’An opportunity to honor and reflect’: Forlorn Hope expedition retraces historic steps of Donner Party
On Dec. 16, 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 seven 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 Dec. 16, 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 five days, camping out for four 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 five 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.
Source: Judy DePuy, Forlorn Hope PR Representative
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