TRUCKEE, Calif. — Twelve intrepid hikers retraced a section of the Pioneer Trail made famous by Forlorn Hope Snowshoers from the Donner Party of 1846. On Dec. 28, 10 men and two women started from the Museum at Donner Memorial State Park to begin their 30-mile snowshoe trek to Emigrant Gap. The goal was to see if the long ago journey could be repeated today under similar weather conditions. Ed Hodges, a retired teacher from San Jose and the group leader, researched the route, camping spots, and the weather conditions with the help of two Donner Party experts: historian Kristin Johnson and author Daniel Brown. Hodges discovered the 1846 snowshoers comprised a party of 10 men and five women who headed for Sacramento on home-made snowshoes Dec. 16, 1846 under clear skies and deep snow.
The modern Argonauts’ goal was to follow the same route and camp in the same locations. Because most of the Hodges group had full-time jobs, the only dates available that came close being authentic were between Christmas and New Years. The group got permission to camp out at Truckee Elementary School the night before the hike began: a good place to organize equipment.
After a hearty breakfast at Smokey’s, the hikers made quick work of the first 4 miles along old Highway 40. Surprisingly, the route along the north side of the lake was the same taken by the 1846 group, with one big exception, Hodges group had a road to follow. At the West end of the lake, conditions changed dramatically; the group picked up the original trail through the woods and up the big hill toward the pass. It started to snow, the wind picked up, and 2.5 hours later, everyone made it to the top . By 2 p.m., the group started to pitch tents at a remote corner of Donner Ski Ranch. During his research into the route, Hodges quickly learned much of the original Pioneer Trail is on private property; it took many e-mails and letters to secure permission to hike and camp along the way.
Wednesday night, Dec. 28, a blizzard swept in and gave the modern group a real taste of 1846 weather. Two feet of snow, winds at 50 mph, and buried equipment delayed the next day’s hike. Hodges considered ending the hike due to bad conditions, but his 34-year-old daughter insisted on pushing on. So on they went, west into Summit Valley. The day’s hiking goal was to make it to Kingvale via the ridge road that runs along Kidd Lake.
The group decided to bypass this section and followed old Highway 40 over a few feet of unplowed snow. Hodges brought his truck and utility trailer to carry camping equipment. Many of you might think this was cheating, if the purpose was to reenact the events of the 1846 group.
Hodges explained the Forlorn Hope snowshoers carried light packs containing only, food, blanket, cook pot and some extra clothing. Hodges primary goal was to retrace the route, and that he accomplished with 90 percent accuracy. The secondary goal was much more difficult to meet.
How did the 1846 group of men and women camp out in the snow without tents and sleeping bags?
Hodges research points to one over-powering factor: Build a big fire and keep it going all night. The modern Argonauts attempted a fire the second night. Aware of the trouble they likely would get into if they started ripping and chopping branches off of the trees, they brought enough wood to make a test fire on top of the snow. Big logs were laid down first, then the ax was used to make kindling; they got the fire to start quickly, and got it big enough to warm six people. About two hours later, the campers noticed the fire was sinking. The platform started to burn and melt the snow under it. Around 11 p.m., they allowed it to die and everyone retreated to their tents. Someone noted the temperature was 5 degrees.
Everyone wondered if they could have survived the night with just a wool blanket facing a fire that was descending into the snow, rather than snuggled into down sleeping bags.
The final day of our hike started out with a winter wonderland post-card perfect scene.
For the last night out, the group camped at Cisco Grove Snow Park. The goal that day was to hike up a fire road near the Eagle Lakes Interstate 80 exit, cross the Railroad tracks, and pick up the old Pioneer Trail that now goes past Crystal Lake and Snowflower. The snow was deep and powdery and it was up hill for a mile. Once at the top of the ridge, it became easier to walk and the crew made better time. The last section was a moderate down hill into Six Mile Valley, where Emigrant Gap is located.
On a scouting mission last summer, Hodges found The Rustic Table Restaurant, on Laing Road , just off the Emigrant Gap exit. The owner fixed up a celebration dinner and 10 tired and hungry hikers enjoyed their first fancy meal in three days.
Asked if he accomplished what he set out to do, Hodges offered a two-part answer. Yes, his group of 12 hardy hikers successfully retraced the hiking route of the 1846 pioneers. Hodges pointed out some of the group even wore wool clothing. The group chose to stop at Emigrant Gap for two reasons: first was the constraint of free time available. Second was the geographic location where the 1846 pioneers took a wrong turn and descended into the American River Canyon where they met disaster.
When it came to authentic camping conditions, Hodges replied with a paraphrased comment from all 12 of his group:
“How the Hell did they survive those cold nights in the snow?”
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November of 1846 was a heavy snow year; it was also the month that saw the arrival of the Donner Party at the Lake.
It soon became apparent the food would run out and no one was sure if help was coming from California. Over a period of 10 days, attempts were made by small groups to walk over the pass; but the snow was too deep and they turned back. Around Dec. 6, Frank Graves and Charles Stanton began making snowshoes for a determined escape. Using oxbows and rawhide, they were able to craft 15 pair of servicable snowshoes. On Dec. 16, under clear skies, 10 men and five women set out on a fateful journey. The weather held for the first two days and they made it over the pass. For the next two days, a storm hit them as they worked their way to today’s Cisco.
Two more days brought them to Emigrant Gap; but they lost a most important asset. Their guide, Charles Stanton, died from exhaustion and snow blindness. The remaining 14 chose the wrong route, descending into the American River Canyon, forever. The complete story is best told in a new book, “The Indifferent Stars Above” by Daniel James Brown.