For five days this month, a team of four extreme athletes traced a 100-mile path through the Sierra backcountry and walked in the 175-year-old footsteps of the rescuers of the entrapped Donner Party.
On Feb. 14, the team left the site of Johnson’s Ranch, in what is now Wheatland, Calif. They slogged across fields of snow, climbed through tangles of brush and fallen timber, ascended steep granite ridges and slid down icy slopes on a route that mostly has remained untrammeled for six generations. Their trek ended at Donner Memorial State Park on Feb. 18 —175 years to the day the first rescue party reached the camps of the snowbound pioneers in 1847.
“I think sometimes the relief parties were lost in the story,” said Tim Twietmeyer of Auburn, Calif., one of the four team members. “It was mostly around people getting out of Donner Lake and a lot (about the) horror of the cannibalism. But there were some real heroes in the relief party that hiked all the way back to Donner Lake to save their friends, but had no family connections. They just wanted to do it because it was the right thing to do.”
Twietmeyer and fellow expedition team members Bob Crowley, Elke Reimer and Jennifer Walker Hemmen last year traced the route of 15 Donner Party members who escaped the camps to get help from Sutter’s Fort (now Sacramento). Seven members of that escape party, later known as the Forlorn Hope, reached the settlements after wandering for 33 days in the maze of canyons along the American and Yuba rivers.
The athletes’ retracing of those two journeys is aimed at discovering more information about the forgotten routes and drawing attention to the courage and selflessness of the ordinary people called upon to perform extraordinary feats.
Winter of entrapment
In October 1846, 81 members of the Donner Party wagon train, about half of whom were children, were trapped by early storms at or near Donner Lake, a few miles short of the mountain pass to California. The exhausted and starving emigrants stayed in makeshift cabins and tents at the high camps. In December 1846, a group of 17 people set out on snowshoes in a desperate attempt to get help. After more than a month, the seven remaining members of the group, which became known as the Forlorn Hope, reached Johnson’s Ranch, on the edge of the California settlements.
Soon after, relief parties were organized. Four of those groups eventually reached the survivors of the Donner Party. Of the 81 souls trapped in the mountains, 36 died and 45 survived. Cannibalism occurred in the camps during last few weeks of the entrapment. The last survivor reached Johnson’s Ranch in April 1847.
Heroes step forward
When news of the stranded pioneers reached Sutter’s Fort, many settlers there showed little interest in risking their lives to help strangers. But others volunteered to trek 100 miles in the trackless Sierra snow and vowed to save the stranded families or die in the attempt.
“Authentic heroes emerged from the shadows, performing extraordinary acts and yet they were ordinary people. We’re here today to shine a light on the courage of those kinds of people, in honor of those great American heroes.” —Bob Crowley, speaking after he and the three other athletes arrived at Donner Lake Feb. 18.
For several years, Crowley and Twietmeyer researched the paths of the Forlorn Hope escape group and the four rescue parties. They matched contemporary accounts to what they encountered on the ground during their scouting trips.
“We spent hundreds of hours in the field looking at research from the books and then comparing it to what we actually see because the landscape is no different now than it was 175 years ago,” Crowley said. “And we piece it together just like a jigsaw puzzle until we think we’ve got it.”
Walking with ghosts
This year’s Sierra snowpack isn’t as deep, and the February weather was a lot milder than what the rescue groups faced in 1847, but the trek provided some insight into what happened in the mountain backcountry so long ago.
“We’re not calling it a re-enactment,” Crowley explained. The runners arrived at Donner Lake in 1840s period clothing, but during their five-day march, they had the benefit of modern outdoor gear and the latest technology.
“The relief parties had conditions and circumstances far beyond what we encountered,” Crowley noted. “The snow was deeper and more prevalent, the trail more unknown, the wind and cold worse. Their clothing was meager and food insufficient. They had no modern technical gear to aid their progress. It was three times harder, miserable and unrelenting.”
Computer users followed the team’s progress via an online GPS tracker. Despite the modern conveniences, the runners’ journey was no cakewalk.
A nightmare landscape
On the second day of their trip, an area called Steep Hollow was an obstacle course — a forest of fallen trees from a prior wildfire made even more treacherous by high winds. Both sides of the canyon presented an unexpected challenge. The runners slid on ice and snow and hung on branches while ascending 70-degree slopes covered in debris and ash. They broke through thick underbrush, twisted across tangled thickets and crawled over downed tree trunks.
On the third day of their trek, the runners hung by their fingertips and snowshoe spikes while traversing a 100-yard packed-snow and ice wall with a precipitous drop below.
“We huddled to decide if and how we were going to navigate the situation and then patiently and deliberately inched our way across, single file, using each other’s footholds, which we created by digging our snowshoes into the icy snow ledge,” Crowley said. “A typically 15 minute trek (in summer weather) became a 90-minute harrowing experience.”
A tale of true grit
The athletes said the experience showed them how to focus and muster grit when encountering obstacles, emotional troughs and division. Over and over, Crowley said, the runners looked at the barriers ahead and asked each other: “How did they do it?”
“(We) reached the cabins and found the people in great distress such as I never before witnessed, there having been 12 deaths and more expected every hour. The sight of us appeared to put life into their emaciated frames. … As the relief party reached the area of the camps at Donner Lake, they saw no sign of survivors. Then a woman appeared out of the snow, which had buried her cabin, and asked ‘are you men from California, or do you come from heaven?’” —from a diary and statements made by members of the first rescue party to reach Donner Lake, Feb. 18, 1847.
For the rescuers in 1847, the trip to the high camps was arduous, but the trip back to Johnson’s Ranch, with 23 starving Donner Party survivors in tow, was even more torturous. Animals had raided the caches of food the relief group had stored, and both the rescuers and their charges went hungry. They suffered from exhaustion and frostbite. Young children had to be carried; on the way out, a baby and an adult died in the beautiful, deep and deadly snow.
A Discovery Channel program
Daniel M. Rosen, a historian who in 1996 created an online diary of the Donner Party’s experiences, said the dramatic rescues in 1847 have few comparable examples in history.
“Imagine if the Allied soldiers in World War II had to move the concentration camp kids 50 miles,” Rosen said.
Jennifer Hemmen said completing the trek left her in awe of the men who made the journey to the high camps in 1847. “We don’t have one-tenth of the grit they (the rescuers) had in one day,” she said. “It was a new threshold of grit.”
The runners’ experiences in tracing the escape and rescue parties’ trails will be featured on an episode of the Discovery Channel program “Expedition Unknown,” scheduled to air this summer. The team members said they hope their trek will bring attention to the rest of the Donner Party story, a tale of courage that often is overshadowed by the accounts of cannibalism.
“The story of the Donner Party is more than the sensational, which has gotten all of the attention,” said Bill Oudegeest, president of the Donner Summit Historical Society. “It’s also about heroism, tenacity, and self-sacrifice, not just for family but also for strangers. It’s about the very best of the human spirit and so the story is an inspiring counterpoint for our cynical time.”
As a sidebar to this story, the RN&R has published Frequently Asked Questions about the Donner Party’s ordeal in the Sierra in the terrible winter of 1846-47.
NOTE: RN&R Editor Frank X. Mullen, author of "The Donner Party Chronicles," participated in the Donner Relief Expedition 2022 events in the Sierra Feb. 14-18 and was interviewed for the "Expedition Unknown" episode scheduled to be broadcast on the Discovery Channel this summer.