Chronicles of Early Ascents of Half Dome:
Lizzie K. Pershing's letter describes her 1876 ascent

The Cincinnati Commercial, October 18, 1876, p. 3

The First Woman to Climb the Great South Dome in the Yosemite Valley Tells How She Did It

(Letter from Lizzie K. Pershing to the Pittsburg Telegraph)

Seven o'clock next morning found us on our horses, ready to start for the great South Dome, the highest goal of our ambition.

As we rode up the mountain, Mr. Hutchings explained to us the manner in which the seeming invincible Dome had been conquered. "I tried", he said, "to climb it in [1859?], and persons have been trying to climb it ever since. A man came to me one day to tell me that he had been around the dome for three days, had examined it very carefully, and was satisfied he could reach the top. "Very well", said I, "you plant a flag there when you get up, then come to me in the evening, and I will give you the best supper a man ever sat down to and twenty dollars besides for your day's work". The man [agreed?], and went off, but somehow he forgot to call again".

Among others who endeavored to accomplish this feat was George Anderson, a brave young Scotchman, from Montrose. Various were the expedients to which he resorted. He collected turpentine from the neighboring pine trees and smeared his hands and feet with it. He put coarse bagging upon his extremities and covered it with pitch. After having several serious falls, one of them nearly fatal, he acknowledged the impracticability of all such methods, and tried the only one by which a mortal could ever have accomplished this feat. Climbing as far as possible he drilled a hole in the rock. A wooden block was placed in this, and into it an iron pin was driven. Throwing a rope over this, he drew himself up and stood upon one pin while preparing a place in the rock for another, and so on to the top, which he reached at 4 P. M., October 12, 1875, two days and a half from the time that the first iron pin was placed in the rock.

We had been riding up the mountain side while listening to this story, and now came upon a little cabin in the forest, which Mr. Hutchings informed us was the home of our hero. In a moment he came out himself to greet us, and we saw a well formed man, a little above medium height, with brown hair, honest blue eyes and modest mien. He showed us the cabin which forms his dwelling place in winter, when frequently the snow is on a level with the roof. We examined, too, the long snow shoes with which he makes his way about at such times, and listened to stories of the narrow escapes he made once or twice last winter from burial under "the beautiful snow".

Mr. Anderson joined us here, and we rode up on the trail. Passing through the woods, we saw great numbers of wooden steps, and learned that Mr. Anderson had made about eleven hundred of these and with them expects to construct a stairway up the side of the Dome, so as to open to a greater number the glories to be seen from its summit. But twelve[!] persons had ever stood there previously to that day, and these had been conducted by Mr. Anderson as he was now taking us.

Some four miles from Snow's, at an altitude of about three thousand feet above the valley, we found ourselves at the foot of the "Shoulder", as it is termed, over which we must climb, before reaching the Dome proper. Had there be no dome, I imagine this would have looked sufficiently formidable to most of us, but it dwindled into insignificance compared with what was ahead. Besides, Mr. Hutchings, Mr. Anderson and the guide apparently thought nothing of it, so the rest of us kept our opinion to ourselves.

Leaving our horses here, we began to climb over this mass of granite, stopping very frequently to rest and inflate our lungs and so avoid weariness, and become accustomed to the rarified atmosphere. The stone is crumbling away in many places, leaving a bed of gravel in its place. This is not the firmest foundation imaginable, and we held each others hands to keep one another up. In some places it was quite steep, and there, in the classical language of the guide, we were obliged "to shin it".

We made the ascent of about one thousand feet and stood at last at the front of the so-called Dome. It is really only a half dome, and presents a perpendicular face to the valley. We were on the bulging side of it. The perpendicular height, from the shoulder to the summit, is over seven hundred feet. The rope, attached to the top of the Dome and fastened at intervals to the iron pins, is nine hundred and sixty feet long. It is a little slack, of course; I think there is about two hundred feet difference between the perpendicular height and the slope. I have been particular in these details, because I understand that an article from a Louisville paper has been republished in one of the city dailies, making me the heroine of this expedition. From questions which have been asked me, and remarks I have heard made, I think that article has been misunderstood. I have not seen it, but knowing the writer[!] can not think that she meant to give the impressions which some persons have received.

We did not pull ourselves by a rope up a perpendicular wall. We walked up the smooth granite side of the mountain, holding on to the rope for support; only occasionally pulling ourselves up, or crawling over a bulge in the rock. In a few places we were enabled to rest, too, by planting our feet against narrow, projecting ridges, and leaning back against the mountain wall.

I did nothing more than the most of the party, and would not like to have my friends believe that any of us risked our lives for a whim. I do not see why any one can not make this ascent who has the physical strength and the courage to do so; had we been afraid, it would have been dangerous—but the fear would have made the danger.

I will here take the opportunity to set at rest all anxious inquirers by remarking that we "came down as we went up". In fact, we saw no choice in the matter: we did not think it would be comfortable to roll down, or safe to slide (which we did only occasionally and involuntarily), so we walked, holding the rope—perhaps a little more firmly than in the ascent. As for coming down "some easier way", as has been once or twice intelligently suggested, had there existed any easier way, we would probably have ascended by it.

Those who visit the valley next year will, perhaps, find that easier way in the steps which Mr. Anderson expects to put up. He told us that he hopes some day to have cars running up and down the slope, as on our own inclined plane, "so that old people may go up". I shall never be surprised to hear of anything Mr. Anderson accomplishes, but he has greater power of persuasion than most men, if he succeeds in inducing many old people to go up that place in car.

We reached the top of the Dome about noon, finding some ten acres of rock upon which one can securely walk, but very little perfectly flat surface.

We had been told that there was a flag on the summit, but had been obliged to take the statement on faith while in the valley. From the foot of the rope we had seen something like a white handkerchief fluttering in the air. We now found this to be a flag, three yards long and a yard wide.

"Do you remember my pointing out a little black spot to you yesterday", asked the guide. "Yes", I replied, recalling the object, which appeared to me then about the size of a man's hat. "That was this clump of trees", he said, pointing to a group of eight pines. There are three species of pine growing here, pinus Jeffre[y]i [black pine], pinus monticola [mountain pine] and pinus contorta [lodgpole pine]; also a silver fern [fir!]—picea amabilis. A few varieties of ferns and grasses are found in the crevices of the rock.

We were interested less, however, in what was to be found on the Dome than in what might be seen from it. We were too tired at first, however, to give much heed to either, and it was not until we had rested awhile, and slaked our thirst with the snow that had to serve in lieu of water, that we began to look about us. Our first care then was to ascertain exactly how high we were, and Mr. Hutchings' barometer, which had afforded us interest and pleasure all the way, was brought into requisition to furnish the first accurate measurement of the height. "Five thousand and three feet above the valley", said Mr. Hutchings; "that is nine thousand feet above the level of the sea" [actually, about 8836 feet]. This afforded us intense satisfaction, for we all wanted it to be the even five thousand feet above the valley, and I was anxious to stand on a loftier height than I had ever before reached.

Looking around us now, we saw eighteen peaks, each of which was from one thousand to four thousand feet higher than the one on which we stood. Mr. Hutchings and the guide "knew them all by the name", and pointed them out to us. "There is Mt. Dana; we climbed that last summer. That is Mt. Lyell, at whose foot we saw a living glacier, the source of five great rivers. The Merced, which flows through the valley, is one; the Tuolumne, which we saw last week, another". "There is Monastery Peak". "That is Coliseum Point". "Over vonder is grand old Starr King between his two children, as those lesser peaks have been facetiously called".

We followed them from peak to peak, the sense of grandeur growing upon us all the time. Between those loftier ones, innumerable lesser mountains lifted their snow-crowned summits.

We looked out in front of us to where the Coast Range traced its purple line upon the horizon—one hundred and fifty miles away. Then turned and gazed upon the snowy peaks bathing their white foreheads in the liquid blue of heaven. Then we cast our eyes downward into the valley and found in lake and river a clear, deep blue, which made rhyme with the blue above us. On every side, near and far, above, below and around about us, all was grandeur, all was glory. Ah, surely, no scene more full of matchless beauty, of overwhelming sublimity, can be found outside the Celestial City.

We walked to the edge of an overhanging rock and looked down five thousand feet—almost a mile. Nowhere else in the Sierras can be found so high a perpendicular wall.

Sitting by the flag staff, the guide fired some cartridges of giant powder. A feeble answer came to us from a party at Mirror Lake. The mountains responded grandly, one voice after another sending back the sound to us, making an echo which Mr. Hutchings and the guide, who had been among the mountains for years, pronounced the finest they had ever heard. We timed one of these echoes and between the first mountain voice and the last fifteen seconds elapsed.

We spent two or three hours upon the Dome, enjoying the magnificent view, and gathering ferns and crystals to keep among our most prized treasures, and then made a slow and wearisome descent. We reached our horses about 4 P.M., and I, for one, was too tired to eat the lunch which we had left there.

Chronicles of Early Ascents of Half Dome