Rescue Stranded Hikers

March 13, 2021
Skyline Trail, Palm Springs

Written by Blake Douglas.

RMRU was activated at 530pm on Saturday March 13, for two hikers stuck on the Skyline trail. With few team members available, call captain Gwenda Yates directed Rob Newton and me to respond to the Hemet Ryan hangar, with the intention of extracting the hikers using a helicopter hoist. Dark clouds building over the San Jacinto peak made this option look increasingly unlikely.

The hikers were reported to be near the 7200′ elevation area of the trail, in a region known at the Traverse. Despite being close to the Mountain Station of the Palm Springs Tram, this area sees the highest proportion of our rescues. The navigation and terrain are considerably more difficult in winter than any other part of the trail, compounded by the fact that hikers are usually traveling lightly (i.e., unequipped for snow or an overnight emergency) and they typically reach this area late in the day, already tired after hours of hiking.

My immediate concern was hypothermia, as the remote location usually means that it can be anywhere from one to three hours before we reach a subject. Fortunately, we spotted their light much lower than their reported coordinates, at the 6200′ level approaching the snowline. However, the 30mph winds made a hoist impossible, and the winds were worse at every lower point on the trail, meaning we could not even be dropped off by hover step. As we flew back to Hemet Ryan, we evaluated our options, and determined the only viable one was to hike up the trail. Our subjects were in phone contact with Gwenda and were retracing their steps by using their cellphone light, but the battery was almost dead, and they had no overnight equipment.

We arrived at the trailhead in Palm Springs around 830pm, and departed at 9, feeling fresh and warm in 65-degree temperatures and packs as light as we could justify, considering we had something like a mile of vertical gain ahead of us. We reached the first rescue box around an hour later, and the halfway cairn by 1130. At that point we began to slow down and perform callouts, as the trail becomes less distinct, and it can be easy for someone to wander down into one of the adjacent canyons. While we had no response to our callouts, we were able to begin tracking, finding two pairs of prints that only went uphill.

We finally found our subjects hunkered among some brush just off trail on Mars Ridge at the 5000′ area. They were uninjured, but tired and cold, and we set about warming and evaluating them, and making hot drinks for everyone (Rob and I were not feeling so cozy now that the temperatures had dropped into the 40s and our shirts were soaked in sweat). Our subjects had begun hiking at 7am the previous morning and had not reached the snowline until late in the day. They had one pair of micro spikes which broke almost immediately, and the snow eventually went up to their knees. After seeing other hikers turn around, they realized they would be unable to reach the Palm Springs Tram before it closed and called for help. Other than being tired, one of their shoes had practically disintegrated and was being held together with tape. After repairing this as best we could, we began hiking down at 1am. We were looking at 5 miles of distance and 4000 feet of descent.

Skyline is not formally considered a trail by the Forest Service, so it receives no true maintenance or ergonomic overhaul. This lack of user-friendliness leads to a large portion of the trail consisting of “stair-step” rocky terrain, somewhat unique among the steeper trails in Socal, which is alright for ascending, but terrible for descending. One of our subjects had an existing knee injury, which seemed like it might be a minor inconvenience at first, but it quickly became apparent that the trail and the knee were not getting along very well. The subject was barely able to weight the leg on a descending step, and despite using a brace and compression wraps, their speed quickly dropped to around half a mile per hour, and they frequently had to sit down in order to descend steps of more than a few inches.

With the limited resources available, we had no real option other than to monitor the subject’s condition and hope for the best as we descended. Thankfully, there were no complications and we simply continued descending at the best pace the subject was able to maintain. Ultimately the descent took around 9 hours, arriving at the trailhead at 1030am, where the subjects were checked out by the Palm Springs Fire Department. I had been active on the mission for around 16 hours at that point, and I took a nap in my car before driving home.

At one point during the descent, we encountered some hikers beginning their own bid for the tram, and one mentioned that I should “show them the sign”. This is a bit of a dry joke because there are numerous signs along the first mile or two of the Skyline trail which explicitly state that deaths and rescues are common on this trail, and that all persons should carry the appropriate equipment. Nevertheless, our subjects had not only failed to notice this sign, but realized they were carrying none of the equipment listed on it.

As is often the case with Skyline rescues, research would have gone a long way to preventing this situation. Some key points include;
• never rely on a cellphone as your only source of communication, navigation, and light
• be aware that remote trails are likely to be unbroken after recent snowfall
• introduce yourself to snow travel and equipment in a low risk setting such as a fire road

RMRU Members Involved: Blake Douglas and Rob Newton.