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Lemhi Pass

Lost Trail information center
Lost Trail Information Center.
Photo courtesy Montana Office of Tourism

" perpeteal danger of Slipping to their certain distruction."

- Lewis
2 September 1805

Clark crossed Lost Trail Pass in a failed attempt to follow the Salmon River to the Columbia in early September, 1805. He and his hired Shoshone guide, nicknamed Toby, scouted ahead of the rest and discovered that reports of the Salmon's unsuitability were true. The twisting, deep river earned its name, "The River of No Return."

This was no safe or easy passage to the Columbia or the Pacific. Not only were they disappointed, but the pass itself was steep and treacherous. Their guide lost the trail on the Idaho side, and as they tried to retreat to Montana, their horses fell several times.

The variable terrain injured the horses' hooves, and the deep river crossings forced them to swim the animals against a strong current. Supplies were low, game was scarce, and snow covered the paths. After their provisions ran out on August 22, they ate fish and berries when possible. By August 24, Patrick Gass wrote that Clark found it impossible to proceed by water or land. The mountains were so steep they would be fortunate if they were able to return the way they came:

"Captain Clarke therefore wrote a letter to Captain Lewis, and dispatched a man to meet him; and we all turned back up the river again, poor and uncomfortable enough, as we had nothing to eat and there is no game. We proceeded up about 3 miles, and supperless went to rest for the night."

Clark had chosen to turn back just in time. A journal entry recorded the mood of the men:

"The men were much disheartened at the bad prospect of escaping the mountains; and having nothing to eat but a few berries, which have made several of them sick, they all passed a disagreeable night, which was rendered more uncomfortable by a heavy dew."

The overnight cold froze the ink in their inkwells and the moccasins on their feet. At several points along the way they relied on handouts from Indians they met.

After days of blazing their own trail over rocks and fallen trees, they finally descended from the mountains with great relief. The 140-mile round trip exhausted the group. Following the Bitterroot River down into Ross' Hole near Sula, Lewis and Clark rejoined and resolved to find an easier northern land route to the Columbia.

In the 1850s, traders from Utah actually brought wagons over the pass. The idea was to bring trade goods down into the Bitterroot Valley to exchange for Indian horses. When the trading outfit reached the top of the mountains, it took time to figure out a way to get down. They finally decided to lock the wheels and rein in the oxen to simply slide down the mountain.