How Mount Whitney Almost Became Fisherman’s Peak

When Charles D. Begole, Albert H. Johnson, and John Lucas summited Mount Whitney on August 18, 1873, it was to the chagrin of Clarence King.

That was the mountaineer who claimed the summit years before. Turns out, King had climbed the wrong mountain.

Witney towers above the contiguous United States (the lower 48) as the tallest the peak at 14,505 feet. That makes it less than half Everest, a cakewalk by comparison, but Whitney presented some tough challenges back in the day.

Summiting Whitney may rank as a snoozer in this modern day of mountaineering and developed national parks, but when Johnson and Lucas made the top, they stood taller than any person had ever done in the United States.

It was almost a high enough place to rename the peak.

Mount Witney

It’s possible that some early human summited Whitney, but we don’t have it on record. That said, it’s unlikely someone would have risked life and limb to summit such a craggy mass with no reward.

There was a time when humans didn’t take stupid risks for glory. Things like idunno, adequate food and shelter mattered more.

The native people living there when the Europeans arrived, the Tübatulabal people of the Paiute nation, had a name for Whitney. They called it very old man in their version of the Paiute language.

The word sounds like Tumanguya (Too-man-go-yah) when we phoneticize it (a cool name IMHO).

Clarence King

It was King and Richard Cotter who named the mountain in 1864 standing on nearby Mount Tyndall.

Josiah Dwight Whitney was the state geologist and chief of the California State Geological Survey, which some call the Whitney Survey, thus the name.

As far as King and Cotter could see from Tyndall, the peak of Whitney appeared inaccessible from any side. That was all the fuel King needed to see if he could be the first.

In 1871, on a cloudy day, King summited what he believed was Whitney. By the time he reached the top, stormy weather surrounded him, but he could tell he was at the top.

To commemorate the ascent, he dropped a silver half-dollar at the peak, then told the world he’d summited Whitney once he made it back. For two years, his record remained the first.

Begole, Johnson, and Lucas

1800s Mountaineering |

While on a fishing trip, the Begole, Johnson, and Lucas team summited Whitney on a lark. It was August 18, 1873.

They believed they weren’t the first, but that didn’t stop them from casually renaming the mountain Fisherman’s Peak. They should have called it Tumanguya.

It wouldn’t matter. Fisherman’s didn’t stick.

Later that same year, however, two men summited the neighboring peak of Mount Langley. That peak is only 14,026 feet tall.

There, at the summit, they found a silver half dollar, the very one Clarence King thought he’d dropped on Whitney’s peak.

When King learned he’d summited the wrong peak, he left his east coast home to correct the mistake, but he was too late. The Fisherman’s trio had already trounced his claim.

In 2015, President Obama restored Mount McKinley in Alaska to its original name, so given by the native people. To the chagrin of Obama’s opposition, that peak now goes by the name Denali.

Following that lead, if the United States was to rename Whitney, the name Tumanguya has a nice ring, doesn’t it?