Man completes Donners’ trek across Nevada | TahoeDailyTribune.com
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Man completes Donners’ trek across Nevada

Martin Griffith

RENO (AP) – On the 160th anniversary of its tragic journey west, the Donner Party has gained a new fan.

Lee Bergthold is praising the group’s grit after completing a 32-day, 300-mile trek through Nevada desert and mountains from the Utah border to Battle Mountain, about 220 miles east of Reno.

It was the third and final leg of a multi-year project designed to give the former Marine Corps survival instructor insight into the Donner Party and whether it could have fared better by taking alternate routes on the western end of its trip.

Like the earlier travelers, Bergthold had to contend with heat, dust and a lack of water before wrapping up the hike Tuesday.

“I have the greatest respect in the world for the Donners and all the other pioneers who came west,” said Bergthold, an assistant photography professor at Antelope Valley College in Lancaster, Calif.

“I’m glad we still commemorate these pioneers and their spirit. After all, that’s what we come from,” he said.

Bergthold’s latest adventure was preceded by a 35-day, 350-mile trek from Battle Mountain to Death Valley in the winter of 1996-97 and by a similar walk from Death Valley to the Salton Sea in the winter of 1999-2000.

He concluded after the earlier hikes that despite the hardship of cross-country travel, the Donner Party probably could have survived by taking a more southerly route across the Sierra.

On the latest hike, he started out on the Hastings Cutoff – the infamous “shortcut” that helped doom the group of California-bound pioneers who became stranded by heavy snow in the Sierra in the winter of 1846-47.

About half of the 89 Donner Party members died and some survivors ate the flesh of their dead companions near the mountain pass that now bears the party’s name.

Bergthold, 71, left the Hastings Cutoff near Overland Pass south of Elko to follow a more direct, unspoiled cross-country route to Battle Mountain.

“It could have possibly saved the Donner Party some time if they took it,” he said, acknowledging the party would have had no way to know about the route.

Bergthold was joined on the hike by Christine Bowers, Al Caler and Connie Simpkins. Simpkins was knocked off it for more than a week near Elko after she became dehydrated and her legs gave out.

“The difficulties just make you appreciate all the little things like the beautiful sunsets and absolute silence at night,” Bergthold said. “The landscape is just enthralling even on the dirty desert.”


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