Adventure and Survival in the High Sierras

Alumni7 MIN READ

Jennifer Walker Hemmen ’94 tackles the extreme outdoors to honor members of the Donner Party

Tim Twietmeyer, Jennifer Hemmen '94, Bob Crowley, and Elke Reimer pose for the official team portrait atop Donner Pass in California. Donner Lake can be seen in the background.
By Erika Mailman ’91Photography by Keith Sutter
February 20, 2023

Jennifer Walker Hemmen ‘94 appeared as a figure on the horizon.

She and three others walked abreast in covered wagon-train ruts in a historic ranch in Wheatland, Calif., as family and friends watched from a mile away. They were reaching the end of their journey after walking, running, and snowshoeing 100 miles in five days, reprising the desperate 1846-47 escape route of a subgroup of the Donner Party.

After traveling months overland from Missouri, the original Donner Party became trapped in the snowbound Sierras. With depleted supplies, the party began to starve, so 17 of them—known as the Forlorn Hope Expedition—attempted to bolt over the mountains but got lost and caught in a blizzard. A trek they thought would take 10 days took 33, and only seven survived.

The Sierra mountains ascend so quickly that while the summit at 7,200 feet is one of the biggest snow-load areas in the country, in the green valley of base one can comfortably wear a sweater. Thus, as the modern Forlorn Hope Expedition came into Johnson’s Ranch on that day in December 2020, they were surrounded by dry grass whereas days before they had been snowshoeing in deep snow.

Hemmen wept as she and the others completed the journey. The four adventurists carried tribute cards with an image and biography of each of the original 17 and placed them in holy quietness on the ground at the site where the survivors were fed and sheltered.

“We were all overcome by emotion reuniting these people for the first time in history. We really felt as we crested the hill that we were in between worlds, that the past and present were all one,” Hemmen said. “We had been in a spirit world for those five days. And [the waiting crowd] in the distance appeared black and white to us, kind of in silhouette.”

Her daughter Sophia, part of the waiting crowd, said at the time, “This is something she’s super passionate about, trying to find the right way to honor these people.”

In a winter wonderland, the team crosses the South Fork of the Yuba River near Cisco Grove.

Last year, the group did a second expedition, this time retracing the steps of the first relief party dispatched to reach those remaining at what is now known as Donner Memorial State Park. And this month, Hemmen and the team will adventure out on another 100-mile historical trek, this time going between Gold Canyon, Nev., and Last Chance, Calif., to follow the historic Grosh Brothers who, like the Donners, became stuck and lost in the Sierra in winter. This expedition had a treasure-hunt feature, as the Groshes were convinced they’d struck it rich with a silver seam. Both brothers died in pursuit of their fortune.

The expedition departs Feb. 27 with live tracking online so people can follow its progress.

Hemmen is no stranger to extreme athletic feats. She’s an ultrarunner who regularly participates in endurance events of 50 miles to more than 100 miles, including mountain trail ultramarathons and adventure racing, where teams of four race through the wilderness for up to 10 days.

She was a reality-show participant in The World’s Toughest Race Eco-Challenge Fiji, hosted by Bear Grylls, which aired in 2020 with teams from 30 countries racing nonstop for more than 400 miles. This epic, grueling event included challenges like swimming for nearly five miles in 52-degree water and freediving to the ocean floor. As captain of Team Curl, Hemmen’s best sound bite was, “I don’t mind climbing; I mind dying” as she confronted a cliff face.

Her team lasted close to 190 hours on little sleep and made it to within five miles of the final paddling push, an impressive accomplishment for a rookie team. The show streams on Amazon Prime, and Hemmen appears in episodes 9 and 10.

The 2022 Donner Relief Expedition was featured on the Discovery Channel’s Expedition Unknown.

Tim Twietmeyer trail blazes the route of Donner Pass with Elke Reime, Jennifer Hemmen, and Bob Crowley close behind. Day one of the Forlorn Hope Expedition.

Hemmen was invited to join the 2020 Forlorn Hope Expedition by Bob Crowley, who along with Tim Twietmeyer researched the path for seven years. As expedition leaders, Crowley and Twietmeyer sought two women for the journey for the sake of historical accuracy. In addition to Hemmen, they recruited Elke Reimer as their fourth member.

Entire families had made the trek from Missouri, but the smaller Forlorn Hope expedition consisted of 12 men and five women. All five women survived, but only two of the men did.

During the 2022 expedition, the group paused one evening at the historic Rainbow Lodge in Soda Springs, Calif., for a fireside chat before returning to their tents for the night. During this get-together with friends, family, and supporters, Hemmen talked of a harrowing traverse across a 70-degree slope, where she dug her fingers and lightweight racing snowshoes into the snow to avoid what would have been a disastrous slide to the treeline.

She said she had to mentally coach herself to “get it together,” because the 1800s trekkers waded in snow up to their waists and went back and forth to carry emaciated children. With resources unfathomable to their historic counterparts, Hemmen and her contemporaries traveled a researched route with the benefit of a support crew that set up tents and cooked for them, and they wore parkas and waterproof gear. “We don’t have a tenth of the grit they had in one day,” said Hemmen. “It was a new threshold of grit.”

Bob Crowley, Jennifer Hemmen, and Elke Reime (from front to back) head into a winter storm on the morning of Day 2 near Big Bend.

Hemmen lives in northern California. She was born in Newton, Mass., and moved to Plymouth, N.H., when she was 12.

Colby recruited her to play hockey, and she fell in love with the campus on her first visit.  

A magical moment transpired on her second visit with her father. They noticed that one of the trophies in the athletic center was labeled the Norman E. Walker Award. The trophy was named for her grandfather, whom she had never met, a 1948 Olympic hockey player who died at age 33 of cancer. Until then, she had never known her grandfather attended Colby. The award is still granted annually for the most improved hockey player.

At Colby, Hemmen majored in English with a focus on international politics, and she  attended school in Madagascar one semester with the School for International Training based in Brattleboro, Vt. These days, she runs Blue Vista Consulting, an environmental permitting company in Sacramento. She obtained her master’s in environmental law from Vermont Law School, and she is married with three kids.

She serves on the board of a museum-in-progress, the Western States Trail Museum in Auburn, Calif., which will interpret the Western States Trail and its many facets. This month, she learned that she was selected in the lottery to run in the 50th anniversary of the Western States 100-mile race. “I’ve been waiting eight years, and I’m really, really grateful and excited,” she said. She last ran in 2015 and got a silver buckle for finishing in less than 24 hours.

She remains connected to Colby. She’s part of a group of six Colby graduates who meet up regularly in real life, text incessantly, and Zoom weekly, a practice that began in 2020 during the pandemic lockdown.

The friends meet every Thursday for two to three hours, and they’ve missed only twice since they began, said one of the Zoom friends, Marile Borden ’94. “We had that first Zoom and we were on for three hours, and then we said, ‘Let’s do it again next week at the same time.’ … We connect so regularly, it’s gotten so much deeper now. We share parenting woes and give each other advice. It’s been a great sounding board as we went through the pandemic and sent kids off to college.”

Said Hemmen, “It’s almost like it’s given me a hug in life. I can always turn to my Colby friends.”