He tapped a Chinese-American chef named Tie Sing with a vital duty: to provide creature comforts to the campers. Sing was so beloved by U.S. Geological Survey mapmakers that, 16 years earlier, they named the craggy 10,552-foot peak at the southern edge of Yosemite after him. “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,” Mather told a March 1915 conference of park employees, government officials, Sierra Club officers, and concessioners.
Thirty men and 50 horses and mules set off on what came to be known as the Mather Mountain Party. They circled their hands around the General Sherman giant sequoia, the biggest tree in the world, dipped into the icy waters of the Kern River, and climbed up Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states—wonders matched only by Sing’s sumptuous meals.
In his memoirs, Mather’s assistant, Horace Albright, devotes line upon line to Sing’s meals, cooked on a portable sheet-metal stove, served on white linen tablecloths and under Japanese lanterns. Dinners of soup, salad, fried chicken, venison and gravy, apple pie, cheese, and coffee. Breakfasts of hot cakes and maple syrup, eggs, hot rolls, tenderloin steaks, trout and potatoes, honey and biscuits. A plum pudding with brandy sauce dished up after the men had been soaked by snow, sleet, and rain.
I could relate to Albright’s obsession. When my family camps, meals take on an outsized importance, a reward for our exertions. Hunger is the best sauce, but after I read about Sing’s feasts, our salami and pita sandwiches and boil-in-a-bag Indian meals seemed paltry in comparison. I admired his ingenuity: To keep meat fresh, he wrapped it in wet newspapers soaked in the icy river. Because the party was on the move, he had no time to raise biscuits next to hot coals. So, each day, he prepared a new batch of dough that he stored next to the mule’s warm body, using the heat to ensure fluffy biscuits by dinner.
He persisted through disasters that would have felled lesser cooks: A mule loaded with fresh lemonade, cantaloupe, sardines, and other delicacies wandered off, never to be found. Another mule fell asleep while walking and tumbled down a 300-foot cliff, sending its load—knives, grapefruits, and more—flying. The mule survived; the sourdough starter did not.
On the final night, Sing had a special send-off for the campers. He made fortune cookies, with messages written in Chinese and English: “Long may you search the mountains”; “The sound of your laughter will fill the mountains when you are in the sky”; and “Where but in the mountains would such a man be spirit with the mountains.”
The chef and philosopher of the Sierras made the trip unforgettable for the campers who widely extolled the majesty of their surroundings and pushed for protections. Just over a year later, President Woodrow Wilson signed the National Park Service into existence.