By Bill Oudegeest, Donner Summit Historical Society
When you match an affinity for endorphins with an affinity for history you might get an interesting activity and a compelling story. That’s what we’ll get as spectators as four extreme athletes follow the 1846 route of the Donner Party’s Forlorn Hope. Over five or six days and one hundred miles, they will go from Donner Lake, over Donner Pass and down to Johnson’s Ranch, near Wheatland in the Central Valley.
The general public knows the outlines of the Donner Party, particularly because of the stories of cannibalism. Fewer know the story of the Forlorn Hope, seventeen people who left Donner Lake on December 16, 1846 in a bid to get help and rescue their friends and families. Only seven arrived in the Central Valley, emaciated, exhausted and near death, leaving bloody footprints behind them. That story is fascinating and compelling and is maybe “the greatest endurance trek in history.” (You can read about that….)
Now 174 years later we have another compelling story, the story of four people who love challenges, love to push themselves to their limits, and are aficionados of history. This new story comes in a couple of parts. There is the seven years of research from primary and secondary sources and field trips to learn as much as possible about the Forlorn Hope and their route. There is the logistical planning that follows, so the modern journey ends better than the original. Then there is the story of the actual reprise itself.
Extreme athletes, Bob Crowley, Tim Twietmeyer, Jennifer Hemmen and Elke Reimer will take on the challenge of crossing the Sierra in winter. The original trek was incredible but so is this 2020 trek for those of us who can’t conceive of doing anything like it. There is the driving curiosity to get some idea of what the original Forlorn Hope went through as they overcame obstacles. There is the appreciation of history and human nature in the struggle to survive. There is also the opportunity to, as Bob Crowley says, “honor and reflect upon the seventeen souls who dared this selfless and desperate act.”
There is another motivating factor too. Whereas many people know about the Donner Party and fewer know about the Forlorn Hope, the memorable part of the stories is the cannibalism. 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 recreation 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.” Now, Bob Crowley says, the focus can be on the “perseverance, endurance, toughness, passion and grit… focusing on the motivation, ruggedness and resilience of these ‘normal’ people who accomplished extraordinary feats and who embodied the core characteristics and tenets that became the backbone of America.”