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History trail trekking on the path of the doomed Donner Party

Bob Crowley and Tim Twietmeyer's new ultra—chasing down history and adventure.

Shoshi Parks

March 26th, 2022

7 min read

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The history of the United States is crisscrossed by trails. Some—Route 66, the Oregon Trail, the Natchez Trace—still exist. Others—the Bozeman Trail, the Santa Fe Trail, the Texas Road—are waiting to be rediscovered. Finding them is a thrill but running them? That’s an adventure.

Adventure is exactly what Bob Crowley and Tim Twietmeyer sought when they began to hunt the shadow routes of early emigrants to California. The two had been ultra-distance trail running—and running well, Twietmeyer is the only person to complete Western States 25 times in under 24-hours—half their lives. But as they rolled from their 50s into their 60s, competition began to lose its luster. “We were both looking for an alternative,” says Crowley.

They found it in the history of the landscape right outside their front doors, where the route thousands traveled to reach the unbelievable riches of a mythic California in the mid-19th century came to an end. The two poured over books and letters and diaries then, armed with place names and timelines, they headed into the Sierra Nevada foothills to retrace the movements of those who’d come before. They christened their new game history trail trekking.

Of the thousands of stories out there, one in particular captured their imaginations: the story of the Donner Party, the infamous group of westward-bound emigrants in 1846 who survived a winter trapped in the mountains by eating human flesh.

“The Donner Party has all the fundamental elements of a Greek tragedy,” says Crowley. “It’s about American migration and the expansion of the west, Indigenous people and war and genocide. It’s compelling in that it has failure and heroism, bad decisions, deceit, murder, cannibalism, selfishness, and it has remarkable feats and the will to survive.”

At first, Crowley and Twietmeyer were just two old friends chasing cannibals across a wide Western landscape. Then, in 2020, a set of fortuitous circumstances upped the ante.

That December, the two men joined forces with veteran ultra-distance runner, backpacker and trail steward Elke Reimer, ultra-distance and adventure athlete Jennifer Hemmen, and a slew of Western States volunteers. Together, they launched the Forlorn Hope Expedition, a five day, 100 mile adventure that followed in the footsteps of 17 members of the Donner Party who set out in search of help for their starving families in December 1846.

The 2020 version was a success; not an ounce of flesh was eaten along the way. So, a year later, the group came together once again, this time to follow the trail of the Donner Relief Expedition, the men who trekked into the mountains in February 1847 to rescue the remaining members of the Donner Party still trapped by raging winter storms.

The 2022 Donner Relief Expedition set out in the early morning of February 14, its four members dressed in period-costume, and rode east towards the Sierra on horseback. A couple miles down the road, symbolic gesture complete, they ditched their leather boots, geared up endurance-style and got down to it. Less than eight hours later, the team rolled into the slap-dash camp erected in the yard and driveway of an endurance buddy’s home (the best option for that exurban section of the trail). Thirty miles down, 70 to go.

As darkness crept over the foothills, the night’s storytelling began. Crowding around a portable fire pit, the athletes described the day’s ups and downs while the rest of the team quietly listened, sipping whiskey and beer.

A century ago, the route they completed that first day was forest and valley and spruce and pine. These days, it’s highways and strip malls. They spent much of the time sucking down exhaust and dodging cars in unseasonably warm temperatures. But that was nothing compared to the hurricane rains and unrelenting snow the original rescuers faced in 1847; it took them approximately four days to travel what the 2022 expedition completed in one.

They didn’t avoid trouble altogether, though. Around mile ten, Crowley took a fall that forced him to walk the remaining 20 miles to the night’s camp at Grass Valley. “I’m fine, it’s just pain,” he assured the group, his face lit golden by the flames. “With all of the mishaps [the original Relief Expedition] had in the first 36 hours after they left the ranch, it would be apropos to have a mishap,” he chuckled.

When the storytelling comes to a close, Crowley, Twietmeyer, Reimer and Hemmen peel themselves away from the warmth of the fire one by one to get some rest. That first night, they’ll sleep through a light drizzle and wake before the rising sun. Over the coming days, they’ll booney crash up and down steep ridges and pick their way across icy ledges without crampons. At night they’ll camp as close to one of the original campsites—landmarks with names like Mule Springs and Big Bend and Starved Camp—as possible.

At the trail’s end, which they’ll reach exactly 100 years after the original rescuers arrived at the same destination, they’ll meet press and supporters. As they discuss the ordeal past and present, each will shed a tear for the first rescuers to reach the survivors of the Donner Party.

Like endurance races, history trail trekking takes grit (and a hell of a lot of research—“for every one hour that we’re on the trail there are probably ten hours we did research either in the field or in books,” says Crowley). There are endless routes to uncover and endless roads to travel, all it takes is a willingness to find the stories that have been lost and nurture them back to life. Whether you approach it with one or two others or as part of a large project like the Forlorn Hope and Donner Relief Expeditions, history trail trekking is a way not just to engage with endurance running, but with the community that makes it so special, explains Crowley.

“As we’ve gotten older, there’s less drive to compete but we still have an interest in going out there, being in nature, being on the trails and having the communal brotherhood,” he says. ”Those don’t age nearly as poorly as your body does. Don’t just view trail running through the lens of racing, view it through the lens of community.”

For more information on history trail trekking, visit Forlorn Hope.

All photos in this story are courtesy of Keith Sutter Photography.

3 responses to “History trail trekking on the path of the doomed Donner Party”

  1. Bob Schmitz says:

    Really enjoyed Bob and Tim taking us on a Donner Party adventure!

  2. Marilyn V. Bailey says:

    What a wonderful way to recalibrate your love for endurance running and trails, and aligning that with love and respect for history! Thanks so much for both this story, and advancing the concept
    to the rest of us!

  3. […] GO HISTORY TREKKING […]

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