On December 16th 2020, four Californian ultra runners left Donner Lake on snowshoes to cross the Sierra, in a reprise of the 1846 winter journey of the Donner Party’s ‘Forlorn Hope’. Recreating one of the most renowned journeys in American pioneer history, the team wanted to establish the exact route taken by the ill-fated group, attempt to change the known narrative of this moment and tell the story of “these ‘normal’ people who accomplished extraordinary feats and embodied the core characteristics and tenets that became the backbone of America.”
The story of the Forlorn Hope has captured the imagination of friends and trail runners, Bob Crowley and Tim Twietmeyer, for over 7 years leading them to spend much of their spare time delving into every aspect of the story. With Elke Reimer and Jennifer Hemmen completing the expedition team, the group set off on the route researched by Crowley and Twietmeyer, starting with considerably less snow than faced by the pioneers, 174 years prior.
In the winter of 1846, eighty or so members of the Donner Party became snowbound and trapped in the Sierra Nevada mountains. They were among the first pioneers seeking a better life in California. On December 16th, 17 of the emigrants set out on snowshoes in a desperate attempt to reach a settlement 100 miles away and find help. After enduring punishing physical, mental and emotional hardship, only seven survived. The rest met a terrible fate. Together, this brave group became known as the Forlorn Hope.
Carrying cards featuring details and photographs of each member of the original Forlorn Hope party, the team aimed to spend time reflecting on the enormous ordeal faced by the group, in an appreciation of history and human nature in the struggle to survive.
“This will be an opportunity to honor and reflect upon the seventeen souls who dared this selfless and desperate act,” commented Bob Crowley.
The team planned for their journey to take them 5 days, camping out for 4 nights – it had taken the Forlorn Hope group 33 days to reach help in the Central Valley.
Although far better prepared and equipped than the fated pioneers, the expedition did face a number of obstacles nonetheless, from river crossings to a snowstorm and almost impassable thick whitethorn and manzanita undergrowth. The steepest climb after their crossing of American River involved 1.5 miles up a 40% slope with 2000 feet of elevation gain.
Followers of the expedition were able to track the team’s progress via GPS tracking on their website (forlornhope.org). The tracker itself was almost lost close to the site of the Camp of Death – spotted in the snow by Bob Crowley, when he turned back momentarily to search for his lost phone (not found!).
The journey of 100.7 miles was completed over 5 days, and all arrived at the trail’s end safe and well, holding the cards representing the members of the Forlorn Hope. The group held a short commemoration ceremony to the pioneers, after being met by a small number of family and friends.
The expedition members aim to further document their experiences via various media – with articles, exhibitions, possible material for schools, and plans for a documentary film. They are in contact with several descendants of the original pioneers, and hope to meet with some of them in the coming year.
Comments from the team
"We are proud and honored to have been able to do this and bring attention to the Forlorn Hope and the hope, the positive side, of what they inspire in people which is ordinary people doing absolutely extraordinary things. We can all do it. It is inside us and at this time of year and what we've been through, this can bring us all back together as a country and as a world."
“We still don't know how the 7 Forlorn Hope survivors did it but now we know why they survived. They survived because they had love, they had family, they had each other and had something greater to live for. Along the way they had to make some unsavory, difficult decisions but we can all agree that what these people did was the best of human nature."
"This was not about us. This was about helping others. For the Forlorn Hope it was about those they left behind and bring back the help that they needed. This was not the end of their journey but the beginning of a series of events to save those left at Donner Lake."
All photos please credit: Keith Sutter /Forlornhope.org
For further information contact:
Judy Depuy firstname.lastname@example.org t:650-492-0935
FURTHER DETAILS & DAILY BREAKDOWN
The team completed 20 miles of their 100 mile journey. They camped overnight next to the Yuba River.
From Bob Crowley:
“We traveled 20 miles in one day, it took Forlorn Hope 4 days to reach the same place. These were days of hope for the party. Stanton, their leader, was failing but still with them. They’d made 6 miles one of the days - very good progress. The sun was shining, skies clear. Little did they know in the next 48 hours it would all change.
We discussed how hard it must have been to trudge through deep snow, with crude snowshoes and scant provisions. We were on snowshoes 85% of today. It was exhausting!
The scenery was jaw dropping. A light fog settled over Donner Lake at sunup when we departed. As we ascended to Donner Pass, we turned around to see a magical sight of light, serenity and calm. The still lake with a layer of rising fog lifting to the blue heavens above. A few tears may have been shed.
We witnessed the same features and topography as the Forlorn Hope: Donner Pass, the snowy meadow of Norden, the boulder field with Devil’s Peak looming behind. Kidd and Cascade Lakes and the Yuba River where we camped.
The cloud arrived in the evening followed by rain, then heavy wet snow which accumulated upon our tents. Everything was soaked, it was cold, miserable. As it should be since those were precisely the conditions Forlorn Hope encountered. But we had warmth, shelter and provisions - minimal suffering.
Around our fire pit we swapped stories of the Forlorn Hope and Donner Party for hours. Then, with our bellies full (we burn an average of 12,000 calories a day each) and tongues tired, we crawled into our tents fir a long winter’s nap. And dreamt about hope, and what tomorrow would bring.”
Days 2 & 3
The team woke to snow on the morning of day 2, which made for a cold damp start to the day, just as it was for the original pioneers. The day was more challenging than the team had anticipated, with heavy snow and a lot of white thorn and Manzanita plants to make their way through.
Day 3 was the longest day of the journey, with over 6,000’ elevation gain.
The expedition passed through the ‘Camp of Death’ where Bob Crowley reported: “I lost my phone near Camp of Death. I am pretty sure Franklin Graves wanted it so we could communicate in the future. The karma at Camp of Death, when we took a team moment of silence, was stirring. Words cannot express the gratitude and humility we feel from all of your heartfelt messages, stories and support. Onward!”
The group continued across Sawtooth Ridge and downhill to the American River.
The river has no footbridge and the water is swift and cold with water 3-10 feet deep in this area. They luckily found a fairly shallow area of the river and safely made it across.
The section on the other side of the river is extremely steep and difficult going.
With no trail to follow, they forged a path straight up the canyon. It is believed that no-one has hiked this area since the Forlorn Hope Party (with the possible exception of solitary prospectors 100 years ago). It took nearly 4 hours to travel 1 mile. This steep, rough section called for slow, careful trekking, as they pick their way through poison oak, manzanita and over slick rocks. Travel was easier along the ridge where they finished the day, 10 miles later, at Camp Night 3.
Elke Reimer reflected: “It is simply unfathomable to imagine the Forlorn Hope party making this journey after so much dispute at the Camp of Death, especially the climb up from the North Fork of the American River.”
Team photographer Keith Sutter reported: “Today was intense and gritty. The team did around 26 miles over the toughest terrain they expect to see. They literally ran into camp in the dark."
From Bob Crowley:
“We traveled 26 miles in one day, it took Forlorn Hope 9 days to reach the same place. Over the next 9 days, five members of Forlorn Hope would perish.
As we descended upon Camp of Death we paused and stood silent in a moment of prayer and reflection. How could we begin to understand the sacrifices these souls made on behalf of their families and the future of American society?”
“On Christmas Eve and Day, Antonio and Franklin Graves are the first to succumb to hypothermia and exhaustion. Next Camp of Death would claim Patrick Dolan and young (age 12) Lemuel Murphy. What a horrendous place to be trapped by a raging snowstorm, no fire, chilled to the bone, surrounded by death.
Days later the sorry troupe emerged and pressed on, completely lost and having crossed the thin veil of civility. Yet Fate wasn’t through with this band of pioneers.
After emerging from Burnett Canyon and cresting Sawtooth Ridge, they managed their way along heading generally WNW. Then it happened. As they rounded a corner, to their left the thick forest of trees opened briefly to reveal a most magnificent view: the Sacramento Valley! Oh sweet Lord, we see our destination. 15 days after departing the lake they’d laid eyes upon terrain that was green and lush - the promised land they had sacrificed so much to see. Now it laid before them, many, many miles and canyons away. How their emotions must have swung from euphoria for the sight to despair for the massive distance they still must travel.”
“As we began our descent from Sawtooth Ridge into the jagged jaws of NFAR, another sign: we came upon a dead deer right u the middle of our trail. What in the...?
In all the years we’ve been scouting in the North Fork (NFAR), we’d never encountered any large animals.”
Day 4 as described by Elke Reimer:
“Day Four of our expedition is done! We began our day in Iowa Hill, descending into the canyon again before crossing the North Fork in the fog. It was beautiful, but by far the coldest experience we have had the entire way. It’s hard to imagine the Forlorn Hope making that cold descent & crossing the river in layers of heavy clothing, completely starved. We warmed up as we climbed out of the canyon, finally meeting the sun. From there, made our way toward Hwy 49 where we will spend our final night. Tomorrow, it’s about 23 miles to Johnson’s Ranch. What an incredible experience this has been.”
On the morning of day 5, Keith Sutter reported:
“They had a brisk starts with the temperature at 26º. They ran to stay warm and cherished the first rays of sunlight. They were on cloud nine”
Bob Crowley posted an update from the trail:
“In about one hour we will set foot on the Johnson Ranch property. Then, 1.5 miles later we will end our journey precisely on the site of the Johnson Ranch adobe house where the seven Forlorn Hope were brought, ending their 33 day journey. There we will pay a final tribute to these courageous American pioneers.
God bless the Forlorn Hope. God bless all of you who have supported us. And God bless America.”
The team arrived at Johnson’s Ranch at around 3.30pm as planned, and held a small celebration to honor the Forlorn Hope.