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Red Lake Peak
(Previously called "Red Peak" for its color)
Lake Tahoe first sighted
"...we had a beautiful view of a mountain lake at our feet, about fifteen miles in length, and so entirely surrounded by mountains that we could not discover an outlet."

Some have written that it was Stevens Peak that was climbed by Frémont and Preuss in February 1844. I have even read that it was Waterhouse Peak. One writer, James U. Smith, in a paper included in The State of Nevada, Second Biennial Report, of the Nevada Historical Society, 1909-1910, opined for Stevens Peak, and also identified the Preuss drawing as "the camp of February 4, 1844...in the extreme end of Charity Valley." Both are, of course, incorrect. But once the location from which Preuss made his drawing is determined, there is no question, from reading Frémont's narrative, about the proper identification of Red Lake Peak.

Frémont: February 10th, 1844.
"...we had the satisfaction to encamp within two and a half miles of the head of the hollow, and at the foot of the last mountain ridge. Here two large trees had been set on fire, and in the holes, where the snow had melted away, we found a comfortable camp."

Frémont: February 14th, 1844.

ie., tipped into the 1845 government editions only, facing page 234

...is a view of the dividing ridge of the Sierra, taken from this encampment [drawn by Charles Preuss]."

go See a photograph of the actual place from which the expedition drawing was made.

"With Mr. Preuss, I ascended to-day the highest peak to the right; from which we had a beautiful view of a mountain lake at our feet, about fifteen miles in length, and so entirely surrounded by mountains that we could not discover an outlet. We had taken with us a glass; but though we enjoyed an extended view, the [Sacramento] valley was half hidden in mist, as when we had seen it before. Snow could be distinguished on the higher parts of the coast mountains, fading off blue in the distance. The rock composing the summit consists of a very coarse, dark, volcanic conglomerate; the lower parts appeared to be of a slatey structure (important observation). The highest trees were a few scattered cedars and aspens. From the immediate foot of the peak, we were two hours in reaching the summit, and one hour and a quarter descending. The day had been very bright, still, and clear, and spring seems to be advancing rapidly. While the sun is in the sky, the snow melts rapidly, and gushing springs cover the face of the mountain in all the exposed places; but their surface freezes instantly with the disappearance of the sun." 

A Special to longcamp.com

Route IV: The Ascent of Red Lake Peak
Peter Lathrop, Carson City

Preuss and Fremont's Valentine's Day

Fremont and Preuss who "ascended...the highest peak to the right" as shown in Preuss's Longcamp View sighted Lake Tahoe on the 14th. Various peaks and the routes to them have been put forth to fit Fremont's description. Some authorities claim Stevens Peak, others the north peak or south peak of Red Lake Peak (RLP). The most common route given to the latter is from the Carson Pass area. The clues given by Fremont to the location of their view of Lake Tahoe are few, but enough. They had a view of both the lake to the north; as well as the Sacramento Valley and the Coast Range to the west.  The rocks at the summit are described as being "of a very course dark volcanic conglomerate" while those of "the lower parts appear to be of a slaty structure." He describes the highest trees as "a few scattering cedars and aspens". They left from "the immediate foot of the peak" and "were two hours in reaching the summit, and one hour and a quarter in descending". We also have Preuss's map and his View from Longcamp as clues by both what he did and did not observe.

Our first clue is Fremont's statement based on Preuss's View. Red Lake Peak is clearly in the view, but not Stevens Peak. The second clue is the view they had. The view of Tahoe is actually pretty much the same from all three peaks due to intervening ridges. The main argument for Stevens peak is the line "a mountain lake at our feet". But the lake is not at the foot of Stevens Peak any more than it is at Red Lake's. The term "at our feet" more likely denotes that the lake was far below them. The view of the lake from Stevens Peak is actually not much better than the view from Red Lake Peak; in fact the best view is from the ridge (RLP Shoulder) southwest of RLP. I have toyed with the idea of them following the route to Lady Bug Ridge hence to the South Shoulder of RLP which gives the best view of Lake Tahoe, but neither the botany (mixed conifers above the junipers) nor geology (they would have encountered granite outcrops) match. The ridge beyond Stevens Peak is not shown correctly on the map because that view from RLP would have been blocked by the equal elevation of Stevens Peak. If they had climbed to Steven Peak then that ridge, Waterhouse, and Freel Peaks would be more accurately shown. The Sacramento Valley is best seen from the south peak of RLP, the view from Stevens is somewhat blocked by the ridge they would travel on February 21. It is possible, but highly improbable that they climbed up the sheer vertical "volcanic conglomerate" in moccasins to the very narrow, uneven top of the north peak for a view that is no better than that from the south peak, but Fremont reports nothing of the kind. The snow-covered peaks of the Coastal Range they saw were most likely Goat, Snow, and St. John Mountains in the Mendocino National Forest.

The geology is the next clue. Fremont's "very course, dark volcanic conglomerate" well describes the Relief Peak Formation flow breccias found on RLP from below Lady Bug Ridge to the very top ridge. Stevens Peak is made up of blocks of the vertically joined andesite, which is also volcanic, but very different in structure. Rocks of a "slaty structure" are very rare in the Carson Pass area being found only in certain spots in the metamorphic roof pendants. I have only found such flat slate like rocks on the relatively level area above and within the steep juniper covered ridge due south of RLP just below one of the Gaz EX avalanche control units. My daughter and I enjoyed testing the aerodynamics of these flat rocks over the steep slope to the south.

go See Frémont as a geologist.

The description of the trees also leads to this particular location, as there is a large grove of Western Juniper, Fremont's cedars, along this ridge from just below from the above location of the "slaty" rocks to the bottom of that ridge. In fact this is the largest stand of junipers in the area of The Pass, although there is a much smaller grove above the north parking lot. The peaks are too high for aspens, but they would have been found where Red Lake now exists. In fact aspens do extend from the north shore of the lake up the slope of RLP and across the highway along the proposed route given below. It is of interest that pine trees are not mentioned. Stevens, the north peak of RLP, and the south shoulder of RLP have thick stands of Whitebark Pine near their summits, but even if they followed the route given here they would have seen few pines above the junipers but none from there to the peak. It has been my experience that by the time one has climbed up the snow gully and the steep ridge exhaustion had diminished the importance of tree identification.

Some books on hikes in Alpine County have stated that Fremont's view of Lake Tahoe was from Stevens Peak; however, as previously mentioned, the view, geology, and plant descriptions don't match that peak. Furthermore, as an author on hiking should notice, it would be a mile and a half out of their way in the wrong direction to get to Stevens coming from Longcamp. This leaves RLP. The abundant pine trees covering the north peak and in the cirque argue against that location as does the extra distance of having to cross the steep, snow covered cirque due east of RLP. As mentioned before going up from Carson Pass to the north peak also does not agree with the geology or the tree description.

I therefore propose a different route, one that the rest of the party partly followed to Ladybug ridge on the 20th. The two routes diverged at 38°42'18"N 119°59'16"W. (The following coordinates will have the same degrees and minutes for both latitude and longitude so I will only give the seconds for both.)  Fremont and Preuss climbed up the steep rocky ridge to 27"N-13"W, through the region of Western Junipers and rocks of a "slaty structure" (see collected sample).  They continued up this open, snow free ridge to the saddle at 36"N-05"W, where they turned northwest following that ridge up to the base of the volcanic cliff at 39"N-12"W.  They then made a westerly transverse beneath the rocky cliff below the south peak to 40"N-21"W, where they climbed up and over to the easier west slope, which they then followed to "the highest peak". I found this route to be the only one that agrees with all aspects of Fremont's report and Preuss's renderings. I have followed this route, as well as all of the others, in winter snow conditions similar to Fremont's and found it to be no more difficult or daunting than the other routes. Fremont would have been able to see and plan out this route from Butterfly Butte on the 6th, as well as from Longcamp. They would have had a good view of the snow free open area of Lady Bug Ridge where I believe they all camped on the 20th from this route.

The view. "...we had a beautiful view of a mountain lake at our feet, about fifteen miles in length, and so entirely surrounded by mountains that we could not discover an outlet."

go See on Google Maps
go Peter Lathrop on the final ascent to the summit of Carson Pass

go Discovering Frémont"s Long Camp
go See the Long Camp, and its view of Red Lake Peak, then and now.
go See the actual site of that camp made on February 4, 1844.
go How do I hike there? More maps.
go Take a walking tour of the ascent of the mountain following Frémont's narrative.
goAn overview of the entire route from Markleeville to Carson Pass.
go Just who discovered Carson Pass, anyway?
go See the beginning of the route beyond the Pass.
go Frémont's famous climb of Frémont Peak (or was it?) in the Wind River Chain of the Rocky Mountains in 1842.

©1999, 2007
Bob Graham