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Stories from the valley

Now I understand how the Donner Party got stranded

Contributed by Tim Johnson

Growing up in Northern California, the story of the Donner Party is known to you as a child mostly because of the macabre. Saved for the histories you read as an adult, is the discussion of the stranding itself – how it was they came to be stuck just a few miles from the mountain pass. Most narratives focus on their choice of routs across the Great Basin and the resulting delays or on the party’s decision rest a day or two in an alpine meadow. Few rightly speak to the awesome power of winter in the Sierras. As evidenced by the epic snow of this year, they should.

In the Sacramento Valley, those that have been here talk about the weather in terms of years – the floods of 1997 or 1964. In the mountains, the snows and 2017 will be one for the yarns.

The snow this year – both in amount and intensity has been something rarely seen. Reports across the Sierras have come in of 10 feet of snow for a single storm. Mammoth Mountain saw seven feet in just two days. Boreal Ski resort (just to the West of Donner Pass) has over 20 feet of snow on the ground today!

Snow shoes right – the Donner party could just have made snow shows and walked over the pass. Not likely. Having just spent a sunny weekend on Hope Valley, east of Carson Pass, I’ll tell you that while fun, snowshoeing is really hard work.

It took us just over an hour to travel a mile in the four feet of powder on the ground. Going was hard enough that we sought our trial in for the walk back just to take advantage of the packed snow.

After a day walking with modern snow gear and warm jackets, I came to the realization of just how much the weather dictated the outcome of the forlorn Donner Party. Once the series of big storms came, they were stuck right where they were.

The takeaway for today is the same – don’t sell the power of Sierra storms short whether it be the floods in the Valley or the drifts in the mountain. The power of nature is awesome every day. Extraordinary when she really lets loose.