Who’s the most famous, most legendary skier in California history? Many will blurt out modern names like McConkey and Schmidt – but no – it’s Thompson. Snowshoe Thompson.
Snowshoe Thompson was quite possibly the most badass skier to have ever walked the face of the Earth, not just California, not just the USA. He was a skiing beast who charged 90-miles over the Sierra Nevada in the dead of winter – solo – on 10-foot skis carrying an 80-100 pound pack in only 3 days. Then, he’d turn around and charge the 90-miles back home in only two. The guy did this twice a month during winter for 20 years (1856 – 1876) and he did it with no gun, no blanket, no camping gear, and no compass.
Thompson claimed he was never lost, even in a blizzard and he managed to save the lives of seven dying, snowbound men in the course of his epic journeys.
Snowshoe Thompson rarely even stopped to rest when crossing the Sierras. He would sprint up and over the Sierra Nevada range to Genoa, Nevada and back to California in 5 days. Thompson used “Johnson’s Cutoff” now known as US Highway 50 as his route topping out at 7,283-feet on Echo Pass, CA. The round trip included over 180-miles of travel, over 10,000 vertical feet of climbing, and over 10,000 vertical feet of skiing. There’s no doubt at all that Snowshoe Thompson loved making this mail run.
Why? Why did Snowshoe carry a 100-pound pack across the Sierra Nevada mountain range solo twice a month for 20 years? Because he was the only connection between the mining towns of Western Nevada and California during the powerful Sierra winters of yore. There was no other way to get mail, medicine, and other important supplies across the Sierra Nevada in winter.
Thompson would load his pack with US mail and whatever else was needed and fly. His only personal supplies included crackers, beef jerky, biscuits, and some matches. He was a true mountain man with absolutely no fear of the snow nor mountains.
No one in the Sierras had ever seen skis before during Thompson’s time and his skiing style was simply legendary.
“He flew down the mountainside. He did not ride astride his pole or drag it to one side as was the practice of other snowshoers, but held it horizontally before him after the manner of a tightrope walker. His appearance was graceful, swaying his balance pole to one side and the other in the manner that a soaring eagle dips its wings.” – the famous Comstock journalist Dan De Quille
Snowshoe was never paid for his 20-years of superhuman mail service despite an 1869 appeal by the Nevada Legislature to the federal government for $6,000 in compensation for Thompson.
“If I do my job and get the mail to the people, Uncle Sam will pay me.” – Snowshoe Thompson
The reason Thompson had no fear of mountains nor brutal snowstorms was due to his extremely impressive ski resume. The guy was born in Telemark, Norway, the modern birthplace of skiing. What more do you need to hear?
Snowshoe Thompson was born Jon Torsteinson-Rue in Telemark, Noway in 1827. He skied to school in the winter. His father died when he was only 10 years old, spurring his family to move to a farm in Illinois, USA. Thompson and his family moved from Illinois to Missouri, to Iowa, to Wisconsin. In 1851 Thompson ended up cowboying a herd of milk cows to California from Wisconsin and settled down in Placerville, CA, 60 miles west of South Lake Tahoe. Thompson did some gold mining in the California foothills and made enough money to buy a small ranch at Putah Creek, in the Sacramento Valley, CA.
In 1855, Snowshoe Thompson saw an ad in the Sacramento Union newspaper stating: “Uncle Sam needs a news carrier.” The Placerville postmaster needed a man to carry the US mail over 90 miles of rugged snowbound terrain up to the miners of Genoa and Virginia City, Nevada during winter.
When Snowshoe Thompson wasn’t dominating the Sierras in winter he was a farmer and commercial firewood cutter. He was a man’s man in every sense of the word.
Snowshoe Thompson died of appendicitis and pneumonia in 1876. He left behind a wife and son. His son, unfortunately only lived for two years longer than his father and is buried at his father’s side.
There are currently statues honoring Snowshoe Thompson in Squaw Valley, CA – Donner Summit, CA – Reno, NV – Genoa, NV – and likely more.