Snowshoe Thompson

By Margaret Johnston

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    Skiing Mailman of the High Sierras

    Can you imagine setting out in the dead of winter on skis with a sixty to one-hundred pound load on your back, alone and unarmed, to travel an uncharted course across the Sierra Nevada Mountains and back in five days? The trip would be made two to four times a month between Placerville, California, and Genoa, Nevada. Add to this the hazards of snow falling, avalanches, blizzards, biting cold, rocky chasms hidden beneath fifty-foot snowdrifts, icy crevasses, as well as hungry wolf packs, grizzlies, and mountain lions. Few men would undertake such a journey.

    But one man did. In the mid-1800s John A. Thompson, later nicknamed “Snowshoe,” provided the first regular mail and emergency service across the Sierras. Single-handedly, he built a lifeline for hundreds of early settlers. And in so doing, it is believed that he introduced Norwegian skiing to the New World.

    It was Thompson’s love of mountains that called him to the Sierras at the age of twenty-four. He was six feet tall and weighed one hundred eighty pounds—a fair-haired and bearded, blue-eyed Norwegian. Although quiet, he was friendly and well liked.

    In Thompson’s time, scheduled overland mail service between eastern and western United States was difficult because of Indian raids and other dangers. Consequently, most of the mail went by steamboat from the east coast around the southern tip of South America to California—a ten-month trip. But even then, the settlers east of the Sierras in Utah Territory (including much of present-day Nevada) were completely cut off from the world for at least five winter months. No one had been able to carry mail and supplies regularly back and forth across the stormy Sierras during the winter.

    Thompson remembered from his boyhood in Norway speeding down mountains on skis. Why can’t mail be delivered this way, he reasoned.

    In January of 1856, Thompson set out on his first mail run from Placerville, California, on the western slope of the Sierras, to Carson Valley on the east side, nearly one hundred miles away. To travel on top of the snow, he wore ten-foot-long, twenty-five-pound runners that he had whittled himself. Observers and Thompson both called them Norwegian snowshoes.

    His first winter trip might have been Thompson’s last, because at one point he mistakenly trusted a snowbridge across a chasm. It had seemed firm and solidly frozen, but when he reached the center, it began to pull away from the cliff behind him. Fortunately, he managed to grab a tough pine root on the cliff ahead just as the bridge collapsed and fell into the rocky abyss below. He thanked God and vowed he would never make that mistake again.

    As he went on, he had to judge correctly the safety of the icy crust of fifty-foot drifts. He kept his bearings by observing trees, wind direction, rock and mountain formations. When nighttime came, he stayed on course by observing the stars. He slept warmly at night by setting a stump afire, hollowing a cave in a snowdrift facing the fire, and lining the cave with pine boughs.

    It took three days’ travel for the longer, steeper climbs of the eastward crossing and two days to return to California. When the citizens of Placerville, California, heard Thompson’s High Sierra whoops as he skimmed down the last slope carrying mail from Carson Valley, they cheered. “Snowshoe Thompson!” they shouted, and the name “Snowshoe” was born.

    Every two weeks, sometimes oftener, Snowshoe made the two-way run across the Sierras. He suffered narrow escapes, even being confronted by starving wolves, but he was never lost. He had an innate sense of direction.

    “I can’t be lost,” he would say, tapping his forehead with his finger. “I’ve got something in here that keeps me right.”

    As Snowshoe made repeated crossings, he explored for better routes, and he branched out to reach other settlers. He rescued lost travelers, hunters, and fur traders. Besides mail, he carried medicines, tools, machine parts, samples of gold and silver for assays, and even Genoa, Nevada’s first newspaper press, piece by piece.

    Once during his second winter, two days out of Placerville, Thompson discovered at nightfall a fur trader, James Sisson, partially delirious and near death in a mountain cabin. Sisson’s legs were frozen to the knees and gangrene was setting in. After chopping wood and building a fire in the fireplace, Snowshoe skied to Genoa for help.

    Unfortunately, the only doctor in town was out on another emergency call. So Snowshoe, with the help of volunteers and a sled, managed to bring Sisson to Genoa in spite of deep mountain snow.

    Then they found that the doctor was out of the chloroform necessary to perform the leg amputations! And where was the only chloroform? Across the mountains in Sacramento. This was now the fifth day since Snowshoe had left Placerville, California. And in all this time he had caught only quick snatches of sleep. Nevertheless, he started out immediately for Sacramento, amazingly making the run in a night and a day and then back to Genoa again in another night and day in time to save Sisson’s life.

    As years went by, men established new means of communication. However, during periods when snow was impossibly deep and mail could not go by horseback or rail, the mail went again on the back of Snowshoe Thompson. And no one but Snowshoe would carry mail and supplies to all the lonely, almost unreachable cabins and settlements in and around the mountains.

    Finally, in January of 1876, this mountain man made his last run to the bedside of a young boy injured on skis Snowshoe had made for him. Spring came, Snowshoe passed his forty-ninth birthday on April 30th, and on May 15th he died. The big Norseman had spent twenty winters in freely given service to others, and in doing something no one else could or would do.

    Illustrated by Glen Edwards