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Frémont's Approach to Carson Pass
Copyright© September 2000 by Bob Graham

Other than Frederick Dellenbaugh's proposed route from Markleeville, through Pleasant Valley, and around Markleeville Peak to Charity Valley shown on his map in Frémont and '49, 1914 ), it is generally accepted that the 1843-44 expedition route to Carson Pass was from Markleeville to Grovers and up Charity Valley Creek to Charity and Faith Valleys. This is well born out by following the narrative of the 1843-44 2nd Expedition.

This approach to the Pass was pointed out by Frémont's guide, a Washoe Indian that they called Mélo. The trail was an Indian trade route with connections as far west as Georgetown on the North Fork of the American River. I walked this route in September 2000 with the object of verifying and locating the features described by Frémont in the Report. On the walk I picked up a fragment of an obsidian core-flake, which was the raw material from which obsidian tools were fashioned. The source was undoubtedly the Mono Basin.

The trail appears on the earliest survey maps of the area. It has had undoubted use for hundreds of years, except for the upper half mile or so at Charity Valley where it is now diverted around private property. After visiting Yosemite with John Muir in 1870, Joseph LeConte traveled north through the Bridgeport Valley, and along the Indian route followed by Frémont into Antelope Valley. Arriving in Markleeville, he was taken up this very trail and into Hope Valley via a ranch at the hot springs owned by the brother of one of his traveling companions --one Hawkins (cf. nearby Hawkens Peak). This place later became called Grover's Hot Springs.

Joseph LeConte, in A Journal of Ramblings Through the High Sierras of California, August 19th., 1870, wrote:

The trail from this place (Grovers [then Hawkins] Hot Springs) into Hope Valley [via Charity Valley] is one of the steepest we have yet attempted. It is a zigzag, up an almost perpendicular cliff. In many places there can be no doubt that a false step would have been certainly fatal to man and horse. In the steepest parts we dismounted and led the horses a great portion of the way up. In many places here was no detectable trail at all.

This is the meadow at Grover's Hot Springs. The trail leads straight back in the center and then goes up Charity Valley Creek to the left - all the way to the top! To the right is Hot Springs Creek, leading to Burnside Lake. The meadow was the campsite, in charge of Tom "Broken Hand" Fitzpatrick, of most of the men that were to build a road up through the snow for the horses and mules. Tabeau, and a few men as a horse guard, returned a few miles further back to a place below Markleeville, where substantial graze had been found the day before (below). In the background to the right is the East Fork of the Carson River. Markeeville Creek is to the left, and joins it here.

Here we pick up Frémont's narrative from February 4th, 1844 at Grover's Hotsprings:

I went ahead early with two or three men,

One of the men was Preuss, as he records this in his journal. One was Mélo, the Washoe guide, and Carson was no doubt along.

each with a led horse to break the road. We were obliged to abandon the hollow entirely, and work along the mountain-side, which was very steep, and the snow covered with an icy crust. We cut a footing as we advanced, and trampled a road through for the animals; but occasionally one plunged outside the trail, and slided along the field to the bottom, a hundred yards below.

Later in the day we reached another bench in the hollow,

The "bench in the hollow" is Charity Valley itself, which is not much broader than the canyon.

where, in summer, the stream passed over a small precipice.

The "small precipice" is at the extreme lower end of Charity Valley at N38° 40' 57" by W 119° 53' 42" and elevation 7759'. Here the canyon narrows at the bottom, and the creek runs over a series of cascades. The photo above, taken in September, shows little water in Charity Valley Creek; however, in the spring months, this is a torrent. (see aerial photo below)
go See Charity Valley Creek in summer on a wet year.

Here was a short distance of dividing ground between two ridges, and beyond an open basin, some ten miles across whoes bottom presented a field of snow. At the further or western side rose the middle crest of the mountain, a dark-looking ridge of volcanic rock.

The view described above is from N38° 40' 23" by W 119° 54' 56" elevation 7901'. The "volcanic rock" is Elephant Back on the left in the photo. The view from here, which duplicates the view published by Dr. Vincent Gianella in 1959, is of Elephant Back 3.5 miles line of sight, Red Lake Peak 4.5 miles line of sight (right in photo), the ultimate campsite 2.5 miles line of sight, and of the approach to the Pass 3.5 miles line of sight (just left of center). The "open basin, some ten miles in extent" is Faith and Hope Valleys, surrounded by Markleeville, Elephant Back, Red Lake, Stevens, Freel, Picketts, and Hawkins Peaks of about 10,000 feet elevations.

go See a closer view of these mountains, from the actual final campite ("Long Camp") before the Pass.
An email from a Long Camp visitor.

Towards a pass which the guide [Mélo] indicated here, we attempted to force a road; but after a laborious plunging through two or three hundred yards, our best horses gave out, entirely refusing to make any further effort, and, for the time, we were brought to a stand. The guide informed us that we were entering the deep snow, and here began the difficulties of the mountain; and to him, and almost all, our enterprise looked hopeless. I returned a short distance back, to the break in the hollow, where I met Mr. Fitzpatrick.

The camp had been occupied all the day in endeavoring to ascend the hill, but only the best horses had succeeded; the animals, generally, not having sufficient strength to bring themselves up without packs; and all the line of the road between this and the springs was strewed with camp-stores and equipage, and horses floundering in the snow. I therefor immediately encamped on the ground with my own mess, which was in advance, and directed Mr. Fitzpatrick to encamp at the springs [Grovers], and send all the animals, in charge of Tabeau, with a strong guard, back to the place where they had been pastured the night before [Markleeville].

Here was a small spot of level ground, protected on one side by the mountain, and on the other by a little ridge of rock. It was an open grove of pines, which assimilated the grandeur of the mountain, being frequently six feet in diameter.

The approximate view of the campsite - above and below. The mountain refered to, and pictured here, is Markleeville Peak, an andesite cone.

At the foot of Charity Valley, just above the "precipice," camp was made, and that night they were visited by Indians.

Two Indians joined our party here; and one of them, an old man, immediately began to harangue us, saying that ourselves and animals would perish in the snow; and that if we would go back, he would show us another and a better way to cross the mountain. He spoke in a very loud voice, and there was a singular repetition of phrases and arrangement of words, which rendered his speech striking and not unmusical.

We had now begun to understand some of the words [in Washoe], and, with the aid of signs, easily comprehended the old man's ideas. "Rock upon rock - rock upon rock - snow upon snow," said he; "even if you get over the snow, you will not be able to get down from the mountains." He made us the sign of precipices, and showed us how the feet of the horses would slip, and throw them off from the narrow trails that led along their sides.

go Frémont came here on snowshoes--where did he get them?

The guide Mélo deserted the following morning, but the approach to Carson Pass had been pointed out. From here on, the party was completely on their own.

It has often been written that the route of Frémont's expedition crossing was an unfortunate one--that it would have been better to have gone directly up the Carson River to Carson Pass. Frémont himself thought this in later life and recorded it in his Memoirs.

But I have gained an entirely new insight from hiking the route, and considering the alternatives. I now believe that the route taken, as pointed out by the Indians, was probably the only route that could have been successfully followed in the winter with deep snow with 67 horses and mules.

Frémont was trying to cross with 67 horses and mules in winter--something never previously accomplished, and something never since attempted! Why didn't he just leave the animals and snowshoe across in a few days to Sutter's Fort? The success and objectives of the exploring expedition meant that he had to transport many hundred of pounds of instruments, notebooks and charts, and mineralogical and botanical specimens.

Frémont's comments, "We were obliged to abandon the hollow entirely, and work along the mountain-side, which was very steep, and the snow covered with an icy crust...often compelled to make large circuits, and ascend the highest and most exposed ridges, in order to avoid snow, which in other places was banked up to a great depth," illustrate the difficulty of getting the animals through the snow. The problem would have been the same up through the canyon, of the West Fork of the Carson, except that there are no "mountain-sides"--the walls of the Carson Canyon are vertical. This, and other wagon routes, were passable in summer only! Until this era of modern highways, the only traffic through the Carson Canyon in winter was Snowshoe Thompson carrying the mail to Genoa, Nevada on skis. However, had Frémont followed up the East Fork of the Carson he would have gotten into the Markleeville area days sooner.

It is doubtful that there is any other route over which the expedition could have made a successful winter crossing. Thanks to the Indians, they found one.
goSee a cross section of the line of travel.

East Fork Carson River, September 1855: There is an Indian Tribe [Washoe] settled upon [the East Fork of the Carson River] , that from the days of Frémont, appear to have been uniformly friendly to the whites. They bear a high reputation for honesty amonst the inhabitants of Carson Valley. George H. Goddard, Marlette Surveys.

go In December 1845, Frémont crossed the Sierra by the Truckee route (later Donner Pass), but he didn't follow the emigrant route down the Bear River: his route was that followed by the Central Pacific Railroad in the 1860s and today's Interstate 80. Here for the first time put to a modern map.

go Please see an overview of the route from Markleeville to the Pass.
go Finding Frémont 's Long Camp.
go A look at Frémont 's determinations of elevations.
go A look at Frémont 's determinations of coordinates.
go A history of Frémont 's training in mathematics, navigation, and mapmaking.
go Just who discovered Carson Pass, anyway?
go Lake Tahoe discovered! Two accounts: Frémont's narrative of February 14, 1844, and a recent climb of Red Lake Peak by Peter Lathrop of Carson City, NV.

©1999, 2007
Bob Graham