A group of seven men trekked for miles through smoky skies and sweltering heat to reach the top of a mountain honoring a man who influenced the history of our national parks — but who few people have ever heard of. Here’s why these committed park lovers want to make sure Tie Sing’s legacy is remembered.
Last month I took a special trip to follow in the footsteps of a mysterious gourmand who influenced the history of our national parks — but it proved to be a difficult time to honor him.
I had been planning for months to join a group of backpackers on a challenging wilderness hike near Yosemite National Park in memory of the celebrated chef Tie Sing. My trip was part of an annual pilgrimage to Sing Peak, the mountain named in his honor, organized by a group of people determined to preserve his legacy.
Our whole expedition was cast in doubt, however, as wildfires in the state spread and intensified. Unhealthy air quality and fire-fighting operations forced the National Park Service to shut down Yosemite — the first time officials have done so in 28 years. Seven of us gathered in the nearby town of Oakhurst on the morning of our trek, concerned that the gray, smoky skies could force us to abandon our plans.
Yet the national forest lands just outside the park remained open, offering us a path to the mountain, and we were determined to reach it. It was our one opportunity to summit this rarely traveled peak on the 100th anniversary of Sing’s death.
Sing was a Chinese American who overcame intense racial discrimination to make a creative contribution that had a lasting effect on our public lands. He grew up exploring the mountains and trails of his home state of Nevada and, faced with restrictions on the kinds of employment he could choose, forged a career path for himself by preparing elaborate meals for mapmakers exploring California. Sing eventually became the innovative and industrious head chef for the U.S. Geological Survey, where he worked for 28 years, and his reputation as a backcountry cook was legendary. Stephen Mather hired him in 1915 to join an expedition to Yosemite, where Sing’s food would sustain and help influence men who held the future of the national parks in their hands. This now-famous journey, known as the Mather Mountain Party, sought to convince political and business leaders of the importance of conserving the country’s nationally significant lands and creating a government agency to oversee them.
The following year, expedition participants would push Congress to establish the National Park Service — but not before documenting Sing’s ability to provide spectacular food in the backcountry. Sing had gone to great lengths and used creative strategies to provide the group with fresh, delicious and nourishing meals, hauling specialty ingredients and equipment by mule through the region’s rugged terrain. Several members of the party would write about his elaborate efforts, which included preparing such delicacies as tenderloin steak, trout, fried chicken, pancakes, sourdough bread, sausage and hot apple pie. Mather, who would go on to serve as the first director of the Park Service, recognized that no matter how beautiful the landscape, “give a man a poor breakfast after he has had a bad night’s sleep and he will not care how fine your scenery is.” And appreciating the scenery was crucial to the success of the trip. If participants had had a miserable experience, they would not have turned into the most passionate advocates for the creation of the agency.
The USGS named a peak in 1899 for Sing in honor of his outstanding service, 16 years before he joined the Mather Party. The well-deserved recognition was somewhat surprising, since it came at a time when racism and xenophobia targeted at Chinese Americans was at a fever pitch. Scapegoats for the tough economic times, Chinese were subject to discrimination and violence. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act had effectively ended immigration from China and would continue as a prejudicial policy for the next 60 years. Additional laws made it difficult for Chinese workers to find employment, and many turned to cooking, doing laundry at park hotels, and serving on road construction crews throughout the Sierra Nevada mountain range.
Sadly, Sing died in a backcountry accident in 1918. It is not clear how he died or if he ever summited his namesake peak. Likewise, for many years the peak itself remained a bit of a mystery, lying just outside the southeast boundary of the park in a lightly traveled area, far from the region’s more popular trails.
Making the Pilgrimage
Founded in 2013, the Yosemite-Sing Peak Pilgrimage takes place each year in late July. A collaboration of the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California (CHSSC) and the National Park Service, the multi-day event brings together outdoor and history enthusiasts to celebrate the contributions of Chinese Americans to the founding and development of both Yosemite National Park and the Park Service.
The festivities include lectures, potlucks and tours that highlight important stories, such as how Chinese laborers cleared and built Tioga Road, one of the earliest and highest in Yosemite, reaching elevations of nearly 10,000 feet. The event culminates with a trek to the summit of Sing Peak for experienced backpackers led by retired California State Park Superintendent Jack Shu and Park Service Ranger Yenyen Chan, to honor the backcountry chef who was instrumental to the founding of the Park Service.
For more information about the annual Pilgrimage, contact the CHSSC at 323.222.0856 or visit chinesehistoricalsociety.org.
Our trip leader, Jack Shu, spent many days scouting routes to the remote peak, often getting lost and bushwhacking his way over rugged terrain with just a map and compass. A retired California state park superintendent and ranger, Shu has been leading groups to the peak since 2013, when he helped found the annual Yosemite-Sing Peak Pilgrimage. In his 60s, he doesn’t look a day over 50 and moves through the backcountry like men half his age. This year, the Ferguson fire forced the cancellation of the larger pilgrimage event, but several of us still wanted to attempt the peak, partly for the chance to hike with Shu.
Like Shu, other members of our intrepid group had interesting backgrounds. At 68, Tennyson Kwok was on his first major backpacking trip. Three other members of the group, also retirees in their 60s and early 70s, had a list of impressive accomplishments, including trekking to Everest base camp and reaching the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro. At 51, I was one of the younger members of the party, but I struggled to keep up with group and consistently found myself bringing up the rear.
After leaving the trailhead, we continued through the smoky skies and sweltering heat for several miles, before reaching a dramatic overlook where clean air and beautiful alpine terrain stretched in nearly every direction. In the distance, Sing Peak loomed against a backdrop of other towering, windswept mountains. From that point, we dropped into a high-altitude basin of idyllic alpine lakes and ended our first day near the shore of a particularly picturesque one, which served as our basecamp for the next two nights.
The following day, we continued with Sing Peak ahead of us, along a precarious ridge that, in some spots, dropped off hundreds of feet in both directions. Miles of boulder hopping and scrambling over loose, rocky terrain at over 10,000 feet were starting to take its toll on our group. The Ferguson wildfire embroiled Yosemite National Park to the west, and a newer fire in the nearby Mammoth Lakes area burned to the east as we hiked. But a cool breeze lifted our spirits, and beyond the peak we saw only clear, blue skies: a stark contrast to the conditions of the previous day.
We felt as though the spirit of Tie Sing had cleared a path for us.
After an exhausting two-day trek, we finally found ourselves on the summit of Sing Peak. At 10,552 feet, it is relatively modest compared to those around it, but its remoteness and the difficulty of the approach made it formidable challenge. The summit provided a spectacular 360-degree view of the heart of the Sierra Nevada range with numerous other peaks, valleys and prominent features such as the renowned Minarets, observable in every direction.
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Not a bad tribute to a man who helped establish the National Park Service and who continues to inspire generations of Chinese and Asian Americans because of his ingenuity, resourcefulness and pioneering spirit. Enduring the difficult conditions was the least we could do to honor him on the centennial of his passing.
About the author
Dennis Arguelles Los Angeles Senior Program Manager, Pacific
Dennis, Los Angeles Program Manager, works on park protection and expansion efforts as well as engaging diverse and underserved communities not traditionally connected to the national parks.