Story of missing hiker in Joshua Tree NP

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Postby Myth » Fri Jan 18, 2013 8:48 am

Wow, OtherHand. Sounds like you guys had a rough time of it. With your coverage level, do you plan to return to the area after enough time has passed to fade the bad memories? ;) I bet the Big Horn skeletons gave each of you a moment's jolt of adrenaline, too.

In your opinion, having seen the area, do you think Hikin_Jim's theory would make sense? On the topo at least, there is, ah, less inclined terrain between A and B. With Smith Water looking out of reach, that may have been the final bail-out course.

I'm feeling that Bill went into a sheltered spot, which would make finding him harder to do. Sounds like the terrain you encountered offered an abundance of those.

I'm also wondering whether nightfall on the first day found Bill still out on his ambitious route, uninjured, and whether he decided to keep going, and maybe did then become disoriented and lost, or misjudged terrain in the moonlight and became injured. The moon was almost full that night. It must have been an obvious choice to continue moving in the relative cool of night with the moon lighting up the terrain. I'll have to do a lot more pouring over maps before I can fit such a theory into the few hard data points we have. In a way, I steer away from trying to place Bill too firmly into a theory that explains Friday and Saturday and simply come back to this: By Sunday morning, he likely didn't have much left, so wherever he is, it probably wouldn't be miles from a spot with Serin Drive tower coverage, off of the 10.6 mile radius.

If he had been involved in something shady, as has been suggested, it seems like he would have been out of the area by Sunday, or not ambulatory and able to have his cell send out a single ping. If his car did disappear at some point, it seems like a lot of work, not to mention dangerous by potentially running into searchers for Bill and subsequent trouble, to go take it back to the spot it was moved from. It doesn't make sense. Human error on the location of the vehicle and a simple tale of a hiker who, through a series of unfortunate decisions, got into a tough spot, seems the more likely explanation. Human memory is fickle.
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Postby Hikin_Jim » Fri Jan 18, 2013 1:51 pm

Myth wrote:By Sunday morning, he likely didn't have much left, so wherever he is, it probably wouldn't be miles from a spot with Serin Drive tower coverage, off of the 10.6 mile radius.
That's my thought exactly. He started on Thursday. The ping is detected on Sunday. He's only got three bottles of water. Even if he were not injured (and I believe he was) he'd be in extremely bad shape due to severe dehydration.

It doesn't take multiple days to get to the ridge top that overlooks Smith Water. I did the whole loop from Lower Covington to Quail to Smith Water and back to Covington in one day, and I'm slow, and I was searching (not just hiking). He got injured the first day, perhaps while trying to hike out by moonlight which would have been a very tough guy, Bill Ewasko thing to do. The injury is of sufficient gravity that he can't get down into Smith Water. If he were not so injured, he wouldn't be on top of that ridge on Sunday morning.

Bill is injured, he can't move well or far. He probably seeks shelter and hunkers down in the heat of the day. In what is a testament to his toughness, he drags himself to the top of the ridge overlooking Smith Water Sunday morning and turns on his phone, which promptly dies, but not before one ping gets out.

Again, Bill is seriously injured or he wouldn't be where he is by Sunday morning. Where does he go after he tries his cell phone? Not far. He probably goes back to wherever he's been holing up during the day. Those bushes I referred to might be one such place (I notice two red search tracks nearby but no search down in the bushes themselves, but I don't know if the vegetation is dense enough to hide a man from view or not). Wherever he went, it's someplace fairly close and fairly easy for an injured person to get to from the pingable zone on the ridge overlooking Smith Water. He's not far down en route to the bottom of Smith Water. He's still somewhere on or near the top.
Image

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Postby OtherHand » Fri Jan 18, 2013 8:24 pm

Since there seems to be some interest in this area and I may not get around to writing things up for a few days, I thought I might post an interim screen grab showing our tracks from Thursday the 17th.

Image

Click here for a much larger version

The black lines are the tracks from the original search, the red lines searches since then and the blue lines are those we made on our effort yesterday.

The climb up in a southerly direction wasn't too bad and we met up at the bottle location I had noted a few weeks ago (Under the "B" in Bernardino). The consensus seemed to be that it might have been a Gatorade or similar bottle, probably not related to Bill. From there the four of us went up a bit higher then descended to the northwest. The descent was rather difficult. There are far more ravines, chutes and other hiding places than either topo maps or Google Earth suggest. The terrain, especially the upper areas, is very convoluted and rocky.

While it's certainly possible Bill may have sought shelter out of the sun, over 2 1/2 years animal activity would likely have spread his possessions over a larger area, enhancing the odds of seeing something. We were clearly attuned to finding "stuff" as we came across four Big Horn sheep skeletons of various ages and an assortment of mylar balloons.

Although this was a disappointment I still like the concept of that area as it addresses so many of the elements of the case, more so than anywhere else. My wild-ass estimate of our probability of detection (POD) from this outing was a low 50%, which sort of sucks. Path lengths from Park Road amounted to just under 10 miles but we were pretty beat up. I'll have to think a while on our next step as I'm not eager to go back into that area without a good plan. It's an unforgiving landscape.
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Postby Hikin_Jim » Sun Jan 20, 2013 6:44 pm

OtherHand wrote:I still like the concept of that area as it addresses so many of the elements of the case, more so than anywhere else.
Yeah, and if not there, where?

You've got a fairly good probable zone of location: The intersection of the cell phone coverage from the Serin Drive tower and the measured distance of the ping, what I call the "pingable" zone. Again, I refer to your graphic (click to enlarge), with a few added markings:
Image
On Sunday morning, there's a strong chance that Bill was in that pingable zone. But his cell phone failed. Where then does he go? There are several possible scenarios:
1. The "lay down and die" scenario. At this point, Bill is so spent that when his cell phone dies, he simply lays down and dies. While possible, I rate this one as a low probability. First, it's just not Bill, and second if he's got the strength to crawl to a high point to try to find cell coverage, it's unlikely that he's going simply going to give up. Besides that if he were up on the ridge in the pingable zone, he'd probably have been found by now.
2. The "descent into Smith Water" scenario. Bill finally decides on the fourth day out to attempt the descent to the bottom of Smith Water. I rate this one as low probability. Why is Bill still up on the high ground between Quail and Smith Water if descent is a possibility? Put another way, what's changed where he now has the strength and ability to descend into rugged Smith Water that he didn't have the day before? It doesn't make sense that he perforce stayed stayed up top but only now decides to descend, and not only descend, but try to descend into a rugged place like Smith Water. It just doesn't wash.
3. The "hunker down" and take shelter scenario. Somewhere up there, he's found a place with some shade, and on Friday and Saturday, he's holed up. On Sunday, he tries his cell phone, the cell phone dies, Bill crawls back to his sheltered spot, and sometime thereafter meets his demise. I rate this one as a moderate probability. Discussion: I was able to find a sheltered spot on my trip into Smith Water from Quail. Notice in the below photo that I'm in the shade of a scrub oak:
Image
As OtherHand points out, his stuff should be scattered by now, but still, I think it's worth thinking about where he may have gone if he chose to take shelter. What might he have seen on his way in from Quail? Where has he been the whole time on Friday and Saturday?
4. The "exit to the east" scenario. He goes up to Pt. 4979 on Sunday morning. What might he have seen from up by Pt. 4979? Perhaps he saw the flats and ridges that extend towards and to the east of Quail Springs. Perhaps from his vantage point, it looked like a real option, one that he wouldn't necessarily have seen coming from the east given the comparatively steep eastern wall of the gully that bounds the flats on the east. I rate this one as a moderate probability, but lower than the "hunker down" scenario. Again, if he had the ability to get off the high ground between Quail and Smith Water, he would have done so by now. Perhaps, however, the view to the east persuaded him that he could do it even though injured.

So, we've got four possible scenarios, two low probability, two moderate. None are high probability; we just don't have enough in my mind to call anything high probability. With any of the scenarios, one still has to ask why we haven't found Bill yet.

Further comments:
I drew in some routes on the above graphic in pink. Routes 1 & 2 are possible routes that fit with the "exit to the east" scenario. There's been some good search coverage over there, but I wonder if there's anywhere over there still worth looking at.

Route 3 fits with the "hunker down" scenario. I can see fairly dense greenery on the satellite photo, and I can see that the greenery itself hasn't been searched (although there are two search tracks nearby). I don't know if this greenery is a) dense enough to explain why we haven't found Bill or b) accessible enough from the pingable zone for a presumably injured Bill to get to. Even if route 3 itself is bogus, the hunker down scenario is still a possibility; Bill could have found a rock with a steep north face, a properly aligned gully, or a solitary bush -- like the scrub oak I'm pictured under, above. I can very clearly see pockets of shade on the north side of rocks in satellite photos.

Route 4 fits with the "descent into Smith Water" scenario. Although I rate the descent scenario as low (why on earth would he wait until Sunday to start down?), Bill has so far defied all our reasoning, so perhaps. Of all the things one might see from the high ground above Smith Water, route 4 looks like the easiest descent. Perhaps he thought he could link up with the fairly prominent ridge between the odor location and the end of what I've marked as route 4.

Anyway, those are my thoughts for whatever they may be worth. I hope that one or two thoughts may be useful or at least stimulate further thinking and discussion.

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Postby Myth » Mon Jan 21, 2013 3:11 pm

I'm awaiting your trip report, OtherHand, but turning things over in my mind in the meantime. The area investigated still seems promising to me, maybe more so because of its ruggedness makes detection more difficult. That said, any theory I can come up with that has Bill in this area three days from his start ( and if we believe the cell ping, then we have to believe there was only a few spots he was in ) assumes that he is injured somehow. So there would be a limit on the kind of terrain he can traverse.

I like your idea of that clump of trees, Hikin_Jim. That, or something similar, seems like great options to explore. Yet, looking at the topo lines, it seems like there's a steep drop, relative to the prior area, along your route 3, at that spot where the line has a bit of a bend to it before terminating in the vegetation area. Still, I'd be interested in checking that area out in more detail.

Most likely, I have just one window of time for getting out to Joshua Tree before the weather warms up - the weekend of Feb 15th perhaps, or the weekend of Feb 22nd. I'm some distance away, almost four hours' drive, and may have other obligations chewing up that time. Still, if I can get out there for a weekend, I will try to peek into as many nooks and crannies as possible, and I'll bring a GPS, and another set of eyes with me for safety and better coverage.

As far as Bill's possessions being spread around by animals would go - about the only scenario where that may not have happened, is if at the end he may have slipped down into a crack or a fissure or some such that is mostly contained.

OtherHand - where did you guys park for this last trip? Is there a good spot to use as an access point?
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Postby OtherHand » Tue Jan 22, 2013 8:11 pm

OK time to get back with it. After being so soundly skunked on a trip where I actually thought we had a fair chance of finding Bill, I wanted to let things rest in my mind a bit. Not to be confused with sulking. Or maybe it was. Anyway...

HJ, a few things:

I know we've discussed Bill's phone as going dead and that's a reasonable and maybe likely possibility. But I also think it's a remarkable coincidence that it did so suddenly as he entered a cell area. What are the odds? Another possibility is that the ping involved a final, perhaps fatal fall for Bill. If Bill was in fact making his way around the westerly slopes of those hills he should have gradually come into the cell zone and I'd expect several or one longer ping. Unless the phone in fact went dead.

I think your lay down and die scenario doesn't fit what I know of Bill and agree that's it's low probability. I disagree with you on the take shelter scenario and consider it just a variant of lay down and die. If you take shelter you die, maybe just a while later. I think he was working the problem to get himself out.

Exit to the east? Possibly. However you don't have to hike up to point 4979 to see in that direction. The easterly view is great from most places on that slope, unless you're down in one of the deeper canyons. I think it's unlikely there was any climbing up anytime, due to the fact it apparently took him several days to make it to the 10.6 mile line. This strongly suggests to me some sort of very debilitating injury. Given that, there's probably a very strong urge to descend, and you can still head for Smith Water doing a gradual descent, using the elevation to gain forward distance.

I still rate descent into Smith Water as the most probable scenario I've heard so far. You find it unlikely that if he had the energy to descend into Smith Water, why didn't he use it to better effort? My response is that he didn't know how bad a descent into Smith Water is, compounded by the knowledge that water was there and relatively close as compared to other alternatives. It's conceivable he could have been a mile or less from the actual Smith Water Canyon water when things went south. That would seem like a pretty attractive destination to me. I'd go for it. I'm not saying he made it to the edge and started down, just that it was his plan. He may well never have made the canyon rim although that terrain can bring a sudden end to things.

I like your festively colored pink routes. We had looked at a bit of that area early on, assuming an easterly descent, perhaps destined for Park Road. There's still more to be checked in the world of pink.

As for your green patch, that's an interesting spot. I also noted that and included it as a place to check on my solo JT29 trip. I figured it could provide shade and concealment. I turned out there might be actual water there. I skirted the edge of the canyon right above it to the north and looked down into it. It was steeper than I wanted to deal with as I was descending and tend to be a lot more cautious when solo. I noted a lot of very thick green brush and even some reeds, looking very similar to the lush parts of Smith Water. I checked it out with binocs but didn't see anything. I should add that due to the steep canyon it's in, you can't see it until right on it. Also the ravine itself made little sense as a route because it was steep, rocky and brush-choked. I had planned on descending that way but found the terrain much easier staying out of it and just above. I passed by it a second time on JT31, this time on the southerly side of the canyon, again seeing nothing in the bottom but dense brush perhaps indicative of standing water. But not interesting enough to be worth a scramble down into it.

Myth:

Already mentioned the "clump of trees", although were I in the area I'd be tempted to return to go all the way to it's bottom. I'm curious if there's actual water. But I wouldn't make that a specific destination of a trip.

A crevice is certainly a possibility and could result in a sudden termination of things. Little, but some animal scatter so you'd have to be right on it. Then there's always been the situation of how can you have a cell ping from a hole? The ping would have had to occurred prior to anything like that.

As far as our preferred trailhead for getting into that area we use what's sort of an informal trailhead for Samuelson's Rocks. It's a dirt pullout on the southwesterly side of Park Road. It used to be big enough for about 3 vehicles, but I think the park service is getting annoyed with people having the nerve of doing what they want and have blocked off most of it with large rocks. A new turnout has started to appear about 80' past the old one (yay, anarchy!), but there's only room for one vehicle and if you blink you miss it. I will tell you it's JUST past a yellow curve warning sign. Our GPS tracks all radiate from that spot. If you do decide to explore the area we've been discussing from that trailhead you can stop at Samuelson's Rocks along the way. It's pretty cool. Google it for the details. From that section of Park Road you can see the entire area we've been talking about here and you start thinking, "Do I REALLY want to go up there?"

So my thinking at this point is that Bill's somewhere in the upper edges of Smith Water, or not far south or southeast of there. Of all the lousy places I've looked in JTNP, this one has the right "feel". Of course I am delusional. He can't be too far from the edge or he is out of cell range, which I'm taking to be 11.1 miles. My feeling is that area has been only searched maybe 50% and there's a lot of terrain left he could be hiding in. If he indeed fell into something, that's going to be tough. This is not an area that gets visitation (it helps to be nuts to go there) so if he's there he won't eventually be found by wandering hikers. The only positive things things I can say is that a lot for the area has been covered. Also there's nothing unnatural there, so things like bones are very easily spotted (as in four big horn skeletons in one trip).

I should add I'm not trying to convince anyone of anything here. I certainly don't have the answers as has been evidenced by all my stinkin' fruitless trips. I merely want to address some of the ideas raised based upon my knowledge pool gleaned from too many miles out there. I could be dead wrong on any or all of it. Maybe Cabo San Lucas IS where we should be looking. At least you can get a margarita.
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Postby Hikin_Jim » Tue Jan 22, 2013 8:42 pm

OtherHand wrote:I know we've discussed Bill's phone as going dead and that's a reasonable and maybe likely possibility. But I also think it's a remarkable coincidence that it did so suddenly as he entered a cell area. What are the odds?
A million to one against -- if not worse. But what if it was off when he entered the pingable zone?

Here's my scenario:
Bill gets injured en route to NE Smith Water. It's bad. He needs help. He reaches for his cell phone. "Oh, cr*p, I've left the darned thing on. I forgot to turn it off." Not only does Bill have no signal, he has little or no battery. Wisely, Bill turns his cell phone off to save what little battery there is. Sunday morning, Bill enters the pingable zone, perhaps deliberately. Seeing that he has good line of sight, he fires up his cell phone, hoping against hope. One ping does get out, but the phone dies.

I find this to be a very realistic scenario -- it's happened to me. I've been able to make quick calls with a phone with a "dead" battery just by turning it off and waiting a while. It's not hard at all for me to imagine Bill keeping the phone off and then turning it on periodically when he thinks he has good line of sight.

OtherHand wrote:Maybe Cabo San Lucas IS where we should be looking. At least you can get a margarita.
Now you're talking!

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Postby OtherHand » Tue Jan 22, 2013 9:26 pm

Oh, one thing I forgot to add (which is surprising considering the amount of blather I did put forth). The areas you marked as possible descent routes to the east are not that bad should someone wish to head up into that general area. I mean it's no worse than most rocky areas in JTNP. It's when you get close to the rim of Smith Water Canyon the terrain gets more "sporty" and you can die. Those northeasterly facing ridgelines make for good access. The only exception is the chute right above Quail Spring to its west which was a lot worse than expected. Or so I heard....loudly. The negative to this general area is that it's a 2 to 2 1/2 mile walk across the valley from Park Road, and it's a stinkin' uphill slog on the way back out. It's annoying enough that a post-trip stop at Pappy and Harriet's after one of these things is a necessity to undo the psychic damage.
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Postby RichardK » Tue Jan 22, 2013 11:06 pm

Hikin_Jim wrote: He reaches for his cell phone. "Oh, cr*p, I've left the darned thing on. I forgot to turn it off." Not only does Bill have no signal, he has little or no battery.


As I understand it, Bill made 2 phone calls Thursday morning on the way to the park. After those calls, his phone pinged no more cell towers that day. The implication is that he turned his phone off to save the battery while driving to the park. So, when did he turn his phone back on so that the battery is mostly depleted? If you have ever carried a cellphone hiking out of range, you know it uses up a lot of battery searching for a signal. I suppose that he could have turned it on hoping for a signal when needing help and forgot to turn it back off, but that is purely speculative.
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Postby Hikin_Jim » Tue Jan 22, 2013 11:28 pm

Well, whatever his intent, he was in the Pingable Zone on Sunday. After multiple days out, he couldn't have been in very good shape. He can't have made it far. I think focusing search efforts in and around the Pingable Zone makes sense.

If he did go west, I still think route 4 makes a lot of sense. There's the dog legged route that I laid out earlier. It also occurs to me that he could have tried for the ridge that is just east of the odor location ridge. It's hard to see since it's in pink, but something like "4b," below:
Image
"4a" is the dog legged route I laid out earlier.

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