PCT Hikers Apache Peak

March 27, 2020
PCT below Apache Peak

Written by Eric Holden.

As I was completing mission# 2020-015 we got word that a hiker took a big fall near Apache Peak with two other hikers stuck on the icy slopes. As I was heading down to Lake Hemet, we got the word that the subject (Trevor) was killed as a result of a 600ft fall. Once on scene I spoke with Tyler. The plan was for him and Cameron to fly into Apache peak to rescue the 2 hikers stuck on the slope while I would assist CHP with recovering Trevor.

USFS and Sheriff watching Eric leave in CHP Helicopter
Image by Vinay Rao

I was lowered via hoist down to the CHP medic. We got Trevor into litter, the CHP helicopter returned and picked him up, flying back to Lake Hemet. While waiting the Riverside Aviation (Star-9) let me know they would be picking me up and dropping me at the peak to assist Cameron with rescuing the last 2 subjects. Unfortunately, by this time winds had picked up significantly.

As I was about 1/4 of the way up a large gust of wind caused the helicopter to drift towards the mountain. The pilot (Chad) made a hard turn away which cause me to have the ride of a life with a large pendulum swing under the helicopter. Luckily, I had an awesome crew and they quickly stopped my swinging and got me into the bird. We flew up to the peak and I was getting ready to be lowered to Cameron’s position when another large gust of wind caused the helicopter to once again drift where it shouldn’t go. The pilot again veered hard away from the mountain, this time I was hanging on the cable outside the helicopter. I grabbed hold of TFO Ray Heirs while we flew around to make another attempt. The winds were just too strong, and we had to abort. I was flow back to Lake Hemet to take a breather. As we had about 10 other people there, I let them finish up the mission.

Written by Cameron Dickinson.

On Friday, March 27th, the team would respond to call of a fallen hiker on the PCT trail just on the eastern slope of Apache Peak. As I was driving out to this mission, I received a phone call that I needed to divert over to Hemet-Ryan Airport as I would be flown in by our Riverside Sheriff’s Aviation, Star 9 helicopter. The week prior to this call, the local mountains around Idyllwild would receive a modest amount of snow, with a lighter amount that had fallen a day or two before. I had packed the extra provisions for the colder weather as well as technical conditions that I might be encountering for the rescue.

Much of team was already on the mountain, getting briefed for the rescue, and gathering their gear. Because of the urgency of this call, the intent was to fly out the fallen hiker and his hiking partners. In case we encountered difficult weather to perform the helicopter rescue (high winds, thick cloud cover, etc.), our team would be on standby, ready to hike in to perform the rescue from the ground as necessary.

Vinay, Tyler, Jesse, and Derek Ready to Go
Image by Unknown

CalFire would be first on scene and would be in direct communication with CHP H-60 aircrew for initial rescue and/or scene assessment. As we were flying over and around Apache Peak, we can see H-60 aircrew hovering below us, with a CHP medic and fellow RMRU team member Eric Holden on ground near the fallen hiker. (NOTE: See Eric Holden’s write-up for further detail).

Sadly, we received word that the hiker had died from injuries sustained in the fall. We were aware that the two hiking partners were staying in place nearby, but initially couldn’t locate them. Within a couple minutes we found both hikers waving from behind some trees several hundred feet upslope on the mountain. The original plan was that I would be lowered down on the hoist to a flatter section of the PCT trail with some additional rescue gear, Star 9 would head over pick team member Tyler Shumway who was awaiting at the command post, and drop him off with me so we can hoist out our two other hikers.

As I was waited a short period of time for Tyler, the winds on the mountain started to pick up. Soon I’d receive a radio call from our pilot indicating that the winds were gusting too high to safely hoist our hikers off the mountain, as well as drop off Tyler. High winds and weather are a common occurrence when we perform helicopter rescues, so alternate plans need to be made.

At that point our team would continue with the hike up the mountain. Luckily, the hikers stayed put on the PCT trail, making it easier for me to locate them. As you hike this stretch of the trail, it’s relatively straight and maintains its elevation, but what makes this part of the trail more treacherous is that you’re hiking across an angled slope which progressively increases as you hike further north on the trail. After putting on crampons and grabbing ice axe, I would hike over to a point where I had voice communication with them.

Trail cut into Hard Snow Slope for Subjects
Image by Tyler the next day

They stated that weren’t injured, just a little cold from standing in one place for a long period of time. They had secured themselves to trees on hills upslope, which made waiting even more difficult. At this point in the hike, they didn’t have ice axes or means of traction for walking on snow/ice. They were understandably scared as well. Their plan was to pick up these items when they arrived in Idyllwild but were caught off guard by the recent storms that dropped snow on the mountains further south of the town. It was a little later in the afternoon, and my concerns grew as the soft snow started to slowly set up and harden from the dropping temperatures.

The safest way to reach them would be to cut out a walking path that leads to our hikers, approximately 50-75 yards to safety. I would remove the top layer of soft snow, use my ice axe to cut out the hard pack angled layer underneath, and compress the pathway as I worked my way towards them. Once I reached the first hiker, I would put the extra traction that I had packed on his feet, and together we would slowly and carefully hike out of the area to safety.

I would continue bringing out the second hike in the same fashion. We regrouped on the flatter more sun exposed section of the trail to the south. We would take a breather and chat for a few minutes. I radioed to the command post that the three of us would proceed to hike out together down the Spitler Peak Trail. Radio communications were also made to the incoming team that they were no longer needed at this point and to return to base.

Within a couple hours we were safely down the bottom of the mountain. The three of us would get a ride back to the command post where we would conclude our day.

Riverside Mountain Rescue Unit would like to express our sincere condolences to the family and friends of the fallen hiker.

RMRU Members Involved: Cameron Dickinson, Derek Donovan, Blake Douglas, Mike George, Glenn Henderson, Eric Holden, Beth Jeffery, Kaitlyn Purington, Vinay Rao, Jesse Rodriguez, and Tyler Shumway.

Other Agencies Involved: Riverside SO, Sheriff’s Aviation, CalFire, CHP, U.S. Forest Service.