Perched in a tree jutting from a cliff hundreds of feet above the fast moving creek I would have welcomed a calming cup of tea.
By Dan Bolton
San Bernardino Mountain rises 10,649 ft. above the Flats which are located about 7,800 ft. on the north side of the mountain above the East Fork of Mountain Home Creek. There is a nearby waterfall and spectacular vistas at the Flats. Calling it the flats is an illusion. The difficult vertical climb rises more than 4,600 ft. in a distance of 16.5 miles from the village of Angeles Oaks. The 60-mile range, formed 11 million years ago by the San Andreas Fault, boasts the highest mountain in Southern California (San Gorgonio Mountain 11,499 ft.).
My companions Sarah Baisley, 57, and Chris Harz, 69, and their two big white German shepherds, joined me on the hike, returning to a trail we had last walked a dozen years ago.
Adventures have happy endings, mishaps — not so much. In this tale my survival was 5 parts luck and 10 parts scouting and firefighting experience. I’m happy I could write the ending.
We set out early May 27, arriving at the trail head before noon. The hike to our base camp was much more difficult than in past years due to fallen timber. Coulter and Ponderosa Pine dominate this region. The pine cone of the Coulter weighs several pounds and can measure 18 inches. Some of the trees blocking the trail were five foot in diameter.
The temperature was in the 80s. I had not hiked the trail in years and at one point led the
group up a steep incline only to retreat. My friend Patrick Graham and his son had started hiking the trail at 9:30 a.m. and were returning when they saw us and set us on the right path.
He said the trail ahead was “bad, very bad.”
In the early evening we set up a base camp on a ridge opposite Mountain Home Flats high above the creek. I set out with Sarah for water but decided to go ahead alone when I reached a narrow ledge my daughter once dubbed “the goat trail above the abyss.”
I thought the ridge was in bad repair and I took the time to rig safety line. Unfortunately that took an hour with another hour to reach Mountain Home Creek. I used the Katadyn filter to insure the water was safe. When I started back from the creek it was nearly dark and at the foot of the ridge I realized I would have to spend an uncomfortable night under a tree. While I knew it well, I had slipped on the path numerous times during the day, making the climb much more tiring than normal. Carrying a pack of water in the dark along the face of a cliff seemed too risky. Deciding to spend a 60-degree night under the stars saved my life.
I did not know it at the time, but Sarah had already fallen down the scree returning to base camp and was forced to spend the night exposed as well.
At dawn I could see the trail and set out early. I was returning with a gallon of water, inching my way along and facing the cliff when a narrow ledge suddenly gave way. I had looped the safety line around my right hand as I progressed and was suspended about 20 feet below the ledge by that hand… boy did that hurt…. my fingers quickly turned purple but I hung there long enough to find a three-point hand and foot hold.
I let go of the line, crab walked across the face of the cliff below the ledge and noticed a dark shadow to my left. It was from a tree anchored below me. A 400 fall would land me on the rocks and then the creek below. You can imagine how happy I was to see that wiry little tree. It had smooth bark and a trunk diameter of about eight inches. I maneuvered above it, slid face first down the rock and caught it between my legs. Now secure from a fall I took inventory. In my fanny pack I had a radio and water, a flashlight and Leatherman knife, a bandanna, compass and hat. My walking stick had fallen within arm’s reach.
Chris Harz awoke that morning counting on me to help pull Sarah out of her predicament.
I waved and greeted him at a distance before setting off along the ledge and he acknowledged with a shout. Now I was doing the shouting, explaining that I had fallen and needed a chopper.
Chris tried the cell phones but without service he knew he would have to walk down the mountain to ring 911. He had one AT&T and one phone on the Verizon network and got a Verizon signal around 9:30 a.m. I had fallen around 6:30 a.m. Sarah had slipped in the scree about 8 p.m. the previous night and could not regain her footing, landing in a Manzanita but safe.
“Even if one of you had gotten to me with a rope, I was too weak from straining to stay awake and lodged in that spot all night without water. I no longer had the muscle energy,” she said later.
The rescue chopper, based in Apple Valley, Calif., responded immediately to the call. A sheriff’s deputy met Chris at the trailhead and he rode with them to the fire station where he pointed to our location. In these circumstances San Bernardino County Sheriff’s dispatch two choppers, the first to identify the victim’s location and a second, heavier ship, to perform the air rescue. Pilot Deputy Doug Brimmer and Flight Officer Deputy Ryan Peppler were first to arrive in a 40 King 6, a 2006 Eurocopter that scanned the canyon for almost an hour.
They could not locate us easily in the brush, making many passes along the canyon in full view but too distant to signal. The pilot then asked via bull horn for us to wave something white. Sarah cleverly and enthusiastically waved her bra. I tied my bandanna to the walking stick and waved.
Once sighted, Deputy Brimmer radioed for Air Rescue 306, a Bell UH-1H chopper piloted by Deputy Dave Borgerd with Crew Chief Deputy John Scalise. On board were Fire Captain S. Simpson and Firefighter/Paramedic Eric Sherwin.
Sherwin was lowered and quickly extracted Sarah.
After they had carried Sarah to safety Sherwin walked to the spot above the tree when I sat and lowered a harness using the ropes I had rigged. I then scaled the distance I had fallen unassisted, finding a footing on the ridge. When I reached the ledge Sherwin brought the chopper in close and buckled the lifting hook into my waist harness. I was safely attached to the chopper and he was attempting to fasten a chest harness when the chopper suddenly rose a few feet, pulling me out of his reach and leaving me to ascend head down. I remember focusing on my boots as they hoisted me feet first. At first the rotors seemed a long way from those boots. The winch is mounted in the roof of the chopper and I recall thinking that suddenly those rotors were very, very close to my boots. They bent me in half and pulled me in feet first. The trip to Angeles Oaks took only a few minutes.
A TV reporter interviewed me on landing, the medics gave me a once over. The newspaper where I worked in the 1990s, the Riverside Press-Enterprise, ran a brief written by a reporter and friend of mine who coincidentally attended my 60th birthday party the previous Saturday. He didn’t know it was me.
It was about 5.5 hours after I fell before I landed.
We rested at the Oaks Restaurant across from the fire station. The accompanying photo is me explaining the fall. As we walked into the restaurant the waitress said, “aren’t you the guy on TV we just watched them haul into the helicopter?”
“Yup. Burger and MGD please,” I replied.
That would have been the end of it except that all of our gear and my wallet, ID and passport were still on the mountain. One backpack had meat for dinner in bear country so we decided to climb right back up the mountain, spent an exhausted night and climbed down the next morning.
The second group of photos show Chris, Sarah and I celebrating the return to base camp with a box of wine.
I had ascended the mountain to bury a time capsule with items for my grandchildren (my first grandchild, Lux Alexander, was born to my son Patrick on Saturday, May 24).
The stainless thermos includes a computer SD chip with 592 ancestors in the family tree; a few trinkets prized by my two sons and a daughter along with coins from 19 countries. A note encourages “the grandchildren whom I know and those I have yet to meet” to pick a coin and travel there as adventure has so enriched my life.
All is well… I live to write another tale. The TV reporter asked my advice for others: “Be Prepared” I said, recalling the Scout motto that served me well. The water filter and radio, the bandanna, the compass and knife all contributed to my return.
Hanging up there for several hours with a spectacular view I realized that had it turned out badly it would have been a sad, but fitting end.
Propped against the cliff, hand throbbing, bloody legs straddling a tough little tree I sipped the cool mountain water that I had gathered, second-guessed some of my decisions and wondered if they would find me; whether that tree would hold me and all the many facets of fear… without regret.
Dan is an Eagle Scout and former firefighter credited with saving the lives of others.
Watch the KABC News Clip