alta serial logo, surviving the sierra
Alta

Alta Journal is pleased to present a six-part original series by author and Alta contributor Robert Roper. This is the tale of five men who—over six snowy days—retraced a 34-mile portion of the 1833 Walker expedition, specifically its route over the Sierra Nevada, the first east-west crossing by non-Native people. Walker faced blizzards, frostbite, and near starvation; 189 years later, the wintry conditions are not much different. Roper and his companions start their journey at an elevation of 5,500 feet and begin climbing up, up, up.

April 27, Markleeville. Five months of emailing had brought us here, the parking lot behind the Alpine County Sheriff’s Office, meeting for the first time. The two photographers had driven up from L.A. together. The two guides and I had driven over from Swall Meadows, 20 miles north of Bishop. It was sunny today, with gusts of sharp wind. Hard to imagine we’d be getting into much snow at higher elevations—there was nothing here, at 5,500 feet, and it almost felt like a summer morning.

The receptionist in the sheriff’s office wasn’t unhelpful when I first got in touch; she was just puzzled. It rang absolutely no bells with her when I mentioned Joseph Walker, the Great White Pathfinder, but soon she handed me over to an undersheriff who immediately said, “Oh, I just love that stuff,” meaning the fur-trapper stuff, the beaver-skinning mountain-man legends. And after that, we had a place to park our vehicles for as long as we wanted, and other knotty dilemmas that I had been fretting over turned out to be no big thing.

Walker led his party of 58 trappers over the Sierra in 1833, the first Euro-Americans to do it. We were planning to retrace his route as far as possible, given time constraints and that we would be traveling on snowshoes, not horses. Yes, they did it on horses, clambering up icy granite and lowering their starving animals on ropes; think of taking a herd of horses along with you on a mountaineering trip, over peaks that you know nothing about and that have never been mapped, and you have an idea of their audacity. (But the horses turned out to be lifesavers: as they died, the trappers ate their lean, unsavory flesh—otherwise, they themselves would have starved.)

walker expedition day 1
The Alta expedition begins: SP Parker, Omri Navon, Robert Roper, and Spencer Harding prepare to depart from Grover Hot Springs State Park. (Tod Seelie is not pictured; he is taking the photograph!)
Tod Seelie

So here we were in the parking lot, introducing ourselves. SP Parker, our chief guide. He’s been working in the Sierra and all over for 40 years and is the owner and head of the Sierra Mountain Center of Bishop. Kiwi. Master’s of science in geology, University of Auckland. I first met him 25 years ago when I was writing a climbing article and a magazine put us together. Sardonic but hearty. He wasn’t playing at being a guide; he was doing it, finding a way to survive in a country with a barely developed tourism sector for climbing, unlike in, say, France, where whole families go climbing together, hiring guides for safety.

We had crossed paths a few times since. Now I was shocked to see that he had a white beard, but so did I. Wearing a kind of onesie, a skier’s jumpsuit. He’d been debating whether to go on skis or snowshoes; in the end, it was skis. Another decision that we’d debated was whether to hire a second guide; all of us would be carrying lots of gear, lots of weight, and a second guide could help reduce the general load. And here was the decision, in the form of a tall, athletic 24-year-old, Omri Navon, who proved to be strong as hell. He was a student of Parker’s, eager to become a professional guide and thrilled to be spending a few days alongside the master, garnering tips on how to read for avalanches and behave around clients.

The two photographers were also young. Tod Seelie was based in Los Angeles, Spencer Harding in Tucson, Arizona. I’d seen some of Seelie’s work. He was a gifted artist, someone with an instinct for edgy scenes and up-to-the-minute culture clashes. His shots of people in nature, often on bikes, were full of pleasure. I would say that he was someone with a natural affinity for people in stressed, deranged modern settings, with a kindness and depth in his portraits.

Harding I knew little about. I could have looked him up, but in the rush of things, I neglected to; our trip was taking a lot of effort to put together, and I was working on other projects as well.

It wasn’t until after, when I was back home and mentioned Harding to a bike-crazy friend, that I learned that I’d been snowshoeing with a hero. Harding is a large presence at the Radavist, the much-admired bikes-in-rugged-nature website; he has been so prolific a documenter of that scene that others see him as a kind of icon. “What off-standard steps have you taken,” one aspiring emulator asked during an interview, “to live your dreamy Instagramming existence?,” and this question seemed to express a general attitude.

Now the gear-sorting was over, and at last we started to move. Our start-off point was Grover Hot Springs State Park. The park took a hit during the Tamarack Fire of 2021, and it was closed. There’s no evidence that Walker and his men shed their buckskins and bathed in Hot Springs Creek in October of 1833; had they done so, it would have been their last experience of warmth for weeks, since the route from Grover was ever upward, into a frozen realm that they were little prepared for.

alta journal walker expedition, day 1, robert roper
Roper gets used to the weight of his backpack: “I was just another old pack animal, needing to be put out to pasture.”
Tod Seelie

I staggered almost from the start. I don’t like backpacking, yet I’ve done lots of it to put myself where I want to be, in mountains I can climb or just fool around in. I used to compete with other blockheaded males to carry the biggest, most impressive loads, but now I was just another old pack animal, needing to be put out to pasture. I’d packed with great care, as always, shaving ounces wherever possible, but somehow it never matters; my pack is always bursting and unbalanced, the toilet paper or snack I’m in need of buried deep, too much trouble to hunt for.

Beyond Grover, we found ourselves in some of the new-look forest, the zombie forest. You know what I’m talking about if you’ve been getting out in the West of late. Sixty-eight thousand acres burned in the Tamarack Fire, making it not even one of the biggest. Still, it’s creepy to walk through what remains. The paths are ash, and the trees seem embarrassed: they do what trees always do, just stand there, but as charcoaled travesties.

The path kept climbing. Seelie or Harding would disappear, darting ahead to position themselves for shots of the rest of us coming along. I imagined many views of myself gasping for breath, wearing a stupid backpacker hat. They were distressingly fit, the young photographers. They did this sort of thing for a living, that was why. I thought about Ginger Rogers, who it is said did all the dance steps that Fred Astaire did, but backward and in high heels.

alta journal walker expedition, day 1, zombie forest
The Alta group moves through the zombie forest. Sixty-eight thousand acres burned in the 2021 Tamarack Fire.
Tod Seelie

Among my group of aging armchair heroes back home, I’m considered to be in pretty good shape, for a writer, but to see what young people in their thoughtless excellence and unearned beauty are capable of is rudely instructive. I used to be like that, maybe. And I had purposely trained for this trip, meaning I’d ridden my bike up some hills, gone swimming once a week, walked all over Berkeley listening to podcasts. I’d even hiked Mount Diablo twice. Some people might not consider that real training, since gyms and machines weren’t involved, but when I added trudging up steep Marin Avenue, where actual Himalayan climbers have been known to train, carrying a Random House dictionary and a phone book in my pack, my knees started to ache, so I backed off—no sense in overtraining, as I’ve heard it called.

The Walker group was young, too, though not inexperienced. Walker himself was 35, but some of the others were hardly out of boyhood, fresh seekers of excitement. Unbeknownst to them, the market in beaver was collapsing just when the party set out, as manufacturers back east substituted silk for beaver felt in the making of fashionable hats. Zenas Leonard, 21, makes it clear in the splendid journal he kept that the chance to see California was what excited him: “I was anxious to go to the coast of the Pacific, and for that purpose hired with Mr. Walker…for a certain sum per year.”

The zombie forest ended. Color returned to the picture, and here were the first snow patches. Unburned willow thickets, smelling of greenness, of spring, a stream full of snowmelt, requiring us to boulder-hop with packs. Why the fire reached no higher than about 7,000 feet, I couldn’t say. I’ve seen this elsewhere, that the destruction stops at a random-seeming elevation, above which the healthy montane forest begins again, with strong trees and a rich understory. Near this elevation, Harding spotted a mother bear, a brown one with three cubs. She ran away as soon as she saw us, the cubs hurrying to keep up.

Those were the only bears we met, though we saw tracks everywhere. The bears were now coming out of hibernation, Parker warned, and they were “hungry and ornery.”

Soon we reached a meadow valley, forested on both sides, with a trouty-looking stream running along one side. Across and a couple of miles away was a gleaming snow-clad mountain, called Markleeville Peak; I knew that the Walker party had passed this way, threading the gap between Markleeville Peak and another one to the north. I don’t know if the young trappers registered the rugged beauty of the location: the idea of finding aesthetic value in raw nature, especially in rocky mountains, was barely known in 1833, and photography was in its infancy; the first daguerreotypes wouldn’t appear until 1839.

alta journal walker expedition, day 1, camp site
The travelers pitch their tents near Charity Valley and settle in for their first night.
Tod Seelie

We camped by the trouty stream. I was thrashed, and it took me a long time just to put up my tent. I needed to write some stuff down but couldn’t find my notebook; also missing were printouts of the digital maps that we were planning to follow, backup copies that Parker had wanted me to carry.

Later I found the notebook and the maps. So I wasn’t completely senile, not yet. Lying in my tent that night, badly in need of sleep, I thought of Walker and his men on their journey; by the time they reached Charity Valley, they were truly up against it, this close to a Donner Party–like end to their adventure. Almost completely out of food, they felt trapped by the frozen summit zone. Walker had hoped to force his way through the crest of the range, then ramble down to the Pacific on the other side; unfortunately, the Sierra is miles wide at this latitude, complicated by sheer mountain walls and deep river canyons almost impossible to negotiate. Wallowing through the snowdrifts by day, huddling under thin blankets or a buffalo skin by night, the men became exhausted and discouraged; Walker declared that anyone who wanted to turn back could but that he could take no horses or ammunition with him.

Deep, deep river canyons, with sheer granite walls on both sides…half asleep, a bell went off in my head, and I thought of a conversation I’d had some months ago with a man at the U.S. Forest Service. I’d asked about the Mokelumne River, which the Walker party had crossed in October of 1833 and that we would need to cross in a few days. “In spring, when you’re planning to go,” the ranger had said, “there’s so much snowmelt some years that it might not be safe to cross anywhere. You might get lucky, find a logjam to walk over on, but you also might not. Be careful.”

I hadn’t forgotten this problem—what I’d done was just put it on the mental back burner, the same way I’d forgotten to look up Spencer Harding’s photography. But now it had my full attention, and it was a long time before my eyes would close and I could fall asleep.•

Unlike previous Alta Serials, whose installments were published weekly, all episodes of “Surviving the Sierra” are available at the same time for a binge-reading experience. Visit altaonline.com/serials to read previous serials, and sign up here for email notifications about upcoming Alta Serials.

READ DAY 2: IN THE SNOW »