Lost Hiker San Jacinto Peak

July 01, 2020
San Jacinto Peak Area

Written by Blake Douglas.

RMRU was activated on the evening of July 1st for a missing hiker on San Jacinto Peak. Glenn, Cameron, James, and I, responded to the Idyllwild Ranger Station to speak with the subject’s hiking partner.

The hike was meant to be a challenging birthday celebration; the subjects had intended to complete the “Cactus to Clouds to Cactus”, or C2C2C. This involves hiking the Skyline trail to the Tram, following Round Valley and Wellman trails to San Jacinto Peak, and then reversing course and returning to Palm Springs. Cactus to Clouds, alone, is considered one of the most challenging hikes in the country, and C2C2C is an elite undertaking that requires excellent physical conditioning and planning. Fortunately, our subjects had an abundance of both.

After reaching Wellman Divide, our subjects dropped their packs and hiked to the peak (which is an entirely normal practice for experienced hikers). Upon reaching the peak, they took slightly different routes down the steep, rocky scramble back to the stone summit hut. When our reporting party reached the hut, his partner was nowhere to be seen. After a brief search, he returned to the stashed packs, and when his partner failed to appear, he left a note in the partner’s pack, hiked to Idyllwild, and called search and rescue.

Blake Flying in to Round Valley, Ready to start hiking.
Image by James.

James and myself were flown into Round Valley at sunset, where we briefly scouted the camps, then hiked to Wellman Divide to ascertain the condition of the subject’s pack; whether it was there, or gone, would determine our next steps. After a few minutes of searching in the gathering dark, we located the pack, undisturbed. Given that our subject was reported to be an experienced hiker, but unfamiliar with the San Jacinto mountains, it was difficult to determine what this could mean; perhaps he had never returned to this area, or perhaps, like so many others, he had become lost in the general Wellman Divide area, and simply missed the pack. Speculation was unhelpful at this point, and James and I proceeded to the peak, while Glenn and Gwenda called for additional RMRU members to respond in the morning.

Upon reaching the hut, we conducted an extensive search and call-out between the hut and the peak, again finding no sign of our subject. Our orders were to proceed west down the Deer Springs and Marion trails; during the search of this area, we found a single camper in Little Round Valley, who had seen no sign of our subject. We reached the Marion trailhead around 1am, neither of us feeling particularly in-character when it came to our usual vigor, and ready for a few hours of sleep at the RSO Mountain Station in Lake Hemet. The mission had gone OES at this point and we were expecting other teams to begin arriving around 6am.

Morning dawned scenically but with a poor outlook. Star 9 was socked in with fog in Hemet, and while we were able to secure the participation of Desert Search and Rescue and Sierra Madre Search and Rescue, this was looking to be a true needle-in-haystack search of the entire San Jacinto Wilderness, an effort that would surely require at least a dozen ground teams with air support if we were to assure thorough and timely coverage of all the possible routes our subject could have taken.

Happily, around 9am, we received word that the subject had been located in Whitewater. As we were beginning to suspect, he had fallen, though uninjured, somewhere on the north side of the peak, gotten cliffed out (unable to go back the way he came) and after finding his shouts for help were unheard, he decided to descend via Snow Creek. This is an awesome testament to his routefinding and physical ability, let alone considering that he had no gear, food, or water whatsoever.

What went wrong:
The primary cause of this mission was the subjects losing sight of each other during their descent from the peak. On unfamiliar, steep, or low-visibility terrain, it is essential that team members remain in visual contact; radios or callouts can supplement, but not replace this.

The secondary cause was the lack of a phone, InReach, radio, or other means of location and communication. While dropping packs prior to a summit is a common practice, it is essential that one always retains essential equipment on their person, for situations exactly like the one encountered here.

RMRU Members Involved: Kase Chong, Cameron Dickinson, Blake Douglas, James Eckhardt, Corey Ellison, and Glenn Henderson.

OTHER Teams Involved: Desert Search and Rescue and Sierra Madre Search and Rescue.