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 their final morning, The Alta team ascends a steep snow bowl to gain a rocky step up to the last high ridge.

May 2, Wheeler Lake. Day 6. Zenas Leonard called this last high ridge, with its dramatic view out over California’s Central Valley, the “brink of the mountain.” From here it was downhill, finally out of the snow zone, the starvation zone. “On taking a view with the spy glass,” he wrote, “we found it to be a beautiful plain” down there, so far below them that “a person cannot look down without feeling as if he was wafted to and fro in the air, from the giddy height.”

We, too, had struggled hard to gain this ridge. Yesterday, we had been at the Mokelumne, at an elevation of 6,300 feet; now, we were at almost 9,000, having topped out after a hard uphill morning in the snow. Our camp the previous night had been at a frozen Wheeler Lake; from there, we ascended through serene snowy forest, arriving after about an hour in a gigantic bowl in the lee of the last ridge. That ridge, several hundred feet still above us, was corniced all along its length. Several avalanche tracks could be seen coming down, little wind-deposit slides that started with what looked like a single snowball breaking loose and rolling for a while and then, for some reason, stopping. It was easy to imagine the whole frigging thing coming down on our heads.

alta journal walker expedition, day 6
Parker surveys the steep snow bowl that the Alta group must ascend.
Tod Seelie

Parker ordered us to stay 50 feet apart, so we wouldn’t get taken out en masse if something did break loose. The actual risk of avalanche was low, due to the time of day and other factors. At a rest stop we took, I heard Parker quizzing Navon on avalanches, challenging him to name the nine kinds known to experts. (He got five, which I thought was pretty good.) Three days before, on the Deadwood march, Parker had dug a snow pit for a lesson in the reading of snow layers, an essential skill for alpine guides, and other acts of instruction had been happening all along.

My favorite was during the downclimb to the river. Navon had been carrying the packraft, that crucial extra nine pounds, and suddenly he cried, “I don’t have it! It’s gone! My God, the packraft. I lost the packraft!”

Parker immediately replied, “You should’ve tied it on tight like I told you! Not loose, not sloppy…you’re the guide, and if you lost it that means the end to the whole excursion. OK, here it is. I hid it in my pack. Now tie it on tight! Do it right!”

An embarrassing lesson, perhaps. But delivered with humor and sly staging. Navon walked away smiling, and I had the feeling that he would remember it.

alta journal walker expedition, day 6
The travelers traverse an exposed, windblown ridge on the final day.
Tod Seelie

Turning the end of the long, corniced ridge, we came up the last 50 yards into gusting westerlies, the same regular onshore winds that formed the cornice. I was thinking about zipping my parka up tight against the gusts rather than about Walker, but as the view from the top came upon us, I had a moment of time travel, picturing Walker and a few of his trappers, maybe some of them wrapped in buffalo robes, one leading a starving horse, coming up the last few yards into these same cold winds.

Their view would not have been as obstructed as ours, particulate matter over the Central Valley being less of a factor in 1833. Walker thought that the Pacific was just beyond the horizon—tantalizingly close, in other words. “Leaving the cold and famished region of snow behind” the next day, as Leonard wrote, the party begins traversing downward, late that day running into the first game they’ve seen in weeks. Anyone who has ever been on a backpacking trip and has come out of the woods dreaming of a burger and a cold one will understand Leonard’s intense focus on food at this point; the lowlands when they reach them are “thickly filled with almost all kinds of game,” he wrote excitedly, and this tone of relief and gladness is characteristic of his whole response to trans-Sierra California.

The meat smorgasbord includes black-tailed deer, elk, antelope, black bear, and grizzly; not only are the animals “remarkably plenty,” Leonard wrote, they are often “the fattest of the kind I had ever eat.” All around are other wondrous sights, too, from stands of immense trees of a kind never described before by white men to a series of rivers that flow freely out of the mountains, then across “a level prairie of the richest soil, producing grass…of the most delightful quality.”

This prairie swarms with wild horses. They, too, are “very fat” and “of all colors, from spotted or white, to jet black…the most beautiful and noble of the whole brute creation.” The males are docile and mingle with the trappers’ animals, all of them eagerly feeding.

Seeing smoke from many fires, the party does not fear an attack from Native people. Somehow it’s hard to believe anything bad could happen to them here, and even an autumn wildfire “presents a spectacle truly grand—and if the flame is assisted with a favorable wind, it will advance with such speed that the wild horses and other animals are…puzzled to get out of the road.”

They continue west along the Stanislaus River. Where it joins the San Joaquin, near present-day Modesto, they head north and west through marshy country, toward the San Joaquin’s confluence with the Sacramento. On the night of November 12, they are witness to a truly awesome heavenly event, the 1833 Leonid Meteor Shower, during which “the air appeared to be completely thickened with meteors falling towards the earth, some of which would explode in the air and others would be dashed to pieces on the ground, frightening our horses.” The 1833 shower went on for hours and was noted by people all over North America, including those of several Indigenous nations. The Lakota refer to it in all subsequent pictorial calendars, other tribes calculated birthdays in reference to it, and Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, considered the prodigious display a promise of the imminence of the Second Coming.

Just as in the Great Basin—otherwise so different from this fertile, forested, well-watered land—Native people were plentiful, were just about everywhere. They were shy, though, and it took 10 days before the trappers could succeed at “getting in company” with any. Anxious not to repeat the errors of the Great Basin, with its 39 dead, Walker makes clear that they come in peace; he offers to smoke, smoking being “the first token of friendship with all Indians,” according to Leonard. Soon they are trading for horses and gathering information, despite “each being entirely ignorant of the others language, and the Indians…awkward…in making and understanding signs.”

alta journal walker expedition, day 6
Navon admires a vista perhaps similar to one enjoyed by Walker and his trappers.
Tod Seelie

On November 22, from a beach close to today’s Pescadero, the trappers spy a ship at sea. “Wanting to know more of this singular object and if possible to attract their attention,” they hoist two blankets on a pole and start to wave. The ship, a brig out of Boston, the Lagoda, heads toward shore, and “our joy and surprise may be imagined,” Leonard wrote, “when we beheld the broad stripes and bright stars” of Old Glory at its masthead.

John Bradshaw, the ship’s captain, was a veteran of the California trade, traveling up and down the coast, exchanging manufactured goods for cattle hides. Obviously a man with a feeling for special moments, Bradshaw orders the firing of several salutes of cannon, then “strongly insisted on us going on board and partaking of the ship’s fare, stating that he had a few casks of untapped Coneac.” The trappers are more than willing, and onboard they find “a table spread with the…best fare the ship could afford, which was immediately surrounded with hungry…Mates, Clerks, Sailors and greasy trappers.… The glass was passed around in quick succession, first drinking after the fashion of brave Jack Tars, and afterwards in the mountain style,” with trapper impressions of Native dance moves.

Leonard, feeling sick as the ship pitches, goes back ashore. But the others party on all night, and in the morning, “they all returned to land…to taper off on the harder fare of the trapper and hunter,” meaning a breakfast of fresh meat. Sometime that day, Walker has a sit-down with Captain Bradshaw, learning that the nearest settlement is “St. Francisco,” about 40 miles north, while 60 or 70 miles south is Monterey, “also Spanish, the capital of this province, & which is called Upper Calafornia.”

They have more partying in store, much more. One evening, “there was eight Spaniards arrived at our camp,” Leonard wrote, “fine portly looking men, but looked as if they had been cast out from civilized society as long as ourselves.” The next day, these Mexican travelers “piloted us to the house of a Mr. Gilroy,” a Scot and the namesake of the future Garlic Capital of the World, who in turn directs them to Mission San Juan Bautista, where the priests extend a generous welcome, allowing the foreigners to camp and hunt and graze their horses nearby.

Walker is different now, diplomatic and methodical. He has been through something remarkable with his men—the Sierra survival experience—and sees to their comfort and enjoyment readily. At the same time, he makes sure they behave themselves, that there are no violent incidents with Indians or Mexicans. It can’t be known if the killings in the Great Basin weighed on his conscience. But at a time of general relaxation after long hardship, of young men whooping it up and getting into some intoxicants, there are no embarrassing encounters, no brawls or shootings.

Walker is concerned for the effect that 60 men—with long rifles— appearing suddenly might have. Accordingly, he waits at Mission San Juan for several days, then respectfully approaches the local alcalde, who issues him a visa allowing him to travel to Monterey. He takes two men with him, not the whole wild-looking group. Arriving quietly, he is met with “a hospitable reception by the Governor and principal people in and about the Capital,” this meeting facilitated by Captain Bradshaw, who has returned from his trading business in San Francisco. Bradshaw is a good friend of the governor and vouches for Walker; he speaks good Spanish, while “not one of our company understood a word,” according to Leonard.

alta journal walker expedition, day 6
The view from the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada near the end of the six-day, 34-mile Alta expedition.
Tod Seelie

On New Year’s Day, another party: Walker is there, Captain Bradshaw is there, the Mexican governor, Jose Figueroa, and his entourage are there, plus the sailors and trappers, everyone manifesting “the best possible humor.” So much fun is had that Bradshaw insists that they do it again and return to the Lagoda the next day for more passing of the glass. And here is as good a place as any to leave them, I think, somewhat inebriated, well-fed after those weeks of slim rations, a temperate winter in the beautiful Monterey region, with its excellent hunting and horse-grazing, ahead of them. They will pass the time as some of the first California tourists. Leonard will write an astute account of the vast potential of the future state, taking the opportunity to visit, often with Walker, all the settlements, farms, and ranchos they can get to. Walker will respectfully decline an offer from Governor Figueroa of seven square miles of any land he desires, the one stipulation being that he “bring 50 families, composed of different kinds of mechanicks,” back from the States to settle on it. Walker appreciates the offer, but he is a wanderer at heart, not an aspiring land baron. Next spring, he will lead his trapper party, now a little smaller because a few men decide to stay on, back across the mountains, pioneering a more southerly, less snowy crossing. He will have many more adventures in his long life, undertaking more explorations on both sides of the range.

We were done with our adventure, too. As we worked our way down from the brink of the mountain, we said goodbye to the snow and cold and hello to spring, the south-facing slope catching lots of sun, with the battered-down scrub and loose rock of the ridgetop turning into forest below. I liked the smell of the leafing manzanita and healthy trees. There was a road down there somewhere, and my friend Paul, if everything had worked out right, would be waiting for us in a giant rented SUV, large enough to fit us and the packs and all the other gear inside. Then we would drive somewhere nearby, to some place where the word burger was known, maybe even the word gardenburger… I concentrated hard, trying not to trip, my feet feeling funny without the snowshoes on, the other guys skipping along below, down the steep last part of the trail, with not much talking, I noticed, everybody probably with thoughts not that different from my own.•

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.