‘Man’s will to do the impossible.’ Mount Whitney’s first winter climb was 90 years ago

Ninety years ago, one man set out alone on a pair of wooden skis on a journey of roughly 300 miles across the length of the snowy spine of the Sierra Nevada.

Orland “Bart” Bartholomew’s aim was photography, however, not glory, as he stood atop Mount Whitney on Jan. 10, 1929, making him the first known person to make a recorded winter climb of the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states.

He later wrote one article about his winter journey of 1928 and 1929 for a Sierra Club bulletin, and then his adventure journals and photos sat on a shelf for decades.

The magnificence of what he did would become more widely known and celebrated in the 1970s after author Gene Rose heard of the story and tracked down his son, Phil, to write a book about the journey, “High Odyssey,” after Orland died.

Phil Bartholomew, who turns 84 years old in April, is still filled with awe and excitement about what his father accomplished all those years ago.

He was a true “mountain man – I really look up to him for that,” Phil said Monday from his Oakhurst home, a few days before the 90th anniversary of his father reaching Mount Whitney’s summit.

Orland Bartholomew, the first known person to do a solo winter ascent of Mt. Whitney, Jan. 10, 1929. ORLAND BARTHOLOMEW Special to The Bee

Orland turned 30 years old on the trip. He did the snowy trek in the early days of mountaineering with primitive outdoor equipment. Each night for more than three months, he built a shelter with a canvas bag supported by his skis or tree branches, and fell asleep wrapped in down. He built fires for warmth and ate stashes of canned food that he hid in trees along his route the previous summer.

As cold as it was, Orland was already well-acclimated to the harshness of a high Sierra winter. He previously worked as a surveyor, measuring snowpack and stream flows for Southern California Edison.

“There was no question in his mind if he could successfully make the trip,” Phil said, “because he had been living this kind of life for several years.”

On his journey to Mt. Whitney, Orland Bartholomew took this photograph of himself with the camera on a timer. The caption of the photo reads: “Diamond Mesa Junction Peak from west slope of Mt. Tundall, Jan. 1929.” He is the first known person to do a solo winter ascent of Mt. Whitney. ORLAND BARTHOLOMEW Special to The Bee

Photography had become a hobby. He’d never seen photos of the high Sierra peaks he loved covered in snow, so he decided to take some. With this in mind, Mount Whitney became an essential stop.

Orland caught a ride to his start point, near Lone Pine in the Eastern Sierra, on Christmas Day, 1928. The journey north, which followed the length of the Sierra, ended April 3, 1929, in Yosemite Valley.

Bartholomew journey map.jpeg
DOUG HANSEN The Fresno Bee

“I’ve always liked stories about one man against the wilderness, and this is really a story that illustrates that,” said his son, a retired fishery biologist with California Department of Fish and Wildlife, formerly known as Fish and Game.

There were many challenges along the way. One of the greatest was Harrison Pass, where Orland spent hours cutting steps out of ice with an ax to crawl his way to safety. In another instance, he fell through snow and ice into a creek during a winter storm. To get dry, he built a fire in a frying pan inside his shelter. One of his food caches was also stolen. He fortunately got enough food to last another couple weeks from a man traveling via dogsled to bring supplies to workers at Minaret Mine.

And there was the challenge of skiing with a pack weighing 68 pounds, on average. He left that at his base camp the day he climbed Mount Whitney, around 14,500 feet in elevation.

Orland Bartholomew, the first known person to do a solo winter ascent of Mt. Whitney, writes in his journal while sitting at the cairn – a marker of piled stones – at the 14,505-foot summit on Jan. 10, 1929. He took the photo with his camera on a timer. ORLAND BARTHOLOMEW Special to The Bee

The mountain, first climbed in 1873, continues to attract adventurers from around the world.

Phil describes his dad, who retired as a forest guard for Sierra National Forest, as “an outstanding example of man’s will to do the impossible – and that pretty much sums it up.”

“I never heard him complain about anything. No matter how difficult anything was, he just did it.”

Photograph taken by Orland Bartholomew showing the rugged terrain he traversed on his way to becoming the first known person to do a solo winter ascent of Mt. Whitney, the rocky peak at upper left. His caption reads: “Northward from summit of Mt. Langley. Mt. Whitney, Mt. Williamson on skyline, Jan. 1929.” ORLAND BARTHOLOMEW Special to The Bee

Orland lived in Big Creek, Huntington Lake and Clovis before he died in 1957. He and his wife, Roberta, are buried in a cemetery in Tollhouse.

Four skiers retraced his winter route across the Sierra in 1999 and used the journey to campaign for an unnamed Sierra peak being called Mount Bartholomew.

Another fan of Orland succeeded in getting a peak named after him last year near Huntington Lake, but the Bartholomew family is still hopeful their desired mountain, a higher summit in the Ritter Range of the Ansel Adams Wilderness, will receive the honor. That one is located in one of Orland’s favorite areas.

Phil still hopes that will happen.

“That would be a fitting completion to an amazing mountain story.”

Carmen George: 559-441-6386, @CarmenGeorge

Carmen George is a features and news reporter for The Fresno Bee. Her stories have been recognized with Best of the West, George F. Gruner, and McClatchy President’s awards, and nine first or second place awards from the California News Publishers Association. She has a passion for sharing people’s stories to highlight issues and promote greater understanding.