Charley’s nearly lethal winter walk
Traveling around the Sierra in winter was common back in the 1880s, but a wrong turn could lead to trouble.
In December of 1887, Charley Reynolds was working for Gilman Folsom and Sam Marlette at their wood cutting camp in the hills above Walter Hobart’s sawmill in Crystal Bay. On an important family mission, Reynolds urgently needed to get to Truckee’s railroad depot and telegraph office.
The easiest way to exit the isolated northeastern corner of Lake Tahoe in winter was to take the weekly steamer to Glenbrook, then a sleigh to Carson City, or the same methods to Hot Springs and Truckee. Reynolds didn’t want to wait. Being a headstrong young man, he figured he could find another way out.
The fairly well-traveled winter trail from Crystal Bay to Truckee rose almost straight up the craggy ridge along the state line, ran west along the ridge to Brockway Summit, then down Martis Creek to Truckee. Other trails led to and from winter wood cutting and logging operations around the North Shore.
Charley asked around for directions, got several slightly different variations, and packed his knapsack. He figured he could easily walk the 18 miles to Truckee on a packed trail in the short winter day. At about 9 in the morning he set off on his journey.
He followed the trail up the mountain. After several hours, he realized the trail wasn’t going to Truckee. He climbed a rock and scouted, pondering the situation. Three feet of snow on the south-facing slope had settled. He could walk on top of it as long as the temperatures stayed around zero as they had been.
As the trail went somewhere, he figured to go ahead and follow it. After five miles he came to a crew of Chinese woodcutters and the end of the trail. He got enough out of the non-English speaking Chinese to figure if he went over one little ridge, he would be back on the main trail.
Thinking it would be better to cross the mountain than to turn back, Reynolds began to climb again, moving into deeper snow. The sun had already moved well into the afternoon sky, and the wind had risen a bit.
He grew tired and sore, but at last came to the top of the ridge. He took a short break against a giant red fir, but soon began to get chilled and stiff, so he moved on down the slope.
Being the north slope, the snow was fresher, with just enough crust on the top of four feet of powder, to support Charley for a moment. Then he plunged in past his knees. Several times he fell into drifts and sank past his waist, but he valiantly pushed on down the slope.
He reached the bottom of the tree-covered canyon near dusk, but there was no trail. He was wet, cold, tired, lost in the mountains, and getting scared. He could hear coyotes howling down the canyon, right where he was headed.
The terror of darkness settled over Charley, with only the first quarter of the moon to light his way. Fortunately the clouds stayed to the north, allowing the moon to reflect it’s meager light on the snow. Weary and worn out, fighting the panic that rose into his throat, Charley laid down to rest an hour after dark.
After catching a few winks of sleep, he rose and pushed off again. He knew if he stopped, no one would find him but the coyotes. His body might not be found for years. Charley’s feet and limbs began to go numb and his mind slowly followed, but he knew he must push on and keep moving.
Perhaps he was prodded on by the story of Truman Griffin, a winter mailman who skied weekly from Truckee to Hot Springs. Even though he was familiar with the route, Griffin died in 1880 where Charley now travelled.
The temperatures dropped to 20 below zero and he ran into the frozen fog creeping out of Martis Valley. As midnight approached, and the moon set, he finally stumbled and fell onto a packed trail. The sounds of passing Central Pacific trains echoing through the fog sounded close. He tried to use the sound to guide him. He really hoped he was on the right trail this time.
As he approached the glow of Truckee he began to relax, but that caused to him to stumble off the trail and fall into a deep snow drift. It would be easy to rest until dawn, but that would be the end of him.
Struggling into Truckee, the silent town seemed to turn a cold shoulder to him. He nearly fell into the lobby of the American House Hotel on Front Street. He could hardly speak, and went straight to the wood stove and practically hugged it. After an hour of dozing in the warmth, he told his story to the few men still awake.
Charley found the strength to stumble to the dining room where he was able to down a large steak and a pile of hot potatoes. Coffee warmed most of his body, but his feet seemed not to be warming up. Returning to the lobby fire, he tried to take off his boots, but couldn’t do it. It took the help of two men from the bar to remove the frozen boots.
Charley discovered he had no feeling in his feet and that they were two solid cakes of ice. It explained his repeated stumbling. Not being familiar with the Sierra cold, he didn’t understand why. It was so late he told the night clerk he wanted a warm room to sleep, and an early wake up call. He would visit the telegraph office first thing in the morning.
In the morning, pain in his feet woke him up before anything else could. He soaked his feet in lukewarm water again, hoping to draw out the frost. Dr. Curless examined Charley’s feet and made a grim prognosis. It was a bad case of frostbite for sure, and body parts would have to be removed.
Dr. Curless found Charley’s toes and both of his feet below the ankles were completely frozen. The flesh began to turn black and putrefy. Dr. Curless worked tirelessly over the next few days to cut away the dead flesh as fast as he could, keeping the raw wounds covered in poultices.
Curless was in the middle of treating a measles outbreak at the outlying ice ponds. He was treating patients on the run. Day by day, the black flesh of Charley Reynold’s feet was slowly trimmed away as it died. When Curless snipped off all of the flesh off of a middle toe, Charley didn’t even wince.
One by one, the toes were amputated, but Dr. Curless was able to save his feet. The pain was excruciating, but Charley never said a word about it. He just didn’t want to lose his feet and become a cripple.
Charley Reynolds went on to recover. He lost portions of his feet, but was able to keep them attached to the rest of his body, thanks to luck and Dr. William Curless. After a week more of recuperation, he got on the train and out of the mountains, riding back to his family with a story of survival, and looking for a new career in a warmer climate.
Back at the Crystal Bay sawmill, the managers went to extra effort to mark trails and warn travelers not to do what Charley Reynolds had done. Winter rules the Sierra Nevada. Peril comes to those who challenge it unprepared.
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