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June 5, 2006

Death on Mt. San Jacinto Confirmed

Before we get into this subject, I want to present you with another delightful error by The Desert Sun:
Spelling error

I responded that I agree, the government should pick up the expenses only for rescuing lost bare hikers. But if you're going to wear clothes on the trail, then you've made your decision and will be expected to pay your own expenses.

Anyway, the story is that when we last reported on the rescue of lost hikers on Mt. San Jacinto, you will recall that they were saved by discovering the gear of a hiker who had disappeared last year, and now they've found a body just 100 yards from the location of that gear. It is thought to be the body of John Donovan, the hiker who went missing a year ago, but they haven't confirmed that yet. The Desert Sun includes this information, the relevance of which escapes me (unless they are just trying to point out some of the difficulties the searchers had to overcome):

Authorities measured the ground temperature in the area where the body was discovered at 100 degrees. The air temperature in the area, which was at an elevation of 4,500 feet, was in the high 90s with a backdraft of hot air rising from the desert floor.

John Donovan was an experienced hiker, and got himself caught in a gorge where he died. But other hikers this past season got lost just by wandering off the trail. I have heard a number of fellow-hikers wonder how this could happen. How could you wander off trail? Well, I'll tell ya. When I was hiking up there on Saturday, I noticed there are lots of places where the trails have been rerouted. In most places, there isn't a lot of foliage on the ground, so the trail surface looks about the same as the terrain all around. Any place where the trail has been rerouted, any hiker who isn't paying 100% attention could easily follow the old route. I did it at least twice, myself. Then, if the hiker is inexperienced, and the light isn't good, he could find himself only a few feet off the trail and feeling lost. Then all he has to do is panic, head off in the wrong direction, and we've got another story to be misspelled in The Desert Sun.

And consider throwing into the mix the possibility that the hikers may not be entirely sober, and if one of them is a young man who wants to impress the apple of his eye (or maybe they just want some privacy in nature), you've got a disaster in the making.

And another thing: when I was filling out the back country permit (or whatever they call it) at the ranger station, I noticed that the ONLY info they require concerning your car in the parking lot 6000 feet down the mountain, is the license plate number. No request for year, model, color or any of that usual stuff a cheap motel asks for (so I am told). So how many hikers heading into the back country don't know their license plate number, or (like me) have it written down in my wallet which I have already stowed carefully inside my pack, and which I am not going to make the effort to dig out when there's a line of other hikers waiting behind me to use the little flat surface the park provides for writing on. And then there are the license plate numbers that are written down wrong or illegibly.

If no one happens to report you missing, the first clue that there may be a problem will be your car sitting in the lower tram parking lot for days. And if that car is some Ford Ranger, they've got nothing to link it to me, unless they run the plates through the DMV...and maybe they do that on a regular basis, and then sit down and tediously compare the results with a stack of permits.

Anyway, my point being they should ask for vehicle description as well, because when you are dealing with humans providing information (and no one is checking it for them), then you need redundant data so you can deal with the inevitable errors.

Filed under Coachella Valley | permalink | June 5, 2006 at 11:06 AM


Does anyone know the exact maps location of this dead end gorge?

Posted by: tstl at Jun 8, 2021 1:28:27 AM

This story, including all three hikers, is stranger than fiction. If Donovan hadn't died and left his gear, the other two might not have survived. The body was found seated on a log? So, maybe he had a stroke, or froze in place during an ice storm.

An entire herd of wild horses, caught in a blizzard, was found frozen in place at the top of the Granite Range above the Black Rock Desert a few decades back.

It seems to me that the campsite was also in the gorge, based on the note being in his pack, and that the later hikers may have entered the gorge by another route which was unknown to Donovan, who was hiking the PC Trail.

Edward Abbey, the late novelist, nearly died hiking in Arches N.P. when he was the superintendant there (and sole employee) before it had a road system. He slid down a steep slickrock slope which ended at a cliff and couldn't return up the slope. He survived only because he remembered seeing a small knob beyond the top of the slope and was able to tie his boots together by the strings and throw the boots blindly over the top at the end of a long cord to catch on the knob.

Posted by: at Jun 8, 2006 5:39:09 PM

Yeah, I wondered about that too, but I attributed it to the usual poor quality reportage of The Desert Sun. It never occurs to a reporter from The Desert Sun to say "Huh? What does that mean?" My guess was that he was attempting to descend and got down into a gorge that didn't allow him to descend further, and he was unable to get back up out of the gorge.

What I wonder about is that his diary was found in his backpack which was at his campsite. In his diary he records that he is trapped in the gorge "near his campsite," indicating the campsite is not in the gorge. So if he's dying over there in that gorge, how does he record this fact in his diary, leave the gorge to stow the diary in his backpack at the campsite, and then go get himself trapped back in the gorge.

I am so sure the answer lies in the poor writing skills of The Desert Sun reporter.

Posted by: Ron's Log at Jun 5, 2006 8:56:41 PM

"...and got himself caught in a gorge where he died." In what sense was he caught? Caught by extreme heat? By a flash flood or rockfall?

Posted by: at Jun 5, 2006 6:33:17 PM

Once, backpacking in Yosemite I was following a section of trail which was unmistakable, about one foot wide in low grass, bare high-contrast dirt, and completely uniform. I left the trail for a few dozen yards to camp in the trees that night, and the next morning couldn't find the trail again. My map and compass indicated one direction, but my sense of direction overpoweringly forced me to take the opposite direction. When I couldn't find the trail, I back-tracked and returned to the camp area--and repeated this futility a few times. I was amazed, frustrated, confused, and had to *literally force myself* to follow the compass bearing, believing I had entered another dimension, and doubting that I would ever find my way out. Even when the compass direction guided me to the trail, my several futile attempts still seemed to me the correct return path.

Once in Capitol Reef N.P., on a day-hike loop trail, in very scenic desert, I lost trail continuity, and had to back-track the whole way in order to survive and hike another day. (This is where I met a lone backpacker, carrying all his water, returning from a three-day trip into the interior of the park.)

Posted by: at Jun 5, 2006 6:25:41 PM

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