We arrived at the main difficulty from here to the summit is one mile it is as steep as the roof of a house. Joseph Hackney 1849
The Sierra were a "formidable and apparently impassable barrier...."
Edwin Bryant from What I Saw in California 8/26/1846
When we reached Sierra Nevada mountains they looked terrible. David Hudson 1845
As we came up to it the appearance was exactly like marching up some immense wall built directly across our path … Elisha D. Perkins 1849
Those quotes should give you an idea of how the emigrants felt upon approaching the Sierra. Survivors had already defied death crossing the desert and now they faced the hardest part of their transcontinental journey, conquering the Sierra. For almost all the emigrants they were arriving late in the seeason. They had to hurry. Winter was coming. Many had to fight snow and ice as they climbed to the passes. As you come up the initial switchbacks look toward the east and imagine coming up driving your wagon and oxen, presuming your oxen are still alive and you are not carrying your wordly goods in your arms.
Coming up Donner Pass was extremely hard and not like George Mathis' painting to the left. There was no road. There was no trail. Wagons had to be disassembled (painting below) and hauled over rock ledges. That was 1844, 1845, and part of 1846. Then Roller Pass was discovered in 1846 (but the Donners missed the turnoff). The wagons did not need to be disassembled. Later in '46 Coldstream Pass was discovered, which was even less difficult.
The first wagon train to arrive with wagons, the Stephens Party* in 1844, came up Donner Pass. They are the subject of the painting showing the disassembled wagons. Up Donner Pass also came the Donner Party escapees, the Forlorn Hope, who got to Caliornia after 33 days of horrific travel. 15 crossed the pass. 7 got to California, five women and two men. The arrival of the emaciated emigrants started rescue parties for Donner Lake. The rescue parties and the rescuees all came up this pass. That was 1846.
For more on the Stephens Party: Forgotten Journey video, Truckee's Trail novel, Opening of the California Trail, and the Heirloom for November, '11. For more on the Donner Party see the December, '16 and January, '17 Heirlooms or History of the Donner Party, Ordeal By Hunger, Desperate Passages, Donner Party Weather the Storm, Saving the Donner Party, Indifferent Stars Above, The Donner Party Chronicles
If you want to read about the emigrants, So Rugged and So Mountainous, Tale of the Elephant, With Golden Visions Before Them, Look of the Elephant, Emigrant Trails, Emigrant's Guide, Emigrant's Guide 1845,
For more you might look at our book review web pages.
Below you have the map of the three emigrant routes over Donner Summit: Donner Pass (1844-45), Roller Pass (1846 and perhaps later), and Coldstream Pass (1846)