Once Bill’s vehicle was found on the evening of June 26th, a search began that continued until July 5th. An Incident Command Post (ICP) was set up in the parking area for Cap Rock, less than a mile north of where Bill’s vehicle had been parked at the Juniper Flats Trailhead parking area. It became a little city with search and rescue teams moving in and out, and helicopters landing nearby.
My part in the initial search came on Tuesday June 29th. RMRU had been called to assist in the search (part of JTNP is in Riverside County) and many of the team members had already been out there. Tuesday was the first day I had free to participate, and I headed out real early that morning. I found three other RMRU members already there that day, Dave Webb, Will Carlson and Paul Caraher.
First up was the briefing for all the participating team members. Central to this was a map showing what areas had already been searched and where the focus would be. I could see they were definitely zeroed in on the area between the Juniper Flats Trailhead and Quail Mountain. What complicates the situation is that there’s no formal trail all the way to the top of Quail Mountain. There is a “normal” trail to Juniper Flats (just southeast of Quail Mountain), but from there hikers are left to their own devices as to how to get to the peak itself. Some choose to go right up the face, some use a drainage, and others use a ridge to the southeast. The search planners were looking at all these routes and more.
We were also told about a brief cell phone ping that was received by a cell tower in Yucca Valley early Sunday morning. This gave hope that Bill was ambulatory, despite being out there for several days in high temperatures. The forecast for this day was about 93 degrees at the elevations we’d be at.
The four of us RMRU guys were assigned together as a single team, Team 3, to the benefit of the other 12 teams headed out that day. We were given the general assignment of hiking in from the Juniper Flats trailhead on the California Riding and Hiking Trail, then ascending Quail Mountain and do a spiral search of its northeast quadrant.
After reaching the trailhead, we started quickly down the trail. This was going to be the first ascent any of us had made of Quail Mountain, so we were approaching the area as Bill would have. We knew that a number of searchers had already followed the trail all the way in to Juniper Flats, so that route had been cleared. So we decided to depart the main trail a bit sooner and travel cross country to Juniper Flats, spreading out and doing a line search along the route.
At Juniper Flats with Quail Mountain in front of us, we stopped and looked at our options. Rather than all travel up to the peak together, we decided to split into two groups of two and cover twice the terrain. Will and I were going to take usual ridge approach to the southeast while Dave and Paul would go up a pronounced drainage to the west of us. Neither route was easy, but I suspected staying on the ridge was easier and I wasn’t going to complain. Will and I found nothing, other than what appeared to be boot prints left by earlier searchers.
Rejoining at the peak, we verified that Bill’s signature wasn’t on the summit register, had some lunch and considered what to do next. The view from the top of Quail Mountain is a spectacular 360 degree view. We could see a number of other searchers at various points on its slopes, and Star 9, the Riverside Sheriff’s helicopter was flying search patterns. After a radio consultation with the ICP, we decided to head down some of the ridges running from Quail Mountain to the northeast. None of this area had been yet searched.
In order to get the most coverage from the four of us, we again decided to split up into the previous two groups while remaining in radio contact. Will and I were going to stay high on the ridgeline that forms the westerly edge of Johnny Lang Canyon. Dave and Paul were going to descend into a canyon that paralleled us to the west. Most lost or otherwise impaired subjects tend to follow the easiest downhill route rather than stay on ridgelines, which made it a good search target for Dave and Paul. As Will and I headed east, we could see Dave and Paul descend into a steep canyon to our left, flushing out a few deer.
Will and I busied ourselves searching and moving over the rough terrain. We had long lost sight of Dave and Paul, but weren’t overly concerned as we were in radio contact. It was odd, but that contact kept getting weaker.
As Will and I reached the westerly ridge high above Johnny Lang Canyon, I called Dave and Paul on the radio but didn’t get an answer. This was a little disturbing. We hadn’t heard from them for a while. Will and I stopped and pulled out a map, trying to figure out the other two’s route. What we saw left us a little concerned. While Dave and Paul were continuing north down their canyon, Will and I had inadvertently moved east several ridgelines. The terrain had masked to us the start of the intervening canyons. To make matters worse, Will and I had the map, Dave and Paul did not. All we could do at that point was continue north on our ridge, occasionally calling via radio to Dave and Paul. From looking at the map, it was clear to us that as long as they stayed in the canyon, they would come out in the plain near where we were descending and should pop back into radio range.
As Will and I continued north, our ridge eventually petered out and we had to descend into Johnny Lang Canyon. What a surprise! While it was hot on the ridge, it was also windy, which cooled us. Now down in the canyon, it was stiflingly hot. We realized that these were the conditions Dave and Paul had been experiencing for all of the time time we had been out of contact with them.
After another 30 minutes or so, Will and I reached the mouth of Johnny Lang Canyon and retreated to some shade. I pulled out my map and tried to figure out where in the array of canyons in front of us the other two might eventually spill out, dropped my pack and headed off in that direction. One of the nice things about backcountry travel with SAR guys is that when these sort of things happen, you don’t really worry about them, as everybody knows how to handle themselves in difficult situations. Sure enough, after a while the radio crackled back to life and they announced they were coming out of the canyon. It wasn’t exactly clear where though. Their description didn’t seem to match what I was seeing. Finally, off in the distance three quarters of a mile away, I saw movement. It was them. They headed in my direction and we rejoined Will at the mouth of Lang Canyon.
It turns out Will and I had the much better deal, as we remained on the relatively ridgeline with cooling wind. Dave and Paul were stuck in the hot canyon bottom, forcing their way through thick brush. I felt a little guilty about that, but somehow got over it.
We had started about 8:30 AM and had now covered about 11 miles. It was now almost 5 PM, we were hot and almost out of water. We had heard on the radio the Star 9 helicopter had been retrieving teams from remote field locations and ferrying them back to the ICP area. Will called up to Star 9 to see about getting us a lift. The ICP, who knew where we were, broke in and said we didn’t need a lift, as we were “only” about a mile and a half from the main paved road, and we could hike there and get picked up by a vehicle. Yeah, that really sounded swell at this point.
Now Will knew the pilot and Flight Officer of Star 9 pretty well. And they had both heard what the ICP had told us. What followed was some cryptic radio exchanges between Will and Star 9, and within 10 minutes there was a beautiful ASTAR helicopter landing about 100 yards from us! It was a very fine trip back to the ICP.
Here are the GPS tracks we generated during our searching that day:
After our debriefing, we went out separate ways home. It seemed to me, seeing all the searchers in the field, that Bill would be quickly found. However this was not to be. Although the search went on through July 5th, he was never found. The only clue,besides the Sunday morning cell ping, was a red bandanna found on the southeast slopes of Quail Mountain that may or may not have been Bill’s. The guy seemed to have vanished.
This is exactly the sort of thing I tend to view as a challenge…..
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