Wild Women Wednesday: Elizabeth “Lizzie” Pershing



Twenty-four-year-old Lizzie K. Pershing stood at the base of Yosemite’s South Dome staring up at the mountain.  A cold, stiff wind traveled across the rock with such force she struggled to keep her balance.  She pulled her coat tightly around her shoulders and rubbed her gloved hand over the smooth stone.  It was October 8, 1876, and Lizzie was still pondering the climb up the precipice, which was considered at the time to be the largest and highest in the world.

Standing at the fork of the upper valley South Dome is a solid, rocky loaf six thousand feet above the ground.  To Lizzie it appeared as though a powerful hand cut away the eastern half of the mountain, leaving a sheer cliff over a mile in height.  According to the July 24, 1860, edition of the Milwaukee, Wisconsin, newspaper The Daily Sentinel, the first person to climb South Dome was a Scottish sailor and blacksmith named George Anderson, and he did so in 1859.   George was a skilled outdoorsman who later built a house near the saddle of the dome.  During the summer of 1876 he began the difficult task of constructing a staircase of a thousand steps up the dome.  He had hoped to have an elevator running by the start of fall in 1876 as well as a steam car that would carry passengers up the almost perpendicular walls.  His dream was never realized.

Since George first tackled the ascent to the top of South Dome, Lizzie and other visitors to the spot had gazed in wonder at the spikes driven into the rock by hardy spirits who had repeatedly endeavored to scale it.  The shreds of rope dangling in the wind told the story of their failure.  Sheep had been spotted browsing on the hitherto-inaccessible peak.  How they got there was a mystery.  “They had plenty of grass to eat,” Lizzie contemplated in her memoirs, “but no water, only the dew that fell on the dome at night.”

Lizzie made the South Dome climb using gear comprised of ropes, harnesses, steal hooks, sturdy boots, and gloves.  She carefully studied the method George used to take on the climb.  She also read notes written by naturalist John Muir about George’s trek.  Prior to George’s climb most Yosemite explorers such as Josiah Whitney insisted the mountain would “never be trod by human foot.”

“[George] Anderson began with Conway’s old rope,” John, a Yosemite Valley resident who had attempted to climb South Dome but was forced to abandon the effort when it became too hard and dangerous,  wrote in his book the Treasures of Yosemite,  “which had been left in place, and resolutely drilled his way to the top, inserting eye-bolts five or six feet apart, and fastening his rope fast to each in succession, resting his feet on the last bolt while he drilled a hole for the next above.  Occasionally, some irregularity in the curve, or slight foothold, would enable him to climb a few feet without the rope, which he would pass and begin drilling again….”

Like John Conway and George Anderson, Lizzie had an overwhelming desire to conquer the mountain and share the journey to the top with interested readers curious about the western landscape.  Born on April 4, 1852, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Kate Pershing grew up listening to stories about the pioneers who ventured over the plains to settle in wild, remote territories.  Her father, Reverend Israel C. Pershing (President of the Pittsburgh Female College) and her mother Charlotte Lucretia Canan encouraged their daughter’s interest in the uncharted land and cheered her on when she decided to become a journalist and write about her adventure in the new land.   At the time she was planning to ascend South Dome she was working as a correspondent for the Pittsburgh Gazette and the Pittsburgh Telegraph newspapers.

Lizzie, who also went by the name “Percy,”  was described in glowing terms by friends and family.  The November 12, 1876, edition of the Louisville Courier Journal characterized her as a “brilliant writer, fine elocutionist, blessed with a dry droll manner, with a conundrum or story for every occasion.”  The author of the article noted that she had brown eyes, brown hair that hung in two long braids down her back and “the prettiest hand and foot in California.”  (No doubt referring to her mountain climbing abilities.)  Lizzie came west in 1874, not only to see the rugged frontier, but also to help ease the pains she suffered due to rheumatism.  She lived in Santa Barbara for more than two years before traveling to Yosemite.

The team of climbers that Lizzie accompanied to the top of South Dome included men who had scaled the mountain before.  James Mason Hutchings, a wealthy businessman and one of Yosemite Valley’s most ardent promoters, and George Anderson.  George made the climb in October 1875 with Sarah Dutcher, an assistant photographer from San Francisco.  She was the first female to make it to the top of South Dome.  George drilled his way to the mountain top inserting bolts, five to six feet apart, fastening his own rope to each in succession, and resting his foot on the last spike while he drilled for the next.

On October 10, 1876, Lizzie and the others who would be ascending South Dome, met at seven in the morning to begin their journey.  After covering their arms, hands, and boots in pitch (a residue of petroleum) and double checking their gear, the group started the climb.  Lizzie described the venture in a letter she wrote to the Pittsburgh Telegraph.  It was reprinted in the Cincinnati Commercial newspaper on October 18, 1876.  The morning found us on our horses, ready to start for the great South Dome, the highest goal of our ambition.   As we rode up the mountain, Mr. Hutchings explained to us the manner in which the seeming invincible Dome had been conquered.  “I tried,”  he said, “to climb it in [1859?], and persons have been trying to climb it ever since. A man came to me one day to tell me that he had been around the dome for three days, had examined it very carefully, and was satisfied he could reach the top.  ‘Very well,’ said I, ‘you plant a flag there when you get up, then come to me in the evening, and I will give you the best supper a man ever sat down to and twenty dollars besides for your day’s work.’ The man [agreed?], and went off, but somehow he forgot to call again.

Among others who endeavored to accomplish this feat was George Anderson, a brave young Scotchman from Montrose. Various were the expedients to which he resorted. He collected turpentine from the neighboring pine trees and smeared his hands and feet with it. He put coarse bagging upon his extremities and covered it with pitch. After having several serious falls, one of them nearly fatal, he acknowledged the impracticability of all such methods, and tried the only one by which a mortal could ever have accomplished this feat. Climbing as far as possible he drilled a hole in the rock. A wooden block was placed in this, and into it an iron pin was driven. Throwing a rope over this, he drew himself up and stood upon one pin while preparing a place in the rock for another, and so on to the top, which he reached at 4 p. m., October 12, 1875, two days and a half from the time that the first iron pin was placed in the rock.

We had been riding up the mountain side while listening to this story and now came upon a little cabin in the forest, which Mr. Hutchings informed us was the home of our hero. In a moment he came out himself to greet us, and we saw a well formed man, a little above medium height, with brown hair, honest blue eyes and modest mien.  He showed us the cabin which forms his dwelling place in winter, when frequently the snow is on a level with the roof.  We examined, too, the long snow shoes with which he makes his way about at such times, and listened to stories of the narrow escapes he made once or twice last winter from burial under the beautiful snow.   Mr. Anderson joined us here, and we rode up on the trail.  Passing through the woods, we saw great numbers of wooden steps, and learned that Mr. Anderson had made about eleven hundred of these and with them expects to construct a stairway up the side of the Dome, so as to open to a greater number the glories to be seen from its summit.  But twelve persons had ever stood there previously to that day, and these had been conducted by Mr. Anderson as he was now taking us.

Some four miles…at an altitude of about three thousand feet above the valley, we found ourselves at the foot of the “Shoulder”, as it is termed, over which we must climb, before reaching the Dome proper.  Had there been no dome, I imagine this would have looked sufficiently formidable to most of us, but it dwindled into insignificance compared with what was ahead. Besides, Mr. Hutchings, Mr. Anderson and the guide apparently thought nothing of it, so the rest of us kept our opinion to ourselves. Leaving our horses here, we began to climb over this mass of granite, stopping very frequently to rest and inflate our lungs and so avoid weariness, and become accustomed to the rarified atmosphere.  The stone is crumbling away in many places, leaving a bed of gravel in its place.  This is not the firmest foundation imaginable, and we held each other’s hands to keep one another up. In some places it was quite steep….

We made the ascent of about one thousand feet and stood at last at the front of the so-called Dome. It is really only a half dome, and presents a perpendicular face to the valley.  We were on the bulging side of it.  The perpendicular height, from the shoulder to the summit, is over seven hundred feet. The rope, attached to the top of the Dome and fastened at intervals to the iron pins, is nine hundred and sixty feet long.  It is a little slack, of course; I think there is about two hundred feet difference between the perpendicular height and the slope.

We did not pull ourselves by a rope up a perpendicular wall. We walked up the smooth granite side of the mountain, holding on to the rope for support; only occasionally pulling ourselves up, or crawling over a bulge in the rock. In a few places we were enabled to rest, too, by planting our feet against narrow, projecting ridges, and leaning back against the mountain wall.   I did nothing more than the most of the party, and would not like to have my friends believe that any of us risked our lives for a whim.  I do not see why anyone cannot make this ascent who has the physical strength and the courage to do so; had we been afraid, it would have been dangerous—but the fear would have made the danger.

I will here take the opportunity to set at rest all anxious inquirers by remarking that we “came down as we went up”.  In fact, we saw no choice in the matter: we did not think it would be comfortable to roll down, or safe to slide (which we did only occasionally and involuntarily), so we walked, holding the rope—perhaps a little more firmly than in the ascent.   As for coming down “some easier way”, as has been once or twice intelligently suggested, had there existed any easier way, we would probably have descended by it.   Those who visit the valley next year will, perhaps, find that easier way in the steps which Mr. Anderson expects to put up. He told us that he hopes someday to have cars running up and down the slope, as on our own inclined plane, “so that old people may go up”.  I shall never be surprised to hear of anything Mr. Anderson accomplishes, but he has greater power of persuasion than most men, if he succeeds in inducing many old people to go up that place in car.

We reached the top of the Dome about noon, finding some ten acres of rock upon which one can securely walk, but very little perfectly flat surface.   We had been told that there was a flag on the summit, but had been obliged to take the statement on faith while in the valley.  From the foot of the rope we had seen something like a white handkerchief fluttering in the air. We now found this to be a flag, three yards long and a yard wide.   “Do you remember my pointing out a little black spot to you yesterday”, asked the guide.  “Yes”, I replied, recalling the object, which appeared to me then about the size of a man’s hat. “That was this clump of trees”, he said, pointing to a group of eight pines.  There are three species of pine growing here, pinus Jeffre[y]i [black pine], pinus monticola [mountain pine] and pinus contorta [lodgpole pine]; also a silver fern [fir!]—picea amabilis. A few varieties of ferns and grasses are found in the crevices of the rock.

We were interested less, however, in what was to be found on the Dome than in what might be seen from it. We were too tired at first, however, to give much heed to either, and it was not until we had rested awhile, and slaked our thirst with the snow that had to serve in lieu of water, that we began to look about us.  Our first care then was to ascertain exactly how high we were, and Mr. Hutchings’ barometer, which had afforded us interest and pleasure all the way, was brought into requisition to furnish the first accurate measurement of the height.  “Five thousand and three feet above the valley”, said Mr. Hutchings; “that is nine thousand feet above the level of the sea” [actually, about 8836 feet]. This afforded us intense satisfaction, for we all wanted it to be the even five thousand feet above the valley, and I was anxious to stand on a loftier height than I had ever before reached.

Looking around us now, we saw eighteen peaks, each of which was from one thousand to four thousand feet higher than the one on which we stood.  Mr. Hutchings and the guide “knew them all by the name”, and pointed them out to us.  “There is Mt. Dana; we climbed that last summer.  That is Mt. Lyell, at whose foot we saw a living glacier, the source of five great rivers.  The Merced, which flows through the valley, is one; the Tuolumne, which we saw last week, another”.  “There is Monastery Peak”.  “That is Coliseum Point”.   Over yonder is grand old Starr King between his two children, as those lesser peaks have been facetiously called”.

We followed them from peak to peak, the sense of grandeur growing upon us all the time. Between those loftier ones, innumerable lesser mountains lifted their snow-crowned summits.   We looked out in front of us to where the Coast Range traced its purple line upon the horizon—one hundred and fifty miles away.  Then turned and gazed upon the snowy peaks bathing their white foreheads in the liquid blue of heaven.  Then we cast our eyes downward into the valley and found in lake and river a clear, deep blue, which made rhyme with the blue above us.  On every side, near and far, above, below and around about us, all was grandeur, all was glory.  Ah, surely, there is no scene more full of matchless beauty, of overwhelming sublimity, can be found outside the Celestial City.

We walked to the edge of an overhanging rock and looked down five thousand feet—almost a mile. Nowhere else in the Sierras can be found so high a perpendicular wall.   Sitting by the flag staff, the guide fired some cartridges of giant powder.   A feeble answer came to us from a party at Mirror Lake. The mountains responded grandly, one voice after another sending back the sound to us, making an echo which Mr. Hutchings and the guide, who had been among the mountains for years, pronounced the finest they had ever heard.   We timed one of these echoes and between the first mountain voice and the last fifteen seconds elapsed.

We spent two or three hours upon the Dome, enjoying the magnificent view, and gathering ferns and crystals to keep among our most prized treasures, and then made a slow and wearisome descent. We reached our horses about 4 p.m., and I, for one, was too tired to eat the lunch which we had left there.”

James Hutchings, one of the climbers that made the journey with Lizzie characterized the trip in a more succinctly in his book In the Heart of the Sierras.  James simply wrote, “Miss L.E. Pershing, of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania [Lizzie’s initials were L.K.] the writer, and three others found their way to the top.”

According to the November 26, 1876, edition of the San Francisco Bulletin, the twenty-first instance of a party traversing the South Dome was memorable because one of the members of the party was a woman.  “And what makes it still more interesting…she was a newspaper correspondent.  There were four tourists in the party, all of whose names we were unable to learn, but the lady’s name was Miss Lizzie R. Pershing], and she is a correspondent of the Pittsburgh, PA., Gazette.  Miss Pershing is the second lady that has ever accomplished this undertaking, and it is but fair to state that but very few of the sterner sex have considered the glory of having climbed the dome a recompense for the dangers to be braved.  After making an extraordinary climb on the ragged mountain side, the dome itself is reached, the ascent of which requires one to climb, by the air of ropes, up an almost perpendicular wall, without steps or foothold other than nature has made a distance of 900 feet.  These ropes extend from one staple in the rock to another, and the distance between the staple is from ten to fifty feet, according to circumstances.  The fatigue of this perilous undertaking did not seem to seriously affect this brave little lady, for she returned from the valley today, looking as fresh and fair as if she had not accomplished a feat that makes her famous.”

The October  21, 1876, edition of the Christian Advocate had a slightly different version of the story.  “Miss Lizzie K. Pershing, daughter of President Pershing, of the Pittsburgh Female College, during a visit to California won quite a reputation as a letter-writer for several leading journals.  She has recently returned home, and it appears that she has attained the title ‘Heroine of the South Dome’ of the Yosemite Valley, supposed to be six thousand feet high-a perpendicular wall.  For many years persons have sought unsuccessfully to climb up, until a Scotch sailor succeeded.”

Prior to climbing South Dome, Lizzie and a friend traveled about Napa Valley in Northern California to see the natural hot springs that intermittently ejected a column of water and steam into the air.  The article Lizzie wrote about the excursion entitled “A Trip to the Geyser “ was published in the National Repository Journal in April 1877.

By 1884 Lizzie had returned to her home state of Pennsylvania and accepted the position of vice president at the Pittsburgh Female College.  She married attorney William C. Anderson.  The couple lived in the town of Wilkenson near Pittsburgh.  He died on November 25, 1910.  Lizzie died in the spring of 1937.  She was eighty-three years old.


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