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October 2006

How to Stay Safe in the Wilderness

Retracing the route to people's accidents can help us prevent our own. These 10 trips lead you to the exact locations of disasters from Denali to the Grand Canyon.

6. Cut Off At The Pass
The Donner party gets snowbound in the Sierra.

The Epic
These days, it’s every shredder’s dream to spend a winter in Tahoe. But in 1846, all that fresh pow was a nightmare for the westbound Donner Party, a group of migrants headed for the coast. They had set out from Illinois in April, but reached the Sierra Nevada in October–a full 2 months behind schedule. The night before the party was to cross the 7,088-foot pass now bearing its name, an early snowstorm dumped 5 feet, stopping the travelers 150 miles from Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento. They backtracked to Truckee Lake (now Donner Lake), erected cabins, and spent the winter rationing their dwindling provisions. Eventually, 15 men set out on rawhide snowshoes to seek help; seven made it to Sutter’s Fort, where locals began organizing a rescue. The main party had eaten all of the oxen by December, and by the time they were rescued, they’d begun to consume dead party members. Of the original 87 pioneers, 46 survived.

The Trip
To see where the Donner Party’s plan went to pieces is all too easy today; I-80
now crosses Donner Pass. But to survey the landscape of the tragic episode, take the Pacific Crest Trail 6 miles south from the Tahoe National Forest trailhead to the tops of Donner Peak and Mt. Judah. The first 3.5 miles of ridgewalking pass comfortably, with little elevation gain. After Donner Pass, the trail veers left up a steep granite bank. From there, pick your own route southeast to the saddle between 8,019-foot Donner and 8,243-foot Judah. Both peaks boast cherry-picker views of Donner Lake and the town of Truckee, the site where the main party wintered. Don’t do a Donner: Go between June and September, when there’s almost always sunshine. USGS quad: Norden Quadrangle

The Way: From Truckee, take I-80 to the Castle Peak Area/Boreal Ridge Road exit to the Tahoe National Forest trailhead.

7. Muir’s Dodgy Night Atop Shasta
The legendary risk-taker nearly pays a shocking price.

The Epic
On the morning of April 30, 1875, legendary naturalist John Muir and his partner, Jerome Fay, reached the top of 14,162-foot Mt. Shasta with the intention of surveying the summit. Soon after their arrival, ominous clouds began to gather. Fay urged retreat, but Muir stubbornly insisted on staying to gather more data. Hours later, lightning, hail, and gale-force winds forced them to abandon their instruments. Muir took the lead, following a knife-edge ridge toward the cover of treeline, but Fay, terrified, refused to descend in the now-whiteout conditions. Muir decided they would hunker down by one of Shasta’s hissing fumaroles in a wind-protected area between two pinnacles. The storm’s piercing cold chilled one side of their bodies while the steam vents roasted the other, making for a restless 17-hour bivy. Miraculously, Muir and Fay returned to their camp the next day with only frostbite on their toes.

The Trip You can climb Shasta in a weekend, or even a day, via Avalanche Gulch, the most popular and straightforward route. From the Bunny Flat trailhead, you’ll gain more than 7,000 vertical feet in 7 miles. Camp at Helen Lake (10,443 feet) before ascending Misery Hill, so named for its quad-burning gradient. Just before you hit the summit, check out Muir’s bivy site, a series of steaming blowholes and hot-mud pockets at 14,000 feet, now named Sulphur Springs. And be ready to descend at your designated turnaround time (typically before noon); as Muir discovered, conditions atop Shasta–or any high peak–can get dicey at a moment’s notice.

Map: Mt. Shasta Wilderness Recreation Map

The Way: From I-5, take the Central Mt. Shasta exit (Lake Street). Head east on Lake, then veer left onto the Everitt Memorial Highway (A10) and drive 11 miles to the Bunny Flat trailhead.

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