This winter, as we watch and wait for snow to return to the mountains, it’s worth thinking back to a time when snow was elemental, something that made you reconsider your place on Earth.
Now it’s a number in our ledger books—we are experiencing a water deficit—but when the weight of snow threatens to cave in your roof; or when it collects into piles and wells so deep they might engulf you; or when your life depends on moving forward and staying warm, you forget about snow angels, flurries, and drifts. Snow is something that can freeze you solid.
169 years ago, in the winter of 1846-47, the Donner and Reed families departed Independence, Missouri at the tail end of a 500-wagon train bound for Oregon and California. In the way of migrations since the beginning of time, plans changed en route. The Donners and Reeds split from the main group, were joined by others, and eventually met with a self-promoting pioneer named Hastings, who had devised a shortcut to the California Trail.
Historically, the California Trail splintered off the Oregon Trail in Idaho, skirting to the north of major roadblocks like the Wasatch Mountains and much of the Great Salt Lake Desert. This added distance to the route, but saved time, the name of the game in frontier travel.
Similar to through-hikers planning their route along the Pacific Crest or Appalachian Trails, parties heading over the Sierra Nevadas in winter had to account for weather on both ends of their year-long journey. Leave too early and a party might miss the growing season when grass was available for the cattle, horses, and oxen traveling with them; leave too late and the mountains would be impassable due to weather.
Even today, the mountain passes are routinely closed along Highway 80, which follows the same route as the Donners across California. A motorist attempting to cross the mountains in sufficient snow remembers how quickly even a small storm can change driving conditions. That’s when humility reminds us that the world outside our headlight beams is kept at bay by mere technology: rubber tires and a combustion engine, which most of us would have no idea how to fix.
The Donners lost a month to the Hastings Cutoff, which was poorly marked and essentially untraveled by large parties prior to the Donners. Crossing the Wasatch Mountains and the Great Salt Lake Desert was arduous, and by the time they reconnected with the main California Trail their animals were weak, they had lost several members of the party, and the group had fractured due to tensions and mistrust.
The last chapter of the Donner Party’s unfortunate saga is familiar in American folklore, which remembers the death of nearly half the party—40 men, women, and children—the cannibalization of the dead, and, in at least one case, murder for the purposes of cannibalization. It is also worth remembering that there were heroes in the party who saved the lives of those still living.
When they reached what is today Donner Pass, just past the present-day town of Truckee, north of Lake Tahoe, the party found that they were snowed in. It was November and early snowfall had left deep drifts that made it impossible for the pioneers to continue, so they prepared to pass the winter at what is now Donner Lake.
Accounts from this period highlight the suffering and mental strain that members of the party faced, as in this excerpt from the diary of Patrick Breen, one of the members of the Donner Party:
Snow about 5 ½ feet or 6 deep difficult to get wood…completely housed up looks as likely for snow as when it commenced, our cattle all killed but three or four them, the horses & Stantons mules gone & cattle suppose lost in the Snow no hopes of finding them alive — December 1, 1846
After a month of starvation rations, a group of 16 men and women (and one 12 year-old boy) left the camp to attempt a crossing on foot over the pass to Sutter’s Fort, 100 miles away. Of those members of the “Forlorn Hope” party, only seven made it through to civilization, arriving after a month of travel emaciated, frost bitten, and snow blind.
Their arrival initiated several rescue efforts, which successfully evacuated members of the original party at Donner Lake over the next three months. Those who lived to tell the tale did so, and the legacy of the most ill-fated wagon train ever to venture west became cemented in American lore.
To California, whose inhabitants now need snow to survive, this tale is a reminder that the natural world and its elements dictate the terms of survival. If we lose sight of that we may find ourselves someday stuck in a drift without a shovel.
By Brian Gruters
Brian writes about science, conservation, and ways that people interact with nature for various publications, as well as his blog, briangruters.com. He is an aspiring surfer, member of the Southern California Mountaineers Association, and likes to explore mountains and canyons.