Last summer, a hands-on learning experience with surveying technology, coupled with the adventure of rugged backpacking through the Sequoia backcountry, gave a group of talented and innovative Eagle Scouts a taste of the surveying profession’s challenges and rewards. Four Eagle Scouts (aged 17 and 18) were led by Scoutmaster Dennis Crockett to Eagle Scout Peak in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park in California’s Southern Sierra Nevada Mountains. There they measured the precise elevation, latitude and longitude of Eagle Scout Peak, a peak that hadn’t been physically measured in 80 years. Shaping history and fulfilling their curiosity, these four courageous Eagle Scouts obtained tangible surveying technology experience in a brave journey to gather GPS data at the top of the peak. As a result of their adventure, these scouts have a new appreciation for the technical and physical demands of surveying and an ultimate admiration for land surveyors and their work.
A Historical LandscapeEagle Scout Peak is located on the Great Western Divide 1.7 miles north of Lippincott Mountain and three miles west of Kaweah Peaks Ridge. Most backpackers take three days to reach its base. Since there is no trail to the top, the peak is seldom climbed. The summit is reached by trekking off-trail approximately one mile west of the Big Arroyo section of the well-known 68.5-mile-long High Sierra Trail. The trail traverses the California Sierra Nevada, linking Sequoia National Forest with Mt. Whitney--the highest point in the continental United States. Eagle Scout Peak lies almost directly in the center of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) 7.5' series topographic map titled “Triple Divide Peak, CA.”
From 1889 to 1914, the USGS conducted the first comprehensive survey and mapping of the Sierra Nevada, and published a series of 30' topographic maps on a scale of 1:125,000. The famous California mountaineer, Francis Farquhar--a conservationist, scholar and writer--first climbed Eagle Scout Peak on July 15, 1926. Farquhar’s team members included Eagle Scouts Frederick Armstrong, Eugene Howell and Coe Swift, all from California’s San Joaquin Valley. To commemorate the expedition and first ascent, the names Eagle Scout Peak and nearby Eagle Scout Creek were placed on the fourth edition of the USGS “Tehipite” 30' map in 1929.
Like many remote peaks in the Sequoia backcountry, the elevation of Eagle Scout Peak has been estimated by the photogrammetric method and by studying the 40-ft interval contour lines on the “Triple Divide Peak, CA” topo map, compiled from aerial photographs taken in 1976 and 1984, and photoinspected using imagery from 1993. The recorded elevation of Eagle Scout Peak in the USGS Geographic Names Information System is 12,040 feet. R.J. Secor’s book The High Sierra: Peaks, Passes and Trails, lists the elevation as 12,000+ and 12,040 feet. To Secor’s knowledge, and prior to 2006, a more precise measurement of Eagle Scout Peak’s elevation had never been completed in the field, either by triangulation or with a GPS receiver.
Following Past FootstepsA young Dennis Crockett first gazed up at Eagle Scout Peak from the High Sierra Trail as a 14-year-old Boy Scout in 1967. He didn’t climb it then, but returned as a Scoutmaster many years later with nine scouts and two adult leaders to climb the peak during a “50-miler” backpack in Sequoia National Park. Once back to civilization and eating burgers in Fresno, the scouts from California Troops 636 and 1210 discussed the idea of returning to Eagle Scout Peak with GPS technology to measure the elevation--and make history. “As a group, we decided to measure the altitude, latitude and longitude of Eagle Scout Peak using the most sophisticated GPS instrumentation we could get our hands on,” Crockett says.
During the fall of 2005, Eagle Scout Ben Crockett researched what instrumentation and equipment would be required to complete the task. Joe Evjen of the National Geodetic Survey (NGS) and Marti Ikehara, NGS State Advisor for California, provided information on current GPS instrumentation and cartography. Don D’Onofrio, chairman of the California Spatial Reference Center at the University of California, San Diego and past NGS State Advisor for California, steered the scouts to RBF Consulting (RBF), a civil engineering and survey firm in Irvine, Calif. Through RBF and dealer Allen Instruments, the scouts were outfitted with a Trimble (Sunnyvale, Calif.) R8 GPS receiver for their endeavor.
Prior to their departure, RBF’s survey and mapping experts educated the scouts on how to set up and use the Trimble receiver. “RBF has a long history of working with the Boy Scouts of America, going back to surveying for the Boy Scout National Jamboree site in 1953 by Bill Frost, one of the founding principals of the firm,” says Kurt Troxell, PLS, an RBF senior associate. “When Crockett came to RBF along with four uniformed scouts, their excitement about the project and thirst for knowledge was contagious. The scouts learned the basics of geodesy, became proficient at running the GPS receiver, developed contingency plans and ultimately returned with high-quality GPS observation data.”
A Rugged TerrainThe five-day adventure in July 2006 began at the Crescent Meadow trailhead near Moro Rock in Sequoia National Park. After backpacking 23 miles, four returning Eagle Scouts (Ben Crockett, Brian Kopcznski, Michael Meier and Jason Weiser) and Scoutmaster Crockett arrived at the base of Eagle Scout Peak in the early afternoon of day two (typically a three-day hike) and set up camp at approximately 10,700 feet. To their amazement, the top 500 feet of the summit was lost from view in 20 mile-per-hour winds and swirling clouds. Three-quarters of the remaining sky was blue and there was no visible rain or lightning. The group exercised traditional surveying practice and took a compass bearing backsighting the summit of Black Kaweah to the east and then headed west toward the summit. The group was fully prepared to turn around and descend at the slightest worsening of the weather. They carried the GPS receiver, the heavy external battery, rope, helmets, climbing hardware, three-layered clothing and the Boy Scout’s Ten Essentials for Backpacking (a map and compass, sun and insect protection, water bottles filled with disinfected water, rain gear and extra layers of clothing, a first-aid kit, matches, extra food, a pocket knife, a watch, and finally, having informed someone of their itinerary).
After approximately 1,300 feet of Class 2 climbing (Class 2 hikes are considered more difficult hiking that may be off trail or through snow or slopes covered in loose rock) up the southeast slope, the team reached the summit. The climb required scrambling over boulder fields and around tarns, moving back and forth across large-angled granite ramps with cascading water from snow melt, traversing a snow field, and then finally ascending steep, sandy slopes.
At about 5 p.m., all five trekkers stood on the summit of Eagle Scout Peak. Visibility was only about 40 feet due to the heavy clouds. The actual summit of Eagle Scout Peak is a single semi-truck size rectangular block of granite that juts out over a near vertical north face with an incredible bird’s-eye view. It is about 1,900 feet nearly straight down to Precipice Lake from the summit block on three sides. For safety, the scouts “roped up” with climbing harnesses and helmets, and belayed each other while setting up the GPS receiver and external battery on the very top of the summit block--only one foot from the edge.
GPS at the PeakNylon bags filled with sand were used to buttress the GPS receiver and a bubble level was used to make sure that the antenna was set up horizontal with the unseen horizon. The distance from the base of the antenna to the rock was measured. Then, the moment of truth. The external battery was connected to the receiver and the green LED blazed brightly. Within seconds, the yellow LED came on and blinked intermittently each time the GPS receiver picked up an orbiting satellite signal 12,000 miles above the Earth. After packing up and leaving the climbing gear on the summit, all five descended safely to base camp.
The Trimble R8 GPS receiver stayed on the summit block continuously for more than 36 hours, tracking multiple satellite passings and collecting plenty of data to ensure accurate readings and calculations. In the afternoon of day three, three of the scouts climbed back up to the summit to monitor the GPS receiver and bivouacked on top in sleeping bags without tents. At 5 a.m. on day four, the scouts arose, roped up again and disassembled the GPS receiver before descending safely to base camp. Throughout the expedition, the summit crew was in constant radio contact with Scoutmaster Crockett back at base camp. “I was very impressed with the patience and skill of these four Eagle Scouts,” he said. “Each of them is experienced in long-distance backpacking and rock climbing, and took the time to research and learn about the trek. They took necessary precautions, and knew all about the GPS equipment they were using.”
Preserving a MemoryWhen the Eagle Scouts returned from their trek, RBF associates downloaded and calculated their data. The elevation of Eagle Scout Peak as determined by the scouts is 12,035.7 feet (NAVD88 datum) with a latitude of 36º 32’ 45.098’’ North and a longitude of 118º 33’ 43.790’’ West (NAD83, Epoch 2004.00). Currently, the Eagle Scout team is working to produce a bench mark replica for Eagle Scout Peak with Betty Risser from MountainClimb, a Minneapolis-based company that reproduces and sells replicas of mountain peak bench marks from all over the world. The bench mark replica will include the measurements obtained by the scouts using the Trimble R8 GPS receiver. The scouts hope to place the bench mark in a display case in the Lodgepole Visitor Center within Sequoia National Park, pending approval from the park’s superintendent. The real bench mark will not be placed on the summit of Eagle Scout Peak to honor the “Leave No Trace” philosophy, an outdoor land ethic followed by both the Boy Scouts of America and the National Park System. However, this unique site marker carries tremendous meaning for this group of Eagle Scouts. It celebrates the spirit of their surveying exploration, the physical challenges they faced and the personal achievement each scout obtained on the trek through the Sequoia backcountry.
Eagle Scout Michael Meier, a freshman majoring in architecture at the University of Arizona, said, “It was really cool doing this project with my fellow Eagle Scouts Ben, Brian and Jason. We’ve spent a lot of time together backpacking and rock climbing as scouts, and now that we are going off to different colleges, this experience will bond us together for years to come.”
Permission to complete the project was granted by Craig Axtell, superintendent of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.