Book Review: The Explorer King: Adventure, Science, and the Great Diamond Hoax

Blog, Book Reviews

I came across The Explorer King while browsing the stacks in the Yosemite Research Library. I’ve wanted to learn more about the early mountaineers in the Sierra Nevada and this biography Clarence King offered just that. I read it cover to cover over three days and generally liked it.


As with all of our heroes, they are ultimately human beings, and thus imperfect.

In “The Explorer King”, Robert Wilson examines the life of Clarence King—the scientist, adventurer, romantic, first superintendent of the United States Geological Survey, and failed businessman of the 1800s Gilded Age. In the process, the author learns that King, while brilliant, was not the incorruptible icon people wanted him to be.

“The Explorer King” covers the first half of Clarence King’s life, which was his most productive in terms of science and adventure. However, the author gives only a chapter of the book to the second half of King’s life—the period when he coasted on his earlier accomplishments and suffered failure after failure in mining speculations.

Concerning Clarence King’s mountaineering accomplishments, the book does an excellent job of retelling the stories and picking apart what really happened from the romantic zeal found in King’s popular writings like his book Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada. We’ve all had our doubts about some of the early mountaineers in the Sierra, with the back of our minds quietly asking, Did he really do that? For me, that little voice has often spoken up when reading an account of John Muir’s or looking up at one of Mendenhall’s ascents (for example, the Death Couloir on California’s Mt. Morrison).

I enjoyed the retelling of King’s and Gardner’s first ascent of Yosemite’ Mount Clark. The book also includes accounts of the first ascents of Mount Gardiner, Mount Brewer, and Mount Tyndall.

The book briefly investigates King’s secret second life. He was married to an African-American woman who had been the maid at one of his friend’s homes. The two were married for 15 years until King’s death and had a family together. The marriage was only revealed after his death. I wanted more details of this relationship and its aftermath, but the author only gives superficial coverage to this part of King’s life.

Overall, it is a good book, though, for the mountaineer who is a reader, there will be some slow parts.