Picture the young man, after a hard day’s travel by foot and horse, jotting down a few words in his journal by the stub of a candle. It’s October of 1833, a searingly cold, snowy season in the Sierra Nevada. California, along with the rest of the world, is in the grip of what will later be known as the Little Ice Age, a period of punishing temperatures that lasted from 1500 till 1880. The Spanish sea captains who first explored California’s southern coast—Juan Cabrillo in 1542–43, Sebastián Vizcaíno in 1602–03—noted how wintry everything was, and Sir Francis Drake, who may or may not have landed at Northern California’s Point Reyes, reported that the ropes froze on the Golden Hind, while his chaplain marveled that the coastal hills were snow-covered even in June.
The young man, Zenas Leonard, recorded that
the ground was covered with a deep snow.… These peaks are…incapable of vegetation; except on the South side, where grows a kind of Juniper or Gin shrub, bearing a berry.… Here we passed the night without anything to eat except these gin berries, and some of the insects…our men had got from the Indians.
Leonard is a clerk and a trapper, one of 58 men on an expedition led by Joseph R. Walker of Missouri. Walker was famous in his day, a contemporary of Kit Carson, Jim Bridger, and other prominent beaver skinners. He had led sizable expeditions before and would lead others, but this was the one that would make his reputation, the one that came closest to catastrophe.
Walker, in Leonard’s description, was
a man well calculated to undertake a business of this kind…well hardened to the hardships of the wilderness—understood the character of the Indians very well—was kind and affable to his men, but at the same time at liberty to command without giving offense,—and to explore unknown regions was his chief delight.
Recruited by Benjamin de Bonneville, of later Salt Flats fame, Walker undertook to lead a party across the Intermountain West, trapping and mapping along the way. Then, should conditions prove favorable, he would cross the California mountains, something that Euro-Americans had never done in a westerly direction.
A little short of 200 years later, five of us set out to duplicate that crossing. We would be traveling not on horses but on snowshoes and skis, and we would start out not in future Wyoming but at Grover Hot Springs, scene of many a steamy California frolic.
What I remember from our first day is the ungodly backpack. I was convinced that the others were carrying less than I was, although when I looked their packs over, I realized it was probably the other way around. The amazing fact about the Walker party is that they did it on horses. Leonard recorded that each man had four of them, one to ride and three to carry; by my calculation, that’s 200 horses clambering up granite benches, wallowing through snowdrifts, in places needing to be lowered on ropes.
This article appears in the Fall 2022 issue of Alta Journal.
Mid-October in the Little Ice Age was bleak. We, in contrast, were heading up in April, but conditions were not all that different: The previous December had been the snowiest in Sierra history, and we found snow everywhere above 7,000 feet. Most of the high lakes were frozen. I had an old down bag that I’d borrowed and a flimsy backpacker tent; the guide who came with us, SP Parker, had told us to acquire four-season tents, to protect against bitter nights and possible storms, but I figured I could fake my way through, and wasn’t our goal to experience something of what the Walker party had? To tough things out a bit?
IN WHICH THE WALKER PARTY, FOR A TIME, AVOIDS VIOLENCE AND CLUELESSNESS
Leonard is sleeping rough: no fancy Hilleberg tent for him, just a buffalo robe or some blankets for warmth. He’s wearing moccasins in the deep snow. Shoes made of leather, from a factory, are a sign of greenhornism; once those shoes wear out, a trapper has to make his own footgear or trade for it. Leonard is no greenhorn. At age 21, he set out from Pennsylvania, making it to St. Louis in 10 months; there, he signed on with a fur company and headed for the Rockies. When the company went under, he became a free trapper, living by his own wits, and here we can perhaps allow ourselves a brief time-lapse montage as the young fellow sprouts a first scraggly beard, grows his hair down to his shoulders, gets rid of his wool trousers and store-bought jacket and becomes a figure in stained buckskin, like everybody else on the expedition.
From their beginning in the Rockies, the group headed south and west, entering “the most extensive & barren plains I ever seen,” Leonard wrote. A few others had been here before them. Peter Skene Ogden of the Hudson’s Bay Company had trapped along Nevada’s Humboldt River, and the first U.S. expedition leader to pass through was Jedediah Smith, on his return from an 1826 trip to California, which he entered not via the Sierra but through the Mojave Desert.
Smith was a bold explorer with an unfortunate propensity for losing the lives of people who accompanied him. While crossing the Colorado River in 1827, his party came under attack from Native people, losing 10 men. The year before, Smith had been greeted with kindness and generosity in the same region, where a group of Paiutes had sent forth an emissary with a rabbit as an offering; when the emissary was not harmed, the Paiutes sent out a dozen more people, each bearing an ear of corn, unmistakable tokens of welcome.
What had happened in just a year? Smith had no clue. (What had happened was that another party of trappers had roared through, taking many beaver; when a chief of the Mohave demanded a horse in return, he was refused, leading to a dustup in which the chief was shot dead, leading to an attack from the Mohave camp, leading to a counterattack by the trappers in which the camp was wiped out, after which “we suspended those that we had killed upon the trees…to dangle in terror to the rest,” as one participant wrote.)
Cluelessness was widespread—white cluelessness, mostly. Walker, who was known for not losing people, for bringing back all who traveled under his protection, blundered badly along the Humboldt River. Here was not another beaver wonderland, as in the Rockies, but a mostly trapped-out region where the buffalo did not roam. Yet it supported many, many people. Most were hunter-gatherers, small and naked and without much body fat; they had no firearms and were as likely to eat a horse as to ride it.
Communicating by sign, they advised the Walker group to lay in a supply of meat: 60 pounds of buffalo jerky per man. Of a band of Natives encountered west of the Great Salt Lake, Leonard wrote, “They have paths beat from one spring or hole of water to another, and by observing these paths, they told us, we would be enabled to find water without much trouble.”
This advice proved invaluable. The leader of this second group—probably Western Shoshone—described in detail the route the party would need to take to get safely across the Great Basin. Though he himself had never climbed the Sierra, he was able to specify landforms that marked the way there, and these features rolled out for the Walker party as if on a GPS screen. The leader warned, though, that near the end of the basin “we would come across a tribe of poor Indians, whom he supposed would not be friendly,” and this forecast proved highly accurate.
IN WHICH THE WALKER EXPEDITION FOLLOWS THE HUMBOLDT RIVER ACROSS PRESENT-DAY NEVADA AND ARRIVES AT THE BATTLE LAKES
Before they began their climb, the Walker party killed some people. Leonard’s journal says that their traps were getting stolen, which so angered the men that they killed “two or three” Native people at random and the next day killed a few more. But this was not the “disposition of Captain Walker,” to kill randomly, and he promised to punish any further unauthorized reprisals.
The number of people living on the Humboldt was astonishing. After the killings, “the trails of the Indians began to look as if their numbers were increasing,” and it was easy to imagine they were massing for a revenge attack. The empty wilderness west of the Great Salt Lake was proving to be not empty at all; indeed, it was a populous nexus, a teeming homeland of several related tribes, collectively known as the Numa. They had been in the region for a thousand years at least, ancestral groups evolving into denominations of Paiute, Shoshone, Bannock, and Ute. Walker and Leonard would give the name “Shoshoco” to most of them, thus burying distinctions that might have saved the party much trouble later.
Flash forward a few days. The trappers are now at “some lakes, formed by this river…which we supposed to be those mentioned by the Indian chief” with the GPS-like mind. They make camp at an area known forever after as the Battle Lakes. Then, “a little before sun-set, on taking a view of the surrounding waste with a spy-glass, we discovered smoke issuing from the high grass in every direction. This was sufficient to convince us that we were in the midst of a large body of Indians…in arms to revenge the death of those…killed up the river.”
Walker’s men prepare to be attacked. But, Leonard wrote, “before we had got everything completed…the Indians issued from their hiding places in the grass, to the number, as near as I could guess, of 8 or 900 and marched straight towards us, dancing and singing in the greatest glee.”
Invitation to a party? Performance of songs of friendship? Even today, the meaning of this dancing and singing is debated among historians, some convinced of the entirely peaceful intent of the Native people—now believed to have been Paiutes. Walker’s different opinion can perhaps be understood, though. There was no attack by the 800 or 900 that night, but the next morning the trappers were followed for hours, “Shoshocoes” with bows and arrows repeatedly trying to surround them, and eventually “a party of 80 or 100 came forward, who appeared more saucy and bold than any others. This greatly excited Capt. Walker, who was naturally of a very cool temperament, and he gave orders for the charge.”
The result: 39 Paiutes dead. Leonard wrote that “the remainder were overwhelmed with dismay—running into the high grass in every direction, howling in the most lamentable manner.”
Thereafter, the trappers ran into other people, who fled from them. They caught a mare and a colt that these people abandoned; the next morning, the trappers ate the colt for breakfast.
IN WHICH OUR PROTAGONISTS FIND AN “INDIAN PATH” TO THE CREST OF THE SIERRA NEVADA, WHICH THEY EXPECT TO BE NARROW
Historians have long disagreed about where, exactly, the party crossed the Sierra. The debate started with an obituary written in November of 1876, in which it was said about the recently deceased Walker that “His was the first white man’s eyes that ever looked upon the Yosemite.” This claim was carved into Walker’s tombstone in the Alhambra Pioneer Cemetery in Martinez, California, which reads, in part: “Camped at Yosemite, Nov. 13, 1833.”
Walker had died during the U.S. centennial. It made sense to many that someone of his stature would be the discoverer of Yosemite; by 1876, the area was an acknowledged national treasure, the subject of President Abraham Lincoln’s Yosemite Valley Grant Act of 1864 and of John Muir’s ardent campaign for its preservation.
Walker himself never claimed to have found Yosemite. He never laid eyes on it in 1833, he reportedly told one writer, yet the idea that he had became embedded in popular belief. It was repeated in newspapers and in serious-minded books, such as H.H. Bancroft’s History of California (1884–90) and more recently Francis Farquhar’s History of the Sierra Nevada (1965) and the standard reference guide Geology of the Sierra Nevada (2006), published by the University of California Press.
If Walker didn’t cross at Yosemite, then where did he? We know that once his party left the Great Basin, they were on their own; they had no maps or written descriptions to go on, and the Native people shunned them. While scouting for a break in the mountain wall, one of the Walker trappers shot and killed two more Native people; afterward, he said he was sorry, but the impulse to kill-before-maybe-they-kill-you was hard to overcome.
Now came a lucky break. Another scout looking for a way up “found an Indian path,” which he “thought led over the mountain—whereupon it was resolved that in the morning we would take this path, as it seemed to be our only prospect of preservation.” Walker’s great skills as a western pathfinder—and they were truly great, experts acknowledge, unsurpassed by those of other mountain men—came down to this: following another Indian path. As it happened, this one did lead up, to a kind of way through. But it was far from the easiest route over the mountains, and following it nearly killed them. In later years, Native people in the area directed other groups of white people to routes that were simpler, less about danger and suffering, and they did it out of, as far as I can tell, a desire to help the stranger.
IN WHICH ALTA JOURNAL’S WRITER FINDS OUT ABOUT WALKER’S TRUE TRANS-SIERRA ROUTE
We had maps, many maps. Long before we started out, I sent them to Parker, our guide, who ran them through the CalTopo trip-planning software he likes, producing something that looked like it belonged on a cell phone: four nights out, five days on the trail, 9,000 feet of elevation gain, starting point here and end point there, for a total of 34 miles (further study produced a plan for five nights out, six days on the trail). Our route relied heavily on Leonard’s journal, so to understand it better, I turned to Scott Stine, a former professor of geography who had spent decades thinking about and exploring Walker’s crossing.
Stine’s excellent book, A Way Across the Mountain (2015), is sharp-eyed but not iconoclastic. Yes, “the Walker brigade would have benefited greatly from a more peaceful encounter” at the Battle Lakes, he writes, but Ogden of Hudson’s Bay had had the same sort of trouble along the Humboldt in 1829, hundreds of warriors swarming his men; maybe the swarming was a kind of playacting, a formalized showing-off, but what was Walker to have done? Waited for the first arrow to catch someone in the neck?
The question of what white men were doing there—whether they had a right to explore the West and trample Native lands, to take up space in the New World, any space—is not Stine’s concern. He reads Leonard’s journal ingeniously, finding that the descriptions considered geographically incorrect by earlier commentators are in fact accurate and prove that the trappers missed Yosemite. The real entry point into the mountains was much closer to Lake Tahoe than to Yosemite—just south of Tahoe, the Carson River runs out of the Sierra, and this was the entry point for the Walker party, up the Carson River drainage.
They followed the Carson till the going got too rocky. The route from there, passing close to modern-day Markleeville, resembles a proposed Walker party route that a U.S. Forest Service supervisor, William Maule, first wrote about in 1938. Maule’s route, because it ruled out Yosemite, never gained much popular traction. But Stine took it seriously, investigated it, investigated others, and came up with a route that agrees with virtually every detail and date in Leonard’s journal.
Hoping that the crest of the range, when they got to it, would prove narrow, Walker planned to just push on through. After that, the streams would all flow west, and the trappers would pick one and simply follow it out of the mountains. But the Sierra crest is not narrow where they climbed. It is miles wide, with long interior valleys, deep canyons, and streams that flow north, south, and southeast as well as southwest. With only berries and insects to eat, some of the men became “unmanageable” and “desirous of turning back,” Leonard wrote; Walker announced that anyone who wanted to was free to turn back, but could take no ammunition or horses with him. Nervous about facing the Natives again unarmed, no one took him up on this offer.
IN WHICH ALTA JOURNAL’S INTREPID WRITER CONSIDERS THE CHALLENGES OF NATURE AND THE WINTRY SIERRA NEVADA
Snowshoeing is not the same as walking: this was my great discovery, after five days of slogging with the heavy backpack. Yes, you put one foot in front of the other, but sometimes one snowshoe clips the other, and you end up with your face in the snow. Your companions try not to laugh as you struggle to your feet. At the end of a long day of this, your toes are numb and wet inside your supposedly waterproof boots. You force down some dried food and then rush into your sleeping bag, inside the limp tent that you pitched on snow.
Walker’s route meanders, but as we followed it day by day, it always made sense. One curious proof of this was all the bear signs that we kept seeing. As the bears came out of hibernation and roamed for food, they often headed in the same direction that we took, using the same breaks in the landscape that allowed us to get from point A to point B efficiently. Our challenge—Walker’s challenge, too—was to gain a high point from which an escape route could be spied out. This led his party up and up, almost to the summit of Deadwood Peak (9,846 feet), Stine argues; from there, no magical way through appeared, but a giant ridge descends from the peak, and Walker followed it down.
The ridge leads into the very deep canyon of the North Fork of the Mokelumne River. This is a famous stretch of whitewater, I learned in the late stages of my research, a dream destination for kayakers able to handle Class V+ rapids. In late April and early May, it is often in full spate, roaring with snowmelt.
OK. Hadn’t thought about that. When I shared my new concern with Parker, he joked that we would just have to bring wetsuits and swim the damned thing.
We did bring not wetsuits but a packraft, a small inflatable boat. It was not much, but it was something—might prove useful in a pinch. As our takeoff day approached, I began waking up each morning at dawn, remembering shots from some extreme kayaker porn I’d stumbled on; our section of the North Fork really did look crazy, and what if one of our young photographers fell into the whitewater and drowned, or the magazine writer himself? And if the river proved impassable, how would we get out of there? At that moment, we would be nine-tenths of the way to our exit point, and turning back would be physically and psychologically difficult, if not impossible.
IN WHICH THE LEGACY OF WALKER’S JOURNEY IS SCRUTINIZED AND HIS ROLE AS “HERO” RECONSIDERED
On balance, Walker was not considered an Indian killer, not one of the more egregious ones. His reputation, rather, was that of a humane, foresighted man who achieved remarkable things through sheer competence and who treasured above all his freedom to travel at will with a few trusted companions. In 1836, he married a Shoshone woman whose name is lost to history. Thereafter, he “always took along with him on these lonely trips” his wife, according to Thomas Breckenridge, a fellow trapper.
He likely spoke Shoshone with her. Sometime around 1841, he returned to Missouri, where he had many relatives, bringing his wife along. They attended the Six Mile Baptist Church in Fort Osage Township, and Walker introduced her to his extended family, who appear to have embraced her. The couple had several children together, but after 1846, Walker was again seen alone; some sources say that his wife and children had died of cholera.
He had other terrible losses, too. The worst one, in the eyes of historians, was the loss of his journal in a fall into a river. In it, he had kept an “exact accounting” of everywhere he had ever been and everything he’d done, he later told his grandnieces and grandnephews.
None of this makes him a hero, or not a hero, or less implicated in the human losses that attended his expedition to California, the bloodiest of his career. But as we snowshoed on, day after day, finding ourselves in glorious parts of the Sierra that I had never seen, I began to appreciate his energy and trail sense. For fleeting moments, I felt that I could share at least a particle of the anxiety he must have felt as he committed 57 other men to an arduous, half-cracked exploration, the horses they herded “dying daily,” Leonard reported, the men increasingly mutinous, hurrying to butcher the “black, tough, lean” horseflesh as soon as an animal faltered, then gorging on it.
IN WHICH OUR FAITHFUL ALTA JOURNAL SCRIBE AND HIS FELLOW TRAVELERS CONFRONT THE INEVITABLE QUESTION: WHAT WOULD WALKER DO?
At the end of day four, we stood atop a steep mountain wall, looking half a mile down to the Mokelumne. Somehow we had to descend with our ungainly packs, climbing through granite cliff bands and manzanita thickets, along game trails slippery with pine needles. I had a glimpse of a thin stretch of river below. At this distance, it looked mirage-like, fantastical; it was frothy white, no calm sections showing darker and smoother, nothing that looked raftable, that was for sure.
We down-climbed, camping not on snow this night but in a damp forest a hundred yards from the river. I found some of the gin berries that Leonard mentioned. It was spring where we were camped, below the snow, with new leaves but no flowers yet on the currant bushes. The Walker expedition had passed close by—it was possible they had grazed their horses in the same grassy forest. In late October of 1833, the river would have been fordable, the spring flood long over. The problem for Walker was to cross at a place where the opposite bank was not a sheer granite wall but rather a side canyon wide enough for the horses to pass up it. Our maps showed just such a place, these days known as Jackson Canyon, a few hundred yards east of us.
The next morning, heading up that way, we found two kayaks stashed in a crevice in a rock face. One had a busted hull, but the other was in good shape, still equipped with a $900 paddle. We discussed various scenarios in which two boats could have ended up so placed. Then we kept ascending—ascending, because the Mokelumne has a steep gradient along its course, and to follow it in an eastward direction is to go uphill. Parker, as guide, was surely thinking in more useful ways than I was about what was now likely to happen. Some possibilities: We come to the river and find it roaring and thrashing, decide to give up, not getting in that water no matter what, not in a raft, not even in a submarine. Or, we come to it and find a calm section, decide to take our chances, and the first guy paddles over to the other side, trailing a rope; we pull the raft back and then cross one by one, but someone’s pack falls in, and he loses his balance and… Or, a logjam has made a bridge over the river, which Parker’s assistant, an athletic young guy, crosses easily; now it’s somebody else’s turn, the writer’s turn, and those logs are slippery and…
Parker did not seem anxious. Surely he understood better than anybody the trap we had potentially made for ourselves, coming this far with no escape but to turn around, but he was cheery, eager to kick this little problem in the behind. Two days before, he had posed the general question “What would Walker do?,” and I wondered if he wasn’t channeling the Old Pathfinder a bit, just for fun. Walker was “well hardened,” in Leonard’s description, “kind and affable” yet able to “command without giving offense,” and this pretty much described Parker. We followed his instructions because he knew more than we did, had been in countless situations and come out OK, along with his clients. He and Omri Navon, his assistant, were wizard-like with the GPS feeds on their phones, and while Navon was at the start of the long educational process that makes someone a guide, Parker had been on the board of directors of the American Mountain Guides Association, had been a certified alpine and rock guide for more than 30 years, and had been a teacher and examiner for the AMGA.
You could read this on his website’s buried pages, but he never talked about it. Walker hadn’t liked to talk about himself, either. To say that Parker was modest would not be quite right—he seemed to have a pretty good opinion of himself. What it boiled down to was that when we finally headed toward the river, he seemed up for the encounter, and his mood was a reassuring thing to be around. I imagined that Walker, too, had led in this spirit; it just suited his temperament to go first, and his companions would have appreciated that.
IN WHICH THE ALTA JOURNAL GROUP RECEIVES A MIRACLE, A 14-KARAT MIRACLE
Imagine that the river, 26 miles of froth and maelstroms, does have one slightly calmer section without a sheer rock wall on the opposite bank. Imagine, further, that Walker intuited that, somehow sniffed it out, and headed upstream instead of down, against the dictates of common sense. Jackson Canyon is not a narrow granite chute gushing into the freezing Mokelumne but, at its mouth, more like a delta, a wetland, with a few small streams debouching close to one another, draining the snow slope above.
Both banks here were broad and flat, and the river itself wasn’t especially turbulent. Yes, it was moving fast, but you could imagine crossing it in a raft if that was your only way of getting out of the woods.
We were all, I think, astonished to find this calmer spot. But here was something even more astonishing: “Someone’s been going to church,” Parker commented, shaking his head. “Someone’s been praying, I think.”
“Yeah, I have,” I said. “I’ve been praying nonstop. Just not in a church.”
There was a tree—a miraculous tree. It had fallen across the river, making a pretty footbridge. Not an iffy bridge: it didn’t totter when you stepped on it, and it was well above the water, so it wasn’t even wet.
It looked alive, this tree, despite having fallen. The canopy was still green, the needles still bushy. Walking across was like walking on a paved road. It took about 30 seconds for each of us.
Later, we debated what kind of tree it was. I thought it was a sugar pine, the tallest western pine; Parker thought it was a ponderosa. Why it had fallen right there, exactly where we’d hoped to get across and where the Walker group had crossed, I leave for the metaphysicians to figure out. Parker took it in stride: he had been confident and merry before, and he was confident and merry now, as we joked a bit and then headed up Jackson Canyon.
Twenty-four hours later, we stood atop Walker’s high lookout, the perspective he kept seeking but only found when the trouble was mostly over. Leonard called it “the brink of the mountain,” the far side of the mountain range; Stine refers to it by an old local name, Sleeping Indian Ridge. Below was a yellowish plain, which Leonard recorded as “one of the most singular prospects in nature.” Walker took out his trusty spyglass and soon declared that the Pacific Ocean could not be far beyond the horizon, because the yellow plain itself had the appearance of a beach. Might as well start calling it the Golden State right then! And start carving the first surfboards! The view was of a hundred-mile stretch of what we now call the Central Valley, with the future city of Turlock to the southwest.
For us retracers, the view was, unfortunately, obscured by clouds and valley dust. Still, it was good to have made it here, to see this. Only hours after they reached the brink, the Walker party feasted on a small deer and then on “two large black tailed deer and a black bear,” the first fresh game they had had in many weeks. This marked the end to their living on “stale and forbidden horse flesh,” Leonard wrote with frank disgust. We would soon be feasting too, on veggie burgers in the town of Jackson, in Amador County.
For the Walker expedition, everything from here on would be different; everything would be an experience of a worldly paradise. It included wonders such as gigantic reddish trees “from 16 to 18 fathoms round the trunk,” “deer, elk, grizzly bear and antelopes…remarkably plenty,” many streams and rivers flowing down out of the mountains, soil that was fantastically fertile, and timber standing “as thick as it could grow” on the margins of the gigantic central plain. “It is quite romantic,” Leonard concluded, and we were dazzled along with him, thinking of that world of not so long ago, fewer than 200 years, a mere split second on time’s big chronometer.
It was some days before they encountered any people. When they did—and for the rest of their California sojourn—the Walker party did not threaten, did not plunder, did not injure; on the contrary, they sought to get “in company with” any Native people they could, and when at last they came upon a Native village, they hurried to calm the fear felt at “the approach of beings so mysterious as we were to them.” It was as if they had learned something in the Great Basin. Walker quickly offered to smoke—at the Battle Lakes, the Paiutes had advanced with pipes as well as bows in hand, but Walker had refused to engage, taking it as a deadly ploy.
Now things went better. The Native people had horses to trade, and they were generous with information to the extent that they could understand Walker’s sign language. These were different people, entirely unfamiliar with English. They had traded with the Spanish, however, and their horses had a Spanish brand. Trade is always a good way to start.
The Walker party moved on, with “five of the best of their horses,” on their way to camp beside a lovely beach, a real Pacific beach with pounding surf, at “the extreme end of the great west,” Leonard wrote, “near a spring of delightful water.”•