Missing Hiker

July 13, 2020
Long Valley, San Jacinto Mountains

Written by Blake Douglas.

RMRU was activated at 8:15pm on Sunday night for our seventh mission in July. We reported to the Idyllwild Ranger Station for an overdue hiker in the high country. Our subject had reportedly begun hiking the Skyline trail starting at 1am that morning. As part of a large group that intended to reach San Jacinto Peak, then descend to Idyllwild and drive back to their hotel in Palm Springs.

One of those trips that lends meaning to the phrase “hiking is like fun, but different”. Upon reaching the Long Valley Ranger Station at the top of the Palm Springs Aerial Tram, our subject declined to continue, sensing that he was approaching his physical limits. To put this in context, he had just spent 10 hours hiking 8000 feet of elevation over 9 miles, with the lower sections of the trail exceeding 85 degrees temperature even at 1am. Hiking the Skyline trail in July and August is strongly discouraged for exactly these reasons.

The subject remained in contact with his group via walkie-talkie radio, but with diminishing quality. He drafted a plan to exit Long Valley via the Willow Creek Trail, descending to Idyllwild via Devil’s Slide. Around 3pm his group had their last communication with him, in which he said he was on a trail, but it was not Willow Creek. This was the information we began our search with at 10:30pm.

James and I initially planned to head up Devil’s Slide, cross about half of Willow Creek, and then descend to Caramba, since RMRU has observed many lost hikers ending up in this area since our founding, and we had just had a rescue in Caramba the week before. However, upon arriving at the turnoff for Caramba, we stopped and carefully re-evaluated our information, and determined that we had no direct evidence the subject was in Caramba, and with the current trail conditions in that area and his physical exhaustion it was unlikely he would have made the cross-country trip necessary to find the recognizable parts of the trail. Instead, we would continue onward to the tram, loop to Wellman Divide, and descend back to Saddle Junction. Since the two of us were the only search group, this would greatly increase our coverage of the trails as well.

Upon reaching the Long Valley Ranger Station at 2am, we saw no sign of our subject and had heard no response to our callouts. We were about to head up to the main tram building when James did one more callout, and our subject responded from barely 100 feet away. After making his plan to exit via the Willow Creek trail, our subject had found his way to the High trail toward Wellman Divide. The upper part of this trail is largely rocky and much more difficult to follow than the generally sandy and distinct trails throughout the rest of Round and Long Valleys, and our subject ended up in a patch of manzanita.

He decided to return to the Long Valley Ranger Station and see if he could take the tram down in the morning, and shortly after returning to the station he found a nearby uninhabited labor camp with tents and sleeping bags, where he bedded down and got several hours of sleep. While James and I were ready to hike out immediately, we were not about to turn down the chance for a few hours of unexpected sleep in clean tents on air mattresses.

Subject, James, and Blake take the easy way down.
Image by Tramway Operator.

We took the tram down the next morning. In my 18 months with RMRU, this was my first time finding the subject on a search-type mission.

RMRU Members Involved: Blake Douglas and James Eckhart.