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. On the second day of their journey, Roper and his companions tramp through snow at altitudes of nearly 8,000 feet and consider their approach to Deadwood Peak.
April 28, 2022, Charity Valley. On our first day, we got into a little snow, Parker kicking steps for us up some gentle slopes. The second day, it was snow all the way, snow over most of the landscape. I know we’re in a drought, the worst in the West in 1,200 years, it is said, but 2021 included the snowiest December in recorded history, and much of that astonishing dump was still on the ground. We spent the morning of the second day in snow and sun, following Walker’s footsteps—make that his horses’ hoofprints—up windy Charity Valley.
Now largely forgotten, Walker in the 19th century was a famous man, an icon of Western exploration on the order of a Kit Carson or a John C. Fremont. With little interest in self-promotion, he went about his mountain-man business quietly, sometimes guiding groups of emigrants, sometimes running large horse-trading operations. Fremont and other romanticizers of the West wrote about him in extravagant terms. They exaggerated their personal acquaintance with him, describing his exploits in overheated prose that Walker read with amusement. (The fact that he read at all distinguished him among his cohort.) He had served as the first sheriff of Jackson County, Missouri, guided the government party that surveyed the Santa Fe Trail in 1825, fought in the Appalachian Indian Wars in his teens. Late in his life, a reporter asked him about the terrible danger of “Indian attack”—a danger sensationalized by Fremont—and Walker replied, “The danger was all in Capt. Fremont’s fears.… I would have traveled at that time with eight mountain men, well armed, anywhere over the length and breadth of the plains.”
That he could travel so freely was because the Native people, in their astonishing number and variety, had made the West a known place, a deeply humanized place. Early on, Walker seems to have understood this fact and accommodated himself to it. He engaged with Native people wherever he could, making himself well-liked and trusted by many groups, but especially among the Snake (Shoshone) people, with whom he lived, part-time, for years.
That doesn’t mean that there was peace, that violence wasn’t often in the cards in the Mountain West. The trappers were a tiny number of vulnerable foreigners in a landscape occupied by tens of thousands of sometimes-warlike others. The way to survive was through diplomacy, give-and-take—above all, trade. The trappers brought manufactured goods that many found useful; in turn, Native people provided buffalo skins, beaver pelts, and other commodities—indeed, it was Natives who did most of the actual trapping after 1835.
Walker was a businessman, but, as Zenas Leonard writes of him, “to explore unknown regions was his chief delight.” This exploring was accomplished at the sufferance of, and by closely following the example of, Native groups. Walker could attempt a first crossing of the Sierra only because his party had been following Native paths since they first saddled up in Wyoming. Crossing Utah and Nevada, they were anxious to seek advice from Shoshone they met, to learn where water could be found in the barren landscape and where to graze their horses.
When it came to the actual climb over the mountains—what specific route to take—they were on their own, however. Walker had lost control, allowing his men to get into a melee with a large number of Paiute warriors, who had encircled the trappers and then advanced menacingly, shaking their bows and shouting threats or curses. Thirty-nine Paiutes died in the fight. Soon after, Walker and party, possibly fearing revenge attacks, headed further into the Sierra—following no route and with no knowledge of what was to come.
We ourselves had lots of maps, lots and lots of knowledge. In our attempt to redo Walker’s crossing, we had put to work an enormous amount of up-to-the-minute technology, satellites that circled continuously 12,000 miles above our heads, and handheld devices that tracked our every step and bump in the landscape. Parker was out ahead of the rest of us usually, eyeballing the terrain and making sure it conformed to the maps. From time to time, he would call out to Navon, asking him to check where we were on his Garmin inReach; Navon would look at the GPS gizmo for a few seconds, then yell something back.
The unknownness of where we were and what we were doing was gone; in other words, it had been virtually eliminated. That’s just the way things go these days, but that was OK with me, and I was even having a good time, using snowshoes for the first time, trying not to fall too much. What did remain unknown was how we would get across the river. The North Fork of the Mokelumne is not only impassable in some years and some seasons; it’s a famous stretch of whitewater, a 24-mile run known to kayakers as Fantasy Falls. Those able to handle Class V+ rapids and murderous portages come from all over to give it a try, and some even make it through without breaking their boats.
Then there were the known unknowns, whether someone would blow a knee, whether the writer would give up, whining about his too-heavy pack. There was also the possibility of storms, bringing more snow, but Parker had been tracking the weather and was pretty sure it would remain fair.
Leaving Charity Valley, we found ourselves on a road—yes, an actual road, called Blue Lakes Road, maintained by PG&E. It was mostly under snow and led us to an open area called Border Ruffian Flat. Along the way we saw lots of bear signs; the bears, like Walker two centuries ago and us now, were traveling where the going was easy, through a natural corridor in the landscape. Often you could make out the pigeon-toed walk of the bears—they had been through here just minutes before, it seemed, the tracks looked that fresh.
Later we passed close to a mountain wall, and here you could see several avalanche tracks, where slabs had broken away. One cornice was still up there, hanging precariously; it posed no real danger to us, but it was easy to imagine the cornice letting go, a cloud of snow rolling silently down the face, then exploding upward, the wind it pushed ahead of it and the sound of it reaching us seconds later, on a delay.
Day 2 was a long one, with lots of up-slogging. I was thoroughly wiped again, and now I made a mistake: it doesn’t compare with Walker’s mistake, the one that led to 39 dead, but it was something that I would do over if I could. I knew about Walker’s route from having read about it, studying the historic maps. It has been debated among experts since the 19th century, the main point of contention being the question of whether Walker was the first white man to see Yosemite Valley. Most historians used to believe that he was, that his route had passed by Yosemite, giving him a view down into the valley from the top of Yosemite Falls. But in fact, he did not pass anywhere near Yosemite; his real route was some 60 miles north, close to Lake Tahoe.
A professor of geography, Scott Stine, has written an excellent book, A Way Across the Mountain (2015), about the Yosemite question and related matters. It establishes Walker’s route through a meticulous reading of Zenas Leonard’s journal and informed speculation about miles traveled per day on horseback, among other considerations. I find it persuasive. To illustrate Stine’s argument, we needed to reach a mountain, Deadwood Peak, and take photos from an area just below its south face. Walker had been there, Stine writes. I had told Parker that this was a main goal of our trip—our main photographic goal.
Parker understood me, and the first map we worked out together had us heading up toward Deadwood on Day 3 of the trip. It would be another hard day of climbing, as long as and probably harder than Day 2, but it was our only way to reach that viewpoint.
Now, late on Day 2, as we rested before climbing to a planned camp at Lower Blue Lake, Parker proposed a change. Downhill from us along another road was an impoundment, Twin Lake. It was in the wrong direction for a climb to Deadwood Peak the following day, but in the right direction for getting to the Mokelumne River a little more directly, possibly giving us more time to figure out how to cross it.
The photographers might be able to get to Deadwood even so, Parker thought, scampering up by themselves. He joked that the two of us old guys could just fool around in camp while they did all the work. Navon could go along with them to see they didn’t get lost.
I didn’t like this idea. My goal was to go, personally, where Walker had gone, to see what he’d seen; I needed to understand his thought process as he figured a way out of his snowy predicament. But I agreed to go to the lower lake anyway, out of laziness more than anything else. Tomorrow we could think about it more and come up with some way of getting the shots we needed while also shortening the trip to the river. That was what I told myself.
We descended to Twin Lake and made a camp at its far end, pitching our tents on frozen snow. My toes were numb and white when I took my boots off; Parker recommended a water bottle filled with hot water, and I put this at the bottom of my sleeping bag; after about 20 minutes, I could feel my toes again. Someone nearby was snoring. They were thunderous, lusty snores, with no pauses in between. That was the beauty of sleeping in a tent next to other tents: you had no secrets. I fell asleep anyway, then awoke feeling cold, the hot water bottle now as cold as my toes. It was my sleeping bag that was the problem, my old sleeping bag—once it had been rated at 10 degrees, but now the down was in clumps, and if you held it to a light, you could see through it. Why hadn’t I bought myself a new bag? I had the money, and I’d been needing one for a long time, but once again I was faking my way through, trying to get by on old, tattered gear, the way I’d done when I was just starting out as a writer. What was that about, really? Did I think it virtuous, somehow, to be sleeping in a flimsy bought-on-sale backpacker tent while everyone else was in a four-season tent designed for assaults on K2? My whole approach was wrong, to life as well as to camping…I fell asleep again, but not a restful sleep.•
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.