Avalanches inspired the will to ski the Sierra | SierraSun.com

Avalanches inspired the will to ski the Sierra

Mark McLaughlinWeather Window
Photo by Mark McLaughlinA skier does some braking to a stop at the 2006 National Longboard races in Johnsville, Calif.
ALL |

The gold miner from Virginia never had a chance. The violent avalanche bore down with such speed he could not escape its deadly impact. William F. Weirs demise near Poker Flat, Calif., on Dec. 17, 1852, is the first recorded fatality by snowslide in the Sierra Nevada. Weir, 23, was only one of several avalanche victims that season, but his tragic death and the others helped give birth to California skiing and snow sports.

Today, most backcountry winter sport enthusiasts have at least some awareness of blinding blizzards and deadly snowslides. But during the California Gold Rush, few of the young men tramping through the Sierra had any experience with or knowledge of the dangers lurking in the tranquil winter landscape. Rare among the 49ers were those from high alpine regions men who recognized cornices and angled slopes as hazardous areas to avoid. In fact, many of the Argonauts scouring the Sierran west slope for gold were Easterners from the Atlantic states, optimistic and over-confident in their knowledge of western weather and snowpack conditions. Heavy, incessant snowstorms in early December 1852 buried the Sierra in deep powder; snowslides were especially frequent and destructive. Traveling and prospecting for gold in the Sierra snowbelt began to take its toll.

William Weirs death proved to fellow miners that skis were needed for winter survival in the mountains. In testament to this event as a benchmark in western ski development, United States Ski Association historian, William B. Berry, noted, God and nature provided Weir as an unknowing sacrifice to bring ski sports to the west. He came in the period that led to California skiing. Longtime Poker Flat resident, Pat OKean, found Weirs old and disheveled grave site in 1937. Etched into the weathered tombstone was the inscription: William F. Weir, killed by a snowslide, Dec. 17, 1852, aged 23 years, 5 months and 6 days. Weirs brother, Hiram, had packed the heavy headstone on his back four miles up-canyon to the site of his brothers death. OKean gathered the scattered bones and toppled headstone together, repaired the grave and watched over the site for years, hoping it could somehow be preserved. More than three decades passed before OKean finally contacted Bill Berry in Reno, Nev., and asked for his advice. Berry recognized immediately that Weirs untimely death by avalanche was an historic benchmark, and a long-sought, solid clue to the start of skiing in the Sierra Nevada. On Oct. 9, 1971, Berry presided over the dedication of a restored grave and historical plaque in memory of Weir. There were nearly 80 people at the ceremony near Poker Flat, including a genealogy expert from the California Historical Society. The Auburn Ski Club provided the dedication plaque, the U.S. Ski Associations first historical marker in California. Also in attendance were members of E Clampus Vitus from the Julia Bullette and Snowshoe Thompson chapters of western Nevada, an organization dedicated to preserving western and mining history.

William Weir might never have seen a ski, but Berry credited his death by snowslide with triggering the growth of skiing in the California Sierra. Early in the 1850s, he said, Norwegian skis started trickling in. The tragedy of 1852 was the turning point. By the end of the decade, everyone had skis.For pioneer mining communities isolated by deep mountain snowpack, skis were the only way to travel or transport food, mail and medicine. In the 1860s, miners at Johnsville, Poker Flat, Whiskey Diggings, Rich Bar and La Porte began holding races to determine local champions. In the late 19th century, Western skiing styles and race course techniques were far different from todays. Early skiers stood four or six abreast and raced at full speed, shoulder-to-shoulder down a straight track more than 1,000 feet long. Falling over into the snow occasionally caused injuries to the racers, but the greatest risk lay in getting run over by another contestant.The winning purse at a northern Sierra ski contest could reach $1,000 and the champion was always expected to buy drinks for the crowd. The clamor for whiskey was so high at these mining camp races that one winner spent all his purse plus another $2,000 settling bets and attempting to quench the thirst of fans. With so much money at stake, everyone wanted to compete. At St. Louis in Sierra County, a 9-year-old girl blasted through 300 feet of windswept powder in seven seconds. At another event, one 14-year-old girl schussed down 1,230 feet in just 21 seconds. The sport made them the fastest humans on the planet at that time.For those who doubt these incredible velocities, consider this report by E.J. Dole, ski expert and newspaper writer who visited La Porte to report on the 1907 championships: The course is straight-away 1,800 feet long, part of it on a slope of forty degrees. It has been run in 13 and a half seconds. Thats going some! If you dont believe me try it. Or figure it out and will find that it is practically a mile and a half a minute. Bill Berrys own research indicated that at peak speed, early long boarders achieved terminal velocity, about 125 m.p.h. The fastest time ever clocked at La Porte occurred in 1874, when Tommy Todd of the Alturas Snowshoe Club rocketed down 1,804 feet in 14 seconds flat. Over the years, the races varied to include events comparable to the modern slalom, giant slalom and cross-country.

Due to vigilant snow safety control, todays ski resorts are one of the safest places to enjoy the winter environment, but in the backcountry, avalanche danger can be as hazardous to the careless as it was in the 19th century. In many ways, those of us who enjoy skiing and snowboarding, or make a buck off those that do, owe a debt of gratitude to the intrepid pioneer miners who learned to turn dangerous, snowbound mountains into winter havens of healthy fun and sport.Mark McLaughlins column, Weather Window, appears every other week in the Sierra Sun. He is a nationally published writer and photographer whose award-winning books, The Donner Party: Weathering the Storm, Sierra Stories: True Tales of Tahoe, Vol. 1 & 2, and Western Train Adventures: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly are available at local stores. Mark, a Carnelian Bay resident, can be reached at mark@thestormking.com.