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. On their fourth day in the high mountains, the Alta group at last make a scary descent to the raging Mokelumne River.

April 30, Twin Lake. Day 4, we head down toward the Mokelumne, our own mythic river, our river of no return.

Full packs today, unlike yesterday, when we took minimal gear on the climb toward Deadwood. Today, it’s everything on your back again, your whole house, as it were, and as usual, I feel overburdened. Navon estimates my pack at somewhere short of 50 pounds. That’s no world record, but how can it have gotten that heavy? Like everyone else, I’m carrying group items as well as my own; these include one of the five sturdy bear canisters, jam-packed despite all the eating we’ve been doing, plus a paddle meant for use with the packraft. The packraft began as a kind of joke. When we first discussed the wild river, Parker said that we might as well bring wetsuits and try to swim across. Then he started talking about bringing an inflatable, and I thought he was still joking, imagining the kind of blow-up float you take to a swimming pool. No, it was an actual boat, he said, a serviceable small boat whose only drawback was that it weighed a lot. Nine pounds, including trappings. Someone would have to carry that extra weight.

That someone was Navon, our assistant guide. He was about six-foot-five, built more like an ultimate frisbee player than a fullback, cheerful about shouldering a huge pack every day, which he tossed to the ground or pulled back on top of him as if it were full of air. I had to strategize each time I took my pack off for a break, making sure it was up on a rock so I could crawl back under it and work my way into the straps, then roll carefully on my side before gingerly standing up, waiting for a knee to buckle or a spasm to hit my lower back.

alta journal walker expedition, day 4, frozen lake
The travelers pause to consider crossing a frozen lake. Parker travels on skis while the others rely on snowshoes.
Tod Seelie

Surprisingly, my overused body (30 years of rock climbing and mountaineering; wrestling, tennis, football, baseball, car crashes, and drunken motorcycle episodes in college; boxing for two years; springboard diving, taught to do zany tricks when too young to know any better; jumps into rivers from unwise heights; etc.) was still together enough, unarthritic enough, to do what it needed to, at least on this one trip.

Below Twin Lake was Meadow Lake, a big one. I’m sure Parker had planned to walk across on the ice. Instead, Harding stepped through the ice. Just one foot went into the water near the shore, so no big deal; plus, he was wearing waterproof socks, so his foot wasn’t wet the rest of the day. There were areas of blue ice close to the shore, only semi-frozen, and other bad patches farther out. Since I knew that Parker studied and planned everything out beforehand, I figured he had counted on us zooming the length of the lake, maybe taking 10 minutes to cover what ended up taking an hour.

walker expedition, day 4
The Alta expedition makes a rocky descent, going down in order to later go up.
Tod Seelie

At the end of the lake, we headed down into the broad outlet drainage. Parker and Navon picked our way through the rocky descent, and I thought it would be fun to come back in the summer, scramble down these giant granite steps again. Eventually, the Garmin said we needed to leave the drainage and ascend a mountain slope to our left. The next mile was the hardest of the day, maybe of the trek. There wasn’t a lot of snow, but in places we were pulling ourselves up through snow-dusted manzanita, our trekking poles catching in the tangles. Parker said later that the west side of the Sierra means manzanita, while the east side means…manzanita, too, just not whole jungles of it, whole hillsides.

So we were on the west side now. Walker would have recognized that fact, that after two weeks of being lost in the freezing summit zone, he and his party had arrived on the side of the Sierra where the main streams drained west. There was a major obstacle still, though, getting down the last vertical stretch to the river. We could see it a thousand feet below us, a white ribbon of froth showing through the treetops. Walker would have had a similar view from a couple of miles downriver. How he got his horses down remains unknown; had we gone to Deadwood the day before, to follow his actual passage, we might have come to understand it.

The climb down was scary and had to be done carefully. At the bottom, we made a camp not far above the river, just out of sight and mostly out of sound of it. Still, you could tell it was there, frantically flooding. I had been dreading this, and imagining this, for months now. Tomorrow would be the time—our date with the river.•

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 5: THE TREE OF LIFE »