Skip to content

Up Toward Mountains Higher

Sometimes you find friends in the unlikeliest of places.

Scot Hillman

STANFORD SUMMIT: The University's eponymous peak reaches 13,963 feet.

View photo album >>

By Scot Hillman

The summit resembled the apex of every other mountain in California's Sierra Nevada: it was a big pile of boulders.

I looked around the topmost. “I don't see a summit register,” I shouted down to my climbing partners, all of whom were making their way up the last few steep feet. Eighteen-year-old Nate Witschi was the first to join me. His dad, Rudy, followed, with Mark Sexton close behind and Ernie Cunliffe just steps in arrears. “There has to be a register,” Mark said, scanning the ridge around us. “This appears to be the high point. This has to be Mount Stanford.” Nate pointed south, several hundred yards away in the direction from which we'd traversed. “That peak there looks higher,” he said, “maybe by just a little bit.” Five sets of eyes settled on the neighboring rock pile. It certainly appeared to be the equal of our lofty perch. A cairn built on its highest boulder gave it a facade of significance as well as supplemental elevation that led us all to the same devastating conclusion. “Oh, no,” Ernie groaned. “Please don't tell me that we climbed the wrong mountain.”

The Black Kaweah is a killer mountain, and its first known victim was a Stanford student. A stern sentinel on the north end of a crumbling range that may predate the Sierra Nevada, the Black Kaweah rises to 13,765 feet. Its dark mesomorphic shale sets it in stark contrast to the rest of the tawny Kaweah peaks. Sixteen rugged miles from the nearest trailhead, it has been climbed fewer than 100 times. Norman Clyde, the range's most prolific first ascentionist, referred to the Black Kaweah as “one of the most difficult and dangerous peaks of the High Sierra.” He was a member of a 1927 expedition to the Kaweah range during which an impetuous Stanford undergrad named Garth Winslow fell to his death while making a clandestine solo attempt on the Black.

In 2004, Mark Sexton, '78, and I scaled the southwest couloir of the mountain and spent an hour on top perusing the summit register. The bound volume, placed in 1924 by a Sierra Club party, read like a compendium of the great Sierra mountaineers. Lacking a writing instrument on his 1932 climb, Walter “Pete” Starr Jr., '25, JD '26, had signed the ledger in his own blood. Composer Ingolf Dahl had penned an impromptu fanfare in the key of E flat on the occasion of his ascent in 1958.

We were most intrigued with an entry made that same year by what was surely one of the largest parties ever to visit the summit. It contained the names of six campers from Montecito Sequoia Boys Camp, along with the autographs of their leaders, William Ernest Cunliffe and John Gordon Kelly. Both Cunliffe and Kelly had appended “Stanford '60” to their names, and someone named Warren G. Wonka apparently had climbed with them.

I was awestruck. Who in his right mind would lead a group of kids up this shale-strewn death chute? There was one easy way to find out.

Sure enough, both William Cunliffe and John Kelly were listed in the Stanford Alumni Directory. Since Cunliffe's entry contained an e-mail address, I wrote a quick message introducing myself and included a photo of the register entry they'd made 46 years earlier. The next day I received a reply. William Cunliffe, '60, MA '61, went by his middle name, Ernie. He and Kelly had been counselors at Montecito Sequoia Boys Camp in Kings Canyon National Park during the summer of 1958, and had taken their young charges up the long west ridge of the Black Kaweah on a five-day hiking trip. He was now a retired college administrator and track and cross country coach living in Colorado with his wife, Lois, '60, MA '61. John Kelly had gone on to become a western painter of repute; the two still exchanged cards at Christmas. Warren G. Wonka was, of course, the cipher that was to the Stanford campus what Kilroy was to the Allied theaters of World War II.

During the next few months, I learned the story of an outstanding athlete. Ernie Cunliffe established a number of distance-running records at Stanford. His school record in the 800 meters, set in 1960, wasn't bested until 2000. He once held the world record in both the indoor and outdoor 1,000-yard run. His outdoor record still stands, as Ernie humbly notes, “because no one runs yards anymore.” He ran the 800 meters in the 1960 Olympics and was a manager on the 1980 team that fell victim to the U.S. boycott of the Moscow Games. At the time I contacted him, he was finishing up his fourth lap of Colorado's 55 peaks over 14,000 feet in elevation.

“What else is there to climb for a guy who has done the Colorado 14er Circuit four times?” I queried Ernie via e-mail during the summer of 2005. “I've always wanted to climb Mount Stanford, for obvious reasons,” came the reply. At the time, Ernie was almost 69 years old and rehabilitating a surgically repaired knee. His mountain-climbing days were waning. Mount Stanford seemed like a great opportunity to go out in style.

Mount Stanford is a killer mountain in a different sense of the term. It is even more remote than the Black Kaweah, sequestered 18 switchback-infested miles from any pavement. Guidebook author R.J. Secor describes this 13,963-foot colossus as “the shyest major peak in the Sierra,” and entices would-be suitors with his opinion that “it makes up for its lack of prominence through the quality of its climbing.”

The mountain was first climbed by Bolton Coit Brown in 1896. A professor of fine arts at Stanford, Brown spent his summers in the Sierra wilderness, sketching the high country landscape and pushing the limits of alpinism. His 1896 ascent of Mount Clarence King, six miles northwest of Mount Stanford, is considered the most difficult rock climb of the 19th century. Brown's wife, Lucy Fletcher Brown, and young daughter, Eleanor, accompanied him on his summer journeys, the child “traveling almost exclusively by burro” and “living on malted milk, chocolate and fresh trout,” as Brown recorded in his diaries. For a couple of weeks, Brown and his wife had been on a quest to “capture a desirable mountain and name it after Stanford University.” After all, on July 12, alpine rival “Little Joe” LeConte had climbed and named 13,632-foot University Peak for the Berkeley-based school he helped found.

On the afternoon of August 1, Brown spotted the mountain of his desire near Gregory's Monument, a peak named for its initial conqueror, Warren Gregory, who had climbed it two years before and built a large cairn on its summit. While Lucy waited near that cairn, Brown made what Secor describes as “a delicate class 3 move over a chockstone” and traversed a quarter-mile of narrow ledges to the top of the highest point on the ridge, which he named in honor of 5-year-old Leland Stanford Junior University. He built a cairn and placed Sierra Club register No. 14 beneath it. Three years later, he brought the University's first president, David Starr Jordan, back to the summit with him. “I have never witnessed a more magnificent mountain panorama,” Jordan exulted.

I, along with my brother Bret, '82, and a changing cast of wilderness wanderers, have made a yearly weeklong journey into the Sierra Nevada for nearly a decade. For our 2006 trip, Mount Stanford became our objective, and Ernie Cunliffe became our guest of honor. Our other companions included my son, Jeff, '08, whose presence would potentially allow Cardinal climbers representing a 50-year span of graduating classes to summit Stanford's eponymous peak.

Ernie's still-tender knee wouldn't allow him to hike the steep 15 miles from the trailhead at Cedar Grove to our base camp at East Lake, so I contracted with a local packer to provide us horses to ride and mules to porter our gear. We shared visions of ourselves leaping nimbly from our steeds at the end of Day 1, ready for the assault on the summit the next morning. We all packed Stanford T-shirts for what would surely be a triumphant summit photo. Ernie even constructed a custom summit register casing from PVC pipe for our exclusive use. We mounted our horses on August 21, brimming with the kind of confidence Mother Nature delights in destroying.

The horse trip quickly exposed our naïveté. The list of injuries that novice cowboys can suffer in just six hours is, as they say on the trail, “another story for another campfire,” but suffice it to say that we were, to a man, painfully afflicted. Despite liberal use of ibuprofen, our summit attempt the next day was even less successful. After narrowly escaping a treacherous, scree-filled avalanche alley known as Harrison Pass eight hours after leaving camp, we retreated, even though we were just over a thousand feet below the summit of Mount Stanford. That night, as we attempted to resuscitate our pride around a crackling fire, a disconsolate Ernie Cunliffe tossed the pages of our unused summit register into the flames. “Sorry, guys,” he said, his voice wobbly. “This is my last trip to the Sierras. I'm not going to be able to climb our mountain. You'll have to do it without me.”

It took all of two weeks for Ernie to snap out of his funk. Just after Labor Day, I received an e-mail from him. He'd been looking at a map, and it appeared to him that an approach from the eastern side of the mountain might be easier than the west side link-up we'd attempted. Maybe, he mused, he could ride a horse in from Onion Valley on the east side of the range; we could come in from the west and meet him at Vidette Meadow; and we could all go over Forester Pass, camp near Lake South America, and have a summit day that began with our target peak actually in sight. In August 2007, our cast of climbers slightly changed, we would attempt Mount Stanford: The Rematch.

The horse ride from 2006 had left psychic if not physical scars. For 2007 we would allow mules to pack in the gear, but we would travel on foot. The first day was a test of that decision, a 15-mile hump that featured an elevation gain of 6,500 feet. We found Ernie waiting at the Vidette Meadow campsite. He had been knocked down by a temperamental pack mule en route, and had mended the resulting large abrasions on both of his forearms with duct tape, which gave him the appearance of a wilderness gladiator. The incident also had strained his left hamstring. He was in good spirits, though, appearing hale and ready for the climb. The next day, while Ernie rode a horse with the pack train to conserve strength, the rest of us hiked 16 miles over Forester Pass, which, at 13,200 feet, is the high point on the Pacific Crest Trail between the Canadian and Mexican borders.

Summit day began at 5:20, as we brewed coffee, tea and oatmeal by headlamp. By 8:45 we stood atop Harrison Pass, which had been a mercifully gentle climb from the south. Above us towered the twin summits of Mount Stanford and Gregory's Monument. Nate Witschi led the way up the 1,000-foot ascent to the summit of Gregory's Monument. Rudy and I followed at 50-year-old pace, while Mark escorted Ernie to the top at 70-year-old pace. By the time they arrived, Nate, Rudy and I had scoped out the chockstone move, which necessitated a pucker-inducing downclimb—or an eight-foot jump—to an airy perch atop a 12-foot-tall, 3-foot-wide boulder. I anchored a rope that would allow us to protect the move somewhat, and all of us surmounted the obstacle with ease.

The ledges that led north from the chockstone varied in width from three feet to less than a foot. Coaching each other on where to place hands and feet, our group traversed several hundred yards north to a point that seemed to be just below the summit of Mount Stanford.

A vertical boulder scramble of perhaps 200 feet was all that lay between us and a goal three years in the making. Ernie had aggravated his hamstring on the traverse and was limping a bit. “I hope this is the right face,” he said between deep gulps of oxygen-poor air. “I have just enough in my gas tank to get up there and back across the ledges to Gregory's.”

“I'll go and see if there's a register,” I offered.

The fact that there wasn't a register box among the summit rocks was vexing, but the doubt it cast on our position was a greater blow. “We've failed again,” Ernie moaned. “I can't believe we've come all the way up here twice and failed both times.” The rest of us stared mutely at the peak to the south. Its careful stack of summit rocks resembled a miniature Hoover Tower. It had to be Mount Stanford.

Mark spoke first.

“Hey,” he said. “Why can't this be Mount Stanford North? Let's all sign Ernie's register and leave it here for the people who climb this mountain like we have. It appears to be almost the same height as that one.”

Ernie's brow relaxed. He dug in his pack and produced the register in its PVC casing. Everyone signed the register, and we stowed it under a small cairn of rocks we built on the highest boulder. Then we intertwined a string of Tibetan prayer flags in the cairn, took a group summit photo, and headed back down the face.

We were especially vigilant on our return trip across the ledges to scout potential detours leading to the peak we had seen from the summit we'd just visited. But there were none. We were mystified.

Rudy and Nate followed Ernie up over the chockstone. Ernie looked north along the ridge and shook his head. “There it is, right there! How could we have missed it?” he said. He leaned down to where I was grabbing the rope. “Mark, Scot, you guys have to go back and bag that peak,” he implored. “You have to do it for me.”

I looked at my watch. It was after 4 p.m., which felt pretty late for another trip across the ledges. Then I made the mistake of looking at Mark, who had a big grin on his face. “I've just been waiting for someone besides me to think that's a great idea,” he said.

Mark and I headed off as Rudy, Nate and Ernie retreated to camp. We'd gone about 50 yards north when Mark, leading, pointed out a steep, narrow chute that returned to the ridge. “Do you think that would go?” he asked.

“I don't know,” I said, both hoping we didn't have to attempt it and knowing we would. “You can give it a try.” It was quiet for a couple of minutes, then I heard him shout, “Come on up! I'm on the ridge!”

I found him 30 yards beyond the chute, sitting on a stack of rocks at the far end of a razor-edged ridge that he had obviously crossed. I rolled my eyes and sighed. Then I crouched down and scuttled across the aerie without looking down. From there, a clear scramble led vertically up the ridge. We were close.

I was catching my breath at a point near the intersection of rock and sky when I heard Mark, still in the lead, laugh out loud.

“What's so funny?” I yelled.

“You have to come up here and see for yourself.”

I pulled myself up and over a couple of boulders and joined Mark on top.

“Check it out,” he said, flashing the day's biggest smile. “Some idiots left a register up here made out of PVC pipe, along with some Tibetan prayer flags.”

Mark and I signed our homemade register for the second time that day, then mugged for our tripod-mounted cameras, creating photographic proof for Ernie of his earlier success. It was obvious now that the cairn-crested mountain to the south was Gregory's Monument, which wasn't taller at all. We never did discover why Mount Stanford, one of the range's premier peaks, hadn't harbored a summit register—but we felt good about the fact that, thanks to Ernie Cunliffe, it now did.

SCOT HILLMAN, '80, is chairman of J.D. Heiskell & Co. in Tulare, Calif.


Comments (0)

  • Be the first one to add a comment. You must log in to comment.


Your Rating
Average Rating



Be the first one to tag this!