Tim Twietmeyer and Bob Crowley have seen and done it all as trail runners. But they’ve never done anything like what they’re going to tackle this week.
The veteran California ultrarunners with a passion for exploring trails have discovered an American historical route that has remained shrouded in mystery for 174 years. And now they’re planning to retrace that fateful, 90-plus-mile route with 30,000 feet of elevation gain.
Crowley and Twietmeyer have meticulously plotted the course taken by a breakaway group from the infamous Donner Party pioneer wagon train in its attempt to reach Sacramento, California, with the hope of saving the 70 stranded members trapped by snow at the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in the fall of 1846.
The 17-person Snowshoe Party left the Donner Lake camp in desperation, with little food and provisions, hoping to cross the mountains to be able to send rescue teams back to help the people they left behind.
Later referred to by historians as the Forlorn Hope Party, the splinter group left the main Donner Party on December 16, 1846, carrying blankets, beef jerky, coffee, one rifle, a few pistols, a hatchet and some tobacco. Only 14 of the 17 people had hand-built snowshoes; the others tramped along behind as best they could in their leather shoes. Only seven people would make it to Johnson’s Ranch—two men and five women—while the other 10 perished along the way.
Crowley and Twietmeyer, who live in Northern California and have been ultrarunning for more than four decades, share a passion for narrative history. With an impressive list of trail-running achievements to their credit, they’ve sought new adventures and dreamed up the concept of combining trail running with history. They’ve spent seven years doing research, field work and analysis of the route taken by the Forlorn Hope Expedition.
“As I’ve read the accounts of the Forlorn Hope and then traveled in their footsteps, it has only galvanized my belief this might be the greatest endurance trek in history,” says Twietmeyer, a five-time winner of Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run and the only runner to finish that race 25 times under 24 hours. “Until you actually go out there, it’s hard to appreciate what they actually went through.”
At 7 a.m. on December 16, exactly 174 years after the original group departed on its fateful journey, Twietmeyer, 62, and Crowley, 63, along with fellow accomplished ultrarunners Jennifer Hemmen, 49, and Elke Reimer, 56, will set off on foot from Donner Memorial State Park and retrace the route to the historic site of Johnson’s Ranch. They will brave the elements—including a significant amount of recent snow—with modern wilderness and camping gear and will be tracked by GPS during their Forlorn Hope Expedition.
The quartet expects to cover about 20 miles per day and complete the journey in five days, arriving at the historical site of the long-ago ranch. They’ll be trudging through wet snow on snowshoes, hiking rocky terrain and running muddy trails while being live-tracked via GPS. They’ll get assistance from a support team and have safety crews on two crossings of the North Fork of the American River.
“We’re not going to do it like they were. We’re not going to start with one bag of beef jerky and take a month to finish it, but we wanted to start the same time they did,” says Twietmeyer, who’s also a 40-time finisher of the American River 50 race based out of nearby Folsom, California. “We’ll have some snow and some rain, but it won’t be as bad as what they endured. But we’ll be following the same rugged terrain they were. Some of the terrain area around Donner Summit and The North Fork, Immigrant Pass and the Overland Trail is as rugged as it gets.”
The Donner Party was a group of American pioneers seeking a better life in California during the mid-19th-century period of massive westward expansion known as Manifest Destiny. In the summer of 1846, more than 100 wagon trains per day traveled along the Overland Route through the Sierras and on to Sacramento.
The Donner group arrived late in the season and winter storms overcame them before they were able to pass up and over the mountains. Instead of backtracking to Reno, they decided to hunker down at Truckee Lake (now known as Donner Lake) despite dwindling provisions and little protection from the elements.
The group of 17 people in the Forlorn Hope party consisted of 10 men, five women and two boys. The youngest member of the party was 10 and the oldest was 57. They were farmers, tradesmen, housewives and children, but none were experienced in wilderness travel in the winter.
The Forlorn Hope team expected it would take six to eight days to reach Sutter’s Fort roughly 40 miles away in Sacramento. But they would have to cross the summit of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, which included several 7,000-foot peaks and snow up to 30 feet deep.
Within days, the party to become lost and encountered inclement weather. A 100-year snowstorm descended and devastated the group. Only seven people survived to reach Johnson’s Ranch near Wheatland, California, 33 days later. They’d been without food for up to six days at a time, suffered severe frostbite, were exposed to hypothermia, had their feet ravaged and were forced to engage in cannibalism to survive.
Crowley and Twietmeyer have dubbed their adventure a form of “history trail trekking,” a tribute they hope will help enhance more stories about the struggle and courage of the Forlorn Hope members. They’ll be doing Zoomcasts with elementary-school classes, commemorating the original members of the Snowshoe Party, engaging with descendants of the Donner Party and documenting the route and significant places as they go.
“It will be slow going as head into the throat of the Sierra,” says Crowley, a two-time finisher of both the Western States 100 and Hardrock 100. “And you know, look, we’ve all collectively seen and done a lot, been through a lot and taken ourselves to the low, low, and yet, Tim and I, after being out scouting some of the terrain, we come back and constantly are saying, ‘How did they do it?’ We’re in absolutely in awe. We’re not joking about it. What they did to survive was another level.”
The first rescuers from Sacramento didn’t reach the rest of the people in the trapped Donner Party wagon train until the middle of February 1847, almost four months after they became trapped. Of the 87 original members of the party, only 48 survived the ordeal—including the seven from the Snowshoe Party. Historians have described the episode as one of the most spectacular tragedies in California history, and in the entire record of American westward migration.
The idea for retracing the route became a reality after Twietmeyer and Crowley read a book passage describing the journey of the Forlorn Hope group and realizing it happened right in their backyard. After delving into academic research, trail discovery and topography, Twietmeyer and Crowley became obsessed with becoming more familiar with the Forlorn Hope members.
“Whereas many people know about the Donner Party and fewer know about the Forlorn Hope, the memorable part of both stories is the cannibalism,” says Bill Oudegeest, a board member of the Donner Summit Historical Society who has been a partner with Crowley and Twietmeyer throughout the project. “For most, there the story ends, leaving out the heroism and human nature fighting the elements. There is so much more and these four athletes want to change the narrative. Their re-creation of the Forlorn Hope journey will bring the story back to the public’s attention and, with it, the real story about these amazing people who risked their lives for their families.”
Crowley hopes the focus of this dark historical story can shift to the “perseverance, passion and grit, as well as the motivation, ruggedness and resilience of these normal people” who accomplished extraordinary feats to try to survive and who, he says, embodied the many core characteristics and tenets that became the backbone of America in the late-19th century and early 20th century.
The modern Forlorn Hope Expedition team is seeking to partner with federal, state and local entities to create a learning center for children and adults dedicated to the history of the Donner Party. They’ve established a website at www.forlornhope.org to view more details about the Expedition, maps, history and details on how to track the Forlorn Hope Expedition team on their journey.
“We’re excited, but there’s been some anxiety, too,” Twietmeyer says. “We’ve never done anything like this before, but that’s probably why it’s so exciting. But we also feel a lot of responsibility. We feel we have a unique opportunity here to change the narrative of the whole thing.”