SDMRT 2019-08 Cucamonga Peak / Mt Baldy Mutual Aid

SDMRT Operations Report 2019-08

Limited Callout – Mutual Aid for San Bernardino County, Cucamonga Peak, CA

Eric Desplinter and Gabrielle Wallace

8-9 April 2019

SDMRT Responders Operational Period 1: Richard Yocum (OL), Marshall Masser, Will Pisarello, Jeff Oxford, and Bill McNaul

SDMRT Responders Operational Period 2: Tony Rolfe (OL), Kevin Litwin, Grayson Hough, and Melissa Rexilius

SDMRT ITCs: Mark Kenny and Hugo Bermudez

Other responding organizations: San Bernardino, Sierra Madre, Los Angeles, Riverside, Kern, and Orange Co. SAR teams, along with 3 Type II members of San Diego SD SAR for Ops Period 1, and multi-day air support

Short Summary:

  • Type of callout: Limited (specifically for only Type I and II ground searchers, per Cal-OES mutual aid request)
  • Out of County – Mutual aid, requested by San Bernardino County, Fontana Station, near Mount Baldy, CA (Cal-OES Mission# 2019-LAW-842)
  • Type of search: Search for 2 missing hikers
  • Environment: Wilderness, Angeles National Forest
  • Location:
    • LKP at Icehouse Canyon Saddle, Angeles National Forest
    • CP at Mount Baldy Fire Station, 6736 Mt. Baldy Road, CA
    • Subjects both located the evening of 10 April 2019
  • Operational periods:
    • Earliest time of activity: Callout request at 2010 hours on 4/7/19 for operational period beginning 0700 on 4/8/19
    • Search ended on 4/10/19, when subjects located approx. 2000 hours
  • Information about the subject:
    • Number/names of subjects: 2 subjects, Eric Desplinter and Gabrielle Wallace
    • Age/Gender: 31-year-old man and 29-year-old woman
    • Level of fitness and preparedness: Good physical condition, no known medical problems, prepared only for a day hike and not for overnight or multiple days in the wilderness in early spring alpine conditions
    • Mental status: No known cognitive impairments or emotional/psychological problems
    • Injuries, if applicable: No prior injuries reported
    • How were they found: Subjects located by helicopter after Command was alerted by ground search SAR team tracking footprints
  • Any rescuers injured: None known
  • Aircraft used: Multiple helicopters

Descriptive Report:

Eric Desplinter (31 years old, 6’3”, 190 pounds, brown hair and brown eyes) and Gabrielle Wallace (29 years old, 5’4”, 110 pounds, black hair and brown eyes) along with a married couple, all of whom shared the same place of employment, were hiking the Southern California Six-Pack of Peaks challenge. They had recently summitted Mount Wilson. On the morning of Sat, 4/6/19, they set out from Icehouse Canyon trailhead with the goal of summiting Cucamonga Peak (8859’ elevation), a 14-mile round-trip. Eric was reported to be an experienced hiker, and a former medic in the national guard. Gaby was less experienced, and had purchased ice axe and crampons just one week prior. They were prepared only for a day hike, with limited food and water and not appropriate clothing for overnight or multiple days in the wilderness, especially in early springtime alpine conditions. It was later reported that Eric had an 18-liter maroon daypack.

Only a couple hundred feet beyond Icehouse Saddle at about 1100 hours the married couple decided they were not prepared or experienced for the trail conditions and returned to the trailhead, leaving Eric and Gaby to continue. The Wilderness Crest trail connecting Icehouse and Bighorn Saddles was a traverse across a steep slope and mostly covered with snow. The 4 hikers planned to reconnect for dinner that evening. When the married couple returned to the trailhead that evening, the other car was still parked there at 1900 hours and they reported the two hikers missing about an hour later.

Few details are available for the search activities on 4/6 and 4/7/19, but ground teams were inserted, including a search of the trails up to and the area around Cucamonga Peak, with numerous helicopter searches. No definitive or probable clues were found.

SDRMT Operation Period 1, 4/8/19, Day 3 of Search: The team arrived at the CP approx. 0630 hours and the 5 SDRMT members were assigned Team 2, with Richard as Team Leader. They were motorized to the nearby helipad and inserted one by one on a San Bernardino Sheriff Helicopter to Cucamonga Peak, 8859’, covered by 3-4 feet of snow. Snow conditions were highly variable, ranging from hard snow and ice, to very soft with post-holing, thus requiring crampons and ice axe. A thorough search of Assignment 2 area was conducted, from about the 8600’ contour and above, and then down the sleep snow-covered slope (over the trail switchbacks) down to Bighorn Saddle. A thorough search of the Cucamonga summit register revealed that the last entry was in mid-Jan 2019, and no sign of the missing hikers. A baseball cap was found just above the saddle. No other clues were found. Having completed their assignment, the team hiked back along the Wilderness Crest trail to Icehouse Saddle, and then down to the trailhead to be motorized back to the CP, arriving about 1945 hours.

The 3 Type II SDSD SAR members were assigned to hike the Icehouse trail to the saddle and return via the Chapman trail.

Meanwhile, other SAR ground teams found various items that might belong to the missing hikers in the area just past Icehouse Saddle, including a cap, pair of trekking poles, water bottle, and printed instructions about how to put on crampons.

At the team’s debrief, it was related to Command that the team felt it extremely unlikely that the missing hikers had ascended the slope to Cucamonga Peak from Bishop Saddle. The team related that it believed the highest probability location was down in Cucamonga Canyon, where previously hikers had ventured and become stranded. The reasoning was that the hikers may have reached Bishops Saddle later than anticipated, not wanted to backtrack down the snowy Wilderness Crest traverse, and been enticed by the snowless gentle descent down Cucamonga Canyon and the lights of the buildings on the valley floor below. Command stated that they had only searched the uppermost 200’ of that valley, but the canyon was a high priority for the next day.

SDRMT Operation Period 2, 4/9/19, Day 4 of Search: The team arrived at the CP approx. 0635 hours and the 4 SDRMT members were assigned to Team 5, with Tony as Team Leader. Our assignment was to be inserted on top of Cucamonga Peak and then search the ridgeline due East until the terrain became too steep to continue. We were to look over the edges down likely fall hazards for any sign, then return to Cucamonga peak and follow the trail out to Wilderness Crest trail to Icehouse Saddle and down to the trailhead. Our team was transported via motorized to the nearby helipad to be inserted as a group on a San Bernardino Sheriff Helicopter to Cucamonga Peak, 8859’, covered by 3-4 feet of snow. Wind conditions, combined with overall weight made landing on the summit unsafe, we were flown back down to the helipad, flying back over the Cucamonga Canyon area. We were given instruction to take motorized back up to the trailhead and begin our assignment by hiking in. Realizing the time it would take to complete the assignment meant we would either be i) descending and returning to base in the dark, or ii) spending the night out in the wilderness, we returned to base for further instruction. It was determined at base that our team would link up with Team 2 to search the high probability area in Assignment 1, lying due East of Icehouse Saddle and roughly Northeast of Bishop Saddle; the area below which most of the clues were found the day prior. We were to start from the vicinity of clue 6 and fan out searching down the hillside. Snow conditions were highly variable, ranging from hard snow and ice, to very soft with post-holing, thus requiring crampons and ice axe. A thorough search of Assignment 1 area was conducted, from about the ~7600’ contour down the sleep snow-covered slope to ~7000’. No signs of the missing hikers, or obvious areas where people may have slid down the slope. Our team did locate a whistle on a short cord, a .5 liter water bottle, and several “Kirkland” water bottles, most very old with the exception of one that looked nearly new and still had some water. No other clues were found. Having completed our assignment, the team hiked back up to Icehouse Saddle, and then down to the trailhead to be motorized back to the CP, arriving about 1915 hours.

4/10/19, Day 5 of Search: The mutual aid request was extended through Sunday, 4/14, and SDMRT members were signed up for Thu, Fri, Sat, and Sun. However, the search was cancelled the evening of 4/10 when it was reported that both hikers had been found alive. A ground SAR team found two sets of footprints in Cucamonga Canyon and began following them. Based on this information, Command had Sheriff’s helicopter 40King fly over the canyon, where they spotted a campfire and the two missing hikers. Both were extracted by hoist and flown back to the CP in generally good condition. All told, the SAR teams had covered 30 square miles (more than 19,000 acres) of wilderness.

It was learned from media reports and video interviews of Eric Desplinter that the couple had accidentally left their map at home. At one point they lost the trail, had a slip on the trail, and rather than heading back over the snow, decided to descend through Cucamonga Canyon. But that canyon was more treacherous than they believed. Gaby slipped and fell about 200’ until stopped by some brush. They rappelled down a 30’ waterfall by tying together their jackets, which they had to leave behind. They were both hurting, with feet torn up. About 2 miles down the canyon and trapped between two waterfalls, each about 20 to 25 feet high, they rationed their remaining food, drank water through a LifeStraw® filter device, and kept as warm as possible. They built a campfire on the last evening.

Eric Desplinter and Gabrielle Wallace

Search Assignments April 9

Location of Missing Hikers Near Falls in Cucamonga Canyon

Coordinates of Location of Missing Hikers in Cucamonga Canyon

Lessons learned/ suggestions for future operations:

Recommendations by search teams as to where to prioritize searching next may be helpful in finding missing subjects more quickly. Radio checks MUST be completed in the CP prior to departing, however be prepared for radios to fail and have a backup. Several of the 800mhz radios checked out to teams in the field failed over the course of the search. When given a search assignment and then having circumstances change, don’t be afraid to speak up to the CP if you have concerns. Given the amount of time it took for Team 5’s modified search assignment, had they stayed on their original assignment they definitely would have been returning in the dark or overnighting in the wilderness.