Snowshoe Thompson is spanked in the Sierra!
December 30, 2008
John “Snow-shoe” Thompson, the noted Sierra skiing mailman, established a remarkable legend that still impresses more than 140 years after his death in 1876. He not only delivered mail and supplies on his skis, historians credit Snowshoe Thompson as the Pioneer of American Skiing and the Father of Skisport.
In the 1860s, miners and mountain residents were sliding over the snowpack with long wooden skis and pushing themselves with a long pole. For most people, skis were simply the best form of transportation over the snow-covered landscape.
Meanwhile, Thompson was flying down mountainsides making crisp turns, jumping cliffs and offering to torque 360-degree aerials off of snow buried cabins. Thompson was the first freestyle skier who advocated the use of shorter skis for better performance. People who watched Thompson ski with his long pole dipping from side to side across his body said he looked like a soaring eagle.
Jon Torsteinson was only 10 years old when he immigrated with his family from Norway in 1837. Like many Norwegians, they settled in the Midwest and became farmers. In 1851, the 24-year-old farm boy was struck with gold fever and he ran off to California. Thompson arrived too late to score much gold, but he settled near Placerville and changed his name to John Thompson.
During the long winter months, conversation often focused on the difficulty of getting mail in from the east. Mail sent by ship from the East Coast took months to arrive and the overland routes were shut down by deep snow in the Sierra. Communities in western Nevada were completely cut off from California in winter. To remedy this problem, Thompson stepped into the breach and promised to carry the mail back and forth between Carson City and Placerville.
It was a bold decision, but Snowshoe Thompson was up to the task. Tall and strong, he made himself a pair of skis and took on the dangerous prospect of crossing the High Sierra in winter. During several years in the mid 1850s, Thompson skied twice a month carrying a heavy mailbag over the mountains, a distance of 90 rugged miles fraught with the perils of blizzards and avalanches. In 1860 he started a winter express service on the same route, using sleds pulled by horses wearing special snowshoes.
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Later, during the mid 1860s mining excitement at Meadow Lake in the High Country northwest of Truckee, Snowshoe Thompson skied in mail and packages after being dropped off by train at the Cisco station. Thompson ultimately gave 20 years of dependable service to isolated Sierra communities. He was regarded as the most capable skier in the Sierra for more than two decades, but near the end of his career his illustrious reputation was a bit tarnished by the longboard ski racers of the “Lost Sierra.”
In the late 1860s, Snowshoe Thompson decided the outrageous tales of speed skiing (90 mph!) by longboard racers in Plumas and Sierra counties demanded his attention. After all, what could they be doing that he hadn’t done in all his mountain adventures? In February 1869 he decided to find out.
The historic contest between Snowshoe and the skiers from Plumas County provides rare insight into Thompson’s personality and confidence. The race was held on Feb. 22, 1869 at the La Porte racecourse about 50 miles north of Truckee. To get there, Thompson skied from his home in Alpine County north to Lake Tahoe where he took a skiff to the North Shore. From there he skied to Truckee and then took the train west to Colfax, where he went by stage and horse-drawn sleigh to Camptonville. From that point he skied uncounted miles over rugged mountain and canyon country until he reached the La Porte.
For Thompson, the trip to La Porte was just a warm-up, but trouble lurked for the intrepid mailman. Thompson had skis 7.5 feet long, while the local racers rode boards 14 feet long. The boys from Plumas stabbed the snow with their single poles to quickly propel themselves forward from the starting line and then immediately dropped into an aerodynamic tuck for maximum speed down the course, while Thompson stood up and held his pole horizontally for balance.
Unaware of the secrets of doping (waxing) skis for a fast glide, Thompson never had a chance and he was soundly beaten on the first day of a five-day competition series. In longboard racing, once you lose a heat you’re disqualified from all races. Thompson did not take his loss lightly. The result instigated an intense war of words in many contemporary newspapers and created a schism between Plumas and Alpine county skiers that took nearly 100 years to overcome.
Riled over his defeat, Thompson told the Alpine Chronicle newspaper: “I did go to La Porte, expecting to see some scientific snow shoe racing, but I was disappointed it was nothing but ‘dope racing,’ and is unworthy of the name snow shoeing [skiing]. It is nothing more than a little improvement on coasting down hill on a sled.”
In a published retort, the Downieville Mountain Messenger responded: “When Thompson was here, he admitted that he was disappointed, not only disappointed but surprised to learn he was so far behind the times in snow shoeing. When he saw our boys run he thought it was ‘scientific,’ and so expressed himself. It was a little too much for him and he found out that dope was king.”
After Thompson returned to his home in Alpine County, he challenged the Plumas longboarders to a variety of contests including a head to head downhill race, jumping cliffs, skiing downhill through trees and a four mile climb to the 10,000 foot high summit of Silver Mountain. The winning side would get $1,000.
Thompson’s hard-core challenge on his home turf was more like a modern day “Iron Man” competition than a straight ski race. There is no evidence that anyone ever agreed to Snowshoe Thompson’s challenge, but I have little doubt he would have won.
” Mark McLaughlin’s column, “Weather Window,” appears every other week in the Sierra Sun. He is a nationally published writer and photographer whose award-winning books are available at local stores. Mark may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org