Tramway C to C Hiker Stuck

March 14-15, 2023
Tramway, Upper Skyline Trail

Written by: James Eckhardt.

At 6:00PM on Tuesday, we got a call for a hiker in need of help on the upper Skyline Trail section of Cactus to Clouds. The hiker was stuck in deep snow, cold and unprepared for the conditions. He had called 911 and so we had his GPS coordinates when he called. Forecasts were calling for up to two inches of rain on top of a deep snowpack on San Jacinto in the next 24 hours. The rain was heavy as I drove from Riverside to the Palm Springs tram. Soon after I made it, Tobias and Vinay arrived. Tobias and I would form the hasty team, Vinay would run base, and Steve and Matt would follow us into the field with more warm gear and shelter.

Tobias and I started hiking at 8:00PM in steady rain and wind with temperatures just above freezing. We headed for the gully below Notch 2 and made it with minimal post holing. As we dropped down the gully, we soon began sinking past our knees and sometimes up to our waists in rain saturated snow. I quickly assessed the risk of a wet slide being much too high to continue in any steep terrain, especially gullies. Many of the risk factors for loose wet slides were in place including recent warming, rain, and the depth we were sinking. We then decided to try a different approach by a ridge. Based on slope angle shading on our maps, we knew the ridge would be steep.

As we hoped and expected, it was largely snow-free with a few traverses over snow, so avalanche danger was minimal. The ridge was difficult to traverse, sometimes brushy and often requiring Class 3 and 4 moves. We eventually came to a point where we would have to rappel to continue. We had brought a 30-meter static line and a 70-meter climbing rope, but we had no visibility of where we were descending due to the heavy rain and fog. In addition, there was loose rock, our layers were already soaked through due to the bushwhacking, and if we needed to reascend the rope, we only had light technical gear making it difficult. Due to these factors, we made the decision to turn around. At this point, we called for mutual aid as we believed if we made it to the subject there would be a good chance for a carryout, and this would require many more people than we had available.

Aside from the ascent from Palm Springs up skyline, our only other option was to check the snow conditions at Grubb’s Notch. Steve and Matt had brought extra avalanche beacons and probes for Tobias and me, and we were prepared to descend. The snow below Grubb’s Notch had the same risk factors as the previous gully we tried to descend, so we again turned around. At this point, we notified the subject we would not be able to access him that night and advised him to hike down Skyline if possible.

We hiked back to the tram and arrived about 1:00AM. I called Richard to plan for the morning, as he would be joining and running base. After three hours of sleep, we were up at 5:00AM to take the first tram down where I joined Richard to plan for the day. While conditions were supposed to improve throughout the day, it was still raining, windy and cloudy above 4000 feet in elevation, preventing any helicopter operations. We were still concerned about wet loose slide risk, so we sent out a team of three (two from San Bernardino County and one from San Diego) to go up the tram and reassess avalanche conditions. They would determine if they could approach the subject from the ridge that Tobias and I had attempted the previous night in poor visibility. Meanwhile, Tobias and Steve would stage at the upper tram with a snow litter and additional tech gear.

After the teams had started their assignment, Richard and I relocated our command post to the Palm Springs Visitors Center. We discussed how we would utilize the next teams to arrive and decided to split our resources between sending more personnel to approach from the top and holding personnel for helicopter transport up Skyline as high as possible.

We were preparing to send a team of four to the top of the tram when we heard that a rescuer from the field team had slid down a snow gully and the team above had lost contact with him. The fallen rescuer was able to call 911 and notify us of his location and that he was injured and immobile. The two members of his team attempted to reach him via rappel, but due to the length of his fall, they were unable to. We requested further resources from both in and out of county resources. As they arrived, we sent them up the tram, holding some in reserve in case a helicopter was able to transport them up Skyline. The weather broke in Hemet long enough for both Cal Fire 301 and Rescue 9 to take off, and 301 began to attempt to fly through the broken clouds to locate the fallen rescuer. They were able to locate and lower a medic, but cloudy conditions forced 301 to leave the scene.

Meanwhile we received word that the original subject was walking down Skyline and was 1-2 miles from the trailhead at the museum. I sent a team to intercept him. They hiked him out the rest of the way, and he was transported to the hospital for treatment of minor injuries.
The clouds cleared enough for 301 to hoist out the injured rescue and paramedic. We were notified shortly after that a second member from the first field team was hypothermic after being soaked through and in the elements all day. Cal Fire 301 was again able to perform a hoist. Both rescuers were transported to the hospital.

It is essential that hikers understand the risk they are putting themselves and others in when they choose to hike unprepared in a major winter storm. Rescuers will do their best to reach a subject but can refuse any assignment. Helicopter assets are not always available. Snow conditions this year are currently unusually deep, leading to both difficult backcountry travel and localized avalanche hazards. Hikers need to understand this and be prepared for arduous hiking conditions and slower rescuer response times.

We would like to thank San Bernardino Sheriff Department Cave Rescue Team, San Bernardino Mountain SAR, San Diego MRT, Sierra Madre SAR, San Dimas MRT, Montrose SAR, San Bernardino SAR, San Bernardino Wrightwood SAR, San Diego Sheriff’s Department SAR, SBSR, Los Angeles SAR, RSO Aviation, and Cal Fire 301.

RMRU Members Involved: (James Eckhardt, Matt Frenken, Michael George, Joshua Gould, Glenn Henderson, Shani McCullough, Tobias Moyneur, Rob Newton, Vinay Rao, Steve Rider, Tyler Shumway, Ray Weden, and Richard Yocum).

Other Agencies Involved: (San Bernardino Sheriff Department Cave Rescue Team, San Bernardino Mountain SAR, San Diego MRT, Sierra Madre SAR, San Dimas MRT, Montrose SAR, San Bernardino SAR, San Bernardino Wrightwood SAR, San Diego Sheriff’s Department SAR, SBSR, Los Angeles SAR, RSO Aviation, Cal Fire 301, CHP60, Riverside County Sheriff’s Office SERT, ResQ9, and other deputies; and San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Office, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office, and California State Parks).