Red Lake Peak

17 Mar 1996 - by Lt john c Fremont

Arun didn't mention it in his trip report, but Red Lake Peak is the first recorded peak climb in the Range of Light. Francis P. Farquhar, in the History of the Sierra Nevada , quotes the diaries of first ascenders Lt. John C. Fremont and Charles Preuss:


Feb 13, 1843: "Today the 'field marshal' marched out with a party on snowshoes to open up a way to the summit, about ten miles distant, it appears. Tomorrow we shall probably know whether it is possible to get through. No longer any salt in camp. This is awful ... We are now completely snowed in. The snowstorm is on top of us. The wind obliterates all tracks which, with indescribable effort, we make for our horses. At the moment no one can tell what will really happen. It is certain that we shall have to eat horse meat. I should not mind if we only had salt."


Feb 13, 1843: "We had tonight an extraordinary dinner - pea soup, mule and dog."

Feb 14, 1844: "With Mr. Preuss, I ascended today the highest peak to the right: from which we had a beautiful view of a mountain lake at our feet, about fifteen miles in length, and so entirely surrounded by mountains that we could not discover an outlet."

Farquhar interjects, "Here is the first recorded mention of one of the great scenic features of the Sierra, Lake Tahoe. It is also the first account of an identifiable mountain ascent in the Sierra. They were on Red Lake Peak. Fremont with the spirit of a true mountaineer not only climbed to observe the lay of the land but remained on top to enjoy the view."


"From the immediate foot of the peak we were two hours in reaching the summit, and one hour and a quarter in descending. The day had been very bright, still, and clear, and spring seems to be advancing rapidly. While the sun is in the sky, the snow melts rapidly, and gushing springs cover the mountain in all exposed places; but their surface freezes instantly with the disappearance of the sun."

Leonard Daughenbaugh writes:

The author indicated that the Fremont/Preuss ascent of that peak on 2/14/1843 was the "first recorded peak climb in the Range of Light." He used Farquhar's book as authority. Farquhar wrote that this ascent "was the first account of an identifiable mountain ascent in the Sierra." Of the two statements Farquhar is correct because he uses the term "identifiable mountain ascent."

The first "recorded peak climb" in the Sierra, however, was made by Jedediah Strong Smith in 1827. Smith was in charge of a fur trapping expedition, later to be known as the "Southwestern Expedition." The plan for this group was to travel southwest and eventually reach what they hoped would be profitable trapping grounds in the rivers of Spanish California. After a long, arduous journey, they found themselves in Spanish America at the San Gabriel Mission. At that time, however, American trappers were unwelcome in Spanish America and they were ordered to leave. Instead of retracing their steps as ordered, however, Smith decided to explore new territory and moved to the northeast. He traveled to the western foothills of the Sierra and then moved in a northwesterly direction paralleling the Range. Smith described the Sierra as "The Mountain on the East which I called St Joseph in honor of one of the best of men father Joseph Sances of St Gabriel..." Unable to find a low pass in the Sierra, Smith decided to attempt a crossing anyway. Once he entered the range, he turned to the north. He probably began on the Stanislaus (his Appelamminy), and moved north via the Calaveras (his Mac-al-lum-bry), the Mokelumne (his Rock River), and the Consumnes (his Indian River). Once he reached the American River (his Wild River), he turned east but was stopped by the snow. It was at this point, with Smith trying to decide what to do, that he made his ascent. Smith wrote, "These reflections were passing rapidly through my mind as I stod on a high Peak in advance of my party having called a halt for the purpose of viewing the prospect before me. Far as the eye could see on every side high rugged Peaks arose covered with Eternal snow...." Unfortunately, we will never know which peak this was, but, in any case, it was the "first recorded peak climb" in the Sierra. This ascent probably took place during the early part of May in 1827. As an interesting side light, Smith was also the first non-Native American to name a Sierra peak. On the day after his first ascent, he wrote: "On the north a short distance was...a Peak that seemed to rise far above any other part of the Mt. Among many lofty Peaks it seemed the Giant of the scene. To this summit I had the vanity to attach my name. If an honor it was dearly won as those will admit whose fortune it may be hereafter to follow my steps." Some believe this was Pyramid Peak, but which peak he named will never be known for sure. To end the story, while on the peak he climbed, Smith decided to move his party back to the Stanislaus where they would winter. Smith and two of his men retraced their steps, and then crossed the Sierra crest in the vicinity of Ebbets Pass, and thus became the first non-Native Americans to cross the Range.

The reference is: Brooks, George R., Editor. The Southwest Expedition of Jedediah S. Smith. His Personal Account of the Journey to California 1826-1827. The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1977, pages 123-170.

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