‘Extraordinary feats’: Group of four retraces Donner Party rescue expedition
Special to The Union
With snow drifts 20-feet deep, seven men approach Donner Lake and spy a cabin near the east end of the shore.
As they approach, a frail woman appears and in a weak voice asks, “Are you men from California or do you come from heaven?”
Friday, Feb. 18, marked the 175th anniversary of that woman and the remaining members of the Donner Party being found by a relief group that had made a roughly 100-mile trek from Johnson Ranch, near Wheatland, to Donner Lake.
On Feb. 14, a team of four ultrarunners set out to repeat the journey, aiming to make it to Donner Memorial State Park by the anniversary. Bob Crowley, Tim Twietmeyer, Jennifer Hemmen and Elke Reimer braved winter conditions to retrace the path taken by rescuers, overcoming roughly 100 miles through the Sierra to reach the site of the Donner Party.
Though having spent years researching, and having completed a similar route taken the opposite way by the Forlorn Hope Expedition, the team of four said there’s nothing that could have completely prepared them for the experience.
“You have to go there and see it yourself,” said Twietmeyer. “You have to stand at the bottom of Steep Hollow and climb that ridge … that’s what makes it fascinating for us. We’ve researched it in the summer and through the books and we make notes, but when it actually happens you get a much better appreciation and are sincerely humbled by what you’ve experienced.”
On the first day of the expedition, the group set out from Johnson’s Ranch, the site where Donner Party member William Eddy sought help for the roughly 80 people trapped in the Sierra Nevada.
In 1847, the First Relief left on Feb. 4. Plans for last week’s expedition were to “chase history” and catch up to where the relief party was at around day three, and then synchronize the final two days to arrive on the 175th anniversary of the relief group reaching the Donner Party.
The four-member team would grind out more than 30 miles across foothills to reach the first campsite, where they reminisced about the First Relief party that endured 36 straight hours of rain during the same stretch.
With plans to cover more than 25 miles, the team hit their first major challenge at Steep Hollow, as they were forced to traverse across ravines along narrow animal trails.
From there, the team made it up a quarter-mile, 40-degree slope, putting them behind schedule. But after hours of journey the group reached their goal to arrive at Mule Springs. The same stretch of journey saw the First Relief party lose members and horses at a river crossing.
The third day began optimistically, said group members, but that soon dissolved as afternoon approached and the team encountered snow and ice along a steep ledge that, instead of taking 15 minutes, turned into a “90-minute harrowing experience, followed by successive heavy snow steep climbs,” according to the expedition’s daily recap.
The team departed the Rainbow Lodge the morning of the fourth day and by noon reached Royal Gorge Cross-Country Ski Resort, where they’d caught up with the First Relief party, which had dwindled to seven men by that point on the evening of Feb. 17, 1847.
“We wondered what the campfire conversation must have been on that fateful eve, knowing they were less than a day’s journey to the cabins on the lake,” wrote Crowley in a post. “How many members of the Donner Party had already perished? What would be the state of the remaining survivors? In what condition would they find the living quarters? If they’d only knew, they might have neglected trying to sleep and hurried that night to their assistance. The anticipation must have been high, having come so far and overcome so much. The snow moon was out, providing high-beam light across the whitened landscape. As we retired for our final night of camping, thoughts turned to the wind and cold freezing our bodies while our hearts were warmed by the notion, we would be arriving at our destination in less than 24 hours.”
Dressed in clothes true to the period, the group of four embarked on the final seven miles to Donner Memorial State Park as dozens of bystanders awaited and cheered their arrival. Upon reaching the monument at Donner Memorial, the team laid down 48 tribute cards that were carried the entire trek to honor members of the Donner Party.
“Our mission was to shine a light upon the courageous, ordinary people who emerged from the shadows to perform extraordinary feats, then dissolve into obscurity,” concluded Crowley. “We were humbled by the task. We hope we did them justice. May their stories continue to emerge, be told and shared and inspire generations to come.”
Justin Scacco is a staff writer with the Sierra Sun, a sister publication of The Union. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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