alta serial logo, surviving the sierra

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 third day of their journey, the Alta group are faced with numerous land navigation challenges. Roper asks himself, What would Walker do?

April 29, Twin Lake. On the morning of Day 3, I realized that Parker had been pushing his Twin Lake detour for a while. In emails sent to me several weeks before we set out, he’d proposed cutting short the climb up to Deadwood Peak, which would take a lot of time and effort, and instead heading for Twin Lake, then down to another lake, Meadow Lake, and from there down to the Mokelumne. I had been puzzled by this proposal and reminded him that Joseph Walker hadn’t gone to Twin Lake in 1833—Twin Lake hadn’t existed then, nor had Meadow Lake; they were both PG&E impoundments with human-made dams.

He went quiet on the issue after that. But you can’t keep a good guide down; he knew better than I did what people were capable of and how fast they could travel if the snow was in this condition or that, and he wasn’t going to let it go. Besides, the route from Meadow Lake to the Mokelumne was by no means a gimme; it was a hardcore proposition very much in the spirit of Walker, if not in the actual steps thereof. We would be following a wild creek full of snowmelt down a rocky drainage, then climbing up through a pathless area over a high ridge to end up directly above the river at the top of a thousand-foot drop-off. From there, we would have to bushwhack our way down, through manzanita jungles and over rock faces, with maybe a giant talus field waiting at the bottom.

Ideally, we would have discussed this face-to-face, but he was in Bishop and I was in Berkeley. Plus, other matters interposed themselves during the long, complicated planning period. It turned out that we needed separate hiking permits from three different national forests, plus another kind of permit from a federal wilderness area. Walker hadn’t chosen his path 200 years before with the mad jurisdictional fracturing of U.S. wildlands management in mind, and some of the people whom we got in touch with to arrange for permits didn’t call back or didn’t call back in a timely way (and some did; some were most responsive, thank you very much).

Then there were photography permissions. Each national forest had its own irritating forms to fill out. I was involved with that, Seelie was involved, and our editors at Alta Journal were also involved, working on applications up to the last minute. In the end, we just started hiking, trying to look as legal as possible, hoping no one would ask to see our imperfect papers.

alta journal, walker expedition, day 3, coffee
Harding, Roper, and Navon warm up with coffee on the cold morning of Day 3.
Tod Seelie

Back to Twin Lake: Day 3 dawned cold, the writer reluctant to get out of his bag, thin and worn as it was. I did finally get out and staggered around, my legs not working right—I was put in mind of what Zenas Leonard says in his journal, that the horses became “stupid and stiff” with cold, that the trappers had to help them along “as we would an old and feeble man.”

Parker and Navon got some water boiling, and we launched early, intending to go up as high as we could. Steep going from the start, up a forest full of deep snow, swan-feather snow of purest white. We crossed a small lake, keeping 20 feet apart and walking in the footsteps of the guy ahead to lessen the risk of breaking through the ice. Parker liked lakes, I’d noticed. You could walk straight across them, they were level, and you got to the other side quickly. He aimed for them and used them like the walkways in airports. He’d declared that two o’clock was to be our turnaround time, the hour when we had to head back to Twin Lake; we would be staying there for a second night, and no one wanted to get caught out in the dark.

What had we decided for today, though? Were the photographers going to make a heroic push to get the Deadwood shots, or had we all kind of quietly given up on that? Theoretically, everything was still in play, but it took a long time to climb up, the writer as always slower than the others, to join the trail that would take us toward Deadwood.

walker expedition, day 3
Roper snowshoes through a forest of deep snow by following the footsteps of his companions.
Tod Seelie

From a rocky promontory, an astonishing view now presented itself of an immense bowl miles across, encircled by peaks and long ridges, with views down the other way into the Mokelumne River Canyon. It looked seriously deep, that canyon, and the river itself was invisible, way down inside, penned by granite walls. Navon determined with his Garmin that a shattered summit west-northwest of us was Deadwood Peak. There were broken country and battered trees and bare rock and snow between us and the mountain. I spotted a horizontal breach, headed away from us, along which Walker and his horses could possibly have made their way up. Suddenly, I was convinced that he had indeed led them that way, not because he believed this was the only way forward, but because it promised a more comprehensive view, an even more spectacular view. Like any wilderness traveler, he was eager to see what was what.

The photographers were in heaven. They explored down from the promontory, in the direction of the canyon, photographing for about an hour. Probably there was not enough time to have made it up to Deadwood and back. We’ll never know. Come two o’clock, we turned around, heading down into the snowy forest again, Parker skiing down happily, making slick runs that I admired, while we others had to posthole down less picturesquely.

Lots of fun that evening back in camp. Everyone was wrung out, tired in a good way, feeling that we’d gotten over the hump now, broken through on this Walker challenge. Navon and Parker made a bench of snow blocks that we could all sit on. You put yourself down on a piece of foam insulation, and that way your bottom end didn’t freeze quite so fast. I got to know Seelie and Harding a little. They were thoughtful, warmly engaging younger guys, with already a large amount of hard experience to their credit, having embarked on freelance careers not so different from my own. By now it was dark, and we were standing up, having frozen ourselves on the blocks. Harding asked if I was satisfied with what we’d seen and done that day. I said I was, sort of, and was about to bring up Deadwood, the shots from there, but then thought, Fuck that, camaraderie is breaking out all over; we just accomplished a difficult ascent in deep snow; everyone is back in camp in one piece; this is good; this is definitely good.

alta journal, walker expedition, day 3, hiking
The Alta group ascend through “broken country and battered trees and bare rock and snow.”
Tod Seelie

The next morning, we headed for Meadow Lake, committing ourselves to a new route down to the river.

Walker had not gone this way—or had he? By crow-flying measurement of distance, it seemed to make more sense, and I had been struck over and over by Walker’s way of hitting on pathfinding solutions that made sense even now, 200 years later. In 1833, he had laid out a path from Charity Valley that the PG&E engineers duplicated when they built Blue Lakes Road. That might be just coincidence, but here was another: Walker’s route uphill after crossing the Mokelumne, a route we hoped to be following in another day, was the same route that the architects of the Mokelumne Wilderness deemed the only feasible route for hikers to take up from the river. It was still the only marked path, and a poorly maintained one, for a 10-mile stretch of steep country.

So he had had a nose for finding ways through, for overcoming impasses. So good a nose, that those ways had not been improved on in all this time. Most surprisingly, I thought, he’d gone in exactly the wrong direction, eastward, to find a way up from the river. The Pacific was to the west; he knew that for a certainty. Yet he had explored east, eventually discovering Jackson Canyon, the only side canyon for miles around that was gradual enough for horses to ascend.

alta journal, walker expedition, day 3, frozen twin lake
The ice of frozen lakes offers both direct routes across them and peril.
Tod Seelie

He’d had geographical intelligence, Walker had. Everyone seems to agree on that; Scott Stine, in his book A Way Across the Mountain, says that Walker was “as familiar with this broad and complex swath of continent as anyone who had ever lived,” meaning the American West, basically, including the future states of Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and California. Walker was a fur-trapping Copernicus, too, an epochal innovator, a deep reimaginer; acting on observations made on the 1833 trip, he concluded that the region west of the Great Salt Lake and east of California was hydrographically closed, with all its rivers petering out in the sand or ending in marshy terminal lakes. This put the lie to a long-held belief in a mythic “Río Buenaventura,” said to flow out of the Salt Lake and all the way to the Pacific; travelers had kept hoping to find it, so they could get to the coast in boats.

Our second night at Twin Lake, I was not quite as cold. Parker had advised against wearing my puffy jacket inside the bag, saying that a jacket trapped your body heat to your torso, preventing its circulation throughout the bag. I tried it both ways, as an experiment. My feet were cold either way. With the jacket on, though, I felt I was doing everything possible, and that itself was a warming thought. I also wore a wool hat.•

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 to read previous serials, and sign up here for email notifications about upcoming Alta Serials.