Re-tracing Donner Party

By  | 

Lee Bergthold can't get enough of the Donner Party.
Over the weekend, he and three friends set out on a 35-day,
275-mile trek through Nevada desert and mountains from the Utah
border to Battle Mountain.
The backpackers will start out on the infamous Hastings Cutoff -
the "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 pioneers died and some survivors ate the
flesh of their dead companions to survive near the mountain pass
that now bears the party's name.
Bergthold, 71, plans to leave the Hastings Cutoff near Overland
Pass south of Elko, and take a more unspoiled, southerly
cross-country route to Battle Mountain, about 220 miles east of
It's the third and final phase of a multi-year trek designed to
give Bergthold insight into the Donner Party and whether it could
have survived by taking different routes on the western end of its
"I want to work off a shortcut to Battle Mountain to see if it
would have been feasible," said Bergthold, an assistant
photography professor at Antelope Valley College in Lancaster,
He concluded after his earlier treks that despite the hardship
of cross-country travel, the Donner Party probably could have
survived by taking a more southerly route across the Sierra.
"Of course, who knew what route that was?" Bergthold said.
"It was not without hardship, but we wouldn't have heard of the
Donner Party had they taken it."
Two days before Christmas 1996, Bergthold and Christine Bowers
began a 35-day, 350-mile trek from Battle Mountain to Death Valley.
Then in the winter of 1999-2000, they continued south with Al
Caler on a similar walk from Death Valley to the Salton Sea.
On the current hike from Donner Springs to Battle Mountain, the
three are being joined by Connie Simpkins.
"I really love the Nevada backcountry," Bergthold said. "I
don't want to see a lot of civilization, and you still see the land
pretty much like the pioneers did."
Bergthold, a Marine Corps survival instructor during the Korean
War, has explored remote regions of the Southwest for the last 50