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  • Writer's pictureNancy Herman

Climbing the Sierra: October 1846

Updated: Oct 19, 2021

(The eastern slope of the Sierra from Reno, Nevada. When the Donner Party camped here, it was called Truckee Meadows, and the nervous pioneers noticed a sprinkling of snow on the mountain summits each morning.)

Trees! Virginia Reed and the Donner Party finally reached the end of the Great Basin, where the Truckee River greeted them with the first trees they’d seen in weeks–red and gold leafed aspens and cottonwoods waving from its banks. The party camped for a few days at Truckee Meadows, which today is the city of Reno, Nevada. Looking west from camp, they would follow the Truckee River through their last hurdle to California–the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

It was here that George Donner cut his hand while mending a wagon axle. The infection that followed forced him and the other Donners to stay in Truckee Meadows an extra day or two, while Virginia and her family, as well as the other families in the party, started up the eastern slope of the Sierra without them.

Virginia later wrote, “Winter had set in a month earlier than usual. All trails and roads were covered; and our only guide was the summit which it seemed we would never reach.”

Unable to struggle another step through the now-deep drifts, party members collapsed from fatigue just four miles from the summit pass. A storm hit as they slept. When they awoke the next morning, the pass was closed by snow. They were trapped.

(Left: In this famous illustration of Donner Party struggles, the exhausted pioneers try to drive their oxen and other weakened animals up the final ascent to the pass.)

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