The Most Legendary Skier in California History? | “Snowshoe Thompson”

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Snowshoe Thompson
Snowshoe Thompson

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.

Nugget #47 A Snowshoe T. ID 600
Statue on Donner Summit, CA depicting Snowshoe Thompon’s unique style of holding is brake pole horizontal. This is a great, athletic ski stance if you analyze it. He was way ahead of his time. photo: the storm king

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.

Snowshoe Thompson had a badass goatee
Snowshoe Thompson had a badass goatee

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.

Snowshoe Thompson
Snowshoe Thompson

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

memorial coin.
Snowshoe Thompson coin, but they never paid him any coin…  Check out that famous steez.

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?

Centennial coin.
Snowshoe Thompson centennial coin.

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.

These were the mountains Thompson had to climb as he left Genoa, NV.
These were the mountains Thompson had to climb as he left Genoa, NV to got the 90 miles back to Placerville, 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.

Snowshoe Thompson statue in Squaw Valley
Statue in Squaw Valley

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.

Memorial statue in Genoa, NV.
Snowshoe Thompson memorial statue in Genoa, NV.

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.

Snowshoe Statue
Snowshoe Thompson statue.

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16 thoughts on “The Most Legendary Skier in California History? | “Snowshoe Thompson”

    1. Snowshoe deserves the recognition. He rendered aide to the sick, carried medicine and mail for free and saved many lives at a time when no one could get through the mountains. This was before the railroad.

    2. Blackfeather, I am interested in where you obtained your information. I have copies of all his letters. Why is this not listed in his notes?

  1. I have always been stoked by Thomson’s ski exploits on such primitive equipment. When I learned of his role in the Pyramid Lake War of 1860, I lost respect for him. I understand that times were different then, and it is hard to look back on many historical icons with today’s eyes, but he joined with a mob of settlers to attack the Paiute Indians at Pyramid Lake. The settlers were trounced there with 76 of 105 losing their lives. Snowshoe lost his horse, and as he ran away he heard what he thought was a brave approaching him on horseback, as he turned to fight, it was a riderless horse that he somehow flagged down to escape with. Mark McLauglin, “the storm king” wrote about this in the Battle at Pyramid Lake part 2 in the Tahoe Daily Tribune.

    1. Also, who attacked first, please provide details. I’m am going to reread Snowshoe’s mail. He’s an Uncle ancestor of mine. His oldest brother was my ggg – grandfather. I know the history of Snowshoe. The only part I cannot get over is how one could work 20 years for the federal government and not get paid. .. You know the story on how skis came about? Snowshoe made and traded snowshoes with the Indians. In return, he received blankets, etc…. Snowshoe wrote a lot about Indians, thats why your comments surprise me. So, I am on my way to reread his letters, see if I can find out what was going on. Do know he mentions a war in the west with Indians. Hey, I gotta tell you. Indians were not always as innocent as you think. They got a lot of whacks in on white man. They would wipe out whole towns why the men were away. A Norwegian settlement in MN. was totally wiped out. A lot of my ancestors lived in that town and were slaughtered. Thats one reason Andrew Jackson became angry at Indians. They wouldn’t stop slaughtering the people when the men were away.

      1. Ann, Snowshoe Thompson was a relative of mine also. I m tracing back to find out how. My family came from Telemark Norway. I could use any info you have. My family and i are going to lake Tahoe in a couple weeks and i plane on visiting the statues.

      2. Ann white man fucked over the Indians /Mexicans. If the white man wanted there land thay took it. Snowshoe was a dick but a dam good skier soo To snowshoe

      3. Hi Ann. Over the years I’ve done research here and there with the idea of doing a Snowshoe themed art project. The only thing I have not been able to find is a photo of him on skis. I love to find such an image to see the details of his gear. Do you have such a thing in your archives? Thank you… Kev

  2. I started researching Snowshoe thompson due to finding a rare uncirculated token that I am unable to find another coin/token like.
    I took it to a coin shop and he said WOW NEVER SEEN or Heard of this coin before.

    It’s a Nevada Battle Born with a Star on the front with Snowshoe Thompson on obverse.
    Any Information about it would be appreciated

    1. Ann white man fucked over the Indians /Mexicans. If the white man wanted there land thay took it. Snowshoe was a dick but a dam good skier soo To snowshoe

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