In 1855, an American farmhand called John Thompson saw an advert in the Sacramento Union: “Uncle Sam Needs a Mail Carrier.” The federal government wanted someone to haul letters and packages across the snowy Sierra Nevada mountains, in winter – a terrifying 180-mile round trip involving 10,000ft of steep climbs and another 10,000ft of treacherous descents. Thompson, who had skied as a child in his native Norway, built a pair of rudimentary skis and signed up.
For the next 20 years, says Jeff Moag in Adventure Journal, “Snowshoe Thompson” made the round trip twice each month, three days out and two back. He carried a 36kg bag and little else – “no blankets or tent, no map or compass, only matches and a bit of jerky and crackers”. He usually slept in a cave, or beneath overhanging rocks, burning pine cones for warmth. He is said to have “never once lost his way”.
During his trips Thompson “saved the lives of at least four men”. In one epic rescue operation, he “travelled 400 miles on skis and 100 on horseback, in just 10 days”. In another, he found three men stranded eight miles up a narrow pass and carried each of them down on the back of his skis.
The one sadness of Thompson’s tale is that he “never got a dime from the federal government”. He died in 1876, aged 49. But his legacy lives on. Today, he is fondly “remembered as the father of California skiing”.
Read the full piece here.