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Two Kings — Man and Mountain — are Bested

Three fishermen from Lone Pine become the first recorded to reach the 14,505 summit of Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the continental United States. Charles Begole, A. H. Johnson, and John Lucas christen the mountain “Fisherman’s Peak,” unaware a July 1864 California Geological Survey team named it after State Geologist Josiah Whitney.

Clarence King/Public Domain

The three are also unaware they’ve cheated geologist Clarence King out of one of his great ambitions — being first to reach the top of Mt. Whitney. During the 1864 survey, King makes an attempt but falls short of the summit. King returns in 1871 as the leader of the six-year, Fortieth Parallel Geologic Survey and climbs what he believes is Whitney.

He’s wrong and scales Mt. Langley, six miles away from Whitney.

Recounting his ascent, King describes the sight of Mt. Tyndall from the top of “Whitney.” Mt. Tyndall is, in fact, Mt. Whitney. Erroneously hailed as the conqueror of Whitney, King later writes of the peak:

“For years our chief, Professor [Josiah] Whitney has made brave campaigns into the unknown realm of Nature. Against low prejudice and dull indifference he has led the survey of California onward to success. There stand for him two monuments, one a great report made by his own hand; another the loftiest peak in the Union, begun for him in the planet’s youth and sculptured of enduring granite by the slow hand of Time.”

It isn’t until 1873 that King becomes aware of his mistake and travels cross-country to actually climb the mountain he thought he’d already bested. He completes his first ascent of Whitney in September 1873 – a little over a month after the three local fishermen reach the summit.

Top of Mt. Whitney/National Park Service

The three men are on something of a lark, looking just to scale the highest peak they can find. Like King before them, they think Mt. Langley is the tallest but, upon reaching the summit, they notice a higher peak, which is Mt. Whitney. They don’t realize the mountain is already named and so christen it “Fisherman’s Peak.”

The name of the mountain remains in dispute until 1891 when the United States Geological Survey Board on Geographic Names decides against Begole, Lucas and Johnson in favor of the earlier Mount Whitney moniker. An effort to rename the peak after Winston Churchill following World War II fizzles.

The first trail is completed on July 22, 1904. Four days later, the first death on Whitney is recorded. Bryd Surby, a U.S. Bureau of Fisheries employee, is struck by lightening while lunching on the summit.

The tallest point in the continental United States is 84.6 miles northwest of Badwater in Death Valley, the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level. Both are located in Inyo County.