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Escape from the Snows: Descent from the Mountain

After reaching Charity Valley on February 4, 1844, and pointing out the Pass a few miles ahead, Frémont's Indian guide Mélo deserted. It took another six days to move three miles through deep snow to the Long Camp at the foot of the last climb to Carson Pass. From there, on the 16th and 17th, Frémont and Jacob Dodson explored ahead of the Pass out toward the South Fork of the American River Canyon.

Fremont: We traveled along the crests of narrow ridges, extending down from the mountain in the direction of the valley, from which the snow was fast melting away. On the open spots was tolerably good grass; and I judged we should succeed in getting the camp down by these.

I will be developing this part of the journey.
The expedition traveled for three days along this ridge, which terminates at Strawberry in a shear 1000' granite face called Lover's Leap.
They ultimately descended along the western flank just south and west of that granite face to a place on the South Fork of the American River today called 41-mile Tract - the determination of latitude N38° 46' 58" in the early morning of the 23rd places it there.

Following their two-day reconnaissance, Frémont and Jacob returned to the Long Camp late in the day on February 17th.

Frémont: Here we had the pleasure to find all the remaining animals, 57 in number, safely arrived on the grassy hill near the camp; and here, also, we were agreeably surprised with the sight of an abundance of salt. Some of the horse Guard [near Markleeville] had gone to a neighboring hut for pine nuts, and discovered accidentally a large cake of very white fine-grained salt, which the Indians told them they had brought from the other side of the mountain; they used it to eat with their pine nuts, and readily sold it for goods.

Carson Pass, August, 1855: This appears to be the Pass by which Col Frémont entered California on the 20th February 1844, but instead of keeping down to Clear Lake [Summit/Twin/Caples] he continued to ascend the ridge to the head of the [Upper] Truckee, and thence continued along the [Little] Round Top ridge for several miles before descending a p?... to the South Fork of the American.
George H. Goddard, Civil Engineer, Marlette Survey.

Note: Jon Nowlin, a retired USGS hydrologist from Carson City, tells us: "On the oldest maps, Little Round Top is named Round Top, and today's Round Top is named Alpine Peak.  The old names seem much more descriptive than the current ones. The names were changed by the 1880's."


Frémont's descent camps, Feb 21 and 22, 1844
Peter Lathrop has explored northwest from Carson Pass to the first descent camp on the ridge--five miles from the pass, by Frémont's reckoning in his table of distances travelled.

July, 2004:

Brittney and I returned to Little Round Top to find the camp site for Feb. 21, and believe we did. It is on the flat southeast of LRT. The coordinates according to my GPS are 38°,44', 13" - 120°, 02', 12". It fits the description by Fremont of good grass, in fact the only place on the ridge with good bunch grass and trees.

Frémont, February 21st.--We now considered ourselves victorious over the mountain; having only the descent before us, and the valley under our eyes, we felt strong hope that we should force our way down. But this was a case in which the descent was not facile. Still deep fields of snow lay between them, and there was a large intervening space of rough-looking mountains, through which we had yet to wind our way...Passing along a ridge which commanded the lake [Tahoe] on our right, of which we began to discover an outlet through a chasm on the west**, we passed over alternating open ground and hard-crusted snow-fields which supported the animals, and encamped on the ridge, after a journey of six miles [5 miles in register]. The grass was better than we had yet seen*, and we were encamped in a clump of trees 20 or 30 feet high, resembling white pine***. With the exception of these small clumps, the ridges were bare; and, where the snow found the support of the trees, the wind had blown it up into banks 10 or 15 feet high. It required much care to hunt out a practicable way, as the most open places frequently led to impassable banks.

* Jon Nowlin, of Carson City, writes: "Have skied the South-facing slopes many times and can also attest to the presence of bunch grass in the winter on the upper exposed slopes."

***Peter Lathrop identifies Frémont's "white pine" as Whitebark pine, P. albicaulis.

**George H. Goddard (Marlette Wagon Road Survey, 1855:

"This ridge [Little Round Top Ridge] was characterized by a fair growth of pine along it...it is shown very corectly on Frémont's map. There was some of the finest bunch grass I have seen on our own journey in the upper valley."

"It is at this point that the Sierra divides throwing off to the northeast the chain of mountains that forms the western rim of Hope and Carson Valleys; several of the peaks of this range being considerably higher than those of the true divide or Round Top ridge, Col. Frémont concluded that they formed the axis or summit ridge of the Sierra; seeing a large lake to the west [sic, north] of the lofty chain, and an apparent gap in the ridge he was following on the southwest side of the lake, he naturally concluded that the lake ran into the American river. This gap I suspect is the one at the head of the Slippery Ford Creek, or possibly the depression of the ridge in the neighborhood of Johnson's pass. The lake [Tahoe] in Col. Frémont's map attached to his report [the detail map from Markleeville to New Helvetia] is called Mountain Lake, and in the General Map [1848 version] by Charles Preuss, Lake Bonpland."
George H. Goddard, Civil Engineer, Marlette Survey.

The actual height they ascended would be Little Round Top, which has a good view of the next two day's march. The valley and delta would also be visible from either the peak or the ridge. I had to work that out with maps as nothing could be seen of the valley on Wednesday. Lake Tahoe is visable to the northeast.

Frémont: Ascending a height, we traced out the best line we could discover for the next day's march, and had at least the consolation to see that the mountain descended rapidly.

The route would have been through the trees on the ridge, staying on the southwest facing side, to a campsite on the grassy, open ridge shown on the picture from LRT. I am convinced that that is the right location, but have not been there. Yet.

Frémont: The day had been one of April--gusty, with a few occasional flakes of snow--which, in the afternoon, enveloped the upper mountain in clouds. We watched them anxiously, as now we dreaded a snow-storm. Shortly afterwards we heard the roll of thunder, and, looking towards the valley, found it enveloped in a thunder-storm. For us, as connected with the idea of summer, it had a singular charm, and we watched its progress with excited feelings until nearly sunset, when the sky cleared off brightly, and we saw a shining line of water directing its course towards another, a broader and larger sheet. We knew that these could be no other than the Sacramento and the Bay of San Francisco; but, after our long wandering in rugged mountains, where so frequently we had met with disappointments, and where the crossing of every ridge displayed some unknown lake or river, we were yet almost afraid to believe that we were at last to escape into the genial country of which we had heard so many glowing descriptions, and dreaded to find some vast interior lake, whose bitter waters would bring us disappointment. On the southern shore of what appeared to be the bay could be traced the gleaming line where entered another large stream; and again the Buenaventura [River] rose up in our minds.
Among the very few plants that appeared here, was the common
blue flax. To-night a mule was killed for food.

Frémont, Feb 22nd:--Our breakfast was over long before day. We took advantage of the coolness of the early morning to get over the snow, which to-day occurred in very deep banks among the timber; but we searched out the coldest places, and the animals passed successfully with their loads over the hard crust. Now and then the delay of making a road occasioned much labor and loss of time. In the after part of the day, we saw before us a handsome grassy ridge point; and, making a desperate push over a snow-field 10 to 15 feet deep, we happily succeeded in getting the camp across, and encamped on the ridge, after a march of three miles. We had again the prospect of a thunder-storm below, and to-night we killed another mule--now our only resource from starvation.

A detail of the 1845 Frémont / Preuss route map.
go More contributions to the study of the Frémont route by Peter Lathrop.

This is how this ridge looks when rendered from DEM files of USGS quad maps with MacDEM and POV-Ray.

Here is a view looking northeast; I dialed-in afternoon illumination. At the top are Echo Lakes, Pyramid Peak to the left. Strawberry Valley and Lovers Leap are at center. Frémont crossed the river near the 42-mile Campground, and then traveled thru Sciots Camp cabin tract, and camped where you see the yellow dot, which is right on today's US 50, at a Forest Service recreational cabin area called 41-mile Tract. The only level, grassy area.

23d.-- Using our old plan of breaking roads with alternate horses, we reached the creek in the evening, and encamped on a dry open place in the ravine [US 50, 41-Mile Tract]. Another branch, which we had followed [Strawberry Creek], here comes in on the left; and from this point the mountain wall, on which we had traveled to-day, faces to the south along the right bank of the river, where the sun appears to have melted the snow; but the opposite ridge is entirely covered. Here, among the pines, the hill-side produces but little grass--barely sufficient to keep life in the animals. We had the pleasure to be rained upon this afternoon; and grass was now our greatest solicitude. Many of the men looked badly; and some this evening were giving out.

24th.--We rose at three in the morning for an astronomical observation [of polaris], and obtained for the place [41-Mile tract] a lat. of 38° 46' 58"; long. 120° 34' 20". The sky was clear and pure, with a sharp wind from the northeast, and the thermometer 2° below the freezing point.

go Frémont's latitude determination for this place is within 6 seconds of arc.
go But his longitude determination is way off. Why?
Clue: At Frémont's latitude a clock error of just one second would result in a longitude error of nearly a quarter of a mile!

41-mile Tract, August 23, 1870: From the summit [Johnson's] we rode rapidly down the splendid cañon of the south fork of the American River, here but a small brook, and stopped for noon about two miles below Strawberry on a little grassy patch on the hillside. Joseph LeConte


Frémont didn't just sleep at 41-mile Tract in February, 1844;
he took a bath In the South Fork of the American River
It was one of the hottest days in the year, yet I found the water so icy cold that I could swim but a stroke or two, and thought that, in case of shipwreck, there would be more danger of being chilled to death than simply drowned. Henry David Thoreau, Cohasset, 1855

Frémont, February 23: Going ahead with [Kit] Carson to reconnoitre the road, we reached in the afternoon the [American]river* which made the outlet of the lake [Tahoe]. Carson sprang over, clear across a place where the stream was compressed among rocks, but the parflèche** sole of my moccasin glanced from the icy rock, and precipitated me into the river. It was some few seconds before I could recover myself in the current, and Carson, thinking me hurt, jumped in after me, and we both had an icy bath. We tried to search awhile for my gun, which had been lost in the fall, but the cold drove us out; and making a large fire on the bank, after we had partially dried ourselves we went back to meet the camp. We afterwards found that the gun had been slung under the ice which lined the banks of the creek.

From Burdett's Life of Kit Carson, 1869

The place where Strawberry Creek enters the South Fork of the American River today is, since 1921, a Forest Service cabin tract called Sciots Camp. In 1909 there was a canvas Forest Ranger Station on the site. The photograph comes from and article Where Fremont Crossed the Sierras by Camilla L. Kenyon in the San Francisco Call, Volume 105, Number 62, Sunday, 31 January, 1909. This was a very early account of Frémont's descent route.

go Read the article.

go The canyon of the South Fork of the American has been a never ending road construction project for 150 years. See some of the early ones.

* Frémont and his cartographer Charles Preuss, were wrong about the American River being the outlet of Lake Tahoe. This was not corrected on maps until many years later.

** parflèche: Canadian F. fr. Amer. Indian. A kind of rawhide consisting of hide which has been soaked in wood-ash lye to remove the hairs, and then dried. It dries very hard, but gets very slippery when wet.


©1999, 2007
Bob Graham