The Bitterroot range of the Rocky Mountains is even today considered one of the most impenetrable of mountain ranges — meaning that it is very difficult for humans to move through it by foot, horseback, car, truck, or all-terrain vehicle. And if it is difficult today, imagine how it was back in 1805, when Meriwether Lewis and William Clark entered this tangle of 10,000-foot peaks, thick timber, and strewn boulders.
Lewis and Clark and their expedition companions in the Corps of Discovery were the first Euro-Americans to see this vast territory. Along the way they were helped by Indian guides such as Sacagawea, who carried her infant son.
When the expedition reached Lolo Pass, they camped there alongside a stream, then began traversing the pass the next morning. The going was extremely difficult, with deep snow drifts, sharp rocks, and thick trees. By the third day there was no more meat and no wild game in sight. The explorers resorted to eating soup, fish, berries, and roots. They ate three of their horses. Then they ate a coyote. They were extremely cold and depressed because of the difficulty of the mountains. When their food ran out, they ate candles to fill their empty stomachs. Crossing the the mountain range through Lolo Pass took eleven days.
On the eleventh day, the sick and starving Corps of Discovery stumbled out of the Bitterroot Mountain Range. They were met by the Nez Perce Indians, who had never seen white or black men before. But the Nez Perce recognized pain and courage, and they fed the group, saving their lives. In his journal Clark called the Nez Perce “the most hospitable, honest and sincere people that we have met with in our voyage.”
Mountain Range: Bitterroot Mountains
Elevation: 5,235 feet
Location: On the Montana-Idaho border, in the Bitterroot National Forest.
Lewis and Clark made it to the Pacific Ocean and wintered near the mouth of the Columbia River, in a fort they built. During the winter the men repaired old clothes and sewed new ones. By the time they left the coast on March 23, 1806, they had sewn 358 pairs of moccasins out of elkhide and deerhide — almost one dozen pair of shoes per person.
Eager to return home after nearly three years of very difficult travel, the Corps moved swiftly, knowing that once they re-crossed Lolo Pass, the waters would flow homeward and they would make good time.
But Lolo Pass was not ready to let anybody cross. When the Corps reached the Bitterroot Range in May, the Nez Perce warned them that the pass was covered in very deep snow: it would be impossible to cross until June Or maybe even July.
The explorers waited for a few weeks, but on June 10 they could contain their impatience no longer: despite warnings from the Nez Perce, Lewis and Clark set out through Lolo Pass once again.
This proved to be a mistake. Fifteen-foot-deep snow drifts filled the pass, rendering the path invisible. There was no grass for the horses to eat and, once again, no game for the hunters to hunt. Having barely survived Lolo Pass once, Lewis and Clark recognized the danger more readily on the second crossing — they could starve to death, or they could just barely make it to the other side, where there would be no Nez Perce waiting to help them.
The explorers turned back to the Nez Perce camp. For the first time in its long journey, the Corps of Discovery had retreated. This dejected and depressed them all. They knew not what lay ahead. By the time Lolo Pass was crossable, could they make it back to the Mandan villages before bitter winter set in?
At last, on June 25, with the help of two young Nez Perce guides, the Lewis and Clark expedition tackled Lolo Pass again. This time they made it through: by the Fourth of July they were on the east side of the Bitterroot Range, heading downhill and downstream toward home.
Traveling faster than they imagined possible, the explorers reached the villages on August 14 and three days later left the Mandans, headed homeward. Approximately five weeks later, on September 23, 1806, the Corps of Discovery reached St. Louis.
Three years had gone by since the explorers left Pittsburgh, more than two years since they left St. Louis. Citizens were astounded: many had given up the explorers for dead. As well they might have been had it not been for the Nez Perce.
Decades later, the Nez Perce, cheated out of their lands by the false treaties of the United States, were pursued by the US Cavalry. The Nez Perce eluded the Cavalry by fleeing eastward and crossing Lolo Pass at night. Hoping to escape to Canada, they were stopped forty miles short of the border.
Today two historic trails — the Lewis and Clark Trail, and the Nez Perce Trail — cross through Lolo Pass.
men rush westward,
western tribes flee northward —
pass stands still, monument and
You can read Barbara Gregorich’s earlier blog on mountain passes, Panther Pass.