Travelers snowbound on Spooner Pass
Two weeks ago, the attention and concern of the nation was captured by the search for a San Francisco family that had disappeared while driving through western Oregon. James Kim, his wife, Kati, and their two young daughters, Penelope and Sabine, had become trapped in snow on a remote road west of Grants Pass, Ore. It took rescuers seven days to locate the car, but it was too late for James Kim, who died after hiking 16 miles in a heroic attempt to save his family.
The tragedy is another reminder of the hazards of winter driving in the mountainous West. The main roads in the Tahoe-Truckee region are generally well-plowed, but no one should travel unprepared in the Sierra. Despite the macho-mobility generated by the contemporary sport utility vehicle, motorists often face long delays in Sierra snowstorms. Most road closures are mandated by Caltrans for public safety and authorities warn everyone to carry food, water, blankets and other necessities for survival in cold weather.
Before modern all-season highways were built to accommodate winter tourism, travelers arrived in Truckee and Tahoe by train. Tourists were entertained each weekend by friendly bartenders, comfortable hotels, ice skating on Donner Lake, and skiing at local spots like Truckee’s Hilltop and Olympic Hill near Tahoe City.
During the 1930s, the roads were paved and opened to winter traffic, but those that challenged the lonely, unplowed roads surrounding Lake Tahoe did so at their own peril.
On Feb. 4, 1937, a snowstorm was raging when four carpenters crossed Spooner Pass heading home to Carson City from their seasonal jobs at Lake Tahoe. Deep snow had blocked all roads in the Tahoe area so the men used pieces of wood and other materials from their construction site to improvise crude skis and bindings.
While skiing down Clear Creek Canyon road (predecessor to the modern Highway 50 east of Spooner Summit), the snow changed to rain and one of the men spotted the top of a blue automobile poking out of a melting drift. Just out of curiosity, one of the men tapped on the rolled up car window. Imagine their shock when a starving young woman cradling a baby cried out for help.
The startled men gathered their wits and assured the frightened young mother they would send help from Carson City, 12 miles away. After skiing down to the valley floor, the workmen alerted Nevada highway officials, who immediately sent a rescue party equipped with skis, toboggans, flares and food. Although heavy rain falling in the canyon made for slow going, the mercy mission never faltered.
Rescuers reached the buried car just after midnight and both mother and child were under a doctor’s care early the next morning.
Later that day, Maude LaNear had recovered enough to recount her experience.
When word got out that she and her baby had been trapped in that car for 15 days, the story made national news. Maude was 19 years old, traveling with her 22-year-old husband, Earl, and their 2-year-old daughter, Donna. They had left Leadville, Colo., on Jan. 16 for a vacation in sunny California, but their balmy plans were thwarted by a Sierra storm.
Their trouble had begun two weeks before when heavy snow forced authorities to shut down Highway 40 (now Interstate 80) over Donner Pass. Instead of waiting for crews to open the highway, the LaNears attempted the Clear Creek Grade, located in a narrow canyon just west of Carson City. As they approached Spooner Summit, their Plymouth sedan stalled in deep snow. Their timing couldn’t have been worse. That night the temperature plummeted to 27 degrees below zero in Carson City, the all-time record low for the capitol. The next day seemed to offer a break in the weather, so Earl looked at his wife and daughter and decided to go for help. After making his wife promise to remain in the car with the baby, the valiant young father took a handful of oatmeal and set off alone down the mountain road. He never looked back. Maude LaNear cuddled up with her frightened daughter and began counting the hours until her husband’s return.
The hours turned into days without any word. As storm succeeded storm, her worries grew. Maude and the baby survived by melting snow and eating the only food they had; half a box of oatmeal, a jar of mustard and raw macaroni. Frigid temperatures killed the battery and since the car’s engine wouldn’t start, the heater was useless. Fortunately, they had plenty of blankets and didn’t suffer too much from the cold, but day after day snow fell and the car was eventually buried to the roof. To keep her spirits up, after every snowstorm Maude climbed out the car door window to scrape snow from the rear window. It was the only light they had.
After two weeks of waiting, their food ran out. Forty-eight hours into starvation, the carpenters discovered Maude and Donna still alive. Hours later the rescue party hauled the weak and hungry mother and daughter to safety. They had been trapped and isolated in their snowbound car for 15 days, but they had survived. Concern for Maude’s husband Earl now swept the Carson City community. Despite snow, sleet and rain, hundreds of volunteers and highway department crews searched the rugged terrain. Snowdrifts as high as a man’s head stymied efforts to find the young man.
As time went by and the search and rescue operation turned up nothing, citizens began to think it unlikely that Earl had survived the ordeal. The Nevada State Journal began an emergency fund for Maude and Donna. The Journal contributed $10 to get the program started and promised public acknowledgment for all donors.
Despite the poor economy and lack of money prevailing in the 1930s, individual contributions flooded in. Sympathy ran high in Western Nevada for the young woman and her baby. Finally, on Feb. 10, searchers discovered Earl LaNear’s frozen body one mile from the Ormsby County poor farm. It was apparent that he had struggled desperately through deep snow for six miles before seeing lights at the distant farmhouse.
Tragically, Earl was only a mile from safety when he fell 50 feet down into a rain swollen mountain creek. Battered, exhausted and barely alive, Earl fired his revolver in a last ditch effort to get help for his family, but no one heard the warning shots.
Miraculously, Maude and Donna LaNear survived more than two weeks in the worst cold wave ever recorded in the region. Both California and Nevada’s all-time record lows were recorded during January 1937. On Jan. 8, the temperature hit minus 50 degrees at San Jacinto, Nev., and on Jan. 19, the thermometer slid to 45 degrees below zero at Boca, Calif., records that still stand.
The lesson is clear. Never travel unprepared in the Sierra. Remember to gas up, stock up, and tell someone where you’re going and when you expect to arrive.
Mark McLaughlin’s newest book, “The Donner Party: Weathering the Storm,” is now available at local stores. Mark can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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