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Tahoe man retraces Snowshoe Thompson’s tracks

With silver-dollar sized blisters on his feet and with freezing rain dripping off the brim of his hat, South Lake Tahoe’s Rick Gunn completed his arduous, 90-mile journey Monday by laying a red carnation at the grave of Snowshoe Thompson.

For the past five days, Gunn retraced Thompson’s footsteps, crossing the Sierra Nevada alone.

And like Thompson, he crossed the mountain range undaunted by a bitter storm to hand-deliver a bag full of mail to grateful recipients.



“I have a whole new respect for Snowshoe Thompson,” Gunn said. “But the reality of climbing those mountains really struck home.”

In December, Gunn together with Marianna Gillilan, a fifth-grade teacher at Bordewich-Bray Elementary School, proposed the class write letters to fellow pupils at Sierra Accelerated School in Placerville.




In early January, Gillilan mailed 34 letters from Carson City and on Jan. 12, Gunn traveled to Placerville, collected the mail and set off at 6 a.m. the following morning.

For the next four days, Gunn climbed out of Placerville, carrying his pack full of supplies, including telemark skis, a tent, camp stove, freeze-dried food and camera equipment. Gunn is a photographer for the Nevada Appeal.

Gunn linked up with the old railroad and hiked 20 miles to Jenkinson Lake at the base of the Mormon Emigrant Trail. Gunn said he was struck by the beauty of the wilderness, but said he was equally struck by his sore feet.

“It felt like a small long-toothed rodent burrowing into my feet,” he said.

The following morning, he set out from Pollock Pines, picking up a bag full of winter gear. Anticipating that the route would be snow covered, his belongings were packed in a sled. Since it hadn’t snowed since late December, he dragged the sled for 15 miles along asphalt, climbing 3,000 vertical feet. He carried his skis 40 miles before he hit the snow line.

By Friday, Gunn said he had fallen behind schedule. He cut back on the number of breaks he took. Just short of his goal of reaching Silver Lake, he recognized the telltale signs of hypothermia and dehydration, he pitched his tent for the night, and sipping snow melt, he tried to warm up.

“It was one of the most brutal days,” he said.

By Saturday, Gunn said he felt broken and close to giving up. With tears welling in his eyes, he said the only thing that kept him going was the pledge he made to the pupils.

“I just kept thinking of the kids and how disappointed they would be if I didn’t show up,” he said.

On Saturday, he called his girlfriend, Brenda Sweet, and she and his close friend, Taylor Flynn, met up with him to lend moral support.

“If it wasn’t for Taylor and Brenda I wouldn’t have made it,” he said.

He wrapped up Saturday, by skiing down Carson Spur, an avalanche area, into Kirkwood.

There he stayed at a friend’s cabin, where he showered, ate a hot meal and dressed his blistered feet.

Sunday, the final day, he described as “the day from hell.”

He walked from Carson Pass on Highway 88 and skied alongside the road.

“With people racing to ski resorts, I thought how things have changed since Thompson’s day,” he said.

He skied to Red Lake. From there he walked for the next 13 miles until he reached Genoa on late Sunday night.

Gunn delivered his letters at Thompson’s grave at the Genoa Cemetery to 10-year-old Catheryne Frey.

Gillilan’s class would open the letters in school Tuesday.

Samantha Wells, 10, braved the wintry day to welcome Gunn.

“I think it was really courageous and really brave,” she said. “I couldn’t fall asleep last night thinking about him.”

Matt McKinnie, 11, also in Gillilan’s class, said he would have walked to Genoa to meet Gunn if he had to.

“It was just important to greet him, especially with all those blisters on his feet,” he said.

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