A Special to longcamp.com

A Hypothesis For the 1844 Route to the Summit of Carson Pass
Peter Lathrop, Minden, NV

This is a continuation of five routes examined. See the first three.

September, 2004

Route V. Trying to correlate Preuss's map to the streams around Carson Pass can be very frustrating. The 'lakes' can easily be explained by the fact that any treeless flat area covered by deep snow appears to be a snow-covered lake. A winter photo taken from Round Top clearly shows what appears to be a lake where the Hope Valley meadow is located, precisely where Press's map shows one*. The meadow just on the west side of Carson Pass looks like a snow-covered pond from above, hence the name 'Snow Pond'. The rivers in the valleys also make sense, however the streams on steeper slopes don't fit the topography, the streams look as if they are on flat land. One must realize that in producing the engraving a line representing a watercourse can not be located where cross-hatchings showing topography are. Therefore the cross-hatchings stop near a stream line, making it look like all the streams are on flat ground. If one ignores the discrepancy of streams and topography and just matches present streams to where they would have appeared to exist under the snow to Preuss, then his map makes sense. The second trick was to line up the Preuss map to true north using a line between Red Lake and Stevens Peaks on both his and a modem map. Then the directions make sense, as his directions, unlike some of his mileage scales, are very accurate. The third problem is that the circle taken to be Long Camp is in the wrong place. Instead of being on the west trending hill, where the Long Camp site is, the circle is on the north-south long ridge, Windy Ridge. This actually makes sense; the advance camp was not that important in bringing the rest of the camps up. Frémont's mess had pre-empted the snow holes. As the Preuss drawing shows, the holes wouldn't have held more than six men, certainly not twenty-six. The rest of the expedition most likely camped on the lower, relatively winds free slopes of Windy Ridge where the dot is.

*Note. "The appearance of Hope Valley indicates it to have once been a mountain lake...indeed, in the map accompanying Col Frémont's Report, a lake is represented in this place." George H. Goddard, State Wagon Road Survey, 1855.

The reports are vague about how long it took the company to travel from the vicinity of Long Camp to the Pass. Frémont writes about "making a road and bringing up baggage" but is unclear as to whether this movement is back towards Faith Valley or the Pass. Preuss was in his snow hole on the 18th and the entire expedition was on the Pass on the 20 . Whenever it was, they first proceeded north to the meadow now on private property. The snow in the meadow below does not get too deep, as could be observed this January after the heavy snows of December. The hill between the meadow and the site of Red Lake on Preuss's map was a puzzle, it didn't seem reasonable that they would go up and over the high ridge south of Red Lake. However the present dam is built on an existing a lateral moraine, which the expedition had to go over to descend into the Red Lake Creek bed.

Now to the problem of getting up to the Carson Pass ridge. The traditional route is up Devil's Ladder to Carson Pass. One of pieces of evidences that supports this route is the tree carving of "KIT CARSON - 1844". The blaze was removed from the tree and preserved in 1888. If it is authentic, it seems more likely that Kit would have carved it when he herded sheep over the pass in 1853. He would have had more time and energy to do all that carving, it is rather large, in the summer as the sheep grazed, than in the rush of the winter of '44. I have since found that this view is also presented by Frank Tortorich Jr. in his book Gold Rush Trail. After all, no other tree carving has been found along the entire route. It is more in human nature to record your name at a location that has become famous, partly because of you, than in one where you have no inkling that others will every follow.

Ed: See note re Carson carving.

There are two other problems with this route being the correct one. The first is that it deviates radically from the Preuss map. The map shows the route going west to northwest fairly straight, not making a large loop to the southwest. The map also shows the trail crossing Red Lake Creek diagonally, not following it up steam as the Devils Ladder route would.

The second problem is snow. The Devil's Ladder hollow is protected from wind and sun; in fact the snow that falls in this hollow is added to by snow blown there from the ridge above. Thus the snow in the hollow and on the steep slope up to the pass is soft and deep. It is true that thousands of emigrants used this route, but that was during snow free summers and early fall. After all of the trouble the expedition had building trails on snow covered steep slopes it is unlikely that they would have attempted another, when there was another snow free hillside across the valley. There also would not have been a level, snow free place to camp at the pass.

Another possible route takes the map quite literally and goes straight up the ridge at the base of Red Lake Peak. This camp site does seem to best fit Preuss's location for the pass camp. The sunrise described on February 21 could have been seen from either ridge camp, but not from the pass. This path has two problems. The first and most obvious to anyone who has been there in the winter and especially to Caltrans, is the huge cornice that develops along the ridge stretching north from Ladybug Hill toward Red Lake Shoulder. It would have been improbable that anyone with any mountain experience or common sense would try to breach that solid wave of snow and ice. The second point is more speculative. As before stated it is possible that the pond shown on Preuss's map is in reality the snow covered meadow just to the west of Carson Pass. That meadow/pond can not be seen from the Ladybug ridge, from Red Lake Shoulder, nor the north peak of Red Lake Peak, so if the company had gone by this route Preuss would not have observed it. It can be argued that the lake on the map is Frog Lake (wrong position and can not be seen from the ridge) or Woods Lake (also wrong position and is barely visible from the south peak of Red Lake Peak and not at all from any location along this route).

The third option is the middle ground as shown on my map. It goes up the side of Red Lake Peak, but then makes a transverse to the ridge below Ladybug Hill. It does make a slight deviation from Preuss's map, but seems to be the most logical and relatively snow free route. As can be seen on the topographical map there is a natural terrace extending up and behind a knob to the Pass Camp site. Pass Camp is fairly protected from wind, which is a big factor anywhere in the Carson Pass area and especially on the ridge. Snow Pond is quite visible from the camp, but far away enough too hide its true nature. The Valley is not visible from the camp but is from Ladybug Hill, which fits the description of a "neighboring peak", being around 500' higher. From Pass Camp the expedition rounded the draw below and to the west of Ladybug Ridge, This explains the bow in Preuss's map to the north after leaving the area of the pass. They then followed the snow free ridge leading to Little Round Top.

There is a forth option that has since been made evident to me. The position of the Pass Camp on Preuss's map has always been an enigma to me. The route over the pass is depicted as being fairly direct. Any of the possible routes near present Carson Pass would necessitate a circular deviation through snow to Meiss Pass, which is not indicated by either of the narratives or the map. The map seems to point towards the expedition going fairly straight up to Lady Bug Ridge running north from the pass toward Red Lake Peak. It also seems probable that Frémont and Preuss scouted out this trail (Route IV), and that Frémont and Jacob Dodson later followed it, as well as the entire party on the 19th and 20th. Frémont and Preuss could have gone up one of two ways.

One is up the gully between Red Lake Peak and Red Lake Peak Shoulder. I seem to remember coming down that way on my first accent of the peak with Heather on my back. They could have also have gone up the present path from the top of Lady Bug Ridge to the left, to Red Lake Peak Shoulder, then up to Red Lake Peak. The picture at the top of this page was taken in February on the peak after the three of us had walked up this basically snow free trail. The winter condition of both of these trails changes from year to year. Both narratives indicate that the latter two trips were taken on a previously made path, as no mention is made of breaking a new trail. A bit of evidence is that the rock on the lower section of this route, above the moraine, is also slatey structured metavolcanic rock. The latitude for the upper Lady Bug Ridge site is 38°:42' 19" does not agree with the latitude determination in Frémont's Tables of Astronomical Observations of 38° 41' 51". But, Frémont may have made his observation from Lady Bug Hill, away from the distractions of the camp and to have a better sighting location. The latitude of the hill is 38° 42' 03", very close to the recorded figure.

I must admit I put off trying this route due to avalanche restrictions in the winter and the heavy brush and steep slope in the summer. However when I finally tried it with my daughter we found the trail to be fairly open, and by zigzagging the steepness was lessened. The openness is due to the large number of game trails. In fact we were amazed at the abundance of deer sign, especially at the start of the natural terrace at 8750' where the trail narrowed between two rock outcrops. Examining the situation from this side, as well as from south of Red Lake, and up at Butterfly Butte revealed that it is the only way game can move up to the open graze on both sides of Lady Bug Ridge and around to the Meiss Basin. This route would have been more efficient before the highway and the dam for Red Lake were developed. This would explain why at the narrow area before the natural terrace the game trail was more of a game highway, with the ground being compacted.

We did find evidence of a prospector's camp, but no evidence of any cattle operation in this particular location. We also found a Native American hunting site, which would indicate that the Washoe knew about this concentration of game and took advantage of it. We had previously located a rock shelter within sight of this one on hill 8340', Cave Hill, between Faith and Charity Valleys. This rock shelter is near where Mélo would have indicated the pass to Frémont.

It seems probable that Mélo, having been chosen to be the guide, would have known about the game trails and the relatively snow free way to get up to and over Lady Bug Ridge. Thus it stands to reason that when he was indicating the pass he was indicating this route. He certainly was not indicating the snow filled trail up Devil's Ladder as it is not visible from Cave Hill (right) at N38° 40' 23" by W 119° 54' 56" and elevation 7901'.

Back to the trail up: once the level area at 8750'--the natural terrace--was reached the brush and slope decreased tremendously. It would have been passable for horses, which Devil's Ladder would not have been. From the level area there was a fairly easy way to the upper ridge, the top of Lady Bug Ridge. This route actually took us up above the ridge so that they could have bypassed the snow cornice and would never have been in the path of an avalanche. Snow Lake is not visible from this ridge, but we discovered that Woods Lake is. It most likely would have been more visible then when the forest were thinner. The Sacramento Valley can not be seen from the upper section of Lady Bug Ridge, but would be from the south west shoulder of Red Lake Peak, a short climb above. The ridge is open and reasonably level. My daughters and I have easily walked from this ridge over to Meiss Pass. The trail is relatively snow free in the winter, and is direct line with the trail up to the ridge. Thus there is a possibility that the party went directly across the site of Red Lake, up the slope to the top of Lady Bug Ridge, camping "on the summit of the pass," continuing on the next day directly to Meiss Pass and beyond.

Looking back down at Red Lake from Lady Bug Ridge.

Kit Carson was nearly illiterate. But he did read and write some, which he may have learned from Frémont. As Indian Agent, and Brigadier General, he always employed a clerk to do his reading and writing. His signature on official documents is in a well practiced cursive. Kit was apparently embarrassed by his deficiency in reading and writing skill. He enjoyed having Jessie Frémont read poetry to him, telling her that she could read so much faster than he could.

go See Peter Lathrop's study of the preceeding Markleeville to Charity Valley route.
go And his look at the campsite on the East Carson River of January 31 to February 2, 1844--Frémont's gateway to the high mountains.
go The first descent camp, February 21, 1844.
go The route from Pyramid Lake to Bridgeport.
go Kit Carson to Frémont: "There," he said, "is the little mountain"
go Frémont's Route from Grovers to the Long Camp: the location of the campsites for February 4th through the 10th, 1844
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Bob Graham