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Yosemite’s Unscalable Peak is Scaled

Portrait of Josiah Whitney by Silas Selleck, 1863

Yosemite Valley’s majestic 8,839 foot Half Dome is “probably the only one of all the prominent points of Yosemite which has never been — and never will be — trodden upon,” says Josiah Whitney, California’s chief geologist in 1870.

Five years later, Whitney eats his words.

Whitney bases his prediction not just on personal observation but on the steady string of climbers who try to reach the summit but inevitably fail. 

Some get close to the summit but none reach it. Among them is James M. Hutchings, a Yosemite hotelkeeper, whose book, In the Heart of the Sierras contains an account of the first successful climb to the summit. 

That ascent is made by George G. Anderson, a native of Montrose, Scotland. Using rope and eyebolts to slowly inch up the rock face, he sets foot on the summit at 3:00 p.m. on October 12, 1875. He’s 36 years old. Writes Hutchings:

Anderson making his ascent

“Finding that he could not keep from sliding with his boots on, he tried it in his stocking feet; but as this did not secure a triumph, he tried it barefooted and was unsuccessful still.

“Then he tied sacking upon his feet and legs, but as these did not secure the desired object, he covered it with pitch, obtained from pine trees near; and although this enabled him to adhere firmly to the smooth granite, and effectually prevented him from slip­ping, a new difficulty presented itself in the great effort required to unstick himself and which came near prov­ing fatal several times.

“Mortified by the failure of all his plans hitherto, yet in no way discouraged, he procured drills and a hammer, with some iron eye-bolts, and drilled a hole in the solid rock; into this he drove a wooden pin, and then an eye-bolt; and, after fastening a rope to the bolt, pulled himself up until he could stand upon it; and thence con­tinued that process until he had finally gained the top – a distance of nine hundred and seventy- five feet!”

Man on Half Dome said to be George Anderson/Photograph by S C. Walker. 

Anderson’s rope-and-eyebolts method is laborious. It takes him so long to hammer in the eyebolts and create his rope ladder that a search party is sent to look for him.

Despite warnings about winter weather, John Muir takes Anderson route to the summit in November, becoming the ninth person to scale Half Dome.

Josiah Whitney is the namesake for 14,505-foot Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the continental United States.

Anderson’s rope up Half Dome is torn out by snows during the winter of 1884. Few people climb the rock until the Sierra Club installs steel cables in 1919.

The aunt of a young Ansel Adams gives him a copy of Hutchings’ book, piquing his interest in the Yosemite Valley. 

In the Heart of the Sierras by James M. Hutchings