Looking West at Donner Pass – those rocks are not easy to climb, even in summer.

Take a look at these beautiful pictures, taken over the town of Truckee (CA), just north of Lake Tahoe,  at the northern edge of the Sierra Nevada. It’s mid-November, and snow is beginning to fill in the high country. The large granite crags at the western edge of Donner Lake (the approach to Donner Pass) are visible – but already showing their winter coat.  To the east, we can look into the Great Basin of North America. At the foot of the hills in which we find ourselves, the city of Reno – planted in a valley known as the Truckee Meadows. These pictures were taken out of opposite sides of my RV-8, and the flying time from Truckee Meadows to the Donner Pass is about ten minutes.

Looking east – back to the comparatively low Truckee Meadows (now known as Reno, NV.)

This perspective is interesting, considering that way back in the 1846, a party of settlers found themselves trapped on the shores of Donner Lake by winter. They made bad decisions all the way across the plains and got here late – just in time to be stranded by snow depths of twelve to twenty feet. To them, the world was as big as what they could see, and their focus was entirely on going forward.  What they failed to recognize was the possibility of turning back. The approach to Donner Lake from Truckee Meadows – a trail they had just traversed – was not all that steep. And the winter in the Meadows is far from severe – even in a bad year, like the one they faced. They were looking forward, for their destination lay just about 80 miles ahead, they just had to cross the pass and descend the western slopes to get there.

Today, seeing it from an airplane, it is so obvious that they should have called it a year, retreated a bit, had a nice cozy winter camp, then headed west in the spring. But they couldn’t see what we see, they only knew that they had crossed the wilderness, and wanted to be back in what amounted to civilization – supplies and other people. We have that perspective today, because we can climb into the sky on silvered wings and see for hundreds of miles. It is important, however, to realize that a hundred miles is nothing in an airplane – but a very, very long walk on foot.

Think about this the next time you fly over rugged country and can see the valley that holds your destination just fifty miles ahead. It looks so close – and it is, so long as your engine keep running, and the weather doesn’t close in. But put your boots back on the ground, and you’re no different from the Donners and their companions. The world is mighty big if you have to walk out of all those rocks and trees.

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Paul Dye
Paul Dye, KITPLANES® Editor at Large, retired as a Lead Flight Director for NASA’s Human Space Flight program, with 40 years of aerospace experience on everything from Cubs to the Space Shuttle. An avid homebuilder, he began flying and working on airplanes as a teen and has experience with a wide range of construction techniques and materials. He flies an RV-8 and SubSonex jet that he built, an RV-3 that he built with his pilot wife, as well as a Dream Tundra and an electric Xenos motorglider they completed. Currently, they are building an F1 Rocket. A commercially licensed pilot, he has logged over 6000 hours in many different types of aircraft and is an A&P, FAA DAR, EAA Tech Counselor and Flight Advisor; he was formerly a member of the Homebuilder’s Council. He consults and collaborates in aerospace operations and flight-testing projects across the country.


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