The Great Trans-Sierra Ski Trip

...or She Caught Him on a Mountain! 

By Lennie Roberts

"I hear she caught him on a mountain!"...was overheard at our wedding in November of 1958. The little old lady who uttered these words was no doubt referring to the trans-sierra ski trip in March of 1958 that had ended in a high-mountain rescue of four Stanford Students and made national news headlines. It's hard to know, looking back fifty years, who caught whom. But Mike and I had some amazing adventures during our senior year that cemented an initial friendship into something much more lasting...

Lennie photo

Lennie Lamb

As a senior at Stanford University in 1958, I was juggling academic demands with more tempting diversions such as the women's ski team and the goal of becoming engaged before graduation. The Sierra was my weekend downhill skiing destination, but I was also intrigued by the idea of backcountry skiing, where the prospect of braving the elements screened out all but the most adventurous.

Fellow Stanford skiers Mike Roberts and Bart Hooley had been nurturing the idea of a winter Trans-Sierra ski crossing. Bart proposed an ambitious route which would begin at Silver Lake on the eastern side, follow Rush Creek to its headwaters, cross the Sierra Crest at 12,500 feet elevation between Mount Lyell and Mount Rodgers, then follow a series of lakes and streams along the Merced River drainage into Yosemite Valley. The route and allotted ten travel days would permit some ascents of several peaks along the way. Bart and Mike immediately included Margi Meyer and me in their plans, and eventually asked Bill Pope from Stanford and Max Allen from Cal to strengthen the party.

As our plans progressed, Bart eventually mentioned the trip to a fellow skier, Newt Thompson, who was in the Air National Guard. Newt suggested the Guard might be interested in doing an air-drop of food and supplies for us near the Sierra Crest, so we would be spared the necessity of hauling fifty-plus pounds of food up five thousand vertical feet.

Mike and Lennie preparations

Lennie and Mike packing in Palo Alto

The magnitude of time and thought that went into the arrangements for the trip while studying and taking final exams can't be adequately described. There were letters to the Air National Guard and Yosemite Superintendent John Preston, discussions with skeptical parents, lists of equipment and food and packing for the air drop, all interspersed with cramming for finals. Suffice to say there were six sighs of relief as we left Palo Alto the night of March 21. Several major storms had pounded the state during March and departing in the middle of another downpour on a Friday night was not propitious. But as Mike has been known to say, "we need to go to the end of the road and see what's there."

Our drive "to the end of the road" in Bill Pope's 1940's vintage GMC truck was not encouraging, as we nearly skidded off the icy road above Placerville. But as I recounted in my journal the first night, even this near miss was taken in stride:

Day One: Camp is at Agnew Lake—4 hours climb from the end of the road at the powerhouse at June Lake. Weather for a week has been terrrible—a continuous storm, but we were amazed this morning to have a clear day with some wind. Snow has settled enough to be fairly safe. We left Palo Alto at 9:00 p.m. in the Popemobile—four sleeping alternately in the back with two in the front seat. Above Placerville, the truck skidded and we ended up perched precariously at an angle over the steep slope down to the river below. We had to wait until people stopped and held onto the truck while we carefully crawled out—one by one. From then on, the trip was a breeze as far as I was concerned. I slept until the light and sun woke the back seat up at Topaz Lake.
Group Bridgeport meadows

(L to R) Bill Pope, Max Allen, Margi Meyer, and Bart Hooley
in the morning sunshine of Bridgeport Meadows on the day of departure

We clambered out of the car at Silver Lake, blinking in the brilliant sunshine. Deciding the good weather was a mandate from above, we hurriedly made final adjustments to packs and downhill skis that had been outfitted with bear traps and cables to allow heel lifting on the steep climbs.

Truck end of road photo

The "Popemobile" and group at departure

departure packing photo

Last minute preparations and final packing

With climbing skins on the skis, we departed at noon, and made reasonably good time to the first lake. Tired from our all night drive, we made camp at Agnew Lake at 8,500 feet elevation. I wrote:

Tomorrow we hope to be at Marie Lakes to camp—a much farther distance but less rigorous climb. All equipment is holding out fine—especially the mountaineering boots. Dinner tonight of corned beef hash, rice, soup, jello and nibbles of cheese and lunch meats. Optimistic about success of trip.

The next three days were spent climbing ever higher in deep snow. We took turns breaking trail, which kept us warm despite strong winds that brought snow showers at night. My next journal entry was the fourth night:

We are camped approximately 600 feet from the crest of the Sierra, on the eastern slope next to an unnamed lake. For two days it has been too cold and I too tired to write in the journal. We have generally had a hard time making altitude due to soft snow and high winds.
starting out photo

Starting out along the power lines near June Lake

Bart climbing photo

Bart climbing a steep slope

The second day we traversed from Agnew Lake to a place on Rush Creek just below Waugh Lake—progress was difficult due to the soft snow and intermittent snow flurries. The day was warm and snow did not really hinder either visibility or the comfort of the party. Pope led most of the day through snow which caused us to sink to our knees at almost every step. Our camp was selected by default—we couldn't go any farther. Among tall trees and in the lee of a ridge, it was very comfortable.

The next day we were up early and off—for it was our scheduled air drop rendezvous and we had a great distance to go. We could see the Lyell massif in the distance from time to time obliterated by clouds blowing wildly in the wind. The day was clear, but quite cold.
Bart and Pope both were feeling the altitude and my skis are especially good for breaking trail (for some odd reason!) so I led most of the second day. Thank goodness for the good comfortable pack, it felt like no weight at all. As we ascended the exposed ridge (only a few trees at 9,000 feet), the wind was really bitter. I was glad to be breaking trail since I had to exercise the most and could thus be somewhat warm—even with all available clothes on.
two skiers climbing photo

Climbing ever higher

avalanche slope photo

Backtracking as avalanche cracks appear on the slope (far right side of photo)

Weather the third day prevented the scheduled air drop. Gusty winds were blowing huge snow banners off the peaks above. I wrote:

The wind was blowing so hard and the clouds were whipping over the Lower Marie Lake so much just after noon that we did not expect to see our Air Force plane. However, it appeared and circled for almost an hour. We dropped to the ground, indicating to him to drop our supplies to us, but visibility was too poor. Meanwhile we nearly froze. We were so cold that it was silly to go father so we camped in the most "sheltered" place we could find—in the lee of a snow ridge in the middle of Lower Marie Lake—out of danger of avalanches. We were lucky to find water under the ice very close to the surface, and so spent a long night—from 3 p.m. until the next morning. We were quite tired and the altitude was telling on all of us, so we slept that afternoon and again that night.

sierra crest photo

Snow banners blowing off the Sierra Crest

Today (the fourth day) we were off early and climbing enthusiastically—a beautiful calm, clear day! We were almost to the saddle when the plane dropped to us, but the darned chute drifted in the wind so we had to backtrack somewhat. Mike is feeling the altitude as well as Pope. I am just fine, have been leading a good deal today again. The sun has just gone down, so must get warm. The country is magnificent—well worth every sweat and strain to get here.

Margie skis

Margi

We successfully retrieved the dropped food and white gas that had all been packaged together. The gas had leaked into some of the food, which we didn't find out until after eating some Triscuits. Both Mike and Bill were feeling the altitude, and the gassy crackers did not improve things. We pressed on, climbing the last steep slopes to the spectacular Sierra crest on Day 5, only to realize that Bill was becoming seriously ill.

The only progress that can be reported today is that we are over the crest and the weather is beautiful. However, two tents are being rested in by four of the party, while Bart and Max are hurrying to the Valley to get help.

The fifth day dawned a beautiful clear and calm morning with warm sun, even at 11,500 feet. Bart and Max set out to climb Rogers Peak while the rest of us rested. Pope had a bad cough and Mike had a bad altitude headache and was burping white gas. The two returned at around noon, and we commenced to climb the last 800 feet to the crest. The weather was changing—high thin clouds and a ring around the sun that warned us that a storm was coming. It was a struggle to get to the top and down to the first lake on the west side, but we all made it, although we made camp extremely late.

Meanwhile, we were increasingly worried about Pope, who had been coughing all night, and now was almost incoherent—wanting to camp on top of the crest or on the steep west-facing avalanche-prone slope rather than on the lake. Bart somewhat strongly induced him to continue down.
We were all tired, but encouraged to be over the crest. Mike's stomach was still giving him trouble—he could hardly keep any food down, and he had a monstrous headache. That night the snow began falling, although not heavily.

The sixth day we awakened rather late to find that we were enveloped in a whiteout—no visibility in any direction, no distinction between contours, no mountain outlines, only occasional rocks to serve as a guide. We were very anxious to get Pope to a lower altitude, since he would be able to breathe much easier. I carried some of his gear, and Max, the rest, but even with no pack, Bill could hardly move. After an altitude loss of some 300 feet and a time lapse of about two hours, we decided that Bart and Max should go on as fast as possible for help. I am sure that Bill has pneumonia. Today he is delirious but not spitting as much blood as yesterday. He started to take acromycin yesterday, and that seems to be helping.

The storm continued yesterday but today it is beautiful. Mike was nauseated again last night. Margi has her hands full taking care of Pope, for he moans constantly, breath is very short, but not much cough. Margi and I are fine. I got a small dose of white gas poisoning yesterday which I am over now. We eat as much as possible but it is still not much. We are concentrating on resting. Mike and I are sleeping in one bag now, for the nights are very cold at this altitude. Even so, with all clothes on, one is barely warm and wakes up about every two hours shivering to turn over. We are encouraged today to find it clear again—we are hoping that Bart and Max will get to the Valley today, and possibly a helicopter will be able to come in to take us out. Pope's supply of medicine will last him through tomorrow, and after that we can only hope that he will be able to fight it himself.
tents photo

Our tiny tents...

Indeed, Bart and Max did arrive in the Valley after a day and a half of some incredible skiing, first in a whiteout where they simply had to keep their skis headed down hill, then past Washburn Lake, Merced Lake, and into Little Yosemite Valley. They decided to risk taking the shorter but ice-covered Mist Trail after dark and somehow navigated it without mishap. Arriving in the Valley, they alerted the authorities, who began an intensive rescue operation. Meanwhile, we were tending to Bill, shoveling snow off our small two-man tents, keeping an eye on the weather, which at times encouraged us, and hoping for the best.

My diary on the eighth day described a valiant but unsuccessful attempt to move Bill to a lower elevation:

Last night, Mike feeling better, decided grimly that we must make every effort to get Pope down some altitude. We planned to make a sled of his skis, and keeping him in his sleeping bag, pull him across the lakes and sidestep the sled down the steep pitches. We were all feeling much better—lots of hot liquids during the day, and sleep in the warm tent in the sun improved both our physical condition and our morale. It was a very quiet day, with fluffy clouds obliterating the Lyell massif from time to time—impressionistic it seemed to us whenever we got enough energy to peek out of the tent. Later in the day we had some snow flurries which lasted into the night. We were all hoping that Bart and Max could make the 26 miles by that night (a total time traveling of a day and a half).

The night was warmer than usual, and Pope had improved in spite of spacing his pills from every four hours to six hours to conserve them. In fact he was most rambunctious from about 2 a.m. until dawn—charging around in the tent and generally giving Margi a hard time. In spite of the inconvenience, we were all encouraged by his activity.

This morning we woke early and made all preparations for the trip out. Mike made the sled while Margi and I packed the camp. We were ready to go about 10:00—Pope inside his sleeping bag on the sled made of his skis and packframe—Mike and I puling two forward ropes and Margi ready to either pack the trail ahead or to act as a brake from behind. We had just discovered that the sled wouldn't go in the soft snow, when we heard a motor down in the valley below!!!

A minute later a single engine plane came into view and spotted us. It was twice as exciting as the airdrop. Bart and Max had reached the Valley last night, we supposed, and the mountain rescue service was certainly on the ball. The plane circled several times sizing up the situation, then dropped us a note that he would go for a toboggan to drop by parachute, then we should transport Pope to a lake two miles below where he could land. So now we are waiting for him to return sitting on the remains of camp debris scattered indicating the stuff we considered unnecessary for further travel. Pope is singing to himself on his sled. Mike, Margi and I are munching on crumbly candy bars. We have packed a trail part way to the lake. I can hear the plane approaching...

The toboggan scheme did not work. The small plane did drop it to us, but deep snow and bad weather once again stymied our attempt to move to a lower altitude. We had a hard time just getting the empty toboggan back to our camp from where it had landed. Bob Symons, the pilot of the small plane, must have figured out our mobility problem, for he next dropped instructions for packing the snow for a helicopter landing spot on a small knoll above us, marking the site with toilet paper.

But once again, weather intervened. Mike wrote of his frustration on the ninth day:

Palm Sunday. The storm which arose yesterday has worsened during the night and this morning, with winds of 30-60 mph and visibility approx. one mile. Fortunately it is relatively warm—about 15 degrees, which makes the situation somewhat better. It is hopeless to move around outside, however, much less to attempt to pack the toboggan trail for Bill. So here we sit (lie) while undoubtedly the forces of rescue are being equally thwarted by the Sierra weather, which refuses to realize its seasonal worst is past and continues to deposit fresh deep snow.

The rescue people have been very active, dropping a toboggan, gas, food, and medicine. Symons (the pilot) seems to know what he is doing although we are not sure he understands difficulty of moving toboggan uphill to helicopter landing site in this soft snow. We had enough difficulty just bringing it 100 yards to camp yesterday. Tent is being whipped around like fury and my boots are frozen solid, so am not too interested in exploratory stroll today. Even if it cleared up, I doubt they could bring a 'copter in here with present wind conditions. Hope this isn't making too big a splash in the outside world. LSJU (Stanford University) is probably not too happy right now.

My journal entry on the same day elaborated:

Mike has just gone out to clear the snow off the tent, which is pressing down on us and increasing our tent claustrophobia. It is quite a job, since it has snowed some two feet since last night. It is not cold, for which we are thankful. Since the helicopter rescue was not successful yesterday, we imagine that a great deal of activity is present in the valley today.

Visibility is nil—has been all day. Inactivity and the frustration of being cooped up in a somewhat verdant tent—no bath for 9 days plus various smells of gas and food—is not helping our nerves at all. The wind is still blowing. The packs, toboggan, and any other odd articles left outside have been covered over with snow. We have enough gas for two more days at least, and various and assorted foodstuffs for longer than that, if necessary.

Pope is a good deal better today—talking normally and not moaning or coughing. Margi has been quiet in the other tent, and I assume that she is catching up on the sleep Pope has stolen for the last 2 or 3 nights. He really was a menace—charging around the tent, upsetting their cookset and falling on Margi. Several times I thought that he would come shooting right into our tent! Anyway things are quiet inside while we listen to the wind whip the tent alternating with the incessant falling of the snow. The temperature inside the tent is above freezing—the sleeping bag has dried out from where condensation falls continually all night—much like a local snowstorm. My boots are unfrozen for a change— it doesn't really matter anyway, since I put Mike's on whenever I want to go outside for a minute. In the morning we usually thaw them out by sticking the Borde burner (the tiny stove unit) inside the boots in order to get our feet into them. We are all very comfortable and except for the close conditions, happy and well. Probably one of the most valued articles (at least to us!) was the roll of toilet paper marking the plane's original note. We were very low on this commodity, and skimping is hard when it is used for so many purposes.

The rest of the story was a big rush, after all the enforced waiting. Later that day, the weather abated, and Bob Symons dropped us a new note with detailed instructions and a map showing where we should prepare the helicopter landing spot on a small knoll above the frozen lake where we were camped. We busied ourselves with preparations, hoping the break in the weather would continue long enough to allow the helicopter to get to us. But again the storms intervened and clouds enveloped us once again. We spent the night sleeping fitfully, listening to the wind howling outside the tents.

It was barely light when we heard the faint drone of the plane overhead. It was very cold, around zero, but clear. I rushed out of the tent, jammed my feet into my frozen boots, put on my skis, and went to retrieve another note Symons had dropped. It said the helicopter would arrive in an hour, and gave more instructions for packing down and marking the landing spot on the chosen nearby knoll. Mike first went up the hill and packed the landing spot by side-stepping back and forth over area on his skis. I followed with the flares and a sleeping bag for Pope to use. We returned to the tents with a half hour to spare, but before we could go back up with the orange crepe paper and black powder to mark the landing spot as per instructions, the air and sky were suddenly filled with the most alien presence one could imagine.

Helicopter map

The map dropped by the plane

It was a huge helicopter, and it seemed to fill the sky. The roar, echoing off the peaks, was deafening after ten days of silence broken only by the sound of the wind. I started back up the hill, and Mike and Margi helped Bill on his skis, who by this time, was strong enough to stand up and help us help him.

I arrived at the top of the knoll, just as the helicopter settled down. It had to make several tries as one wheel kept sinking precariously into the soft snow. The twin rotors sent up a mini-blizzard like the "snow" in a paperweight. As soon as the rotors stopped, I lurched forward to cover the last few yards and watched as the side doors opened. This was a 26 man Army "flying banana" helicopter, which had been brought from Fort Ord. It had been stripped of all seats and other extraneous gear to enable landing at this never-before attempted altitude. Two men in army fatigues, wearing oxygen masks, leaned out, looking like they might need help jumping down. I reached out my hand to help, only to find they were trying to hand me an oxygen mask! The scene was like some Star Trek encounter of creatures from two entirely different galaxies! I suddenly realized that when anyone flies at this altitude, above 10,000 feet, they have to have oxygen! But we six had done it the hard way—on our own power—to climb to this altitude, and we were fully acclimatized and okay, except for Bill.

One by one, we piled into the cavernous space of the helicopter, and held our breath as it strained to lift off. Would it fly? At first it dipped alarmingly as it left the knoll. Then slowly it began to move horizontally instead of down. Gathering speed, we followed the valley of the headwaters of the Merced River, the route Bart and Max had taken, then down through Little Yosemite, past Vernal and Nevada Falls. We passed the summit of Half Dome at eye level, and then the other familiar granite cliffs and landmarks of the Valley. In just minutes we were landing on an asphalt parking lot near the Visitor Center.

Lennie and Margie Photo

Margi Meyer (left) and Lennie Lamb in front of Yosemite Park Headquarters—just after being rescued

Of course all our premonitions of media mania were correct. We had been in the national news for four days, which hyped our plight as "stranded on a rocky ledge." In addition to the air rescue, a ten-person party had set off on skis to reach us. The continuing storms made the story into an irresistible drama. Were we dead or alive? What would be our fate?

Epilogue:
The helicopter rescue set a high altitude record. Pilots John Cooney and William Williams received Distinguished Flying Crosses. The pilot of the single engine plane, Civil Air Patrol member Bob Symons, was killed three weeks later in a glider accident.

Bill Pope was hospitalized for several days, but he fully recovered from what turned out to be a fairly common high altitude syndrome, pulmonary edema. Bill continued his medical studies, became a doctor, and subsequently devoted most of his career to public health. The other five of us returned to Stanford the day after spring quarter classes started, none the worse for wear.

Our group of six plans a reunion this summer in Tuolumne Meadows to celebrate the Golden Anniversary of the Great Trans-Sierra Ski Trip!

The rest of the story...
For Mike and me, Spring Quarter turned out to be even more of a whirlwind than Winter Quarter. Although we had casually dated and been on several group ski trips together prior to the Trans Sierra Trip, we were not seriously involved. But we had been through a life-challenging situation on the mountain, and we had kept our cool, modified our plans, used common sense and survival techniques that concluded in a successful rescue. We came out of our adventure with new confidence that together we could weather serious storms and physical challenges. Just a week after the trip we became engaged and were married seven months later.

MMR/LLR Slide Mtn. photo

Lennie and Mike at Slide Mountain - Spring 1958

So, did I catch him on a mountain, or was it the other way around? The real answer is that we probably caught each other.

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© 2008 Jennifer Roberts
Last Update: April 18, 2008