Chronicles of Early Ascents of Half Dome:
Lemmon's Ascent, 1878

This is a transcript of an article from the Pacific Rural Press, a weekly journal published in San Francisco, in which John G. Lemmon describes his Half Dome ascent on August 19, 1878.

The Pacific Rural Press, September 14, 1878, pp. 162-163

Scenes in the High Sierra back of Yosemite. No. 1
(Written for the Press by J. G. Lemmon).

Joy, wonder, exhaustion! I have just returned from a two weeks' exploration, alone, of the high Sierra back of Yosemite, 20 to 50 miles. The trip included the ascent of the world-famous Half-dome by means of a rope for the upper 900 feet, the lofty and never-before-surmounted Lyell group of peaks, and lastly, the culminating peak of this region, Mt. Dana...

Of all the tourists and scientists in Yosemite I could get none to join me in the exploration I had planned. It was vain to pause regretting the absence of those who would accompany me had they been privileged to be here; so, packing my trusty and strong horse, "Stanley," with blankets, provisions, botanical papers and pick, I hastened away alone, taking the trail up the middle alcove of the Yosemite gallery, past the two grandest falls, Vernal and Nevada, to the upper Yosemite valley back of South Dome and Cloud's Rest. This upper valley would be a great wonder anywhere else, being walled and embossed with similar rocks and domes as the great Yosemite, but not so lofty. Its floor is clothed with a richer forest, owing to its greater elevation, 6,000 feet. The upper portion is fenced across by a high, strong fence of cedar rails, and contains some excellent meadows, the pasture grounds of Washburn & Bruce, the enterprising owners of the Mariposa Big Tree station. Between these valleys rise up three much visited and often portrayed objects: Cap of Liberty, Half-dome and Cloud's Rest. The first and last of these are easily climbed; but the Half-dome, an oblate, flattened mass of granite, protruding edgewise from the wooded mountain tops and split in twain logitudinally, has, until lately, defied all attempts at surmounting. But an ambitious, keen-eyed, cool-headed, sure-footed Scotch sailor named Anderson has compassed its ascent, and assisted by him a few daring spirits have climbed up the rope which he has fastened with iron pins driven into holes drilled into the rock, a most perilous and laborious work. He has prepared the material for a wooden stairway to the summit, but for some reason the completion of the enterprise is postponed. It was by the merest accident that I ascended the famous throne of "Tis-sa-ack," the Half-dome, the cynosure of all eyes at Yosemite, and without doubt the most striking natural object yet discovered on our planet. Leaving my baggage in camp at Little Yosemite valley, I started on the morning of August 14th [1878] up the trail leading to the base of the dome. When near the cabin of Anderson (of which I was ignorant at the time) my spirited horse, suddenly hurrying up a short steep, so shrunk in his body that the saddle girth slid back, causing him to take fright and to rear and plunge, finally landing me upon the rocks, badly spraining my back. For a few minutes I lay helpless, while "Stanley," still rearing and kicking, cleared himself of saddle, blanket, etc. With difficulty I rose, recovered horse and equipments, some of the latter sent hurling far down the slope. I resaddled the horse, mounted from a convenient, jutting rock, and rode on up the trail, determined at least to see the heroic achievement of Anderson.

In a few minutes a rude whip-saw mill, then a small log cabin came in sight. I rode up and hailed. A man came out, took in the situation at once by a glance at my pale face, lifted me off the horse and carried me into the cabin, where a berth of pine boughs and a cup of coffee soon began the work of restoration. In a few minutes a fellow daring spirit and coworker of Anderson's, Mr. J. B. Lambert [John B. Lembert] came in, and at once he placed me right at home with rude but true and characteristic travelers' hospitality.

Learning that I was a botanist, Lambert questioned me closely concerning the trees of the vicinity, and urged a short walk among them, proffering his arm. By chance we wandered up the slope, talking about and studying the trees. Accidentally we fell into the trail, and at length reached the bare, steep [pre-]dome that flanks "Tis-sa-ack" on the east, and is about one-third as high. Here I was exhausted and stopped to rest my broken back. While bewailing my condition, Lambert proffered farther help, and getting down on hands and toes showed how Anderson climbed such rocks. I began painfully creeping along, aided by a few fissures now and then in the smooth rock, for the first 100 feet. From thence the proper and perilous climbing commenced. Each hand and foot had to be carefully placed among the loose, dissolving granite resting on a surface elevated at an angle of about 60 degrees. Slowly and with frequent halts the ascent was made of the attendant dome. From its top a close view of the giant wonder is given. But I could not be satisfied with only a sight of Anderson's rope running like a dark line from pin to pin until lost to sight over the crown. Lambert kindly assisted me down across the saddle of rock between, and joyfully I handled and examined the lower end of the long 900 feet line. It is made of baling rope, 5 to 11 strands in number, one being knotted around the rest once in 10 to 14 inches for convenience of staying the hands from slipping.

My regret at being placed hors de combat just that morning, of all the 10 weeks almost constant riding from Santa Barbara to and about Yosemite, now became agony. I gathered souvenirs of flowers and prepared to return, when a voice hailed us from over the east dome, and a man came stalking down the slope with a sure and easy tread that told the strength of his limbs and the resolution of his heart. He proved to be Mr. E. W. Baker, a cool headed carpenter from Alameda, accustomed to walking on dizzy heights. Hastily inquiring he learned my state, but declared I must go up with him if he had to carry me on his back. Taking from a bush near by the rope that Anderson used for the purpose, about 15 feet long, he tied one end about his waist and I placed the other about mine.

Promising to let me down from any point if my strength failed me, he grasped the rope and ran up nimbly as a cat, hand over hand, and I slowly followed. Raising the rope out from the rock causes your pressure against it with nailed boots to be increased in the ratio of your lifting power. So firmly your feet cling to the glassy rock, and clink, clink, the iron nails ring out upon the air, keeping time with the regular reaching of the hands up, up, up!

Occasionally, clefts, in the rock afforded foothold enough for a moment's rest and a survey of the glorious scenery unveiling below. The great Yosemite from Mt. Watkins to Eagle Rock yawned on our right. The scarcely less interesting Little Yosemite, began to show its further domes over the forest on the south; before us diminished the attendant dome, from whose top the voice of Lambert came cheerily: "You are doing well!" "About half-way up!" Later came the shout, "Three-fourths of the way!" My back seems to be separating in the region of the lumbar vertebra and pains shoot through the part keen as knife-thrusts, but I keep on grasping the rope with trembling, weakened fingers. "Only three pins more!" I gasp and feel an inclination to halt, and turn around giddily. "Depend more upon the little rope," Baker calls down, in a firm voice, "I can pull you up bodily." "Almost up!" shouts Lambert from the far depths. "One more pin!" Baker creeps up to it, sits down above it, and pulls me up over the cape stone. The perilous climb is done; the crown of "Tis-sa-ack," is reached, over 10,000 feet, nearly two miles above the level world! Rest followed, while the hearts throbbed and the eye wandered. O, what a glorious vision lies out-spread, of gorge and dome, turret and pinnacle!

Warm, forest-clothed valleys clasp the bases of cold snow-mantled peaks. Rivers rush cascading down precipices, their sources locked behind moraines as blue miniature lakes, the pools at the foot of melting glaciers. The air is cool and still, and unflecked in all the azure expanse save a few white cumuli in the far east, riding like vast argosies dangerously near the pinnacles of Lyell. How sweetly, softly, falls the noontide sunlight upon the deep, almost bottomless Yosemite! Scarcely you realize the valley is there. The dew and humidity of the atmosphere beclouds all below, in contrast with the clear ether of the upper depths that seemingly brings distant peaks to be close at hand. To see peaks you must climb peaks. What appears towering and majestic to the observers of the valleys, is dwarfed to mole hills or lost entirely. Mt. Star King on the south, Sentinel dome at the west, a nameless dome across the valley to the north, and Cloud's Rest at the east, all rounded summits, seem brother formations with "Tis-sa-ack." Lower, hundreds of domes, embossing the granite plateau, tell where the glacial seas of old did effective work in crushing mountain summits, leaving their hardened knobs as records of their elevation and power.

Exploring the top of the half dome, we found it a convex, elliptical table of rock, depressed several feet near its center by a cross valley, and extending about 100 rods in a direction nearly northeast and southwest. The north wall, seemingly so smooth and clean cut from below, is really notched and much diversified. On its outer point, the visor of "Tis-sa-ack's" crown, stands a flagpole of fir about 15 feet long, and eight inches in diameter at its base, upheld by piled rocks. Though seldom registering myself in the usual places, I thought it proper to pencil my name here with the thirty or forty only others that have ventured up this fearful steep. We let fall stones from the cliff and timed their arrival at the incline facing Mirror lake, 11 to 13 seconds according to character of plummet, whether light slate or heavy granite.

Southwest of the flagstaff about 10 rods is a fissure cleft through the crown of the dome, about one foot wide, concealed for most of its way by a sliding cap, the upper concentric layer of rock that overlies this dome like all the rest. We dropped pebbles into the exposed end of this fissure at the southwest, and heard them descending for 13 seconds. Taken into consideration with other lesions, and splittings notably on the Cap of Liberty and elsewhere, there may be some ground for the belief of the Indian relics here that the sides of the Yosemite are destined to fall in and destroy the white man.

Only one tree has taken root on the summit. This stands near the edge at the western side of the ellipse and is about two feet thick at base and 25 feet high, with the peculiar, many-branched, depressed limbs of the Pinos monticola found on such highths.

The flora of the dome is either dwarfed specimens of lesser elevations or small alpine species. I gathered characteristic specimens as souvenirs, and find that a few dozen species would comprise the list; principal of these are several species of Eriogonum, Spiroea, Hieracium and Ivesia, with the dwarfed form of the golden-cup oak (Quercus chrysolefis) that so puzzles our American authority for forest trees, Dr. Engelmann, of St. Louis. This was called a distinct species by Dr. Kellogg, of San Francisco, but on the various slopes about Yosemite and elsewhere in the Sierra, I have found specimens grading all the way from the tiny prostrate bush loaded with small, smooth-cupped acorns, to the tall, majestic tree bearing yellow, golden, dust covered acorn-cups two inches across; and I quite agree with Dr. E. that the speecies included all the forms.

The descent of "Tis-sa-ack," by the small rope swinging almost vertically over the side, was scarcely less fearful though taking less time, and was performed by backing down. Often the foot failed to find a resting place and you dangled in air until reaching over and beneath the concentric layers your iron boot-nails caught upon the inner rock. And thus slowly you drop down from the pinnacled horizon of myriads of of snowy crests to the misty and shadowry depths of the pathless forest, from the brightness of heaven to the gloom of earth, from "Tis-sa-ack's" crown to "Tis-sa-ack's" foot.


[Part 2 of this series, in which Lemmon describes his Mt. Lyell ascent, was printed in the Pacific Rural Press on December 28, 1878, p. 410, and Part 3, with his notes on the Sierra glaciers, in the Pacific Rural Press on January 4, 1879, p. 2]

Chronicles of Early Ascents of Half Dome