First ascent of Long’s Peak sesquicentennial

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photo by Sally DiScuillo Long's Peak sunrise panorama from Hot Sulphur Springs.
photo by Sally DiScuillo Long's Peak sunrise panorama from Hot Sulphur Springs.

by Donald Dailey

After his discharge from the Union Army in 1865, a veteran who lost his right arm at the Battle of Shiloh, Tennessee, as a commander of a field artillery battery, John Wesley Powell was appointed curator of the Illinois Natural History Society’s Museum, located at Illinois State University-Normal. Later, he was a Professor of Natural Science at Illinois Wesleyan University-Bloomington.

In the summer of 1867, Professor Powell and his wife Emma brought five students of the two universities and six educators at other Illinois schools to Colorado Territory. Two peaks over 14,000 feet were climbed. Pike’s Peak (Emma was the 4th woman to do so), and Mt. Lincoln. The expedition combined exploration and higher education of large scale student field trips was the first of its kind in American college history.

In the autumn, the Powell’s visited the natural hot springs (the heart of Hot Sulphur Springs) owned by William N. Byers, editor of the Rocky Mountain News. The caretaker of the springs introduced himself as Jack Sumner, also a Union Army veteran, and Byers’ brother-in-law. Near the springs was the Grand River, as the headwaters of the Colorado River were called. Around a campfire, Powell and Sumner discussed a plan to explore the canyons of the Colorado River by boat to the Gulf of California. Looming over this decision on the eastern horizon was Long’s Peak. In November, Wes and Emma Powell departed for Illinois filled with fortitude to return to Colorado.

John Wesley Powell sought financing for the 1868 expedition from the museum and university’s boards of education, being happy to oblige. However, his request to draw supplies from U.S. Army western warehouses took an Act of Congress to approve. The Smithsonian Institute donated scientific materials. The expeditions purpose was to stock the natural history museum with large collections of specimens representing different sciences and illustrating the resources of the country. Before leaving Illinois for Colorado, it was understood that the ascent of Long’s Peak would be attempted.

At Chicago on June 29th, a special Pullman car of the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad arrived with a banner lettered “Colorado Scientific Exploring Expedition”. At 3 p.m. Professor and Mrs. Powell, with 19 others, were taken to Omaha, Nebraska, traveling all night. In the morning they rode a Union Pacific train to Cheyenne, Wyoming. They were organized into messes of four and drew supplies from the army warehouse. Each man had to break his own bronco for the pack train ride to Denver. One man was bucked into a cactus. A Reverend was thrown with his foot hung in a stirrup. While being dragged he said, “take hold of her boy’s. Whoa! Sweet little angel you.” They arrived and camped at Denver on July 14th, then proceeded to Empire, where they were greeted by mountain man and guide Jack Sumner, and William Byers.

So much was untouched to be plucked in the names of archaeology to zoology. A week was spent on Berthoud Pass. One young scientist shot a jack rabbit thinking it an antelope. Jack Sumner was used to dudes. Finally, the expedition arrived at Hot Sulphur Springs where headquarters and the Reverend’s “Preaching Tent” was set up. Rest and relaxation at Mr. Byers’ resort was had by soaking in the hot springs.

Professor Powell used his military rank of Major. He never let the loss of his right arm hinder him. The Major took a trip to the Rabbit Ears and Gore Range where the highest peak is named Mt. Powell. When he returned, the Major selected his squad for the ascent of Long’s Peak. Chosen were L.W. Keplinger, Sam Garman, and Ned Farrell. One old mountaineer told the three that nothing could get them there that didn’t have wings. The idea of tenderfeet trying the ascent was ridiculous!

August 20th-22nd, the Major, his brother Walter Powell, Jack Sumner, William Byers, and the squad departed headquarters, mounted on horses, with one pack mule carrying 10 days rations. Each carried a pistol or rifle. The squad had weather equipment. They camped at Grand Lake. In the morning the party of seven rode up a steep rock ridge almost impassable by fallen timber. They corralled the equines at Mt. McHenry where the barometer read the elevation at 13,500 feet, and camped for the night. At 7 a.m. the Major made bacon and biscuits. The men stuffed their pockets with a two day’s allotment. Leaving their firearms behind, Sumner and Keplinger led the way to Wild Basin over tortuous terrain. All arrived exhausted at 2p.m. except for Keplinger, who volunteered to find a route to Long’s Peak. Keplinger went through the notch and was within 200 feet of the crown. Turning to enjoy the view he almost became an eternal resident of Estes Park. Nightfall was setting in and he had to return to Wild Basin. To his amazement Sumner was hollering and had lit beacon fires. At 10 p.m. Keplinger and Sumner were in camp.

At 6 a.m. on August 23rd, Keplinger led the way. Required of each was caution, coolness, and intense labor; life depending on the grasp of fingers in a crevice that would hardly admit them. Moving up in order were Keplinger, the Major, Sumner, Byers, and the others. Before 10 a.m. the entire party stood on Long’s Peak summit, elevation 14,259 feet. “Glory to God!” shouted the Major. For three hours they remained enjoying the spectacular views. North, south, east, and west. They counted 32 alpine lakes. An American flag was flown and left. A monument was built, and a baking soda can was used as a time capsule. Placed in the capsule were each member’s names, and the temperature. A biscuit was going into the capsule but the Major objected, as he wanted fame as a mountain climber and not a biscuit maker. The capsule was sealed for the next climbers to find. Wine was sprinkled on the monument and disposed of in the usual manner. Two members abstained.

The descent route went towards the branches of the St. Vrain River. Noticed on the snowbanks were two bears feasting on grasshoppers numbed by the cold. On the western branch of the St. Vrain the party was out of grub and they rested for the night. The men hiked to Mt. McHenry, where a hearty breakfast was made. The two Powell’s, Sumner, Byers, and Farrell, returned to the springs on August 25th. Keplinger and Garman remained to record high altitude weather, submitting the first mountain climate observations to the Smithsonian Institute.

The First Ascent of Long’s Peak (with a lengthy title) was published in the Rocky Mountain News by William N. Byers on September 1, 1868. Proud of the fact, “that all were eminently successful and satisfied; the more so because the mountain had always before been pronounced inaccessible, and ours was the first party that had set foot on its summit.”

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