Mount Starr King

A Close Look

By: Bill Oliver

Mt. Starr King is not a walk-up. It is best done with a rope - preferably two. A belayer may also come in handy. The two easiest routes are still those pioneered by George Bayley on the NE side (1875) and by Anderson/Hutchings from the SE saddle (1877). [Refer to Part I in the Dec. '93 ECHO.] Both are face climbs of about the same vertical gain and difficulty The SE climb, however, is much more direct and lends itself far more readily to larger parties. Either classic route can be dayhiked from Glacier Point Road by a small, experienced group.


Mark Spencer ("Southern Yosemite Rock Climbs." 1988) rates the SOUTHEAST climb at 5.5. [In addition to the two classics, his guide presents six other routes: 5.7-5.9.] R. J. Secor ("The High Sierra, 1992) comes in at 5.0, while Steve Roper ("Climber's Guide to Yosemite Valleyl" 1971) pegs it at class 4. So, the route is at least 4.0 but probably not more than 5.5c. All that really matters, of course, is that someone be willing to lead the first pitch. As the face is, and should remain. unbolted, the lead climber at the saddle is forced to veer left onto steeper terrain in order to find pro placement. After the second cleans the pitch, others in the party can then readily friction directly up to the belay ledge (usually while roped up) The second pitch is still interesting but less difficult than the first. Then it's no more than moderate class 3 to quickly gain the gentle. broad summit.

I first climbed this route in August of '92 on a CMC outing co-lead with Larry Tidball, who had once done it in his distant RCS days (before he settled down). Our three-day outing, which included Mt. Clark, began a little before 7 am at the Mono Meadows Trailhead on Glacier Pt. Rd. [The trailhead is 10.2 mi. from the start of GPR on Hwy 41 - and just over 1 mile past the Ostrander Lake Trail, where the road abruptly turns north. Note: camping/sleeping is not allowed at the trailhead.] It's all trail and about 1- 1/4 hrs to Illilouette Creek, where a large log upstream provides a dry passage. One continues on trail for, say, about a mile, then heads cross-country to the peak. Starr King is the northernmost and highest of three progressively higher, in-line domes [The small creek coming down from the lower saddle was still a good water source as late as early October in '93.

On the lower western slope we dropped our packs, hung our food and headed off at 9:25 for the higher saddle. Contrary to Larry's expectation, however, the final steep climb up to the saddle would have required possibly several time- consuming belays. So, skirting the killer manzanita we traversed the west slope of the middle dome and then readily ascended to the lower saddle. From there it's a somewhat long but simple friction walk to the top of the middle dome This vantage point places one just a little above the higher saddle.

Looming proudly overhead, the great SE face of Starr King still fires the soul, quickens the heart. and irresistibly beckons the intrepid mountaineer The first pitch went "on" about 11:50 and before 1:00 all ten of us were safely perched on the ample ledge, about 130 ft. up the face. I was successful in leading this pitch after Jim Adler loaned me his rock shoes. Most climbers felt more assured on the face with rock shoes, but those in hiking boots also did fine. Having two ropes, we had set two parallel belay lines. [Warning: be sure your ropes are not less than 150 feet. You might get by with a little less, but this makes it much harder to throw the coiled rope back down to the narrow, high slab that marks the start of the climb.] Kent Santelman led the second pitch. which is almost a full rope length, and then anchored the rope. This then allowed two or three people to concurrently climb the pitch while self-belayed with prussik knots.

By 1:30 ten summit-found mountaineers were all happily exulting in their daring feat. The far- ranging view was about the same as previously described by Hutchings. On this occasion, however. recent forest fires were known to be the work of an arsonist rather than sheepherders. The two pitches were handily retraced with double-rope rappels and we were all comfortably back in the saddle a little past 3:00.

Retrieving our packs, we took the trail SE to a splendid campsite just past Clark Creek. Mt. [Galen] Clark, another gnarly Mountaineer's Peak, was topped the next day by the SE Arete, Class 4 twelve hours round-trip. Just below the summit, the crux presents a short, exposed step-across that is somewhat awkward to belay. With slings for anchors, it was handled by the simple expedient of lending a strong arm with a firm hand to all who would accept.

Mt. Starr King is not a peak simply to be checked off the List. A year later, this past September, I eagerly returned, ostensibly to gather additional material for this article. Granted but one lifetime, however, I'm far more inclined to revisit the fun peaks than, say, finish the List. Joined by Mark Persons, an intrepid friend, our plan was to dayhike both the SE and NE routes.

We departed the trailhead a little late at 7 am. At 11:20 1 went on belay at the SE saddle Route: Starting from the top of the prominent, vertically- cracked slab, head steeply up and diagonally left to an open book crack that yearns for a #2 Camalot Then head up and diagonally right to where a horizontal slab offers good undercling holds and begs for a #1 Camalot. With the steepness slacking off now, walk on up rightward to the inviting ample ledge. [Cams are easily and quickly placed. Passive devices would be harder to keep in place on this route.] Mark led the second pitch up along the vertical slab at the left (west) of the ledge. Then friction up and veer left, before the rope runs out, to reach good slabs for anchoring.

We reached the Sierra Club box "Mt. Starr King, 1937" at 12:25. Mark proudly noted in the register that the second pitch was his first-ever lead. [This peak was only his third on the SPS List - his very first having been Mt. Abbot in May, followed by a dayhike of Whitney in July. Mid-October would find him tenaciously perched atop Cathedral Peak.]


We departed the SE saddle after lunch at 2:00 and easily walked around the right (east) side of the dome to the top of the NE "saddle." This is not really a saddle at all, but rather the conspicuous high point reached by trees on the NE shoulder.

A short third class lieback brings one to an adequate ledge from which to initiate the first pitch. From the ledge it is comforting to readily observe, off above, the start of the prominent right-heading. diagonal crack that characterizes this route. On belay at 2:40. 1 frictioned straight up, less than half the rope length, to a tight-fitting belay stance a little left of and below the crack. The second pitch goes nearly full- rope up along the crack to a small belay platform. At this point our route selection was reassured with the discovery of very rusty, old piton with a ring. The crack began thin, topped with dirt and grass: then expanded to a fairly consistent two+ inch width (#1 and #2 Camalots go well here). [The unrecoverable hex seen in the crack belongs to me!] The third pitch, up and left: is about 4+ friction.

Roper rates the NE climb the same as the SE 4.0. Secor, however, puts it harder at 5.2 (vs. 5.0). while Spencer goes easier at 5.4 (vs. 5.5). Again. these extremes must at least bound the problem. would say both climbs rate about the same, say, low 5's, except the NE route offers crack as well as face climbing and at a more sustained level.

Our names triumphantly re-entered the register at 4 o'clock - All Right! Back at the rusty piton, I figured it would be better to rapp straight down, rather than try to rapp the long diagonal crack traverse. The first double-rope rappel went to a stance from which a horn offered a good anchor for the next rapp. I was surprised and annoyed to discover, however, that the second rapp would not reach the ground, which falls off rapidly from the high shoulder where we had started. Well. it did appear that it would not be difficult to walk off, so we committed. The sheer face offered no intermediate anchors.

Rats! The second rapp left us seemingly stranded above smooth, steep rock. I had screwed up. It really wasn't that bad to eventually friction sideways left and down to the ground - I'd just have done it quicker on belay. I then managed to hurriedly and awkwardly establish a belay stance above and left of Mark, whom I reached on the third rope toss. [I really hate to waste good climbing partners.] Having belayed him down, I then rapped off. I was moderately concerned that when he got close enough to me, Mark might punch out a headlight too. Actually, however, he felt a little guilty at having needed the final belay. Privately relieved, strenuously sought to disabuse him of his wrongly- held notion - and I marveled anew at how everyone views life from his own unique perspective

Retrieving what gear we could, we departed Starr King at 6:30, heading counter-clockwise around the still proud dome. Who had won? I'd settle for a draw. Heading SW cross-country, we intersected the trail close to the lower saddle creek at 7:20 - and close to dark. The car was wearily regained at 10 pm.

Checking in later at Camp Curry in the Valley. we discovered that late at night the showers are hot and free. Resisting the unnatural (?) urge to sleep-in, the next morning we were up and off early to dayhike Half Dome by an alleged/elusive "third-class" route which begins at its base near Mirror Lake. [You might ask Mark someday about his unique perspective on this ultimately-aborted attempt.]

A week later I unexpectedly again climbed the NE face of Starr King. I had returned to look for the exposed roll of film of our climbs - cleverly lost out of my pack during our dark retreat. Not finding it. hesitantly determined to re-shoot what I could Having one rope and using self-belay methods, the climb and I went smoothly. This time, however, simply down-climbed, on self-belay, the long diagonal crack and then rapped back to the start Round-trip from the car was eleven hours - 6:30 to 5:30. A couple of days later Yosemite Lost-and- Found phoned with my lost and found film - who said timing is everything? More good news - Mark still climbs with me!

Early SPS Activity

Mt, Starr King is not found within the original 1956 SPS List of 200 peaks. It was, however, one of ten peaks added two years later in the third revision to the List. In 1967 it became one of 50 Mountaineer's Peaks. [This number includes the Emblem Peaks.] The earliest ECHO climbing article relating to this peak appeared in the Sep.-Oct 1960 issue. In a Graham Stephenson story entitled "Yosemite Death Marching," he cites Starr King as one of eleven peaks climbed in nine days that August by him, Andy Smatko, Tom Ross and Fred Jensen.

In 1974 Jon Hardt and Bernie Petitjean put twenty climbers on top - one more than on the Walt Kabler/Ron Jones'76 outing. The all-time Starr King record, however, surely resides with Chuck Stein. Gene Mauk and Bill Birnbaum who, on July 10, 1977. assembled 24 climbers on top together. Among the summiteers were sons of Gene Mauk, Chuck Stein. Al Conrad and Jon Inskeep. [Refer to the cover photo in the Mar.-April 1978 ECHO.] All ECHO -reported climbs were from the SOUTHEAST saddle.

Assistance with this two-part story is gratefully acknowledged from: Glen Dawson, Mark Persons, Larry Tidball, Chuck Stein, Al Conrad, Jim Adler and Wayne Norman.

Thomas Start King 1824-1864

Who was Starr King? He was a Unitarian minister, a popular lecturer, a nature writer, and he climbed mountains. King was born on Dec. 17, 1824, in New York City and he sprouted in Connecticut, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, following the pastoral assignments of his clergyman father He commonly went by his middle name of Starr, his mother's maiden name. While yet in preparation for college, his formal schooling ended at the age of 14 on the death of his father. The burden of supporting his mother and five younger siblings led to his employment in various jobs of bookkeeping and grammar school teaching.

The following paragraph on King is taken from The Dictionary of American Biography. Charles Scribners 8 Sons, 1946:

"He gathered knowledge from every side with the spontaneity and delight of a child at play. Having an agile and retentive mind, he absorbed the contents of books with great rapidity.... From his earliest years onward, he captivated all who met him. ... A generous disposition, sunny temperament, and almost rollicking mirthfulness were also a part of his attractiveness. Soon he began to preach, for from boyhood he had considered no calling but the ministry, and people were held by his clear thought, electric delivery, and rich, resounding voice.

In 1860 King published "The White Hills, Their Legends, Landscapes, and Poetry." a widely-read nature book set in New Hampshire. That same year. following eleven fruitful years of ministry in Boston, at the age of 35 he accepted the pastorship of an insolvent Unitarian parish in San Francisco - much to the non-delight of his wife and associates. To a friend, however, he wrote: "We are unfaithful in huddling so closely around the cozy stove of civilization in this blessed Boston, and I, for one, am ready to go out into the cold and see if I am good for anything." He originally intended to stay but a year.

Only three months after King's arrival, he set off with friends on a two-week journey to exult in the wonders of Yo-Semite Valley. His letters about this transforming experience, originally published serially in the Boston Transcript, were collected and re- published in 1962 by The Book Club of California (edited and notes by John A. Hussey): "A Vacation Among the Sierras - Yosemite in 1860." This would be but the first of several Sierra entries. Extracting further from The Dictionary, upon King s arrival in San Francisco:

"People flocked to hear him preach and lecture.... An enthusiastic explorer and mountain climber, he introduced the East to the beauties of the Pacific Coast through vivid letters to the Boston Transcript. When the Civil War came and with it the danger of California's secession from the Union and the formation of a Pacific republic, his arguments and patriotic appeals were a powerful factor in keeping the state loyal.... Unfortunately, his career was cut short in his fortieth year by an attack of diphtheria followed by pneumonia. In four years he had become one of the best known and most beloved men on the Pacific Coast."

In Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol, each state has positioned two statues of its eminent sons and daughters. From California, we find Fr. Junipero Serra and Thomas Starr King

According to Peter Browning in "Yosemite Place Names" (Great West Books, 1988), the large dome south of the Merced was named King's Peak for Starr King in 1862. If true, this would have been prior to his death. It is not clearly known whether the renown Californian ever saw his namesake summit. This author would like to believe that he did. The following concluding passage leads one to imagine that on a certain gnarly July day in 1860 Thomas Starr King did, indeed, ultimately attain a view of a large dome south of the Merced. As we join his passage, King has ascended the Merced past Vernal Falls up to Nevada Falls:

"Tourists generally are content with the toil and the views that are gained when they reach the foot of the "Nevada." I climbed with one of our party above it, and on a mountain behind it, up and up, till we overtopped the obelisk that shoots from the side of the cataract. And still up we climbed in the hope of seeing a line of the kingly summits of the Sierra chain. My companion killed a rattlesnake that buzzed generously near our legs before making us acquainted with his fangs. And dangling his seven rattles as a trophy, without fear of any others, we still mounted, till we stood on a ridge that showed other obelisks of naked granite shooting up at the east. and very near us on the north, the great "Castle Peaks" [Tower Peak ?] which stand guard over the Mono silver region, - themselves frosted with silver on their summits that are borne up nearly 14,000 feet above the sea. With this picture of the taller "exclamation notes" of California in our mind, we hastened down to the base of the Nevada fall; then to the parapet of the beautiful Piwyack [Vernal Falls! where we rejoined our companions; then down the frightful ladders, and through the notch, to our horses in the larger gorge of the Yosemite; - and around our campfire in the evening, in front of the hotel, 1, for one, believed what travelers from Europe, from Sinai, from the wildest passes of the Peruvian Andes, told us, while the music of the highest cataract was in our ears, - that nowhere had they seen such rocks and such waterfalls as those among which we had passed three glorious summer days.

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