a very notable achievement in mountain climbing. But it is not quite accurate to say that 'this is the first time on record that the top of the Dome has been reached by human beings', although it is probably true it has not been done [frequently] during the last thirty years... "

Strangely and unfortunately, Stanford or Palo Alto newspapers from August 1915, did not mention Pillsbury's ascent or the names of Stanford students who had participated. Fortunately, a few more details can be found in a recollection by Charles Thomas Vandervort, a member of the Pillsbury party, published in the San Francisco Chronicle in August 1932, seventeen years after the Pillsbury team climb:

San Francisco Chronicle, August 13, 1932, p. 12

Editor, The Chronicle — Sir: I noticed in yesterday's Chronicle an account coming out of Yosemite under date of August 8 [1932] setting forth the mountain climbing exploits of Warren Loose and Jean Husted. I do not wish in any way to detract from the noteworthy achievement of Mr. Loose and Miss Husted, on the contrary, I believe it should have due acclaim...; but in establishing mountain records and climbing to highest peaks we must remember the generations which have gone before.

The statement that "Loose and Elden Dryer were the first to reach the top of Half Dome without the aid of rope or cable" is not only untrue but shows a great lack of knowledge of what I call the "middle" history of the great Tissiack. Most books on the subject state that Anderson first climbed this peak in the seventies and then go on to describe the cable which was attached in 1919. Between these dates many mountaineers visited the Yosemite and to them Half Dome was not only an inspiration but a challenge. I climbed Half Dome unaided by rope or cable, once in 1915 and eight times in 1916, but I was not the first to accomplish this feat.

During the summer of 1915, Mr. Pillsbury succeeded in raising enough money for 900 feet of substantial rope for Half Dome and a group of eight college men volunteered to put it up. I was first up with the new rope. Other members of the party were the late Bay Murray, son of Professor Murray of Stanford University; young Marx, son of Professor Marx of the same institution; Mr. Anpach [Anspach], now a practicing attorney at Glendale, Cal. The event was recorded in motion pictures by Mr. Pillsbury from a perilous position on the side of the mountain, where we suspended him by a rope. After the rope was established, others climbed the mountain to help commemorate the event. My pictures of the party on top show the faces of "Dink" Templeton, Miss Dorothy Putnam of Stanford and Miss Ann Brake of the University of California...

Charles T. Vandervort
Menlo Park, Aug. 10, 1932.

There is a possibility that Pillsbury (or the National Park Service?) made some improvements on the Half Dome route in the summer of 1916:

Mariposa Gazette, July 15, 1916, p. 1:

Half Dome — New iron pegs, soldered with melted sulfur, have replaced the old and a new half-inch Manila rope had been stretched from top to bottom. Headed by A.C. Pillsbury, a party of sixteen went up to the summit of the Dome after completing the safety measures.

Roland G. Marx; 1911 portrait from the Stanford Quad

Roland G. Marx. From
the Stanford Quad, 1911.
(Or, perhaps, the Gazette was simply belatedly reporting on the upgrades made during the previous summer, described in Vandervort's article, above).


"Bay Murray" is Francis King Murray (1895-1929), a son of Prof. of Greek at Stanford, Augustus Taber Murray (1866-1940). Onetime Leland Stanford footballer and trackman, and prominent in college dramatics, where he earned the nickname "Bay". Graduated in 1917, with Phi Beta Kappa rank. Died of kidney failure in Boston, in 1929. Obituaries in the Time (magazine), Monday, April 15, 1929, and the New York Times, April 3, 1929. p. 25. Survived by his wife and three children.

There were two professors Marx at Stanford, brothers Charles David Marx (1857-1939) and Guido Hugo Marx (1871-1949), both working in the School of Engineering. Each brother had a son and three daughters. "Young Marx" was probably Charles' eldest child, Roland Grotecloss Marx (1889-1976). Roland got his AB in Civil Engineering (Stanford class of 1911), and continued studying at Stanford for a higher degree. He was an early radio amateur at Stanford. It is less likely that "young Marx" was referring to his cousin, Guido Van Dusen Marx (1900-1939). Guido was professor Guido H. Marx's son, but he was probably still in high school during Pillsbury's ascent.

"Mr. Anpach" is Wilmur Claire Anspach (1894-1955). He got his AB (Pre-legal) at Stanford, class of 1917, then a degree from Harvard. Stanford's Quad 1917 lists him playing cornet in Stanford University Orchestra (together with Charles Vandervort, clarinet!). He began working as attorney in Glendale in 1922. Wilmur and his wife Sue Lively (Anspach) had two children.

"Dink Templeton" refers to a star athlete and a talented coach at Stanford University, Robert Lyman Templeton (1897-1962). His life is well documented on the Web.

Dorothy Putnam (1890-1970) was born in Illinois, and after studying for two years at University of Illinois, transferred to Stanford and got her AB in History, class of 1916. Next year she received her high school teaching credentials, but stayed at Stanford as secretary of the School of Education, and as departmental librarian. She described her experience at this function in "[Ellwood] Cubberley as Known by His Secretary," in the California Quarterly of Secondary Education, Vol. 8 (April 1933), pp. 243-244. She may have left that job after 1937. In the "Stanford Alumni directory" printed in 1956, her unconfirmed address was in Salinas, California. She died in Palo Alto, in 1970.

San Jose Mercury Herald reports on Miss Anna Brake's outing in the Yosemite.

From the San Jose Mercury Herald
August 15, 1915, p. 27.

"Ann Brake" was Anna Beatrice Brake (1896-1977). She was described as a first year student in Letters and Science, from San Jose, in the 1914-1915 University of California Register. An issue of San Francisco Chronicle of November 12, 1916, p. 52, briefly mentioned her in an article entitled New Talent in Cast of U. C. Junior Farce: "...Among the newcomers, who are famed for their good looks already, and who promise to make their marks in college theatricals are Jessie Todhunter, Ann Brake, Katherine Woolsey, [and others]". In her Senior year at Berkeley, she was awarded Phoebe A. Hearst Scholarship. She graduated in the class of 1918, then got a nursing degree from the Bellevue Hospital of New York City in 1921. In 1922, in a wedding ceremony in the Yosemite Valley, she married Dr. Morton Ryder, a New York physician. They lived in Rye, N.Y., and had three children. Anna died in Carmel, N.Y., in 1977.

Charles Thomas Vandervort (1892-1980) was born in South Dakota, and died in Southern California. He got his Pre-legal AB at Stanford in the class of 1917. The Stanford Quad, 1917 lists him playing clarinet in Stanford University Orchestra (together with Wilmur Anspach, cornet!). After Stanford, he spent some time in the Army. In 1922, when he became "commandant" of William Warren School (private military school, later Menlo Junior College, in Menlo Park, California), his title was "Major Vandervort". In the late twenties he submitted his MA Thesis to the Department of Education at Stanford ("Military Training in the Secondary Schools of the United States", 1929).

Arthur Clarence Pillsbury (1870-1946) was a well known photographer. He studied Mechanical Engineering at Stanford University, and was preoccupied with cameras and photography while still a student. After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake he left Bay Area and purchased a studio in Yosemite Valley, where he was a licensed photographer at the time of the 1915 ascent of Half Dome. Learn more about A. C. Pillsbury's work and legacy at a website maintained by his granddaughter Melinda.

What happened to Pillsbury's "motion picture"?

What happened to the movie that Pillsbury had made during his trip? The earliest public screening of the segment covering the Half Dome ascent was in Palo Alto's Varsity Theatre on September 30, 1915, see the ads in Palo Alto and Stanford newspapers. Many similar presentations followed in 1916, as the newspaper articles below at.

San Jose Mercury Herald, March 11, 1916, p. 8:

Church Notices
...At the First Methodist Episcopal church, Santa Clara and Fifth streets... The evening service will be of unusual attractiveness... Dr. Williams will speak briefly on God and Nature, then Arthur C. Pillsbury will present Yosemite in Pictures and Story. There will be five reels of motion pictures and colored views of Yosemite and the High Sierras; motion pictures of the climbing of Mt. Lyell and Half Dome. Mr. Pillsbury is an expert, and his motion pictures and colored views are unsurpassed.

Los Angeles Times, March 13, 1916, p. III2:

College Boys Up High in Sierras
The thrilling ascent of Half Dome by fourteen university students is one of the new features that will be shown this week by David A. Curry at the Little Theatre. Last year the annual hike of the Sierra Club was the feature and the best part of this is retained as it shows the members reaching the summit of Mt. Lyell.

Half Dome is known to every Yosemite lover. It is a massive rock which rises 9000 feet in the air and to make the climb requires nerve, strength and daring. Often the moving picture operator was in danger of falling thousands of feet to the valley below.

San Jose Mercury Herald, March 17, 1916, p. 11:

Pillsbury's party at Half Dome in 1915. A frame from his movie.

A frame from Pillsbury's movie shows a group of (mostly) Stanford students at the top
of Half Dome in August 1915.

Pictures of Yosemite are Shown at Normal
Miss Mildred Clemens Gives Interesting Illustrated Lecture

Appearing under the sanction of the United States department of the interior and in the interest of a corporation which is planning the opening of a chain of hotels and other accommodations for tourists, Miss Mildred Leo Clemens a relative of the late Samuel M. Clemens (Mark Twain), lectured last evening at the normal assembly hall on the Yosemite valley before a large audience of normal students and their friends.

The pictures which accompanied the talk were truly remarkable. The lecture was illustrated by 2500 feet of motion pictures and some 150 stereopticon views...

Among the most interesting of the pictures are several showing the Sierra club in one of its annual hikes through the park and a large party of Stanford students climbing Half Dome and Glacier Peak...

Miss Clemens spoke of the hotel accommodations and travel facilities to be found in the reservation[!] and of the plans of a new corporation for the erection of magnificent hotels in the valley and hospitable chalets through the rest of the park...

Oakland Tribune, May 10, 1916, p. 14:

Sierra Snow Scenes Shown by Lecturer
Alameda, May 10.—David Curry gave his Yosemite lecture last night in the First Congregational Church, showing a mile of film of the wonderland... The most sensational view of the main Valley showed ten University boys and girls climbing Half Dome, with the aid of ropes tied to the same spikes driven by Anderson years ago when that intrepid climber established a record which stood for a quarter of century, as the only person[!] to climb the giant rock...

Oakland Tribune, August 1, 1916:

Yosemite Guide to Talk of Trails
"Yosemite Valley Trails" will be the subject of a moving picture lecture to be given by Harold Wurta, Yosemite guide, Friday evening, at the Boulevard Congregational church. The feature of the lecture will be the showing of college students climbing Half Dome...

The further destiny of the movie remained a mystery to me for quite a while. I was hoping that it had been preserved in a movie archive or perhaps in a Sierra Club depository. Then one day Derek Cheng sent me a note with a link to the National Film Preservatin Foundation (NFPF) website, which was offering a free viewing of a 3-minutes clip from Pillsbury's movie (thank you Derek!) The great news was that the clip contained an amazing 60-seconds long segment showing the Half Dome ascent. The bad news was that those three minutes hosted by NFPF were all that remained from the original 35mm film by the Pillsbury Picture Company. The rest of the movie apparently deteriorated before it could have been preserved.

1917: Divided loyalties

By early Spring of 1917, the war in Europe had been raging for almost three years. Some Americans of German origin were divided and confused on how exactly to react on German militarism and conquer. On April 6, 1917, the U.S. Congress declared war on Germany. President Wilson specially addressed "men and women of German birth and native sympathy who live amongst us". He stressed that most of them are "as true and loyal Americans as if they had never known any other fealty or allegiance. They will be prompt to stand with us in rebuking and restraining the few who may be of a different mind and purpose. If there should be disloyalty, it will be dealt with with a firm hand of stern repression..."

Later that Spring, when the first American troops were already on their way to Europe, the following incident was recorded in a local newspaper.

Ascenders: Otto Sammet, Cecil Badger, James Carson

San Francisco Chronicle, June 16, 1917, p. 9

German Defi Placed on Top of Half Dome
Camera Club Climbers Find Notice Signed by Otto Sammet of S. F.
Special Dispatch to Chronicle.

Yosemite, June 15.—James Carson and Cecil Badger of the California Camera Club party have succeeded in climbing to the top of Half Dome, which rises to the perpendicular height of one mile above the floor of the valley, being compelled to climb over the smooth surface of the dome barefooted. When they arrived at the top and were about to plant the camera club pennant, they found a cloth sign mounted on a shrub, on which was written "Deutschland above all" and signed by "Otto Sammet of San Francisco". They also found a pieplate, on which he stated he would like to meet any one reaching the top while he was in the valley.

As Badger is about to enlist with the U S Navy on his return to San Francisco, Sammet was soon apprised of the fact that someone had found his sign, when Government rangers called on him at Camp Curry, where he is a guest. His message has been turned over to the proper Federal authorities, who are taking the matter up.

Otto Wilhelm Sammet (1891-1981), was 26 at the time of this climb. He was an immigrant, working in San Francisco as a piano repairman. I don't know if he had faced any consequences from the "Federal authorities" for his action. Otto became an American citizen in 1926. In later years, he was a carpenter, cabinet maker, a real estate agent, and at one time, a director of the San Francisco Zither Club. He was married to Edna M. Sammet, but it doesn't appear that they had any children. Cecil Frank Badger (1887-1969), was 29 in 1917. He was born in Indiana, and worked in various places on the West Coast. When he was drafted in 1917, he was a foreman with Dinwiddie Construction Company in San Francisco. After WWI, he returned to Indiana. He married Miss Opal Banta in 1921, and worked as electrician. They probably did not have any children. The second Camera Club climber, James Carson, could not be positively identified.

1917: Popular sport

Many other people took advantage of Pillsbury's rope, but only few names of Half Dome visitors were recorded in newspaper accounts from that period.

Ascenders: Mary Curry, Hilmer Oehlmann, Carl Kennedy

San Francisco Chronicle, June 3, 1917, p. 37 (with an error in the title!)

Girls climb Half Dome in the Yosemite
Miss Mary Curry and Two U. C. Medical School Juniors Accomplish Feat

Camp Curry, June 2.—The mountain of Half Dome... was climbed for the first time this season by Miss Mary Curry, the daughter of the late "Stentor" of Yosemite, accompanied by two juniors in the medical school of the University of California, Carl Kennedy and Hill Oehliman [Hilmer Oehlmann].

Half Dome... is the most daring climb in all the park east [west?] of the backbone mountains, Ritter and Lyell. The last 500 feet of the ascent can only be made by clinging to finger and toe-told supports, aided by the not too trustworthy rope, which the more careful Alpiners discard. Miss Curry in past seasons has achieved fame by climbing most of the difficult heights of the Yosemite and by mountaineering in the high Sierra eastward of the valley proper. She is a graduate of Stanford University...

Kennedy and Oehliman are experienced mountaineers, having spent last summer at Camp Curry and taken some of the more difficult hikes and climbs in the valley.

Hilmer Oehlmann (1895-1983) would later become a manager, and then the president of the Yosemite Park and Curry Company.

Ascenders: Mary Curry, Hilmer Oehlmann, George James

San Francisco Chronicle, June 19, 1917, p. 13

Half Dome Has No Terrors For This Author
George Wharton James Climbs a Mile-High Precipitous Bluff in the Yosemite

Camp Curry, June 18.—George Wharton James of Pasadena, author traveler and lecturer on Western life and landscapes, made his present brief visit to Yosemite especially notable by climbing the mile-high, precipitous bluff of Half Dome... He was accompanied on the perilous trip by Miss Mary Curry...

The only other member of the party was Hilmer Oehliman, a junior student of the University of California, who, with Miss Curry, made the premier climb of the mountain this spring.

"Half Dome I do not consider an especially dangerous climb to anybody who has a strong pair of legs, strong nerves, strong self control and good common sense", said James when he was resting from the feat. The ascent in the steepest places approaches about 65[?] per cent, and if one slips he is done for... "Half Dome is worth while for any true mountaineer, and it is a good place to stay away from for anybody else".

George Wharton James (1858-1923), was a popular lecturer and journalist, writing more than 40 books and many articles and pamphlets on California and the American Southwest.

Ascenders: Employees of Camp Curry, and others

Hanford Morning Journal (Hanford, California), July 17, 1917, p. 6

Many Climbing Half Dome This Season Among Camp Curry Guests and Help

Camp Curry, Cal., July 14—The first brisk thunder shower from the high Sierras was enjoyed yesterday afternoon by the three thousand people in the valley and the eight hundred guests in Camp Curry...

The precipitous mountain of Half Dome, which like the keystone state of Pennsylvania in the arch of the original union, heads in the north and south walls of the Yosemite on the east, has this season become the familiar climbing ground for Camp Curry people. Besides a score or more of guests who have made the mile high ascent, nearly a third of the Camp Curry force have this season looked down on the deep trough of Tenaya canyon and the main valley from the rim teeth of its many overhanging rocks. Tuesday [July 10] a party of eight employees made the climb, passing three other hikers on the 500 foot "rope slide" and making camp's score for the season 70 people...

Ascenders: Harold Maundrell, Willie Ritchie

San Jose Mercury Herald, July 23, 1917, p. 10

4000 Campers Now in the Yosemite Valley

Camp Curry, July 22—(...) Harold Maundrell, the famous Olympic miler and two-miler, and Willie Ritchie, who have been spending several weeks in Camp Curry, yesterday climbed Half Dome. At noon they flashed down mirror signals by the sun in response to Stentor Curry's resounding call up the mile-high cliff. The athletes on the mountain top enjoyed a wonderful view over the deep valley and more than a hundred people have made the picturesque and adventurous climb of the Dome this year, more than half of them being from Camp Curry.

One statement in this article is not consistent with facts. David "Stentor" Curry was indeed known for his thunderous voice, but he could not have called Maundrell and Ritchie from the Valley floor in the summer of 1917. He sustained a bizarre but serious foot injury earlier that year, and died on April 30, 1917, in a San Francisco hospital.

Harold Hugh Maundrell (1885-1967), was a noted Stanford runner from 1906 to 1909, but he did not participate in any Olympic games (nor were the one-mile or two-miles runs featured as Olympic disciplines at that time). "Olympic" in the article was probably a reference to the Olympic Club of San Francisco. "Willie Ritchie", whose true name was Gerhardt Anthony Steffen (1890-1975), was born in San Francisco. He held the title of the world lightweight boxing champion from 1912 to 1914. A note in the San Francisco Chronicle of July 27, 1917, confirms his presence in Yosemite that summer ("Willie Ritchie only arrived from Yosemite the night before, but he donned his gymnasium suit and commenced sparring right away...")

1919: McAllister's Cable Route

The person who deserves most credit for making our current route up Half Dome accessible and enjoyable is almost forgotten today. The best way to pay tribute to that visionary and benefactor would be by naming this Yosemite Park attraction after him — McAllister's Cable Route.

Sierra Club Bulletin, Vol. 11, No. 1, January 1920

Page 92 (in "Secretary's Report"):

The stairway up Half Dome, erected in the name of the club through the generosity of Mr. M. H. McAllister, was completed last summer [1919] and has proved to be a great attraction. An account of the trail will be found in "Notes and Correspondence", but we wish again to express our appreciation of this public-spirited action.

Pages 101-102 (in "Notes and Correspondence"):

The Half Dome trail and stairway

Some time ago Mr. M. Hall McAllister, of San Francisco, a member and good friend of the Sierra Club, offered to erect under the Club's auspices a stairway to the summit of Half Dome. This generous offer was accepted by the directors of the club. Permission was granted by the National Park Service and the work was completed last spring. Many visitors to the valley last summer keenly appreciated the opportunity to scale Half Dome in safety, and to see the wonderful views which the summit affords. We are glad to publish the following description of this cable stairway:

Half Dome cable route, 1919.

McAllister's photo, 1919 (detail).
Note the stair section in the upper part of the picture.

It consists of two sections. The first one is on the small dome, or saddle, and consists of a zigzag trail and stone steps covering about six hundred feet. The second section leads up the big incline on the large dome. This slope is of polished granite, about eight hundred feet in length. On this incline, which varies from forty-five to sixty degrees, is placed a double hand-rail of steel cables set into a double line of steel posts thirty inches apart, like those of a steamer's gangplank. These steel posts are set into sockets drilled in the granite every ten feet and at intervals of one hundred feet heavy chains bolted in the rock will help to strengthen the cables or take up any strain on them. When the season is over the caps on the top of each post will be unscrewed, the cables, which are anchored permanently at the top and bottom of the rock, will be lifted out of the posts, and the posts taken from their sockets and stowed away off the rock until spring. It is not thought that the cables lying flat on the rock, and being also held by the safety chains, will be at all disturbed by the spring ice-avalanches.

The trip can be made as follows: About three hours from the foot of the Vernal Falls Trail on mule-back to the foot of the zigzag trail or "Rock Stairway"... Leaving the mules at this point, a walk of about three hundred yards and a rise of six hundred or seven hundred feet take you to the foot of the cable stairway, where a climb of another eight hundred feet, holding to the wire cables, will lend you on the summit of Half Dome.

It is best to wear rubber-soled tennis shoes, as the granite is so smooth and slippery that spiked soles are dangerous. For those who feel at all timid safety belts are provided, which fasten you to the cables so that it will be impossible to slip and meet with an accident.

The work was done under the direction of experts from the Sierra Club, and part of the expense shared by the park authorities. The stairway has now been completed and turned over to the Yosemite National Park for the use of the public. The memorial plaque at the foot of the stairway reads:

Under Auspices of the
Sierra Club
To Remember
Captain George Anderson
Who First Ascended this Dome in

A photo plate in the same issue shows "The new cable stairway up Half Dome" (Plate XXX). It is clear from the picture, that some kind of wooden or metal stairs were built between the cables on the steepest part of the lower segment of the cable route. The stairs didn't survive long, and were never replaced later. Description of the route also mentioned "safety belts" fastened to the cables. I don't know when the use of those (quite impracticable) belts was discontinued.

Another description of the new cable route can be found in the Report of the Director of the National Park Service to the Secretary of the Interior For the Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1919, Washington, 1919, p. 67:

(Yosemite National Park)

Half Dome Scalable Now

A very useful contribution to the park was made this year [1919] by the donation, through the Sierra Club, of a protection for the trail to the top of Half Dome. A double row of iron posts about waist high were set in holes drilled in the rock. Through "eyes" in the top of these posts, formed by turning the metal back in the form of a loop, a steel cable was stretched and securely anchored at the ends. The cable formed a hand rail on either side of the trail, by which a person could pull himself up the steep rock slope. This double cable took the place of a single rope which was attached to small bolts in the rock face and afforded only one aid by which the climber pulled himself up hand over hand. The old arrangement was dangerous and unsafe. It was placed by an old sailor in the late eighties[!]. Half Dome cable route, 1919.

McAllister's photo, 1919 (detail). A ranger guides a group of visitors.
The new cable was installed early in July, and it was used by climbers who appreciated keenly the opportunity of seeing the wonderful view from the top of Half Dome, with its sheer drop of practically 5,000 feet to the valley below.

There is more about cost and circumstances related to the construction of the cable route in the above quoted issue of the Sierra Club Bulletin, pp. 102-103:

Hall McAllister wrote to William F. Bade, the President of the Sierra Club, on October 23, 1919: "...I can assure you it was a great pleasure to plan and carry out this scheme, of which I had thought for some years, but naturally felt timidity in attempting to undertake a task which might result in failure from financial or physical reasons..."

McAllister also provided an account of project's total cost:

Paid by M. Hall McAllister:
    Labor, steps and trail on saddle and cable stairway on big incline: $2,903.09
    Material for above: $833.48
    Total: $3,736.57
Furnished by Yosemite National Park:
    (estimated amounts, including cost of connecting trail from Cloud's Rest Trail to Gateway):
    Transportation for entire work: $271.00
    Tools and equipment for entire work: $350.00
    Total: $621.00
Grand total: $4,357.57

In spite of good intentions, it appears that cable posts were not removed in the following winter seasons. Results were predictable:

Sierra Club Bulletin, Vol. 11, No. 2, January 1921, p. 201

The cable stairway up Half Dome, donated to the park by Mr. McAllister, proved very satisfactory, and enabled thousands to reach the summit of the Dome, which heretofore had been a very hazardous undertaking. Early in the season [of 1920?] snow avalanches carried away nearly one hundred feet of the iron supports, yet the cable itself remained intact, resting on the surface of the Dome, and many made the ascent while this condition prevailed. Later the Park Service repaired the stairway, and it is now in first-class order. From experience, it is advisable to remove the supports at the opening of the winter season, for snow avalanches are inevitable, and injury to the cable is almost a foregone conclusion. A new flag was hoisted on the overhanging rock of the Dome, and it will be necessary to renew it every spring.

It probably took several years before the Park Service fine tuned the winter closure procedure. I didn't find any reports of problems with the cable route after this 1922 account:

Berkeley Daily Gazette, June 30, 1922, p. 2

Cable on Half Dome is Wrecked by Snow

Yosemite National Park, Calif., June 30.—The famous double cable up the smoothed side of Half Dome was wrecked by the fierce snows of last winter, but many hikers continue to "take a chance" on climbing the great glacier-carved mass of granite

The last winter was "unusual" all over California and in the High Sierra country of Yosemite the fall of snow was beyond previous records. Half Dome, standing 4,900 feet above Yosemite Valley, still wears part of its snowy crown, indicating the great depth of the fall at that altitude. The heavy snow snapped the right cable like a cotton string, so that the entire lower part is gone. The left cable is down flat on the rock for more than 300 feet of the climb, making it difficult and perhaps dangerous for anybody to attempt the ascent unless he or she be equipped with a cool head and stout arms.

For many years Half Dome was thought unscalable. Then Captain George Anderson performed the prodigious feat of dragging himself to the top by clinging to the cracks in the granite plate, driving pegs as he went. A rope subsequently was strung up the side of the dome but this had to be replaced every year, and Hall McAllister, of San Francisco, interested in promoting exploration and love of the out-of-doors, generously donated a double steel cable, erected on stanchions, which for several years has made the ascent of Half Dome possible for women as well as men.

No plans for restoring the cable have been made, as the government has no funds for such work.

The Evening News, San Jose, July 7, 1922, p. 7.

Half Dome Unscalable Now
Cable Broken

Yosemite, Cal. — Heavy snows last winter tore away the famous double which for several years has enabled daring hikers to pull themselves up to the top of Half Dome, a great glacier-carved mass of granite which rears itself 4900 feet above the floor of the Yosemite Valley. Despite the loss of the cable, many summer visitors here are bold enough to try for the top anyway.

M[atthew] Hall McAllister (1860-1948), a San Francisco businessman, was born in California. His father was in close family relation with a noted San Francisco lawyer and judge, Matthew Hall McAllister, and young McAllister was actually named after him. In 1892, young Hall was one of founders of "Otis McAllister, Inc", a company still active in the worldwide trade of food products. Hall not only helped with the Half Dome cable route, but also financed Sierra Club's Shasta Alpine Lodge at Horse Camp in 1922. In 1920, McAllister donated his photoalbum of views of the Half Dome cable stairway to the Sierra Club Library. I don't know if the Album is still available for public viewing. Four of his striking photos were published in the National Geographic Magazine, Vol. 41, No. 4, April 1922, pages 343-347. Hall had one son, Otis (who founded an organization similar to the Sierra Club in Mexico), and two daughters (Ethel, who became Mrs. Grubb, and Marion). In addition to the Sierra Club, he was a prominent member of the California Academy of Sciences, and in the 1920s and 1930s also a chairman of their Conservation Committee. M. Hall McAllister died in Redlands, California, at the age of 87.


Go to Part One of the Half Dome article
By the same author:
Earliest Ascents to the Summit of Mt. Starr King in Yosemite: Story Retold.
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First posted at www.stanford.edu in 2008. Revised in 2022.
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