Ewasko Thoughts, May 2016
I last did a posting with my current thoughts way back in January of 2013 after “only” 43 search attempts. Based upon all these individual missions identifying where Bill wasn’t, the physical realities of the topography, the cellular coverage and the system’s distance measuring reliability (assumed to be high), I came up with a theory of what Bill may have done the day of his hike.
To briefly recap, my thoughts at the time were that Bill undertook a hike to Quail Mountain via its southerly face route reaching the crest of Quail Ridge very low on water. Since he would have likely known of the existence of water in Smith Water Canyon, about two miles away and much closer than his vehicle, he began a cross country diversion to Smith Water Canyon.
Had he reached the bottom of Smith Water Canyon he obviously would have been found, therefore he “obviously” experienced some sort of accident on his descent into the canyon preventing him from reaching the bottom. This is close to the 10.6 mile Serin Tower radius. It was my expectation Bill would be found in the rugged terrain of the southerly slopes of Smith Water Canyon. This theory fit what was known at the time very well and directed many of my (and other’s) search attempts since. The only negative the theory turned out to have was that it has been proved wrong. A minor thing, but still a problem. Extensive searching of all reasonable areas of the southerly slopes failed to turn up any trace of Bill.
After studying a number of lost person incidents I’ve developed two beliefs. The first is that people seldom act randomly, they do what makes sense to them at the time at the specific location they are at. This is why lost people usually travel downhill as it’s easier.
The second belief I’ve developed is that subjects who aren’t immediately found by SAR personnel usually do something unexpected or unanticipated by searchers. This usually manifests itself by the lost subject covering more ground than the searchers expected, and thus leaving the search area. Or the subject heads in an unexpected direction for reasons unknown to the searchers. But again, it makes sense to the subject at the time.
This may have been occurring with multiple iterations in the Ewasko case. As the search ramped up on Saturday morning, June 26th, it appeared it was merely a missing hiker somewhere between the Juniper Flats trailhead and Quail Mountain. Yet initial searchers, who would have quickly found a subject in this situation, found no trace.
Then on the morning of Sunday June 27 a cell ping was recorded, which if accurate, suggested Ewasko had traveled well beyond Quail Mountain, something completely unexpected. The view from the upper reaches of Quail Mountain is vast, and it’s hard to be lost when much of the park and its roads are visible. In response searchers were quickly put into the areas of the cell ping as soon as the info was known, but the first searchers didn’t arrive into Smith Water Canyon until the morning of Tuesday the 29th, the fifth days after Bill began his hike. But hey and followon searchers found no trace.
After the official search ended and I and my co-conspirators came on the scene, we started filling in the blanks of the original search effort, as clearly that’s where we’d find Bill. We assumed he did something a bit unexpected and ended up in an unsearched area so we set about clearing them. We gave no great weight to the cell ping distance since it made little sense to us for him to be there and most SAR members know of incidences where cellular location information is wildly wrong. It wasn’t until we had cleared much of the unsearched area between the trailhead and Quail Mountain that we began to consider the cell ping more carefully. And from what limited data we could uncover, it appeared Verizon’s reported distance of 10.6 miles was likely accurate. That would put him in the vicinity of Smith Water Canyon. How could that be the case?
A lot of pondering and trying to get into Bill’s head lead to what I posted in January of 2013. It all fit so well I was really certain we’d find him on the southerly Smith Water slopes. I will confess that in a wonderful display of hubris I even named one of our first search plans for the area “Endgame”. Nope, not even close. It was yet another failure of imagination.
The more search coverage of the southerly Smith Water slopes increased the more perplexed and disheartened I became. I couldn’t come up with any reason Bill could have made that ping and not be found on the southerly slopes. After enough searches in that area it became clear that either Bill had taken shelter in a crevice and we had walked right by him (unlikely due to expected scattering of his possession by animals) or my thinking was flat out wrong (likely).
About the only place we (and anyone else) haven’t searched were the northerly slopes of Smith Water Canyon mostly because it makes no sense at all. Clearly no one would make the grueling descent into Smith Water then start up the other side, would they? And while the 10.6 mile distance is closer to the northerly slopes than the searched southerly ones, their orientation is not line of sight to the cell tower so it shouldn’t be “pingable” from there.
You would think I should be used to being wrong by now. If one gives high weight to the accuracy of the cell ping distance there is a scenario which fits pretty much all that is known about the case and explains why no trace has yet been found. If the scenario is correct, the search area is likely constrained to a few hundred acres, in a location no one has ever thought to look. And by definition, missing people are always found in the last place someone thinks to look.
So, you know….maybe.
Before I lay out what I think happened and where Bill has ended up I’d like to touch on a couple things. First, everyone who approaches this case gives different weightings to the few hard bits of evidence available. Evidence like where his car was, where he would have been hiking, accuracy of the cell ping, where he’s known to not be, things like that. So two people looking at the same evidence may come to very different conclusions depending on how important they think each data point is. Ultimately, none of it matters unless Bill is found. Frankly, I’d much prefer someone other than I find Bill, and if laying my thoughts out here makes that happen, then great! Oh, and for the record I don’t think foul play, a staged disappearance or suicide have levels of probability worth considering.
Secondly, I assume that friends and family of Bill occasionally visit this website to check for updates and see if any progress is being made. With that in mind I’ve always tried to be respectful and circumspect in putting out any theories of how Bill may have met his end. After all, a man died and until he’s found speculation on how that specifically happened is usually cringeworthy. So I haven’t, publicly….until now. I think what a man of Bill’s reported determination may have attempted in his last hours could have a great deal to do with why he’s not been yet found. My thinking is that he attempted something that none of us have yet thought of in our wildest imaginings, and possibly came close to pulling it off.
So here’s the sequence of events I think seem to best fit what is known to date:
Around 7 AM on Thursday June 24, Bill makes a cell call to David Rosso, the owner of the condo he was staying at, saying he was headed for Joshua Tree that day. Around 8 AM that same morning Bill makes a call to Mary Winston in Georgia. He mentioned he was westbound on I-10 near Monterrey, enroute to JTNP.
Later cell records confirm both calls, and the tower in use during the second call is consistent with Bill’s stated location. After the second call, no subsequent cell tower pings were recorded by Verizon’s system which means Bill turned off his cell phone. This suggests some understanding of the importance of battery conservation.
Based upon Bill’s stated location, with normal driving and no detours, he should have ended up at the Juniper Flats trailhead around 9:15 AM. For unknown reasons his card wasn’t recorded at the western park entrance station despite its opening around 8 AM. It is possible he was waved through without scanning.
Bill’s precise arrival time at the Juniper Flats trailhead isn’t known. A hiker arriving at the trailhead at 10:20 AM saw no other vehicles, but saw Bill’s car when he returned from his hike around 5:30 PM. So all that can be said is Bill arrived sometime after 10:20 AM. His whereabouts between 8 AM and 10:20 AM are unclear but could be attributed to his stopping and taking pictures as he liked to do in Joshua Tree.
Bill departed the trailhead with apparently only two, 12 ounce bottles of water in his possession sometime after 10:20 AM, proceeding along the old road to Juniper Flats. Given such a small amount of water it may be that he was planning only a short walk along a relatively flat trail, and was going to eventually turn back. The flatness and pleasantness of that trail can easily lure someone forward. After approximately 5 miles and 2 to 2 1/2 hours he would have reached Juniper Flats with Quail Mountain looming directly in front.
From this point to the top of Quail Mountain there are no marked/signed trails, only cross country routes some of which have been published. However with the mountain directly in front, the frontal approach looks easiest. But while it looks simple, it’s a 900′ climb in 1.3 miles to reach the top of the ridgeline Quail Mountain is a part of. But from the vantage of Juniper Flats it doesn’t look bad.
I think Bill would likely have used most or all of his water supply upon reaching this point at Juniper Flats. Even so, he may have been tempted to push further on to just reach the top of the ridge because it appears so close (I have made these sort of questionable decisions many times myself). And it would provide a grand view. He could turn around any time if he got too thirsty or too hot.
The climb itself is somewhat seductive. The crest never seems very far away, yet is a considerable climb. If Bill was determined enough (and by most accounts he was) he could make the crest and still barely safely return to his parked car where there were nine bottles of water waiting. Along the way he may have dropped the bandanna that was found by searchers at the base of the cross country climb route.
Reaching the lowest saddle on the ridgeline, an obvious destination, would have taken about another hour. He was now 3 to 3 1/2 hours in and 5.3 miles from his vehicle. On a hot June day, that’s a considerable distance.
Given the temperatures, he may have begun to experience initial symptoms of dehydration and realized he could be in a small predicament by overextending himself. Continuing on to Quail Mountain, a few hundred feet higher and another half mile away would now seem unwise (Bill’s signature was never found on the peak’s register). At this point I think Bill did something none of the initial searchers could have foreseen.
From this ridge saddle there is a wonderful view to the northwest and towards Smith Water Canyon. It appears very close and if checked on a map it’s only 1.5 miles to the rim of the canyon. Although it is a cross country route, from this viewpoint it appears rather reasonable. From the visible rim it is yet another mile downhill to the canyon bottom of Smith Water with a simple route clear on any topo map.
Bill had some knowledge of Smith Water Canyon, as it was found listed as a possible place to visit on another itinerary found in his condo. And if he knew enough to consider a hike there, he also surely read that water flows in Smith Water year round.
I believe Bill considered the 5.3 miles back to the car against the 2.5 miles to the water of Smith Water Canyon and chose to head cross country to Smith Water. After descending to the canyon bottom he would be able drink what he wanted, refill his bottles, hike out of Smith Water to the west where it intersects the California Riding and Hiking Trail, and return on that trail to his parked vehicle. It would make for a long day and he would miss his dinner schedule at Pappy and Harriet’s in Pioneertown but it could be an epic adventure. I should point out that one of the symptoms of dehydration is confusion and impaired judgment (Sadly, I can speak from personal experience on this). So Bill set off for Smith Water Canyon and the water he expected to find. To him, and the knowledge he had available, it made more sense than returning to his vehicle.
Unfortunately, there were at least two things Bill didn’t know about this route. First, it’s a lot rougher than it looks, with much rock hopping involved. Second, while it might be somewhat cool and breezy on the ridge crest, descending into the lower, intervening terrain, takes you out of the wind and it gets hotter. A lot hotter. It would have taken him at least an hour to cover the 1.5 miles to the canyon rim, maybe double that as dehydration symptoms increased across the rugged terrain. But at this point it was too late to return, the best option would be to continue. But he had absolutely no margin for error. One more mistake or bad decision could put him in a situation he wouldn’t be able to get out of.
Yet clearly he still felt confident. I state this because upon reaching any portion of the Smith Water Canyon rim he would have been in an area of excellent cell phone coverage. He could have called for help if he needed it, and he did not. In his mind it wasn’t an emergency…..yet. As happens with many people, I don’t think he realized he was now in a survival situation.
Reaching the pleasant flat area that is the obvious saddle on the Smith Water rim, I suspect Bill felt his chances were excellent. It was only a mile, all downhill, to the bottom with water. And if he took the fairly obvious route descending a very pronounced side canyon, it wasn’t really awful (such things are relative in Smith Water Canyon). But then, at some point, at least half way down, things went seriously wrong.
I think Bill took some sort of stumble, perhaps aggravated by dehydration, and suffered an incapacitating ambulatory injury. By this I mean something curtailing his ability to cover considerable ground. Worse than a simple sprain, but along the lines of a broken leg or ankle. Not at all hard to do in this area.
Taking out his cell phone and powering it up to call for help, he would have found no service. It only is available at the upper parts of the side canyon, not that he could have known that. This suggests whatever accident occurred, it was in the lower half of the descent to the Smith Water Canyon bottom.
While a cell signal could have been a salvation, he had a much more urgent need for water, which he knew existed at the bottom of Smith Water. Thus he would have been forced to continue on, possibly crawling and covering ground very slowly. I can only speculate how long it would have taken Bill to reach the canyon bottom.
Here’s the thing about Smith Water Canyon…..There IS water there year round, but you have to know where to look. Guidebooks written before our multiyear drought make it sound like there’s much more water then there actually is, especially in summer months.
The side canyon I’m assuming Bill descended via terminates in the middle of Smith Water Canyon, in sort of a central “bowl”. There are two areas of very pronounced vegetation in Smith Water Canyon, both pretty visible from the higher slopes of the canyon (and in Google Earth). They are dense groves of Acacias (I think) and are obvious markers for water. Bill’s most probable route into Smith Water would have put him in the central bowl, roughly midway between the two groves.
A broken leg or ankle would likely have Bill crawling at this point, but getting to either area of vegetation would appear possible to him. But if he tried heading for the nearer, westerly Acacia grove he’d quickly find his way blocked by a dry waterfall before reaching the grove. I personally find climbing up its slick slope pretty puckery with two good legs and it might be completely impossible with a broken ankle, effectively shutting the door to the westerly grove. OK then……let’s crawl off to the easterly grove instead.
Annnnnd…..Here’s the problem. As far as I’ve ever seen, there’s no surface water in the easterly Acacia grove. In Summer, I’ve only seen water in the westerly grove, above the dry waterfall. But Bill wouldn’t have known this and could have used the bulk of what physical resources were remaining to him crawling to the easterly grove (As an aside, someone crawling in the sandy bottom of Smith Water would have left a completely different track signature from that of a hiker, which could explain why the initial search teams didn’t report seeing any tracks when they arrived in Smith Water several days later….They wouldn’t have expected a crawler).
So Bill’s in the bottom of Smith Water, reaches the easterly Acacia grove and finds no water. He’s been out of water for days, is likely in shock and with serious injuries. The nearest salvation, Park Road, is 3.5 miles away, invisible to Bill and impossible to reach in his dire condition. He may suspect people are searching for him by now, but he’s far from any destination he’d been planning for and has no reason to expect anyone to search where he is. He has to know that at this point he likely has only hours left to him.
But if he’s still got a bit of his wits about him he might realize he has a clever “Hail Mary” chance…..get high enough up in the canyon to get a cell signal out. By any normal standard it’s not a good option, but this is far from normal and it’s realistically his only option. And by all accounts I’ve heard, Bill wasn’t the sort of guy to sit in the shade and wait for death to come. He’d go out fighting to the last.
So he starts crawling up the canyon walls from the area of the easterly Acacia grove. How high he could have crawled it’s hard to say, but I’d guess something less than a few hundred feet. He actually might have been more mobile vertically than laterally as it’s possible to gain a lot of feet vertically for not much horizontal distance. At some point his phone connects briefly. But in the end the effort proves too much and he succumbs somewhere up the slope.
So based upon the totality of the clues to date, and all the places we now know Bill isn’t, I think Bill ended up somewhere on the steep side slopes of Smith Water Canyon. Logically this would have happened either above the easterly Acacia grove or slightly easterly from it (assuming he started for Park Road and realized he couldn’t make it).
Which side of the canyon, southerly or northerly? I lean toward northerly slopes as we’ve been along some of the southerly slopes more than a few times but haven’t seen anything. Also, no one has yet searched the northerly slopes as there’s been no reason to think he would have gone up that side. It’s clearly nonsensical he’d cross Smith Water and head up the north side. Probably not even the helicopter searchers examined that area closely, because again, there’s no reason for him to be there.
There is no direct cell phone line of sight from these northerly slopes to the Serin tower, BUT it could bounce off the very well cell-covered southerly Smith Water slopes and provide a poor, brief connection consistent with what was recorded. The ping distance, when figuring in the bounce path length, comes out about right. In fact the path length is better for the northerly slopes than most places on the southerly slopes.
So my thinking at this point is that Bill will be found near the easterly mouth of Smith Water Canyon at some elevation above the canyon bottom, and very close to the Serin tower 10.6 mile radius. Due to that amount of search coverage completed on the southerly slopes I think the probability is higher he’s on the unsearched northerly side slopes.