Friday, December 23, 2016

Lost: A True Story
By Jim L White

It had been a great day of skiing at Sugar Bowl, even though it had stormed all day. The storm had brought lots of that cold light powder snow Sugar Bowl ski area has been famous for. We had been riding the chairlift and skiing on Mt. Disney during the storm. There was a poma lift and a rope tow lift too at Sugar Bowl, but the Disney chairlift was the only chairlift in the Donner Summit area during the winter of 1946-47.

 We were all so young, most of us just out of the armed forces after World War 2. This was a Sacramento Jr. College (later called Sacramento City College) Ski Club ski trip. We had met early that morning at the old Gibson Bus station on 12th street in Sacramento for a ski club day outing at Sugar Bowl. Most of us skied at Soda Springs ski hill, where all they had was a J bar and a rope tow lift. Going to Sugar Bowl to ride the Disney chairlift was a really big deal to us. We of course rode on the tractor pulled sled from Soda Springs all the way into the Sugar Bowl. What a lot of happy laughing college kids, the Donner Blizzard underway was no problem for us at all

After the hard day of skiing in the storm and back in the bus at Soda Springs we were ready to head down the hill and go home. The bus lurched forward and out on old highway 40, heading down the hill when the leader started a head count. Something was not right, the count was wrong. Was someone missing? Someone asked where Grant Cox was and no one seems to know. The leader yelled at the driver to stop. He counted heads again. We were one person short!

 Grant Cox was a really good skier and mountain man. He was older than most of us, mid 20s or so. Grant had been in the Rangers, a specially trained combat unit, trained to survive in any weather conditions. Survival skills were a Rangers main game. They were experts in survival. He would be O.K., probably just missed the tractor sled train leaving the bowl at 4pm. He was probably hoofing it out along the edge of Lake Van Norden. Nothing to do though but to send a party back up the road to look and if he was not on the road to check out the lodge at Sugar Bowl. A small party of volunteers got off the bus to go search, the rest of the group continued on to Sacramento. A phone call later that night confirmed that Grant’s model A Ford was still parked at the Gibson Bus Depot, his ski-trooper ruck sack was found at the bottom of the chairlift where he had left it that morning. The search for Grant Cox, ex U.S. Ranger, Mountain Man, and expert skier was on.

The Donner Blizzard continued all night with more than four feet of new snow on the ground by the next morning. Many of the ski club members had returned by morning along with many volunteers from the Soda Springs and Truckee area. We formed a search party of about 25 people, headed by U.S.F.S. ranger Max Williamson. Later Constable Johansson from Tahoe City joined the party, representing Placer County. At Sugar Bowl, interrogation of ski club members in regards to who had seen Grant last, revealed that I had been the last one to see him. He had ridden up the lift with me at about 3:25pm just before the lift closed at 4pm. He was wearing a ski trooper reversible ski parka with the white side out. We got off the lift on top of Mt. Disney in zero visibility. Grant turned east, headed toward the Palisades (a ridge of rock pinnacles along the highest ridge) and I turned toward the west, headed down the Meadow Run. Grant was not visible to me after about 20 feet of travel. This was my last run for the day since the storm had been very tiring.  The lift closed at 4pm and it was dark almost at once.

 Bill Kline, head of the Sugar Bowl Ski School talked to the search party about snow safety. Bill said avalanches were going to be a major danger to our search party.   Bill introduced a Swiss ski instructor named Rusty who gave us a 30 min lecture on avalanche survival, telling us the avalanche danger was extreme and teaching us how to swim if we were caught in a avalanche. He warned us to stay away from the Palisades and the bottom of any steep north facing slopes. The bottom of Mt. Lincoln was also to be avoided.  The search group was very somber. It had been snowing more than one inch each hour all night with no let up in sight. Rusty looked grim as we were divided up into search teams of 3. We had no radios or way to notify others if Grant was found (only the military had walkie talkies) so we were told the ski school bell would be rung which would be a signal to return to the lodge. My team was assigned to ride up the lift and ski along the ridge to the Crow’s nest (a rock pinnacle along the ridge to the west) calling out Grant’s name as loud as we could. After reaching the Crow’s Nest we descended in waist deep snow and plodded over to the upper end of Lake Van Norden. Most of the searchers were dressed in war surplus ski clothing, since regular ski clothing was expensive and not much of it was really on the market for us to buy. The mostly cotton and nylon ski parkas were soon soaked from the warming storm and felt like they weighed a ton. Our skis were made of laminated wood and equipped with cable bindings which when adjusted loosely, permitted our heels to rise up and made hiking in the heavy snow possible. We had to stop from time to time to scrape frozen ice from the bottom of our skis. This added to our labor in this deep soft snow. Most of our ski bottoms were pine tarred or painted with a coating to permit them to slide, and this worked poorly in this kind of snow.  

 Back at the lodge we found every one soaked and tired but willing to go out again. Several very loud roars were heard as avalanches thundered down from the Palisades and Mt. Lincoln. We were warned again not to go near that area since it was too dangerous. This of course was the very area Grant was last seen heading for. We searched until dark and found nothing.

That night we were housed in the Chalet ( separate from the main lodge, it was equipped with bunk beds and was a less expensive way to stay at Sugar Bowl) and were fed bowls of hot beef stew and French bread which we wolfed down as only exhausted young men could do. We sat around after dinner and wondered if Grant could have gone south over the summit ridge and into the Onion Creek drainage. This was a wild steep area which drained into the north fork of the American River.  If we went down into Onion Creek in this very deep snow, how would we ever get back up the hill?   Lying in bed that night we listened to the wind howl and the snow blow against the windows of the chalet. I wondered where Grant, right at this moment could be? It stormed all night.

The storm continued for 4 more days with highway 40 closed most of the time. The storm turned so warm that it almost rained on our already soaked clothing. We had done every thing we could do, and it was not enough. The search was called off at this time.  The Sugar Bowl staff was to keep an eye out for Grant the rest of the winter and we agreed to meet the next summer for a ground search, after the snow had melted, but nothing was found.

To our great sadness, Grant Cox was never seen again, nor was his remains ever located.

Copyrighted 2007
 By: Jimmy L White
Auburn, California

Footnote:  This story first was published in the February 2008 issue of Sierra Heritage magazine. About 2 months later I was contacted by a woman, who someone had sent my story, who said she was on our ski-bus trip and had been with Grant Cox at Sugar Bowl that day. She also stated that she was engaged to marry Grant Cox. She reminded me that she had pounded on the bus door when the bus was ready to leave, to see if Grant was in the bus. Her call jarred my memory and I did remember her pounding on the door and asking about Grant. This was followed by our head count and the first discovery that Grant Cox was indeed missing. In her call to me, 62 years after our ski trip, she wanted to know if Grant had ever been found? I was in shock that this woman was still remembering our trip and still wondering if Grant had been found. I told her no” that Grant had not been found and then she mentioned “how hard it had been on Grant’s parents and her. Talk about a “ghost from out of my past”. I still cannot forget our loss of Grant Cox.

Skier with the Palisades in the background where we think Grant died in an avalanche.
A ski searcher on the ridge behind Mt. Lincoln in a storm.

Friday, July 29, 2016


Late at night, deep in the dark and cold snow sheds of the Southern Pacific Railroad near Donner Pass, Fong, the Chinese cook sat alone smoking cigarettes and reading his Chinese newspaper. The snow was deep on the sheds and as usual, Fong was waiting for the next train to stop on the nearby tracks, and the crew that would come in for dinner and the hot coffee perking in the pot nearby. Fong was the full time cook for the A.V. Moan Co. of San Francisco who operated the 24 hour commissary near Norden, California from at least the late 1940’s to the late 1960’s.
Out of the corner of his eye, Fong saw the light go out in the hall way outside of the door leading into this restaurant deep in the Norden snow sheds. He got up, went into the back room to get a new bulb and then walked thru the kitchen to the door going out to the long tunnel-ramp that led down from the tracks above. He reached up to un-screw the bulb and the light came on. The bulb was only loose. That was funny, Fong would say later,” how come bulb loose by self”. He screwed the bulb in firmly and returned to his seat behind the stainless steel counter, his cigarette and newspaper.  He turned the page and noticed the light in the outside hall went out again. It could not be vibration from a passing train that loosened the bulb since no train had passed by in some time. He got up, went out the door and found the bulb loose again.” How come, how come “ Fong would shout in his sing-song English and then suddenly, Fong was seeing stars in the light bulb with severe pain in his head and neck as the butt of a rifle crashed into his skull and caused him to fall to the floor. All Fong could think of to do was to scream in Chinese at the top of his lungs. In fact his screaming was so loud that it frightened his attackers who ran out a back door that opened out to the deep snow on the hillside below.
Leaving a trail of blood, Fong made his was back into the kitchen and in broken English on the railroad phone got the dispatcher in Roseville to call the sheriff’s office to report the robbery. The next morning the sheriff’s officers found and followed deep foot tracks in the snow, heading toward Sugar Bowl. There were two of them, Mexican track hands that were caught hiding in the trees nearby.
I first met Fong Quong back in the late 1940’s when I was working as a weekend ski patroller at the Soda Springs Ski Area. This was back when “Mad Dog Dick Buek” was the hottest skier on the summit and his father Carl, checked tickets and loaded skiers on the pomo lift and rope tow at Soda Springs Ski Area.. I remember well since my girlfriend charmed Carl into letting her ride the lift without buying a ticket. I guess we were a rag tag group of college kids with our war surplus clothing and ski-trooper white skis. A chance to eat at a very low cost was too good to pass up. The word was out. All you had to do was enter the huge dark wooden snow sheds just east of Soda Springs and walk in the dark for about one quarter of a mile to where a lone light bulb above a door marked the entrance to the long covered ramp that led down to the S.P. Commissary. The trick was to not get hit by a train that could come around a bend in the sheds with a terrible roar and noise while we clung to the walls of the shed, inches from the huge steel monster. One had to believe that there was enough space between the train and the walls of the snow shed for us to cling to life and survive this monster of a train. The noise was terrifying.
I always thought Fong must have known how poor we college kids were because a complete steak dinner, fried potatoes, canned green peas, all the coffee you could drink, and a slab of pie always cost one dollar. That was one dollar for all of us. It did not seem to matter how many of us there were, since later, when my girlfriend and I went alone, it was still “ won dallar”.  The pie was always a deep-dish fruit pie; each pie cut in four pieces and a piece a whole meal by itself.
Years later after college and two careers later, my job led me to wander over old Donner Pass on highway 40 from to time and I would stop on the edge of the highway just up the hill from the Sierra Club lodge, walk down the steep rough hillside to the small opening in the huge wooden snow sheds and brave the dark, to walk towards Soda Springs and the single light bulb above the door leading down to the Commissary and my friend Fong.
After I read in the paper about the robbery and injury of Fong, I hurried up to Norden to hear the story from Fong himself. I of course had the wonderful steak dinner, fried potatoes, and this time canned corn, with one quarter of a cherry pie. Twenty years later it was still only “won dallar”. I felt like I was home again! I asked Fong to tell me his frightening story himself and asked if he had recovered? I also wondered how he had been doing at the gambling tables in Reno. Fong’s working hours were twenty-four hours each day, seven days a week. He was given ( or took on his own) an afternoon each month when he would take the Greyhound bus to Reno to gamble. Sometimes he won which he talked about, but he never mentioned it when his “luck run out”. This time he said his “luck veery bad” and “he go home China”. I was not sure I heard him right so I asked again and he said, “ Fong luck veery bad, he go home China to die”. I heard him right this time a sat there in shock! I could not imagine Donner Summit with out my friend Fong. I tried to talk him out of it, but then he explained, he “ not want to die far from home”. He had been loosing at his gambling, and almost getting killed by the robbers was just too much. Time to go home to die.
Fong was always very polite to us, hustled around the kitchen to fix our meals when we were kids in college and years latter when we stopped by as working adults, was still very polite to everyone. The train crews that came in while we were there spoke to Fong as if he was dumb, and berated him for almost everything. A number of steaks were returned by the train crews and some nights the  racial insults were embarrassing to hear. It seems that the abuse of the Chinese who worked on the railroad was not limited to the building of the railroad in the 1870’s but continued a hundred years later.
Somehow I think Fong must have been received in China as someone special, and found his peace at last. He was a good human being and I still miss him and the old wooden snow sheds which are now gone. They have been replaced by concrete snow sheds and the train crews are on their own when in comes to eating at Norden. I can’t even find a steak dinner for $10.00 on Donner Summit now days.

Copyright 2016  Jimmy L White-Auburn, Ca.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

By Jim and Shirley White

Tahoe National Forest Supervisor Richard Bigelow saddled up his horse at Emigrant Gap, mounted, and headed south for Westville on the Foresthill divide to investigate a report of a large forest fire burning near Michigan Bluff. It was 5 A.M. on August 1, 1909. Ranger Bigelow had given orders to the trail crew at Mumford’s Bar on May 18th, to build a trail from Mumford’s Bar on the North Fork of the American River to Emigrant Gap for just this kind of emergency. He had a report that the trail was completed and now was the time not only to inspect the trail job, but to use this new trail to lend a hand in fighting this important fire.
Ranger Bigelow rode his horse across the North Fork of the North Fork, the East Fork of the North Fork and then climbed almost one thousand feet up Texas Hill where he continued south three miles and hit the new Mumford’s bar trailhead at a place that was later named Government Springs. Later he would have a water trough installed there for travelers to water their horses before the terrible two thousand feet decent to the American River and a gold miner’s cabin called Mumford’s Bar Cabin. Upstream from Mumford’s Bar about 7 miles was the jewel of the North Fork called the Royal Gorge because of the remarkable beauty of the river running thru the huge soring cliffs between Snow Mountain and the Wabena Ridge.  
One hundred and four years later, on November 30, 2013, my wife Shirley and I headed south from Emigrant Gap in our jeep, along this same trail to photograph the Royal Gorge of the North Fork of the American River. About eight miles of the old trail is now a road and paved. At the end of the pavement we turned east off the old trail on forest road 19, a dirt road, headed for the abandoned site of the Big Valley Bluff fire lookout. Two thousand feet below the old site we could see both downstream to the Mumford’s Bar Cabin and upstream to Heath Springs, in the upper part of the canyon. Just below the lookout site hidden in the trees was Palmer Camp, a mining camp used during the Great Depression by a miner named Palmer who raised his family there. The old Palmer cabin on the north side of the river was still standing during my last visit 20 years ago. This year we could see at least a mile of the river was dry, with only a hidden flow of water below the river gravel. We laughed as we remembered back in 1947 when we had driven my 1946 Pontiac out to Government Springs and had hiked down to the river and back in one day. Shirley was 18 and I was 20 years old and that hike almost killed us.
In late July, 1955 I had visited with Bill Watson, Forest Service lookout at Big Valley Bluff lookout, who told me of seeing several Golden Eagles flying below his lookout on some days. The old trail to the lookout was rough back in the 1950’s, and I had to hike a mile from my car to get to this outstanding view. Parts of the old trail to the lookout are still visible to this day. The lookout of course is long gone.
On this recent trip to the lookout the weather was perfect. Not a breath of air was stirring, and a few clouds made the scene special. We photographed the Royal Gorge and the river canyon below from a number of promontories to the east of the lookout, always looking below, hoping to see an Eagle. After a couple of hours it was time to go and we reluctantly headed the jeep up along the sharp ridge out with one glance back down the canyon. And there they were, two Golden Eagles, with fixed wings, gliding below us. I let out a yell, stopped the jeep, grabbed the camera with the long lens, and drew down on the birds below. The auto focus lens would not focus! The target was too small, the lens was not fast enough to focus, who knows what went wrong? We missed the shot. The birds apparently landed below the point of the cliff where we could not see them. We were to photograph no eagles today.
Ranger Bigelow rode his horse down into the American River canyon 2000 feet below Government Springs and then back up to the Foresthill road at Westville where he ate dinner. After dinner he received a message that the fire had jumped over Deadwood Ridge. He saddled back up and was on the fire line by 4 PM.  He supervised the fire fight till midnight, slept on the line waiting for daylight. He then worked on the fire line the next 3 days and established a camp to feed the fire fighters.  After this fire was out Ranger Bigelow rode his horse up Ralston Ridge, to French Meadows and three days later arrived back home in Nevada City.
While sitting on the cliff at Big Valley Bluff and looking down on Mumford’s Bar, we talked about Ranger Bigelow and his epic horse trips throughout the Tahoe National Forest. I have a copy of his diary, but I really wish he had had a camera. The Royal Gorge must have been even more royal those many years ago.

 Ranger Supervisor Bigelow

American River in the Royal George

Copyright 2016 by Jimmy L White

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

By Jim L White

Shirley looking at the area of my adventure

I remember the “deer hair spider” dry fly floating on the surface of Needle Lake, the rush of adrenalin that caused my rod arm to strike and bury the steel of the barbless hook into the Brook Trout’s jaw. A yell from my son Randy from across the lake, he had a fish on too! A fish on every few minutes was the rule that day so many years ago. Surely I could relive those moments again today?
I parked the truck along the “Johnny Hodson-Lyons Peak” road just south of Red Star Ridge that late August day in 1960. Un-loading my two Labradors, Sage and Molly, with my rod in my hand and small rucksack with my day gear on my back, I headed up the hill to cross Red Star ridge to my east in what looked like on my map, a shortcut in to Needle Lake. Not only did I want to fish the lake a little to check on fish survival from the winter freeze, but also check the lake for fishermen. Another reason I wanted to do this hike was, if possible, find a hidden deer camp I had had rumors about. The information was that hunters from this camp often crossed over Red Star Ridge (the game refuge boundary) from their camp and illegally hunted deer in the French Meadows Game Refuge. You see I was in fact working as a California State Fish and Game Warden, stationed in Auburn, California. This was my job.
Climbing up the steep hillside was easy, but on the other side I discovered a huge basin of truck sized granite blocks I must climb thru. Somewhere below those Granite blocks might be the hidden deer camp. I had to lift the dogs many times over huge rocks and carry them thru some bad crevasses to make it into the timber. I decided that when we returned, we were going to follow the high ridge that ran from Needle Peak to Lyons Peak, where walking should be easier along the ridge top, even though it was longer.
We found the deer camp in a little meadow in the thick timber. The tree trunks at the camp were hanging with pots and pans, grills, ladles and dippers, all the makings of a deer camp. The ashes were old and the campfire had not been used yet this year. Deer season opened next month and I was already making plans to be on the refuge boundary ridge above on my horse ready to intercept hunters if they came.
The hike to the lake from the deer camp took only an hour more and I found no one there. Might as well check and see if the trout were home. On my first cast, the Deer Hair fly hooked up with a good sized brook trout and the fight was on. After I released the fish I looked up and saw lightning strike the rock needle on the high ridge above. We ran for shelter too late and were drenched by the heavy down pour from the thunder storm that came out of nowhere.
The dogs and I hid under a thick young Red Fir tree, one small enough not to attract lightning I hoped. Three hours later there was no let- up in the storm. I thought for sure it would be over by four PM, time for me to get back to the truck while still daylight. No such luck. I studied the map and the only safe way with all the lightning along the ridge above, was to go down and cross the many small tributaries of the North Fork of the American River and hike out the trail down to the Cedars, a settlement of summer homes along the river.  There I could hit the French Meadows road back to the Hodson-Lyons’s Peak road where I had turned off and driven over Red Star Ridge. It looked like a twelve mile walk, but I was young, felt strong and it was better than spending the night in the rain at Needle Lake.
Fording all the many hip deep tributaries to the American River was a wet, cold experience. The North Fork itself, although roaring swift was not bad. The river was waist deep water, but a good rock bottom. On the other side of the river was the main trail. I had it made. All I had was about eleven more miles, much in the dark and rain and I would be at my truck.
 After an hour I was at the Cedars, very cold and wishing I could find someone to drive me to my truck. This is when I thought of spending the night at the Sherman Chickering cabin at the original Soda Springs nearby. This was the site of the old Hopkins Hotel, from the late 1880’s. Sherman had been president of the California Fish and Game Commission when I had guided the Commission members and some legislators into Upper Fish Valley, Alpine County to see the rare Paiute Trout, we were trying to save. He had mentioned if I was ever in the area of the Cedars to please stop by. Boy did I need the warmth and comfort of that cabin now. There was a light on in the cabin but no one was home. I thought of taking shelter on his porch, but it was too cold and a little snow was beginning to fall. Maybe I could get a ride on the nearby county road?
Two hours of hiking later it had become very dark and a soft snow was falling. I had turned off the French Meadows road and was hiking high up the Hodson’s-Lyons Peak road when I saw the silhouette of a man with a hat on crossing the road ahead of me. The strong smell of a large band of sheep nearby made me think it might be a Basque Sheepherder that I had saw. But he had disappeared. When I got up the road higher a man stepped out of the black and said something I could not understand. Then I saw him make the motion of drinking a cup of coffee. I tried to talk and say yes, but I could only let out a croak. I was too cold to talk. Down the dark hillside I followed him to the sheep camp and a warm crackling fire.  Barking dogs that snarled at my dogs were cursed and remanded to the fireside. My exhausted and tired dogs lay on one side of the campfire, the herder’s dogs on the other. I knew only another one half mile up the road was my truck, and two hours later I would be home. The herder offered me a mug of hot coffee, lamb stew, and sourdough bread just baked in the campfire. I shivered and ate until I felt warm again. I was safe from the storm.   

Needle Lake

Copyright 2016 by Jim L White

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Ray Nilsson has gone off to ride the high country, forever. We lost Fish and Game Patrol Captain Ray Nilsson  on Jan. 24,2016. Ray was born on Aug.9,1924. He had a wonderful life. His last assignment was as Fish and Game Patrol Captain(Yerka). He was part of band of men who spent the working days protecting California's wildlife and other natural resources. He was at one time part of my Wildlife Protection squad, headquartered in Auburn, Ca. who worked 5 counties, from Donner Pass, Nevada County  south to Sonora Pass. Each man was responsible for about one thousand square miles each. This was back in the time when Wardens worked as many hours as it took to do the job. Many did not take vacation, because there was no one to cover for them. Here is my squad who worked the high country and made me proud.

They were(from the left to right) Bill Hart,(south Lake Tahoe), Ernie Skinner,(Sutter Creek) Curt Kastner,(Georgetown) Artie Brown,(Markleeville) Ed Johnson, (Placerville)Wayne Caldwell,( Auburn) and Ray Nilsson(Foresthill)/ . All are now gone, except, to my knowledge, Curt Kastner.
I now know I loved every one of them. They worked hard, played hard, and lived the outdoor life many men only dream of. God bless them all. I will miss them, and my Fish and Game life forever.