In the footsteps of history: Donner Relief Expedition retraces 1847 route

Donner Relief Expedition Tim Twietmeyer, Jennifer Hemmen, Bob Crowley and Elke Reimer. | Keith Sutter, Sutter Photography

Today when people think of the 1846 Donner Party and the Sierra entrapment, they think of the numerous mistakes the members made including starting too late, banning some key members, taking too many wrong turns hoping to shorten the trip and the unbelievable hardship throughout the trek — all of which created a recipe for disaster.

The true story of the Donner Party is about everyday people caught in tragic circumstances. It is about having to make difficult decisions, tenacity, heroism, self-sacrifice and the very best in the human spirit. It is also about what people can overcome and what strangers can do for you.

From Feb. 14 to 18, the Donner Relief Expedition will retract the route of the 1847 Donner Relief Parties in remembrance of those that sought to help the trapped Donner Party.

A team of four extreme athletes — Bob Crowley, Tim Twietmeyer, Jennifer Hemmen and Elke Reimer — will follow the path the first rescue party took. The snow will still be deep and rivers will be running full. They will have to deal with all that the original rescue party did, albeit utilizing modern clothing and gear.

Read Mark McLaughlin’s ongoing series on the 175th anniversary of the Donner Party, including on Charlie Stanton, at Click on Donner Party under the Explore Tahoe menu. His next installment in the series will appear in the Feb. 23 Tahoe Weekly.

1847 Donner Relief Expedition

Charlie Stanton helped lead the Donner Party and could see they were running low on food. It was a long way to California, so Stanton and William McCutchen volunteered to go ahead to Sutter’s Fort for help when the Donner Party became trapped outside Truckee. McCutchen had reason to go since he had family, wagons and goods. Stanton had nobody.

They made it to Sutter’s Fort where they were supplied with mules and food. Also, two Native Americans helped them. McCutchen fell ill and remained in California, but Stanton, with no relatives nor reason to return, continued with life-saving food across the Sierra.

Stanton had given his word to those left at Truckee (Donner) Lake. He said he would return and he did.

A team of four extreme athletes — Bob Crowley, Tim Twietmeyer, Jennifer Hemmen and Elke Reimer — will follow the path the first rescue party took … They will deal with all that the original rescue party dealt with.

But it continued to snow. It was decided that some would try to make it over the mountains. The Forlorn Hope team of 15 souls were led by Stanton. He became snow blind and said he would: “just sit here awhile and smoke my pipe … I’ll be along.” He died in the mountains (read Mark McLaughlin’s feature on Stanton at The Forlorn Hope party had no guide.

It took them 33 days and so much trauma to reach Johnson Ranch, the first white settlement in the area. But the seven survivors let people know of the Donner Party’s predicament. Funds and resources were rallied quickly and a team of seven men chose to brave the Sierra and save those still lost in the mountains.

2022 Donner Relief Expedition

Little was known of the path the first relief party took but the team has researched the probable route for years, spending hundreds of hours in field surveying and thousands of hours in primary and secondary research.

The goal of this modern-day endeavor is to provide an historically accurate map of the relief parties and explore the multidimensional persona of each member including their history, character and motivations — and to honor their achievements and sacrifices.

“The story of the Donner Party is more than the sensational, which has gotten all of the attention. It’s also about heroism and self-sacrifice, not just for family, but also for strangers,” said Bill Oudegeest of Donner Summit Historical Society:

The team will leave Johnson Ranch outside Wheatland on Feb. 14. They will be challenged all along the route with rivers, snow and more. They plan to arrive at Donner Memorial State Park on Feb. 18, 175 years to the day of the first relief party’s arrival.

Donner Relief Expedition

Feb. 17
5 p.m. | Donner Party & Caleb “Old” Greenwood re-enactors
Free | Donner Ski Ranch, Norden

Feb. 18
Noon | Arrival & panel discussion
Free | Donner Memorial State Park, Truckee

The Trek

Day 1 | After leaving Johnson Ranch at 7 a.m., the team will hike 30 miles and arrive at Emigrant Overland Trail in Grass Valley.

Day 2 | The team has to cross the potentially dangerous rapid water of Steep Hollow. This is where the 1847 relief party had their horses sucked under logs as they crossed the river, dragging the rescuers: some almost drowned.

Day 3 | The team will hike in deep snow on snowshoes for 20 miles in Bear Valley.

Day 4 | On Feb. 17 there will be a family-friendly event at Donner Ski Ranch starting at 5 p.m. The four athletes will act as William Eddy, Reason “Dan” Tucker, John Pierce Rhodes and John Stark. Historical luminaries will be present.

Day 5 | On Feb. 18 spectators can welcome the Forlorn Hope Rescue Party at noon at the Pioneer Monument in Donner Memorial State Park. There will be a panel discussion from 2 to 4 p.m., but space is limited.

Sign up at Donner Relief Expedition’s on the Sierra State Parks Foundation’s website. |,