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In HARM’S way

A self-portrait of expedition leader Lee Bergthold, a professor of photography at Antelope Valley College.  (©  International Copyright Laws)

Lee Bergthold goes to great lengths to learn about the Donner Party

Staff Writer

For years, Lee Bergthold has been intrigued by the snowbound Donner party, only 47 of whose 82 members survived the winter of 1846-47, despite resorting to cannibalism.

The question that sends Bergthold, founder/director of the Center for Wilderness Studies, on 35-day, 350-mile treks through the desert is this:

Could the pioneers have saved themselves if, instead of trying to climb the Sierra Nevada so late in the season, they had traveled south toward Death Valley and then headed west to Big Pine?

The Donner part were as much the victims of belief, disbelief and impatience as they were of starvation.

In the mid-19th century the typical route to California, known as the California Trail, began in Independence,  MO, and followed the Oregon Trail to Fort Hall (near present day Pocatello, Idaho).  Here it diverged, following the Humboldt River in what is now Nevada and ending at Sutter’s Fort near Sacramento.

Un 1845, the real-estate promoter Lansford Hastings published “The Emigrant’s Guide to Oregon and California.”  According to Hastings:

“The most direct route, for the California emigrants, would be to leave the Oregon route, about two hundred miles east from Fort Hall; thence bearing West Southwest, to the Salt Lake; and thence continuing down to the bay of St. Francisco.”

Hastings had never tested his recommendations, but a party of settlers from Springfield, IL – led by George and Jacob Donner – believed Hasting’s boast that the cutoff could save them 350 miles.

Instead, Hastings’ “shortcut” across wet desert sand bogged down the Donners wagons, adding three weeks to their trek and casing them to arrive at the foot of the Sierras just before an unusually early snowstorm hit.

The Indian Chief Truckee warned them to wait until the spring thaw before attempting the pass, but they were impatient to reach California – and ignored the chief’s advice.

To test his theory that a southerly route was feasible, in the winter of 1996-97 Bergthold – an assistant professor of photography at Antelope Valley College, in Lancaster – walked with Christine Bowers, a free-lance photojournalist, from Battle Mountain, Nev. (190 miles northeast of Lake Tahoe) to Death Valley.

Enduring wind chills of minus 20◦ F, Bergthold lost three toenails to frostbite and 22 pounds.  Bowers shed 10 pounds and nearly lost her life.

But Bergthold, a former Marine Survival instructor, says he was convinced that “the Donners could have followed a more southerly route to the northern boundary of Death Valley, cut west over Westgard Pass, wintered in the Owens Valley and then crossed the Sierras come summer.

Gluttons for punishment, Bergthold and Bowers made a second trip three years later, accompanied by Al Caler.

Lee Bergthold gets a greeting from the blustery, 
in-coming weather, along the Overland Pass. 

Photo by Connie Simpkins.
(©  International Copyright Laws)

This time they trekked from Death Valley to the north shore of the Salton Sea, a journey of 34 days and 350 miles.

At one point, the three were down to half a cup of water each.

If you have inadequate water, Bergthold says, you suspend eating.  The digestion process draws water from your body, so the more you eat, the thirstier you are.

Bowers lost 15 pounds, Bergthold 22 and Caler even more.

According to Bergthold, there were trails connecting the spot where the Salton Sea is now and San Luis Obispo, so the Donners could conceivably have made their way to the ocean.

But he has decided the Donners should not have tried this route.  Not only was there insufficient water, but having headed so far southeast, they would have lost whatever headway they’d gained.

“Our second hike was really just a test of endurance,” Bergthold says.

This spring, Bergthold, Bowers, Caler and Connie Simpkins completed the third lap of their grueling experiment.  Following the Hastings cutoff, they walked from near Donner Springs at the Utah/Nevada border, to Battle Mountain in Nevada, a journey of 32 days and 300 miles.

Each of the trekkers lost between 12 and 15 pounds.

The 19th century pioneers traveled with wagons and stock – a minus because they had to feed and water their animals.

But this was also a plus because they didn’t have to carry supplies on their own backs and the wagons allowed them to haul vats of water.  

Connie Simpkins is careful to scoop from the top of a pool of muddy groundwater, the only water supply on hand. 
 Photo by Lee Bergthold
(©  International Copyright Laws)

To simulate pioneer conditions as closely as possible, during all three adventures Bergthold’s groups set out carrying their gear, a 10-day supply of food and some water.

At approximately 10-day intervals, they would find food dropped off by support personnel, who otherwise kept at a distance.

“In between drop-off points,” Bergthold says, “someone would bring us water – if they could find us.”

Otherwise they depended on groundwater, snow, frost, creeks and rivers.

“After dark,” Bergthold claims, “I can smell water.  I’m smelling the roots through which the moisture is rising up into a plant.

Animal tracks or bugs are also good signs of water, though an animal’s carcass will have poisoned the supply.

Like the pilot of an airplane, who must know the point of no return, Berthold never goes farther than five or eight miles from a known water supply.

“But I have rarely had to return to a source,” he says.  “And even though I only occasionally treat water with NutriBiotic, a grapefruit-seed extract, I’ve never experienced giardia or cryptosporidiosis.

“Because giardia and cryptosporidiosis sink to the bottom, you can get fairly clear water from the top of a puddle of still groundwater.  Likewise, it’s better to take water from a quiet stream rather than a frothy one – even though you may think that frothy water will be better aerated.”

At the prescribed points, the trekkers at apples, oranges, bananas, peanut butter and cookies for calories.  And because one requires oils in cold weather, in their backpacks they carried such foods as sardines, tuna and oysters.

It worries Bergthold that motorized vehicles like ATV’s and four-wheelers take inexperienced people far into the back country – and break down there.

In June of 1995, Eric Knight, 32 of Long Beach, went rock hunting in the desert without telling anyone where he was going.

After his four-wheel drive Jeep Comanche became buried up to the hubs in soft sand, Knight set off for Ludlow, first on a bike, later on foot.

Three days later, his body was found half a mile from Ludlow.

According to the article published June 21, 1997, in the Desert Dispatch, Knight’s parents were so impressed with efforts of the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department Search and Rescue Team, they paid for the publication of “Desert Travel Hints.”

Among its many tips, the pamphlet recommends:

  • Before starting out, making sure your vehicle is properly maintained.
  • Letting someone know your destination, route and estimated return date.
  • Carrying a minimum of one gallon of water per person for each day.
  • Bringing extra gasoline and motor oil.
  • In the event of an emergency, making yourself visible by any means possible.  And try to stay calm (“Panic is your enemy”).
  • Remembering that drinking alcohol can cause dehydration and is not a replacement for water.

In his introduction to “Deserts” (Alfred A. Knopf, 1985), James A. MacMahon adds these hints:

  • Wear boots that provide sufficient ankle-support and whose soles can grip on slippery surfaces.
  • Rest in the shade for 10 minutes every hour, and don’t remove clothing in an effort to cool off (this hastens dehydration).
  • As flash floods often follow heavy rains, never camp overnight in deep washes.

“True desert people know to carry water and tools,” says Bergthold.  But for his two-footed treks, he makes sure to bring spare boot laces.


ADDRESS:  c/o Lee Bergthold, 41331 20th St West, Palmdale, CA  93551

PHONE:  (661) 947-5153



Daily Press, Victorville, CA
Desert Living Section
Saturday, June 24, 2006

Last Update
March 6, 2021

(661) 947-5153