California’s first alpine skier, the legendary, Norwegian-born John A. “Snowshoe” Thompson, is credited with being the first to ski across the Sierra Nevada, a feat he accomplished solo. Native Americans had trekked over the mountains with woven-style snowshoes for countless generations, but it was Snowshoe Thompson who changed history on his hand-carved wooden skis.
Native Americans had trekked over the mountains with woven-style snowshoes for countless generations, but it was Snowshoe Thompson who changed history on his hand-carved wooden skis.
The Golden State was only two years old in 1852 when John Thompson took a job in a Placerville store owned by Thomas Knott, and the following year worked with him constructing a sawmill at Genoa (Utah Territory), about 90 miles east of Placerville on the other side of the Sierra. In his memoirs, Knott wrote that during the winters of 1853 and 1854, he paid the Norwegian $2 a trip to carry mail and messages over the snow-covered mountains, a feat he said Thompson accomplished on homemade skis.
It was in Genoa in June 1859 that Thompson met Capt. James H. Simpson of the U.S. Topographical Corps, a remarkable explorer who had just traversed the rugged Great Basin. Capt. Simpson’s party consisted of trained scientists who would make extensive maps of the region and record precise data on the topography, climate, flora, fauna and geology. The men spent 80 days traversing back and forth in the unmapped Nevada desert over what has become U.S. Highway 50, searching for an alternate route to the established Humboldt River wagon road (now Interstate 80).
Capt. Thompson had seen many fascinating landscape features during his journey in the West, but it was Snowshoe Thompson who guided the young officer into the mountains for a view of Lake Tahoe. Of course, Thompson also took the time to show how skis worked on one of the remaining snowfields.
Capt. Simpson and his mapping party produced a 489-page report with 19 appendixes on astronomical, botanical and other scientific observations. Many of the specimens that Simpson brought back with him went to the Smithsonian Museum. Simpson wasn’t the first explorer to come through the area, but he arrived before the discovery of the Comstock Lode, one of the world’s greatest mineral deposits. As Simpson’s group approached the settlement of Genoa, they passed the mouth of Gold Canyon. Two days later, miners would strike precious metal in that canyon and precipitate a rush to Washoe. Capt. Simpson wrote of his many Western experiences, but his memories of Lake Tahoe were unforgettable.
When Thompson was a young schoolchild in Norway, his father had made him a short pair of skis, but his adult skills were self-taught. As a skier, he exuded a bold confidence in the back country where each challenge could be his last. During his 20 years carrying supplies and the U.S. Mail back and forth across the storm-wracked Sierra Range during the winter months, Snowshoe Thompson earned a well-deserved reputation for extraordinary endurance and heroic bravery. He skied over the mountains throughout the winter, with no gun for protection and only bits of beef jerky to sustain him.
Snowshoe was once described as the “hardiest and mightiest man that ever shook a leg over the California uplands.” However, there were two events that put fear in his heart. Ironically, neither of the experiences was related to weather or snow.
Although Snowshoe traveled the Sierra back country for more than two decades, he never once encountered a grizzly bear, but he always reasoned that he could easily ski away if he had to. It was a close call with wolves that he always mentioned when asked about dangerous animals: “I was never frightened but once during all my travels in the mountains. That was in the winter of 1857. I was crossing Hope Valley [south of Lake Tahoe], when I came to a place where six great wolves — big timber wolves — were at work in the snow, digging out the carcass of some animal. They were great, gaunt, shaggy fellows.”
As a young boy growing up in Norway, Thompson had heard many stories about the ferocity of wolves, and he feared them more than any other wild animal. Snowshoe was confident he could safely ski away from a grizzly, but he knew that the lightly built wolves could “skim over the snow like birds.”
As Thompson slowly approached the wolves, they left the carcass, and in single file came to within about 25 yards from him. The wolves all crouched down with “every eye and every sharp nose” turned toward him. Thompson later said that when he looked at the wolves lined up in front of him, he got cold chills and had a queer feeling about the roots of his hair. But what frightened him most was the confidence displayed by the wolves. Snowshoe dared not show his fear, so he held his breath and kept skiing past them. The dominant wolf suddenly let forth a loud, eerie howl and the others joined in, but Thompson did not panic and the wolves did not pursue him.
Less than a year after Thompson met Capt. Simpson, he was nearly killed when he fought in the Pyramid Lake Indian War in May 1860. At the time tensions were high between white settlers and the local Paiute Indian Tribe due to competition for the limited fertile lands. To prove their power over the Indians, 105 poorly organized pioneer men rashly invaded the ancestral Paiute homeland at Pyramid Lake, terminus of the Truckee River.
Seventy-five settlers were killed in the one-sided rout and several wounded. By contrast, the Indians suffered only light casualties. Snowshoe Thompson was in the thick of the battle when his horse was shot out from beneath him. Snowshoe was one of the fastest men alive on skies, but now his life depended on the outcome of a foot-race with Indian warriors. Thompson later said, “I pledge my word that more than once I wished that the valley was buried in snow, and I was mounted on my snowshoes.”
As Thompson ran for the safety of the foliage along the Truckee River, he felt hot breath over his shoulder. Expecting hand-to-hand combat with a Paiute brave, he wheeled about quickly. His elbow struck the nose of a rider-less horse, saddled and bridled. He leaped onto the animal and escaped with his life. For the rest of his days, Snowshoe Thompson believed that the horse had been heaven-sent.