Ultra-runners set out to retrace Donner Party rescue mission

A group of four people will set out Monday in hopes of retracing the path took by rescuers of the Donner Party.
Keith Sutter / Sutter Photography
From left, Tim Twietmeyer, Jennifer Hemmen, Bob Crowley and Elke Reimer will look to recreate the path taken by rescuers of the Donner Party.
Keith Sutter / Sutter Photography

On Feb. 4, 1847, a group of men left Johnson’s Ranch, near Wheatland, on horseback, and journeyed roughly 100 miles in search of the Donner Party.

On Monday, four ultra-distance runners will set out in hopes of recreating that same route used by rescuers 175 years ago.

“Even this long after those horrific events, we are still learning things that give new insight into the story,” said Frank Mullen Jr., author of “Donner Party Chronicles: A Day-by-Day Account of a Doomed Wagon Train,” in a news release. “Researchers locate long-lost documents and archaeologists unearth artifacts. The members of the Donner Relief Expedition 2022 are serving as foot soldiers for historians — they are traveling the paths of the people who made history and seeking the truth on the ground where the long-ago events occurred.”

The group will attempt to follow the path taken by the seven men, who reached the cabins on the edge of Donner Lake, finding the surviving members of the Donner Party.

The exact route of the 1847 rescue group has been lost to history, but following eight years of research by Bob Crowley and Tim Twietmeyer, a probable trail through the backcountry of the Sierra Nevada has been identified. On Monday, Crowley, Twietmeyer, Jennifer Hemmen, and Elke Reimer will set off to recreate the relief group’s trek.

“(The story) is 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,” said Bill Oudegeest, board member of the Donner Summit Historical Society, in a news release.

The Donner Party was a group of roughly 80 men, women, and children that became snowbound in the Sierra Nevada. Hoping to find help, a group of 17 people set out on snowshoes in hopes of crossing the mountains. After more than a month, the seven remaining members of the group, which became known as Forlorn Hope, reached Johnson’s Ranch, leading to a relief party being formed, and ultimately reaching the survivors of the Donner Party.

Plans are for the group to leave Johnson Ranch on Monday morning, traveling 30 miles to Emigrant Overland Trail in Auburn. The second day will see a 25-mile hike and a river crossing, which is where the 1847 relief party had horses sucked under logs as they attempted to cross. On the third day, the team plans to snowshoe 22 miles to arrive at Rainbow Lodge. On day four, they will trek another 18 miles to Donner Ski Ranch. The team is scheduled to arrive at Donner Memorial State Park at noon Friday, exactly 175 days after the first seven rescuers arrived at the high camps.

“The project is about the will to survive and bring back those left behind,” Crowley said. “Our team will honor the grit, determination and selflessness of the seven rescue members. It is about people risking their lives to save others.”

Justin Scacco is a staff writer with the Sierra Sun. He can be reached at

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