- Historic Sites
Ordeal in Hell’s Canyon
The first men to follow Lewis and Clark across the continent to the Pacific were John Jacob Astor’s fur traders. They discovered the formidable chasm of Idaho’s Snake River—and almost never got out
December 1966 | Volume 18, Issue 1
Following the Boise to its mouth, they arrived back on the Snake River and moved along it again as it flowed north through barren hills toward a formidable range of mountains capped with snow. At the entrance to a narrow passage where the river began to force its way through steep and rugged basalt cliffs, they paused among another band of Shoshonis, learning from them that white men, travelling on both sides of the river, had preceded them into the canyon. Hunt was cheered to know that Crooks and probably McClellan and Reed were safely ahead of him, and his spirits were roused further when Indians told him that after three sleeps in the mountains, he would meet another nation of people whom they called the Sciatogas, and that from the homes of those people it was only six more sleeps to the falls of the Columbia River.
The Sciatogas were Cayuses and Nez Perces who often raided the Shoshonis from the north, and the wild and dark defile into which Hunt’s people hopefully plunged on November 29 was the forbidding Grand Canyon of the Snake River, the deepest gorge on the North American continent (7,900 feet deep at its maximum)—and to this day one of the least accessible in the United States. No white man had yet been through this awesome mountain trench, which now forms part of the border between Oregon and Idaho, and no one who had known its extent of more than 100 miles would have tried forcing it in winter. But Hunt was unaware of its dangers, and he was in difficulty almost at once. The narrow benchland along the water, hemmed by walls that rose thousands of feet above him, became rocky and impassable, and Hunt tried to climb the cliff. The steep route was dizzying, and the travellers, already weak from hunger, moved along perilous ledges and basalt rimrock, edging close to the cliffsides to keep from falling. On the heights, “so high,” wrote Hunt, “that I would never have believed our horses could have got over them,” they ran into a snowstorm that “fell so densely on the mountains where we had to go that we could see nothing a half-mile ahead.”
At an earlier season they might have gotten through the canyon. But winter had struck, and they were now to pay dearly for their previous delays and false hopes. One whole day they were unable to move in the storm, and remained encamped, eating one of the horses they had traded from the Shoshonis and shivering in the bitter cold. When the weather cleared, they had a dismaying view of the country ahead of them—range upon range of mountains, all covered with snow and extending as far as they could see. They made only a few miles a day, returning occasionally to the river, but climbing again when the dark canyon walls rose close to the water and barred their progress. On December 4, they floundered in snow that came above their knees. The cold dulled their minds and made them sleepy, and on one occasion, Hunt noted, they escaped what seemed a sure death only by coming on a clump of pines that gave them the makings of a roaring fire. The next day the snowfall cut visibility to three hundred yards, and they returned again to the river, slipping and sliding down a rocky slope through a fog that obscured the bottom of the canyon. On December 6, when the fog cleared, they were startled to see a party of men coming through the gorge toward them, but on the opposite side of the river. It was Crooks’s group, so wasted from hunger that Hunt scarcely recognized any of them. They stood on the rocks, calling hoarsely across the stream for food, and Hunt had a boat hastily made from the skin of a horse that they had butchered the night before, and sent some meat across to them.
The boat returned with Crooks and one of his men, a Canadian named François LeClerc, who, weak-voiced and scarcely able to stand up unassisted, told Hunt that they had struggled three days farther down the river. There, near the most awesome part of the chasm, the narrowest and most rugged section, since that time given the name Hell’s Canyon, the rock walls had been so close together and the river so wild and frightening that they had climbed with difficulty to the mountain top, where the view of the snow-covered wilderness, still extending as far as they could see, had appalled them. Realizing that they could never get through alive, they had turned back in the hope of finding help before starvation overtook them.
They also had news of the other groups. Several days before their worst trials had begun, they had sighted the parties of Reed and Donald McKenzie trudging downriver along the opposite shore. The burly McKenzie had called across to them that McClellan’s men were also heading north, following a route farther east, which they thought would lead them to the land of the Flathead Indians.