When I was invited on this expedition in early November, I happened to be in SoCal working remotely. I was near a decent trail system in the Anaheim Hills, so I used those trails to test my strength and endurance as I weighed whether to accept the invitation to join the other three, who I consider to all be great athletes. I wasn’t quite sure at the time what to expect from the expedition with regards to pace and therefore, I set the bar pretty high, which can be pretty humbling really quickly. But the Forlorn Hope Party – what did they do to prepare? Did they even have a choice? Not really. This was about making the long journey to a better life in California. Mothers with babies, wanting for their survival. Young men seeking robust jobs. A future for all.
When I was approached to join the team, my first thought was about snow camping, knowing the Forlorn Hope Party launched for their journey mid-December. To unwrap what snow camping means to me, back in 2017, I decided that this was my year to let go of the fear I had of camping in the snow. Winter is my favorite season, but I honestly am VERY uncomfortable being cold. I assumed that camping in the snow meant I’d never get out of my tent (or bivy) to encounter the frigid temperatures that awaited me. What happens if I need to get up in the middle of the night to answer the call of nature? Would I freeze and be miserable? What about getting up, dressed, making coffee (a must have) and breaking camp? That all seemed so intimidating to me. In 1846, the Forlorn Hope Party did not have the luxury of contemplating the pleasures of coffee. They didn’t have the luxury of options at all. Their goal was survival.
Back to 2017 and my quest to face this fear of cold I had: I came up with a plan to snowshoe approximately 50 miles from just east of Foresthill, CA, to Olympic Valley, CA. I proposed my plan to my good friend and he agreed enthusiastically to join me. I went about testing the waters by driving up to an area that was remote, parking my car and setting up camp in my bag and bivy not too far from my car. The nighttime temps were actually pretty mild that night and I was quite comfortable. My friend and I upped the ante a couple of weeks later and snowshoed up the snow blanketed road about 14 miles, set up camp in a flat area, and spent a much colder night in windy conditions. That was my time to learn valuable lessons about snow camping. It’s just as much about your sublayers as it is about the layers above you. I was ill prepared that night, cold for a lack of proper sub-layers as the strong, cold winds threatened to topple my tent. This night was not unlike the nights Mary Graves encountered, without any of the modern day equipment I had. How could I possibly complain?
A few weeks later, better prepared and with a perfect weather window, my friend and I made our trek to Olympic Valley over a three day period. No bugs, no people, no permits, and with perfect sublayers, my friend and I were both quite comfortable and found it unnecessary to pitch tents. We discussed more than once how literally everything we wore, carried, ate and slept with was far advanced to what the Donner Party had available to them. Literally everything.
In 2020, I spent practically every weekend backpacking and summiting the peaks of the High Sierra, including two peaks over 14,000’. Those back to back weekends kept me lean and strong. In all, I summited many peaks this year, but those adventures were not the same as running, nor are they the same as the months of impossible challenges the Donner Party experienced while making their journey to California. Having only six weeks to prepare for the expedition wasn’t much time in my mind, but I have a lot of determination and grit in my soul. I can do a lot with that. Just avoid injuries, and most of all, avoid Covid. For the Forlorn Hope Party, their goal was to avoid complete starvation. Again, I have not experienced these concerns. I am extremely fortunate.
Our first few days of the expedition will be mostly snowshoeing and hiking up and down steep canyons, something very familiar to me from my trail hiking and cross country journeys in the high Sierra. The last two days will include road running, with distances exceeding 20 miles per day. To prepare for those days, I have been incorporating regular morning runs in the local canyon where I live on the weekdays, and longer efforts on the weekends. In addition to running, I have been including some strength training for my core and lower body, using my kettlebell and resistance bands, as well as core work. I am almost always very mindful of what I choose to fuel my body with as well, following mostly a plant-based diet. But my main fuel for this incredible journey following the footsteps of the Forlorn Hope Party will be to embrace what THEY went through. Their challenges. Their heartbreak. Their incredible determination and desire to live, not only for themselves, but for their children and their children’s children.
All photos credited to Elke Reimer