3. The Rocky Mountain Scientific Exploring Expedition

TOO LATE in time to be called explorers, too unskilled to deserve the name of frontiersmen, most of them strangers to the mountains, scientists only by an indulgent frontier standard, the members of the Rocky Mountain Scientific Exploring Expedition1 were not, apart from their leader, a very likely looking crowd. Their zoologist was a Methodist preacher, their assistant zoologist an Illinois farm boy. Their ornithologists were distinguished more for ability to shoot birds than for capacity to make taxonomical heads or tails of them. Their entomologist, as in 1867, was Powell’s brother-in-law, Almon Thompson, the superintendent of schools in Bloomington. Though he would achieve a solid reputation later, it would be as a topographer, not as an entomologist. Their botanist was a bona fide and able naturalist, George Vasey, whose name still persists on the maps in the little curtain of maidenhair and redbud and ivy called Vasey’s Paradise, deep in Marble Canyon on the Colorado. Emma Dean Powell and Nellie Powell Thompson were ornithologists, entomologists, or botanists as the occasion demanded, and Powell’s brother Walter had a similarly vague function. Powell himself was listed as geologist, though his principal contribution to science thus far had been his extensive collection of shells. Dr. Henry Wing, of the Illinois State Board of Education, was along for the ride, as was the Reverend W. H. Daniels, an eminent Illinois divine and a historian of Methodism. Of the student volunteers, Sam Garman would become a Harvard professor and an assistant to Alexander Agassiz, and L. W. Keplinger would wind up a Kansas City judge. The others would not make history.

Motley and green, they camped outside Cheyenne filling their eye with the strangenesses: the prairie dog towns, the wild horse herds, the outline of romantic mountains breaking the horizons west and south, the restlessly moving Indians. They bought wild mounts, both horses and mules, and universally bit the dust when they tried to climb on. For two weeks, half their mornings and most of their nights would be spent chasing and cursing runaways.

Organized into messes of four, and supplied from the army warehouse at Cheyenne, they started south toward Denver on July 8, little by little hardening themselves for their contemplated expedition into the mountains by the easier travel on the plains. They put their mouths around the names of unknown streams and lonesome little stations on the Denver road; Lone Tree, Box Elder, Big Thompson, the “Cashalapoo.” Rhodes Allen, one of the bird shooters, roused up from a violent attack of colic to note in his diary an encounter with “Old Fridey,” chief of the “Ropahoos.” Minor adventures befell them: a government agent chased them and confiscated one of their mules as a stolen animal; Powell chased the agent and got the mule back. Eventually, recovered from their first sun and wind burn, hardened to the saddle and feeling like buckaroos, and with a pack full of prairie dog and bird skins and pressed prairie flowers, they arrived in Denver, a somewhat more competent crew than had left Cheyenne.

Not explorers, in spite of the sounding title of their expedition. And yet the country they were headed for was not exactly a tourist playground yet, the mountains westward clear to the twenty-year-old Mormon settlements in Utah were only skimpily known. Not all the passes had been crossed, not all the peaks climbed, not all the rivers tracked from mouth to source, only the most obvious flora and fauna had been collected and classified.2 There were miners on the metal lodes and placers, a few trappers and traders in the mountain valleys or parks, but beyond was a little-known wilderness, Ute country, full of game and not without danger, roadless except for game and Indian trails and the uncertain tracks by which Frémont in 1844, ‘48, and ’53, Gunnison in 1853, Berthoud in 1861 and the Third California Veteran Infantry in 1865 had crossed those mountains. Lowland folk, excited and a little awed by what they approached, Rhodes Allen and Lyle Durley and W. C. Bishop and Keplinger and the rest of the greenhorns sat in camp on the bank of the South Platte, or stood night guard over the horses, and felt the loom of the Front Range over them like a portent of mystery and adventure, and were moved, authentically enough for beginners, with the thrill explorers feel.

Partly for the sake of the inexperienced, partly because even in relatively settled country collecting was possible, Powell moved slowly. There was much rain, the nights were cold, the greenhorns continued to have trouble with breachy horses and balky mules. They bitched to their diaries like old campaigners, grumbling about everything from the camp ants to the insistence Mrs. Powell made that they read the books she loaned them. They got piled from their horses and learned about prickly pears; they tried swimming in the icy water of Clear Creek and learned better; they had to make trail and discovered some of the facts of mountain travel; they encountered mosquitoes, “worse than I ever saw them.” By the time they made the mining camp of Empire they felt themselves considerable voyageurs. But at Empire they met a man with whom Powell had arranged a rendezvous the autumn before, the trader and mountain man and guide, Jack Sumner. Sumner looked over their outfit in silence, and they shrivelled quietly back to size.

Many years later, when his friendship with Powell had soured to an enduring grudge,3 Sumner wrote of the party that they were “about as fit for roughing it as Hades is for a Powder house.” But he got along with them well enough. He was used to dudes. From his trading post at Hot Sulphur Springs in Middle Park he acted as factor for his brother-in-law, William N. Byers, editor of the Rocky Mountain News and later historian of Colorado. When politicos or bigwigs were to be entertained on a fishing or hunting or packing expedition, Sumner made an admirable guide. Bayard Taylor had used and liked him on a journey through the mountains in 1866; 4 Powell himself found him useful the next summer. Blond, cool, tough, a good hand with Indians and a good shot, he would have made a first-class partisan for one of the fur brigades if he had lived twenty-five years earlier. But he had been a Union soldier during the war; he had, through his sister, distinguished connections; he was himself originally a farm boy from Iowa. He could adapt himself to these dudes and college boys, especially since he and Powell had the previous autumn cooked up a project far more exciting than the collection of specimens for natural history museums.

By his own testimony,5 Sumner was impatient to start immediately on the exploration of the Green and Colorado Rivers that he and Powell planned. It was that project which had induced Congress to pass a special resolution authorizing the 1868 expedition to draw rations from Western army posts. But Powell had obligations to his academic sponsors as well as to his own maturing and enlarging plans. The expedition must be justified, and its continuation assured, by successful collecting. Without regard either for the impatience of Sumner or the presence of Byers, who joined them at Empire bent on a pet expedition of his own, they camped for a week on the summit of the range in Berthoud Pass. At that season, Alpine plants were an unbelievably flowery carpet on slopes and ridges. Apparently neither of the women of the expedition kept a diary, but both Emma Powell and Nellie Thompson must have become assistant botanists for the time.6 The early bloomers, moss campion and alpine lilies and alpine phlox and rock jasmine and forget-me-nots, were gone or fading, but others were coming on: alpine goldflower like a squat obese sunflower; alpine avens, bistorts, yellow-green alpine paintbrush, sandwort, saxifrages, sky pilots, chiming bells and harebells; and under the cold edges of melting snowbanks snow buttercups, king’s crown, rose crown, marsh marigold; and away up on the bare windy slopes pigmy shrubs, cinque foil and red gooseberry, and skyland willow hardly an inch high bearing its catkins snugly among the protecting grass and flowers.

Neither of the diarists, Allen and Durley, mentions the flowers. Durley was making trail with Sumner. Allen was out all day lying in ambush to shoot birds, and he was preoccupied with the snow and hail that fell two or three times during the week, the mudholes in which his mare bogged down, the mosquitoes that ate him alive as he lay in wait. Allen had a certain eye for scenery, and could appreciate the beauty of their camp on a meadowy saddle at 11,500 feet, with a north-running creek flowing toward Middle Park and the Grand River, and thence to the Colorado and the Gulf of California, and a south-running creek that dropped steeply into Clear Creek and on to the Platte, the Missouri, and the Gulf of Mexico. But discomfort could kill off scenery fairly fast for young Allen. His diary, full of the bad trails, fatigue, and “fussing and blundering around” that he saw in the trip, is probably a fair expression of the feelings of the majority of the party. They were all working as unpaid volunteers. They had a right to grumble.

They were an expedition organized and supported for the purpose of stocking a museum with natural history specimens. The members were selected more for their availability, willingness, or relationship to the leader than for their attainments in science. Yet they could hardly fail, in the virgin territory of the Rockies, to serve science every time they went out, and in view of Powell’s appetite for learning, they could hardly fail to do much more than collect specimens.

So much was new, so much untouched and unknown and undone. Weather, topography, zoology, botany, geology, entomology, ornithology, herpetology, all the branches of science of which Powell had a smattering, could be enriched. In a week on Berthoud Pass a student with a shotgun, so ignorant of science that he later shot a jack rabbit under the impression that it was a young antelope, might bring in varieties of birds rare or even undescribed. The two ladies of the party could go wild among the alpine gardens and supplement Linnaeus in the act of picking a casual bouquet. A pair of schoolboys with a barometer, stuck up on top of some peak to take hourly readings through eight or nine days, could help establish so basic a scientific datum as the barometric fluctuation for. the region, and lay the base not only for future weather reports but for the accurate measurement of altitudes.

Powell was running an all-purpose scientific reconnoissance, a large, loose, sketchy survey of the natural history resources of the Rockies. But he was not one to be content with minima. He wanted the most he could get in every line, and he drove his packers and collectors until they groused and grumbled to their diaries. As they moved down off Berthoud Pass into Middle Park to the base camp at Hot Sulphur Springs he had the country scoured for fifteen or twenty miles on both sides of the line of march. Once at the Springs, he scattered his party up and down the park after birds and mammals and minerals and barometer readings, and with a small picked group started out to fulfill one of the two agreements he had made the summer before. This one involved exploration of a kind, and exploration was a lust that burned in him. The canyon of Clear Creek up to Empire, and Middle Park around Hot Sulphur Springs, were populous parts of the mountains. But on top of Long’s Peak, where he and Byers were headed now, no man had yet stood.

Four years earlier, Byers had attempted the ascent of Long’s Peak, for no particular reason except a sportsman’s zest in activity. Energetic, literate, sanguine, Byers was an ardent sportsman, a keen fisherman. While Durley and Allen and others of Powell’s party threshed the waters of Grand River and a dozen creeks in vain, Byers caught all the fish he could carry. And he had an additional interest in this part of the mountains: the hundred and sixty acres on both sides of the Grand that contained the hot springs (now the heart of Hot Sulphur Springs, Colorado) he would buy in his wife’s name the next year, and he already used Middle Park with a proprietary air, as if it were a playground to which he was privileged to invite guests. Some of Gilpin’s faith in the future of the nioun tains was in him; his 1866 excursion with Bayard Taylor had made him aware of how much the mountain parks could offer an adventurous tourist. In his letters to his paper from the Springs 7 he glowed about the fishing, the grass, the color and pageantry of the Utes of Antero and Douglas, eighty lodges of them, camped along the river. Byers was a pioneer, an opener, a pass-crosser of a pure American breed, one for whom an untrodden peak was a rebuke and a shame to an energetic people. For his purposes he could not have found a better coadjutor than Powell.

From their camp on the west side of the Grand Lake, at the head of the park, the climbing party beat its way toward the peak through rough country and a tangle of down timber. The first night they slept at timberline, corralling their horses on a bare ridge by piling rocks across the only down path. In the morning, loaded with bacon and a batch of Major Powell’s personal biscuits — gray, leaden, with a grain like fine limestone — they set off on foot. In climbing as in biscuit making Powell asked no odds and made no apology for his maiming. He stuck with the party across an intervening peak and found on gaining it that Long‘s, beyond, was separated by two miles of gorge from the main range. With great difficulty they worked down the precipitous northern face “which upon looking back appeared utterly impassable,” and eastward along a ridge. This culminated in another peak only a little lower than Long’s, from which they looked at their objective across another uncrossable chasm. In the end they had to descend clear to the valley and start over.

Of the group, which included Powell, his brother Walter, Byers, Sumner, and the students Keplinger, Garman, and Ned Farrell, the mountain man was the least enthusiastic. He had other things on his mind; he had not anticipated fooling around Middle Park all summer. At one point, inching along in the lead on a knife-edge of stone, he sat down and spit over the edge and balked. Keplinger, behind him, asked what was the matter. “By God, I haven’t lost any mountain,” Sumner said. Finally Keplinger passed him, and though Sumner followed, the tenderfoot had a chance to triumph over the frontiersman. Where the youth walked, Sumner “got down and cooned it.”

That ridge led nowhere. They crawled back and finally made camp in what is now called the Wild Basin. From there they could see a route that seemed possible, and Keplinger, flushed with his afternoon’s triumph, volunteered to reconnoiter. Climbing with all his hands and feet, he made his way up the Estes Park side to within a short distance of the summit. There he made the mistake of stopping to look at the view. It almost knocked him off the mountain. On his left, within ten feet, the edge dropped away in what seemed “the eaves of the world’s roof.” The disinclination that had visited Sumner earlier visited Keplinger now. Clinging like a cat in the high branches of a tree, he slid and clawed down until he could drop to the ice in the northwest corner of the Notch. It was ten o‘clock, and Sumner was working up the ridge lighting little fires of grass and twigs for beacons, when Keplinger made contact with the party again.

But he had found the way up. In the morning, without great difficulty, they worked up the last seven hundred feet and stood on the summit.

Sam Garman, a Quaker, and serious-minded, reported the experience to his friend Gertrude Lewis back in Bloomington:

After a pretty hard climb we did it, built a monument on the top, raised a flag, threw some wine on the monument & the little that remained in the bottle was drank by 5 of the party. 2 of us withstanding all entreaties did not drink on Longs peak, whatever the papers may say to the contrary.

Garman does not name his fellow abstainer, nor say who took the trouble (it could only have been Byers) to carry a bottle of wine through two strenuous days of scrambling over cliffs and ridges. He does, however, remark on the discoveries Science made on top.

Three hours we stayed on the top during which time my journal was written up and my collection enriched by several rare specimens. Nothing but Granite on the top afforded a poor foothold for Botanists yet some pretty mosses grew in the shadows of some large rocks, or close to the edges of the patches of snow, where they might keep damp for mosses love damp shady places; a few Lichens, i.e. only a few kinds, but many of a species grew and flourished on the otherwise bare sides of the Granite rocks. High and dry were they, for Lichens love the dry places, thousands of years had they flourished there and no human eye had beheld them. We exulted just a little in the thought that here if anywhere on the footstool were things just as God made them. — No flowers here too high for them. A Bird of the Shore larks: A few species of flies gnats &c. Several species of Beetles: and many thousands of a peculiar Grasshopper were all the living things I found. No not all a very pretty white Butterfly, what its name was can’t be told unless another comes in my way, passed over the top which contains 5 or 6 acres of a snarly level, & caused me quite a chase besides nearly tumbling me down over the side as an eager grab was made just as the insect got out of reach....

Sam Garman was a serious young man, devoted to the study of natural history and the instruction of Friend Gertrude. But young Keplinger, recovered from his scare of the night before, was of a horsier kind. When the monument was built and it came time to put into it the can containing the names of the party and the thermometer and barometer readings, Keplinger produced another can containing one of Major Powell’s limestone biscuits, which he wanted to put in the cairn as an “everlasting memento” of the Major.

Powell thought this not quite up to the dignity of the occasion, and the biscuit eventually was removed. The Major even, before they started down, made a speech, saying that they had achieved something in the physical way which had been thought impossible, but that there were more formidable mountains in other fields of effort. He expressed the hope that their success of this day, August 23, 1868, might be an augury of yet greater achievements in other ways.

There is no record which would indicate that he was being facetious or indulging in mock heroics. He took the climbing of Long’s Peak seriously, far more seriously than Byers, Sumner, the students, even than Sam Garman. He took seriously too the thought of other challenges to overcome, other unknowns to mark with writings in a cairn. A serious and intense young man, hardier in spite of his maiming than most of his companions, and as visionary as William Gilpin though in different ways — a young man serious and a touch pompous and perhaps even somewhat ridiculous, making speeches on top of a mountain and refusing to permit a joke that might have taken away dignity from the occasion — he may well have been the second climber who refused the celebratory wine.

He meant his speech. He insisted on the meaningfulness of the moment, and his vision of what might be accomplished must have expanded on that windy knob of rock as the view expanded below him, forty mountain lakes, a welter of mountains, the bowl of Estes Park, and the Great Plains lying sealike, the horizon so high from that perspective that he seemed to look upward to it, and the plains floating high like an expanse of cirrhus cloud. One thing he had wanted to do was done, a minor thing, unimportant either to science or himself. It would be recorded by historians of American mountain climbing and remembered by no one else. But an omen. Turning his back on Estes Park far below him, turning away from the cloudlike reach of the plains, he could look down across the great forest of Middle Park through which the Grand River cut its way, and beyond that to the Gore Range, the Rabbit Ears, the westward and little known mountains, the unexplored canyons of the Colorado.

So much was new. So much was unknown and untouched and undone.

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