Upper Skyline Rescue

November 09, 2020
Skyline Trail just down from Tramway

Written by Blake Douglas.

RMRU was activated at 8:30pm on November 9th for a hiker near the top of the Skyline trail. James and I responded to the Hemet Ryan airport to be flown by Sheriff’s Aviation into Long Valley, near the Palm Springs Tram station. We had a cell phone ping which placed our subject only a few minute’s descent over the side of Grubb’s Notch, where the trail tops out into Long Valley, which was fantastic since it meant we wouldn’t be fighting our way up one of the other notch drainages where hikers often get lost on this final section. Unfortunately there was no further contact with the subject, but based on past experiences with Skyline rescues we expected this to be a short mission; we would pick them up, get them fed, hydrated and motivated, and then fly them out from Long Valley or spend the night at the tram.

James and I were dropped in Long Valley around 10pm in sub-zero temperatures and about a foot of powdery snow. We arrived at the coordinates within a few minutes, only to find nothing and hear no response to our callouts. The effectiveness of callouts in this area is limited due to the topography – our voices can carry straight down the notch to Coffman’s Crag, but not southeast along the trail’s Traverse section, due to an intervening ridge. It had been two hours since the subject had called 911, so we assumed he had either headed back down the trail below the snowline, or, more likely, he had mustered up the energy to finish the hike and was now in the tram building or the ranger station. After a little more descent and additional callouts, we decided to ascend and check the buildings. Unfortunately, this produced no results either.

We decided that our only remaining option was to descend Skyline, potentially all the way to Palm Springs. While this was not physically challenging for us, it would lock us into the route, so we wanted to be certain that it was the best choice, particularly since no other RMRU members were immediately available. As we descended past Coffman’s Crag, I remembered that another RMRU member, Vinay, had descended Skyline that afternoon and was currently camped out somewhere below the Rescue 2 emergency box. If Star 9 could contact him, he might be able to bracket our subject’s location; with any luck, the subject might even be with him. After the mission, Vinay confirmed that he passed our subject earlier in the day.

James got on the radio to Star 9 to request that they fly the Skyline ridge, and I did callouts downslope between transmissions. James noticed a “butt slide” track that looked fresh, headed downslope, and we were preparing to check it as soon as the radio call was complete. Abruptly I heard a faint groan. A few more callouts finally mustered the slurred response “I can see you guys…” from somewhere below. I asked him if he had a light to signal us with, but there was no response. James radioed that we had voice contact and we descended promptly.

Our subject was not in good shape. He was probably closer to death than any subject I have encountered. He was wearing tennis shoes, jeans, and a loose knit sweater, and was curled up under a rock with his legs and feet resting on snow. All his clothing was completely soaked through and he was unable to give coherent responses to our questions. In medical terms, he was AOx2, GCS 12, with shivering and capillary refill both absent, indicating moderate hypothermia. The term “moderate”, when applied to hypothermia, is a bit misleading, because symptomatically it’s like treating someone who is extremely drunk; while they might be cooperative, they have little coordination, are virtually immobile, and are confused by even simple tasks and questions – on several occasions we had to just move the subject’s body where we needed it to go. James and I are confident that he would not have survived more than a few hours, let alone the entire night.

We spent the next hour alternating medical and evac tasks, piling the subject with insulation, food, and warm water, while calling for a hoist from Star 9 and clearing the area to make a suitable hoist spot. Star 9 delivered a screamer suit, which is basically like a big fabric swaddle that can clip into the helicopter’s hoist line. The subject was extremely fortunate to have ended up in a clearing with relatively little tree cover; nevertheless, we still had to carry him to the evac point so he could be clipped into the line. We learned afterwards that the subject was so immobile that he had to be pulled into the helicopter feet-first, because he was unable to climb in with the TFO’s assistance.

Once the subject was secured, James and I climbed back up the trail, listening to the radio traffic between Star 9 and the Palm Springs fire/medical responders as we returned to the Long Valley landing zone, and we were back in Hemet by 2:30am. Best wishes to the subject for a full recovery.

Lessons from this mission:

Despite abundant on-trail signage, which warn of the various dangers of Skyline, the human factor continues to be the most important variable. While it might seem like the heat, cold, elevation or darkness are to blame, it almost always comes down to a subject failing to anticipate and prepare for the worst. Several of my previous writeups of Skyline missions attest to this pattern.

As in any hike, Skyline hikers should bring the Ten Hiking Essentials, particularly a dedicated light source (not your phone), and navigation gear (not your phone). The Palm Springs Tram currently closes at 6pm; if one is unable to reach the tram in time, they either need camping equipment, or a firm turn-around time. Anyone venturing into the upper parts of the trail after recent snowfall needs to bring appropriate clothing and traction, such as micro-spikes, and be practiced in their use.

RMRU Members Involved: Blake Douglas and James Eckhardt.