Note from Tom: This search trip and writeup is brought to you courtesy of Adam Marsland who has done a much better of job it than I would have! He’s even prepared an accompanying video, available here, which shows the terrain of the upper SE Smith Water slopes better than all the pictures I’ve done.
Participants: Adam Marsland
General search area: The previously-unsearched three high hills overlooking the east side of the mouth of Smith Water Canyon, plus the rocky areas up to the top of the ridgeline that are the most likely source of the cell ping.
Rationale for searching this area:
The hills at the mouth of Smith Water are the only extensive part of the “Smith Water Exclusion Zone” that has never been searched, and the highest point falls almost exactly at the 10.6 mile radius mark. It seemed possible to me that given the positioning of the mountains, a sliver of coverage might be found at the top of the highest of these three hills.
Impressions of area and findings:
I was unable to get a cell phone connection at the highest point of the three knolls, nor on any of the others (though I got 1-2 bars). I searched the area fairly thoroughly, including covering many of the rocky areas on facing Smith Water. While there are conceivably a couple of spots Bill could be hiding, there aren’t many, and it’s hard to find a rationale to put him up in that area when there are easier ways down. The secondary search area, which went up to the top of the ridgeline south of that area, and includes the most likely origin area of the cell ping (the only part of the Serin Drive coverage that falls in the Smith Water area), I feel holds much more promise.
In the areas I was focused on in and around Smith Water, I would say excellent. While it’s possible I missed Bill, I’d be very surprised if that turned out to be the case. I was particularly careful to search all the outcroppings on the way up and down the rocky steep face that rises up from that area.
I happened across Tom’s website a few weeks ago (the German tourist case had always fascinated me) and immediately became obsessed with the Bill Ewasko mystery. I pored over the available facts and thought I had found a hole in the search: the aforementioned three hills on the south side at the mouth of Smith Water. Not only had they never been searched, but the highest point was almost exactly at 10.6 miles from the tower. It was possible, I reasoned, that there might be a sliver of cell reception at the very highest spot.
I e-mailed Tom my thoughts and he pointed out, quite reasonably, that there was no logical reason for Bill to be up there since at that point there are more obvious easy ways down to Smith Water. I argued that it seemed likely to me that Bill had gotten to that area in a low light situation, and might have climbed the hills in hopes of finding a more direct way down to Smith Water (since the easiest way down, to the north and back around those hills, would take require a substantial backtrack on Bill’s part). At any rate, it was the only place that fit the criteria to me. Tom suggested I go have a look for myself and, after carefully getting to know the area and buying some hiking gear (one part of which, a walking stick, proved to be absolutely essential), I set out for Joshua Tree.
I left from Park Road at the old road trace to Quail Springs at 8:30 a.m. After following the road a ways I veered off to poke around the foot of the mountain just west of Samuelson’s Rock. I tested out the cell phone in Quail Wash and was able to get off a few text messages. Then I set out for my primary destinations, taking the more difficult route of climbing to the top of hill A, down into the saddle, then the higher hill B, then to C, keeping at all times to the more rocky Smith Water side of the hills to make sure I did not overlook any outcroppings. At each height of land I tried to get a cell call out. I had bars, but no go. When I got to the highest point on the southernmost of the three hills, I felt satisfied that my theory didn’t hold water. There were not that many places for Bill to be hiding, I’d searched pretty carefully, and the phone part of it didn’t seem to check out. I even looked around the rocks at the head of the cliff going down into Smith Water, but found nothing.
I then started moving my way up the steep hillside to the south of the area, aiming towards where I remembered the cell splash area to be, but trying to stay away from obvious hiking routes and instead going for more rocky terrain that might conceal a body and/or provide shelter for a lost hiker. There was an intriguing cliff area about 3/4 of the way to the top which was extremely steep and had water plants, hinting at a spring. There was at least one spot that would have made a terrific shelter. But I found no evidence any human had been there (all told, I had to have found 8 or 10 such places. The only one that showed any sign of human presence was a rock towards the bottom of the hill that looked like it had been swept out for someone to sit under. I attributed this to one of the later search parties).
I took my phone out of airplane mode to see when it would snap to life, and where the cell coverage actually kicked in. I got a snippet of 3G first, maybe 100 feet below the crest of the ridge, then at the top of the ridge I was able to receive but not send a text message. I was finally able to send a message maybe 100 feet to the north of that point. In this area at the top of the ridge, with the cell coverage popping in and out, I got a very strong sense that this might be the right area to look. Unlike the brutal terrain surrounding it, the area is relatively flat, pleasant, and there are many outcroppings under which to take shelter. I looked around very extensively but found nothing, though I had the sense that a little further back from the ridgeline it might be different. At that point I started picking my way back down a different part of the rocky slopes, and then back up and out of the area, taking a look around the edges of the mountains and under bushes as I headed back.
I think the flat, temperate area at the crest of the ridge that falls within the likely ping zone bears more searching. It is the closest spot to the 10.6 mile radius (excluding extremely unlikely areas like Quail Wash) where there is confirmed cell coverage, but it is spotty enough that it is easy to imagine a scenario where only 10 seconds get out. Moreover, it is a much more pleasant environment than any that surrounds it, and it’s on high and easily visible ground. If I were injured and lost and out two and a half days, I would be inclined to stay put and await helicopter rescue than to risk a descent into Smith Water. Tom reasonably points out it’s hard to find a non-pingable route that gets Ewasko there, and that the need for water would probably have overridden all other considerations. He’s right; I just had a strong feeling when I was there that it was the right spot to be searching, and it hasn’t been looked at as extensively as the areas to the north and west.
GPS mileage for this trip: 9.5 miles
Cumulative GPS mileage to date: 670.1 miles