Just under 11,000 feet above sea level, Mount San Jacinto Peak looms large above the desert floor and the golfing paradise of Palm Springs, California. San Jacinto is one of the most prominent peaks in the San Jacinto Mountains of Riverside County, California. Naturalist John Muir wrote of San Jacinto Peak, “The view from San Jacinto is the most sublime spectacle to be found anywhere on this earth!” From its base, hikers gain 10,000 vertical feet in only seven miles, one of the largest elevation gains of any popular hike in the United States.
But on this sunny day in February, 1992, instead of hiking from the desert floor, our backpacking troop from the Poway California First Ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, took the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway from Valley Station at 2600 feet to Mountain Station at 8500 feet. Although the sun bakes the desert floor year round, at Mountain Station there is usually a considerable amount of snow. As one ascends the peak, snow depths can reach as much as twelve feet.
Our troop was planning to camp overnight in Round valley, located about 1000 vertical feet below the summit. We had hoped to camp atop about ten feet of snow, enjoy exploring the wooded areas nearby, maybe have a snowball fight, and otherwise enjoy being together in one of the most beautiful camping spots in the west.
Because this trip held the potential for significant danger, myself, and Ed Christensen (Nicknamed Brother MacGyver by the boys after the famously ingenious TV character. He could find a surprising and creative solution to almost any problem) had been planning the trip for several months. Overnight temperatures in Round Valley can be well below zero, and in an emergency, especially in winter conditions, help is several hours away.
The troop numbered twenty four, twelve and thirteen year-old boys. Our troop was a backpacking troop. Former ace Scoutmaster, Graham Bullock, who had served as Scoutmaster for some years before, had formed the troop into a backpacking troop with high levels of participation. Brother Christensen and I were the beneficiaries of that established tradition.
Prior to the trip, Brother Christensen and I had held numerous training sessions with the boys. We drilled them on the equipment that they would need and on various aspects of camping in hostile winter conditions. As the date approached we felt confident that we had prepared well. We had personally inspected the boys’ backpacks for content, fit and durability for winter hiking. Clothing had been carefully selected and approved.
Our greatest fear centered around four boys who had just turned twelve and become members of the troop. They were sharp kids but, they were very small – mostly under 100 pounds. Would they be able to carry all that was necessary for survival into this difficult environment? Did they have the physical strength to get up the trail in knee high snow? Should we ask them to stand down on this aggressive outing since it would be their first? In consultation with them and their parents, their excitement to be part of the group was too difficult to resist. We decided that they would go with us to San Jacinto. Fortunately, they had been a part of our preparations.
We stepped off the tram at Mountain Station with Brother Christensen, two fathers, about 15 boys and me. It was early afternoon. The sky was clear and the boys were excited and so was I. In stark contrast to the desert floor, deep snow was all around us, but the trail had been broken by previous groups. Universally, older, stronger boys hike faster than younger boys. On this trip, this disparity was magnified by the presence of our four new and physically diminutive Scouts. Because our Scouts hiked at different speeds, we always designated a “sweep” to be the last one in line. On this trip, that responsibility fell to me.
Predictably, in short order the fast boys left a small group of us behind, including my four new Scouts and two others, one of whom suffered from asthma. But it did not raise any concerns because we were all on the same trail and would eventually, arrive at Round Valley, about three miles away.
I was alone with my young charges, but I took comfort in that I could see the other group ahead of us, climbing toward Round Valley. While I had been to Round Valley before, the presence of several feet of snow presented an unfamiliar view. But I was not worried, our main group was directly ahead.
The well-trodden, wide trail began to narrow as we climbed, and it was clear that there had not been as much traffic as before. This surprised me because I knew that this was a popular hike. I could still see our group inching up the steep slope. But some things did not add up. For example, I did not remember a slope on the Round Valley trail with the level of incline that I could clearly see approaching ahead. I did not have a map (a silly mistake) with me to verify this, but it seemed to me that we were going more west than the southwesterly direction that I had remembered.
It was clear that my boys were getting tired. Their pack-weight to body-weight ratio was quite a bit greater than mine. I even detected a whimper or two as we began to rise quite rapidly. Then something strange happened that made me begin to question my understanding of the circumstances. The group I could see ahead of us stopped, and as we struggled forward we closed the gap. I wondered what they were doing. Perhaps they were waiting for us. The boys took courage as we approached the group, thinking that perhaps they were at our destination. But I knew that not to be true.
As I had begun to fear, when we reached the group that we had been following for about two hours, we discovered that it was not our group. Somehow, we had missed a turnoff to the trail to Round Valley. According to our new-found hiking companions, we had headed off in a direction about 90 degrees from the Round Valley trail. Even though I tried not to show it, fear overtook me as I realized that we were far from Round Valley, that it would soon be dark, and that from this point forward, if we made our way toward Round Valley-our new friends had a map-we would be marching up a very steep slope in deep snow for quite some time. The option to retrace our steps was not attractive because we would essentially have to start our hike all over again from the bottom, and I knew the boys could not make it. To make matters worse, the rest of our troop would be worried about us and not know whether to stay put or retrace their steps looking for us.
Fortunately, the map helped us understand where we were in relationship to Round Valley and what we had to do. If we could top the ridge in front of us and turn south for about ¾ of a mile, we would be able to see into Round Valley – if it was not too dark to see by that time. The decent off the ridge would be lengthy, but it would be downhill and lead directly to where we had planned to camp.
When I offered to buy the map from the group they kindly donated it to our cause. It was clear that they were alarmed by our predicament.
The next two hours were difficult. The incline was steep. We lined up in order of strength so the more capable boys could help cut the snow for the others. I led the way and remember it to be physically challenging. There could be no quitting. Although we could have survived by ourselves if needed, we knew that rest of the troop would search for us, perhaps with parents and the authorities. We had to get to Round Valley overlook before it was completely dark.
There was a feeling of foreboding in our little band, notwithstanding my concerted efforts to buoy up the boys and put on a confident and enthusiastic face. The boys were valiant but giving out fast. Normally, as good Scouts, we would always take out of the mountains what we brought in, but in this case I felt as though in order to avoid catastrophe, I had to lighten the packs. Our quads burning, we slumped down in the snow for a rest, despite the lengthening shadows. I unzipped each pack in succession and removed as much food as I thought made sense. I could not help but smile as I opened one of my young Scout’s pack to find numerous cans of fruit and soup, directly against our instructions from our training sessions.
We left it all in the snow by the newly broken trail and moved on. The boys perked up under the reduced burden (hikers often pack much more food than they actually eat, and for this reason I had no concerns that they would go hungry).
In spite of my best efforts to calm their fears, and the lighter loads, a couple of the younger boys began to cry. They were getting more than they bargained for, but they were doing better than I would have thought. Our little group had gained more altitude and cut a trail in deeper snow than our stronger companions, who were, by this time, setting up camp in Round Valley.
We reached the ridge, said a prayer and turned south. The thick timber on top was somewhat disorienting. Without our compasses it would have been difficult to be sure of our direction. The sun was just peeking between trees and had almost dropped out of sight completely. The wind had picked up and the temperature was dropping fast.
The terrain was now flat to declining, which increased our speed significantly. The snow was not as deep among the trees. Now moving rapidly, we were brought to a halt when the boy with asthma confessed that he had lost his inhaler. My fear returned. What if he had an attack? His mother had expressed concern before every one of our trips for his safety and had warned us about his attacks. I said another prayer in my heart and we moved on. There was no chance that we could back-track and find his inhaler.
We made good time for about half an hour. The trees began to thin and the downhill slope increase. I knew that this was either good news or bad news. If we were on the right course, we were now descending into Round Valley. Round Valley is a large open area of perhaps 100 acres that is easy to identify if you have an unobstructed visual, which we did not yet have. On the other hand, if this were not Round Valley, we were losing altitude and descending into who-knows-where. We did not have the strength, let alone the daylight for another steep accent.
Then we got the first bit of good news since leaving Mountain Station. The trees opened up into a clearing that extended south down the mountain, and there in front of us, in the dusk, I could barely make out the profile of Round Valley. To my delight, there were lights dancing on the snow on the far side, the location of our planned camp. We were still ¾ mile away from the camp, but it was all downhill and in a straight line. I knew that I could make it with my little band of completely exhausted, but valiant young men.
A half hour before, at the top of the ridge, facing an uncertain outcome and almost completely out of energy, these young Scouts had dried their tears, reached deep inside themselves for courage and stamina and continued forward with a resilience that I will always remember. When we reached the clearing and could see Round Valley below us, I could feel everyone’s relief. It was the answer to many silent prayers, and the beginning of a wonderful night and day in one of the most beautiful winter camping spots in the world.