Skip to content
Home » Features » The Mountain of Diamonds

The Mountain of Diamonds

This Sharp End story first appeared in Alpinist 61, which is now available on newsstands and at our online store.

Clarence King (far right) with other members of the Geological Survey of California in 1864. [Photo] Silas Selleck, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Clarence King (far right) with other members of the Geological Survey of California in 1864. [Photo] Silas Selleck, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

The real mountain, the Diamond Mountain, has been made by desire.–Zeese Papanikolas

THE MOUNTAIN HAD ALWAYS HAUNTED dreams of settlers who longed for a place that transmuted their inmost longings into something radiant and multifarious, like the facets of a cut gem. It drifted across maps, borne by currents of rumor and desire: sometimes it was a ruddy desert tower at the entrance to a fathomless canyon; a scree-covered mountain humped like the back of a whale; a rose-hued summit above a green river; a high mesa, strewn with multicolored stones; a forest where jewels shone through branches like stars; a promise that strange marvels still existed past the edges of railroads and towns, beyond scientific reason and contour lines; a glint of fantastical wealth.

OF ALL THE PEAKS in all the stories about Clarence King, the one he became most famous for, in his own lifetime, was the mountain of diamonds. Since 1863, when he joined the Geological Survey of California, he’d devoted himself to exploring the West, from splintered ridges and steepled peaks to dusty canyons and desert mesas. Along the way, he gained a reputation as a dazzling storyteller. In his 1872 memoir Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada, he described cutting steps up a frozen slope with a bowie knife; throwing a lasso over a granite horn and clambering up the cord hand over hand; bear-hugging a column of ice with only the tips of his boots in carved holds; leaping across a 1,000-foot deep chasm.

The daydreams that coursed through his mind were just as wild. Debates then raged between Biblical scholars and geologists over whether the earth was 6,000 or millions of years old. When King stared into mountains, he saw eons expand and contract, crests of stone erupt through an ancient ocean, lava illuminate summits of red flame, glaciers creep down ridges like ice dragons and dissolve into rivers and pines. “Geology itself is chiefly a matter of the imagination,” he explained to his mother, “[the] best training conceivable in constructive imagination.”

It wasn’t only the past he fantasized about: across the West, prospectors combed the hills in search of glittering seams. Even King’s metaphors reflected alchemies of desire: flowers transformed into “chalices of turquoise and amethyst,” lakes into facets of “pure beryl hue” or “sapphire gems.” On a cold November evening, he watched an avalanche pour down El Capitan, its ice crystals illuminated “like a silver cloud.” Gazing at snowy ridgelines, he exalted: “The whole air sparkled with diamond particles.”

KING WOULD HAVE LIKELY first heard of the mountain of diamonds amid rumors of fabulous nineteenth-century discoveries. But the myth dates back to the beginnings of European-American mountaineering. In 1642, when Darby Field reached the summit of Agiocochook (Mt. Washington) with two Abenaki guides (unnamed in colonial records), he peeled chunks of gleaming mica from the rocks. A month later, he returned for more. “They brought some stones which they supposed had been diamonds,” Massachusetts governor John Winthrop wrote, “but they were most crystal.”

Indigenous people had earlier stories of shining mountains. Some travelers’ tales referred to the range now called the Rockies as “The Glittering Mountains” because of the way that sunlight glanced off bright crystals. Nineteenth-century white explorers generally preferred legends of gems that could be extracted and sold. As Jeff Long recounted in Alpinist 54, the famous mountain man Jim Bridger spread stories of jeweled landscapes: precious stones that glittered like ornaments on petrified sagebrush; diamonds and sapphires that lay like snowdrifts across talus fields. According to one legend, settlers snuck past a group of Native Americans after dark, relying on the glow of an enormous diamond embedded into the side of a high peak.

Printed maps were still unfinished, then, and tall tales spun Western ranges ever farther into realms of fantasy. In his 1913 memoir, the speculator Asbury Harpending recalled growing up in mid-nineteenth century Kentucky on the borders of myths: “Beyond stretched the land of enchantment and adventure” where restless youths might find themselves caught up in “various wanderings and strange experience.”

BY THE LATE NINETEENTH CENTURY, a gloaming was descending on the narratives of the Old West. The first Gold Rush had ended. Surveyors were filling in maps with lines of real summits and new railroads. The “frontier” would soon be declared closed, and its myths flared up on the edge of disappearance, like the volcanic flashes in King’s dreams. Disbanded Civil War soldiers roamed the high country in search of adventure and opportunity. The word speculation recurs in memoirs of the era, a time of unfettered imaginings, high-risk investments and briefly wild hopes. On the approach to an attempt on Mt. Whitney, King passed a sun-bleached ghost town and scarred hills. With the mineral deposits stripped, the prospectors had moved on, following the next fading promise of an El Dorado.

In 1870 newspapers declared the discovery of a fantastical silver deposit in the Pyramid Mountains of New Mexico, soon called the Mountains of Silver. Prospectors staked claims, developers built streets, and Harpending helped form a company, only to watch the venture collapse amid rumors of scams. Meanwhile articles about actual diamond seams in South Africa reawakened memories of Bridger’s stories. As King’s biographer Robert Wilson explained in The Explorer King, “The demand for a big diamond find in the West at last became so great that someone had to supply it.”

Not long after, according to Harpending’s version of the tale, “two weather-beaten men,” dressed as miners, arrived in San Francisco to deposit uncut diamonds at a bank. Former employees of the Mountains of Silver company, Philip Arnold and John Slack mentioned casually that they’d found plentiful gems in a remote part of the West. “In those days of mad excitement,” Harpending noted, “such an incident was bound to leak.” As it was intended: the hoaxers had been as careful about planting their fictitious story in the minds of susceptible men as they were about bringing bags of second-rate stones to a Colorado mesa and arranging the rocks to look like signs of vast underground wealth below a summit later called Diamond Peak.

The news blazed from banks to investment offices, drawing rooms, newspapers, campfires and ships. To hide the location from all except those willing to pay for the rights, Arnold got off the train at different stations on his trips to the site. He covered his horse’s hooves with canvas to minimize their prints. In June 1872, he led a party of potential investors and miners, Harpending included, along circuitous paths, scrambling over peak after peak. By the time they saw an array of rubies and diamonds sparkling in anthill mounds, they’d been bewildered and beguiled into belief.

Others, uninvited, searched on their own, on foot and in imagination, across snowy ranges and desert bluffs throughout Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona, as the writer Bruce Woodward later recounted in Diamonds in the Salt. An article in the Arizona Miner decried “fairy tales of sapphire paved courts in ant hill cities…of diamonds in such quantities that would stagger Gulliver.” Few listened: the peak had refracted and multiplied as if reflected by thousands of facets, each one a reflection of an avid speculator’s dream.

Skepticism, unease and curiosity built in King’s mind, as he and his colleagues of the Fortieth Parallel Survey calculated elapsed times between the arrival and departure of would-be prospectors’ trips from various stations, guessed their trajectories, and realized that the mountain of diamonds must lie within the boundaries of the Survey’s past explorations. If the accounts of its marvels were real, King thought, such a gap in his work would call into question his very ability to perceive the land.

In late October 1872, King, Samuel Emmons and A.D. Wilson left Fort Bridger and rode for days into early winter gusts. Splashes of water froze into crystals on their horses’ legs as they broke through the ice of mountain creeks. A blaze on a cottonwood tree appeared in a gulch below the mesa, then a scrap of paper with a miner’s water claim. They dismounted to explore a slab of rust-colored sandstone with wind-numbed hands. A gem glittered in a crevice. Then another. Feverish despite the cold air, they plucked a hundred rubies and four diamonds by nightfall, and their dreams filled with surreal visions of inexhaustible riches.

In the morning light, however, the clusters of crystals in earthen mounds seemed unnatural. One diamond lay perfectly balanced atop a rock spike–gusts should have blown it off long ago. No gems sparkled in dirt- and sage-filled sandstone cracks, only in those that appeared weeded by human hands. The juxtapositions of stones made no geologic sense, King concluded: “four distinct types of diamond, a few oriental rubies, garnets, spinels, sapphires, emeralds, and amethysts–an association of minerals of impossible occurrence in nature.”

KING’S ROLE in reporting the hoax made him famous and helped turn Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada into a bestseller; Robert Wilson described the unreal mountain of diamonds as the “highest peak” of King’s public life. Over time, King, too, would be accused of excessively imaginative geographies. Subsequent climbers found the actual rock and snow of his routes less vertiginous than the hair-raising terrain in his stories. When another mountaineer disproved King’s claim of the first recorded ascent of Mt. Whitney, King said that a disorienting mist had caused him to climb the wrong peak.

There was something irrepressible about mythmaking in the ranges of the West. Toward the end of his life, in 1913, Harpending found himself still strangely enchanted by the hoax. The gem-dusted anthills now seemed like “works of art.” The men who had duped him appeared like anti-heroes of a vanished frontier, full of “rawness,” “audacity and nerve.” He marveled at the ongoing evolution of the tale, including one legend that the precious stones studded the branches of trees. Conspiracy theories spread that the diamond peak was real, its actual location hidden by clandestine investors. The name Diamond had proliferated across American maps–marking different places assumed to be the site of the original mesa or else of subsequent attempts to re-create the hoax. If a mountain of gems had truly existed, mining companies would have eventually razed it to the ground. Instead, its forms multiplied and swelled.

Beneath the gleaming surfaces of imagined diamond peaks also lay landscapes of American nightmares. In 1922 the legend reemerged in a horror story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” about a mountain formed of a single giant diamond, its facets hidden under a skin of earth and talus. The fictional Confederate family whose members found the peak schemes to keep it off USGS maps, murders anyone who might give away the secret, chips off glittering fragments to sell and uses the proceeds to build a dystopia maintained by the labor of slaves. In American Silence, published in 2007, Zeese Papanikolas retold the legend of the Diamond Mountain as a dark allegory of Westward conquest: “The other side of the shining quest, of the mountains that Clarence King climbed and named…was something blank and terrible and empty.” Such myths of grandiose possibilities and deeds, Papanikolas argued, were attempts to fill voids that early explorers themselves enabled: the loss of wild lands, the deaths and displacement of numerous Indigenous people.

Reading these stories today, amid the current threats to public lands, I’m struck by how quickly visions of distant summits turn into longings for conquest, exploitation and gain. But if an imaginary peak is a creation of desire, its elusiveness might also hint at more insubstantial or transcendent things. As the late Ursula Le Guin once wrote, “Imagination, working at full strength, can…make us look up and see–with terror or with relief–that the world does not belong to us at all.” Beyond the mountain of diamonds stretch endless ranges of other dreams, and shining mountains that reflect back only numinous light.

This Sharp End story first appeared in Alpinist 61, which is now available on newsstands and at our online store.