Story of missing hiker in Joshua Tree NP

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Postby Hikin_Jim » Fri Feb 01, 2013 3:00 pm

Zip,

Did you see this?
http://www.otherhand.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/JT45.south_.slope_.routes.jpg

It's a giant photo of the NE slopes of Smith Water with search routes drawn in. In addition, I took one trip down the ridge west of the "odor location," but that doesn't change the equation much.

On other fronts:
I still think the NE Smith Water theory holds up the best. We've got a guy who loves hiking who says "I'm going hiking." We find his vehicle at a trailhead. We get a ping from his cellphone at a distance from the cell tower that corresponds to NE Smith Water. NE Smith Water makes a certain amount of sense for an ambitious hiker from the trailhead where his vehicle was found. Yeah, there could be foul play or even, God forbid, space aliens, but the simplest explanation is usually the one that's best.

The fact that Bill hasn't been found is no indication that the theory is incorrect. Recall missing Adventurer Steve Fossett's case. Did the largest search ever in US history find him? No. It was a random hiker who chanced across some items that had drifted down from the crash site. And Fossett's crash site was near the very popular resort town of Mammoth, CA and near the popular destination of Devil's Postpile National Monument. Fossett was also near the trail to Minaret Lake, a very popular hiking destination.

Minaret Lake:
Image
Had Fossett crashed in a less popular area, he'd likely still be missing. Fossett had a stinkin' plane for crying out loud, and they still couldn't find him. Bill on the other hand was just a guy with a little backpack.

I'm not faulting the searchers here; I'm trying to make a point: It's hard to find a person in a rugged location. You could walk 20 feet away from where Bill is lying and not know it if there were a large rockpile separating you.

In my dad's case, he was found nine days after his death, again, by a random hiker, not by the large organized search and rescue effort. His gear wasn't found until 2 or 3 years later, again, by a random hiker. Interestingly, in the case of my father, his gear was not scattered. His gear was pretty tightly concentrated behind a log.

Speaking of rocks, there are plenty in the area where Bill went missing:
Image

And there are plenty of hidey holes in those rocks.
Image

I think that with the heightened confidence in the ping data that we've got the first fairly solid theory that we've had for a while. No offense, but some of the other theories were a bit of a stretch (of course, what else did we have to go on?). I think people getting out there and looking is the right course of action. In the case of both Steve Fossett and my dad, it was a random hiker who found them, not a trained SAR person.

I'm working an awful lot right now, but maybe I can get out there on a Saturday this month. I don't have a GPS though, and while I don't think they're necessary for just general hiking, they're all but essential for a search, particularly for a search in a area with so many nooks and crannies. Again, you can pass 20 feet from Bill's position and not spot him. In order to know weather a given location has been searched, you've got to have GPS (well, unless you're going to put marker flags out there on the ground in each and every spot you check).

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Postby Myth » Fri Feb 01, 2013 3:17 pm

Yeah, one of the reasons I'm wavering between hiking in from Juniper Flats vs hiking in from a closer board to be able to spend more time in the area, is because I noticed on my own excursion last weekend that, depending on terrain, spotting things may be difficult.

zippetydude - I hear you about the panic when you're lost. I've experienced it myself. As far as the map goes - I have OtherHand's search tracks imported into Google Earth. Since the area is so large, this is really helpful as far as scrolling around and zooming in goes. If you have access to Google Earth, you may want to give that a whirl as well.
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Postby OtherHand » Fri Feb 01, 2013 3:45 pm

zippetydude wrote:Which brings up one further question. I may be totally wrong with this, but hear me out. In a case like this, it occurs to me that the route chosen would perhaps be guided by reasoning that a person in a desperate situation might follow, but which might appear unlikely to those of us sitting in safe, non-threatening living rooms.


You are not totally wrong, in fact, you are absolutely correct. Whatever route Bill took made sense to him, given his condition and what the terrain looked like to him from his vantage point. And that is a failing of some of these trips in that I routed us through what I thought would be "safe" approaches and departures which may have omitted more obvious routes that don't appear that way when looking on a map. I try and compensate for it by sitting down with Google Earth after each trip and see how it compares with what we actually saw. But clearly, I'm missing something.

zippetydude wrote:So, any chance of a map with previous search routes being posted


Making cumulative maps, or even compilations of all search tracks after each trip is a pain in the butt. I have enough trouble just getting around to writing up each one. But when I do I've taken to posting all the GPS tracks in gdb, gpx and kml formats. This allows anyone with sufficient motivation to bring the tracks into the mapping software of their choice and doing whatever they want. All of the older search tracks are posted in the Ewasko Resources section of the website.

But given the current interest I did a few screen grabs of the general area showing the original search tracks in black and all those since in red. these are up to date as of our last trip, JT45.

Large view

Medium view

Close-in view

myth wrote:Yeah, one of the reasons I'm wavering between hiking in from Juniper Flats vs hiking in from a closer board to be able to spend more time in the area, is because I noticed on my own excursion last weekend that, depending on terrain, spotting things may be difficult.


If you hike in from the Juniper Flats trailhead, go over the Quail Ridge, explore the area between Quail and Smith Water, then descend into Smith Water and return....well....I bow before you. That's a loooong hike even without the joy of having to carry your own water. But if you want to see things as Bill might have, it makes sense. The crux is probably the Smith Water descent but then it's a lot of uphill on the way back. Good to know people do consider stupider trips than me!
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Postby Hikin_Jim » Fri Feb 01, 2013 4:57 pm

OtherHand wrote: Good to know people do consider stupider trips than me!
Well, with an endorsement like that, how can you go wrong? :wink:

A shuttle vehicle near Quail Wash might make it a little more palatable, but I'd probably go in from the NE rather than trying a looong day from Juniper Flats. If you look at a satellite view, you can see an old primitive dirt road leading down from the main park road. I've marked the old road on this topo map. You can even see a car parked at the turn out for the old road if you switch to satellite view. You could then follow the route I've laid out up to the general vicinity of the ping zone and it's environs. I have a moderate level of interest in the ridge from "Q" to "R" since it's a possible descent route and no one has been on it, but I think Bill is going to be closer to (or in) the pingable zone. I just think he couldn't have gotten very far.

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Last edited by Hikin_Jim on Fri Feb 01, 2013 5:30 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Postby OtherHand » Fri Feb 01, 2013 5:30 pm

That dirt road you mention is the normal route to Samuelson's Rocks. That trailhead isn't an official Backcountry board, so I don't know how JTNP would feel about leaving a vehicle there overnight. I tried to find out once if you had to park at a real Backcountry Board for overnight trips and couldn't find a clear answer one way or the other.

I thought I had been on your Q to R ridge, but I see I haven't. I seem to recall the general area being rather open though.
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Postby Hikin_Jim » Fri Feb 01, 2013 5:51 pm

Q to R ridge isn't something I would rate really high on the "places to search" list. I just noticed that on a map it looks like a good descent route and that no one had been there.

Here's a satellite view of the area near the pingable zone. Points "A" through "E" mark where the terrain really starts to drop off into Smith Water. Notice that in and around there that there are a lot of "pock marks" in the terrain. These "pock marks" are actually shadows cast by rocks -- shadows sufficiently large to show up on a satellite photo. The photo was probably taken before noon by the look of it which exaggerates the shadows to some degree, but I think the point is still valid that there are rocks sufficiently large so as to offer a place that might conceal someone.

Now, there's no way to know if Bill is in one of those piles of rocks or if Bill went further west and tried to descend into Smith Water, but I think those rock piles are worth looking into. The real trick here is keeping track of which rock pile has been searched and which has not. Hopefully, Bill's effects are scattered some, so finding him is possible without covering every square inch out there, but, as in my dad's case, sometimes personal effects are not scattered, for example when objects contain them (a log in my dad's case, perhaps rocks in Bill's case).

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Postby OtherHand » Fri Feb 01, 2013 7:21 pm

Hikin_Jim wrote:Here's a satellite view of the area near the pingable zone. Points "A" through "E" mark where the terrain really starts to drop off into Smith Water. Notice that in and around there that there are a lot of "pock marks" in the terrain. These "pock marks" are actually shadows cast by rocks -- shadows sufficiently large to show up on a satellite photo. The photo was probably taken before noon by the look of it which exaggerates the shadows to some degree, but I think the point is still valid that there are rocks sufficiently large so as to offer a place that might conceal someone.

Now, there's no way to know if Bill is in one of those piles of rocks or if Bill went further west and tried to descend into Smith Water, but I think those rock piles are worth looking into. The real trick here is keeping track of which rock pile has been searched and which has not. Hopefully, Bill's effects are scattered some, so finding him is possible without covering every square inch out there, but, as in my dad's case, sometimes personal effects are not scattered, for example when objects contain them (a log in my dad's case, perhaps rocks in Bill's case).

HJ


Sick minds think alike. We hit those spots pretty well on our last trip. I am personally far too familiar with your spot C. I seem to recall something about having to downclimb a fallen tree to get to the bottom of the cliff face, then following the base of the cliff to the SW. That said, I don't feel we saw everything, but did cover the obvious routes. After 2 1/2 years I'd expect some scatter.
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Postby Myth » Fri Feb 01, 2013 7:30 pm

OtherHand - I have to echo Hikin_Jim here - with an endorsement like that, how can I possibly go wrong? :D

I actually prefer ascents to descents. I busted up my knee years ago on a descent in my "ultra-heavy" backpacking days, where I'd carry full changes of clothes and jeans for wearing in the evenings ( really?! ), and I go up a lot easier than I come down. Of course, you can't have one without the other!

Hiking in from Juniper Flats will probably cause the fun-o-meter to drop out of the "Good stuff" zone and into the "Yikes man, I hurt" zone. My motivation for that is experiencing the terrain like Bill might have. I really feel it could be important to get an idea for how much strain the terrain would put on me for such a route, in order to figure what frame of mind Bill might have been in as he approached Smith Water. ( Of course, technically I should then be doing this in June not February, and NOT with a two-day supply of water on my back. Maybe the two will even out. )

That said: I believe that with the additional information around the ping, the more fruitful route might be to can a Juniper Flats start in favor of an approach from the NE, and instead concentrate more on the ping area and other areas of interest. Once I inevitably experience the frustration of coming up empty, there will be time enough for a Juniper start route and trying to expand the experience to try and guess Bill's mind, futile as that may be. Perhaps a mild weekend will arrive in the longer daylight days and enable me into a stupidly long hike. ;)

Hikin_Jim - that ridge actually is one I have my eye on for an ascent route, should I decide to hike in from the NE instead - figuring that I might as well ascend up a path untrodden. I also have a feeling that a ridge may have been a more likely route for Bill than a wash. He must have held out hope that a search would be begun before it was too late! After all, Mary expected his call. So I feel like he might have stuck to the ridges from where he could signal and be seen, if he could.

That said: sticking to ridges is the opposite of sheltering from the sun. So I also like your thoughts about the rocks & their shadows. I imagine that they may have attracted Bill as well. Rocks feel like shelter. ( Of course, rocks are also heat sinks that radiate heat back out, and they harbor rattlers and the like, so they have their downside! ) But it seems like a person would be more likely to ride out the heat of the day near rocks that offer shade, than in the open or under a sparse and thorny bush. Maybe I need to find rock outcroppings high on a ridge to look at?

It is a pity the Google satellite view shows morning shadows, not afternoon shadows. I imagine Bill would more likely be on the east side of a rocky outcropping, sheltering from the harsher afternoon sun. ( And this theory springs a leak when you consider that he wouldn't have gotten the ping out from the east side of a big old rock! ) Still, it may be worth a shot. I have to peer at the rocks in satellite view trying to imagine their westerly shadows, while thinking about candidate areas to check out. For example, northeast of your point E there seems to be a skinny ridge that would offer equal afternoon protection.

As far as his effects being scattered goes: I'm thinking that, if my theory that he would have stuck to a ridge was true, then his effects likely would have scattered down slope and into the many gullies and washes that have been covered, and he would have been found already. So perhaps the alternate, that he sheltered in a rocky area and that that may have helped contain his effects, is more likely. Any and all theories subject to be immediately voided upon actually seeing the terrain, of course.

If this was the zone his ping registered from ( and it is the most likely one, in my opinion ) then I have to agree with you that I don't see how he could have gotten too far away from it at that stage.

I might well traverse up and down some of the ridges that are not "filled in" in the search pattern yet - around the cell coverage area, I mean. Even I am not nuts enough to yo-yo into and out of Smith Water multiple times! There are some candidates visible on OtherHand's newly posted compound maps. There are some where perhaps I could take one, my spouse another ( this unfortunately would not show up on the GPS track I'll bring back, since we have only one GPS ) and we could likely stay in contact via radio. We might also just opt to walk together and cover a "broader" track in that way. Radios are extra weight, and the terrain may interrupt our line of sight. We have no interest in having an adventure of the "Where did X go? Was on that ridge a moment ago!" kind!

The one thing I really don't have is a good set of binoculars. ( The ancient 10x50 iron frame monsters I have will stay right here ) I might pick up a pair before I go, we'll see. Obviously it would be a good to have in an endeavor like this.

Bouncing ideas around really helps with thinking through everything. No warranties on whether the thinking is crooked or not. ;)

Final thought: When I walk with a destination in mind, I can get pretty zoned into tunnel vision right in front of me. I'll have to watch for that on this, and be sure to look left and right.

Final thought 2: Unnatural colors jump out in a desert landscape. I spotted mylar, discarded chapstick, etc, from far away. It is a pity Bill's backpack is reported to be black or perhaps dark blue. I'm also thinking I should buy a bright orange hiking shirt once my current tan one wears out!
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Postby Hikin_Jim » Fri Feb 01, 2013 9:56 pm

Myth wrote:My motivation for that [starting at Juniper Flats] is experiencing the terrain like Bill might have. I really feel it could be important to get an idea for how much strain the terrain would put on me...
That was part of my motivation too for going to Quail and then proceeding to Smith Water. My reflection after the fact is that while it did give me a better sense of the terrain, I really couldn't get into Bill's mind -- because I wasn't injured. I think Bill was plenty strong to handle the terrain per se. Something happened (stepped on a rock and rolled an ankle for example).

Myth wrote:That said: I believe that with the additional information around the ping, the more fruitful route might be to can a Juniper Flats start in favor of an approach from the NE, and instead concentrate more on the ping area and other areas of interest.
Yeah, my thoughts exactly.

Speaking of areas of interest... :)
Image
Don't know what yours are, but I marked off in green that ridge we've been discussing as well as a couple of drainages, including that one we suspect may have water. In addition, I marked of the descent route from the natural pass south of pt. 4979. No one has yet descended that route although there may be good visibility in there from the routes nearby that have already been done. I also marked off in a pale blue the general zone in and around the pingable zone that I think the terrain would tend to guide someone into.

Myth wrote:sticking to ridges is the opposite of sheltering from the sun.
True, but he may have done both (just not simultaneously). Bill was Marine Force Recon. Standard military desert survival doctrine is to take shelter in the heat of the day and to travel in the cooler parts of the day (or night). He may have traveled the ridges when he traveled but taken shelter when it was hot. I can't imagine him traveling continuously throughout the four days that we believe him to be out there and alive. The fact that he was apparently still alive on Sunday speaks to me that he took shelter during the heat of the day. If he had kept on the move in 90 degree wx in Joshua Tree in the heat of the day with only 3 bottles of water, I don't think he would have made it to Sunday. Fitter, younger men than Bill have died in high heat. He'd have gotten a bit of a break being up higher, but still it had to be hot.

Myth wrote:It is a pity the Google satellite view shows morning shadows, not afternoon shadows. I imagine Bill would more likely be on the east side of a rocky outcropping, sheltering from the harsher afternoon sun. ( And this theory springs a leak when you consider that he wouldn't have gotten the ping out from the east side of a big old rock! ) Still, it may be worth a shot. I have to peer at the rocks in satellite view trying to imagine their westerly shadows, while thinking about candidate areas to check out. For example, northeast of your point E there seems to be a skinny ridge that would offer equal afternoon protection.
Something with a steep north face could offer all day sun protection. Also, he could have found a hole in the rocks like the one I posted a photo of a couple of posts back. I found a lot of holes out there. A hole might also contain his gear and prevent it from being scattered.

Myth wrote:The one thing I really don't have is a good set of binoculars. ( The ancient 10x50 iron frame monsters I have will stay right here ) I might pick up a pair before I go, we'll see. Obviously it would be a good to have in an endeavor like this.
I've got some Nikon Monarch 10x42's. Really nice. Mine are a little older; not quite the model shown in the above link, but Nikon has been putting out some pretty good stuff lately. Very popular with birders (I got the recommendation off of a bird watching forum).

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Postby Perry » Fri Feb 01, 2013 10:45 pm

OtherHand wrote:In all the rest of the documents, including all the time cards of the JT staff who participated in the original search, this guy wasn't in on it.

Maybe his time card got misplaced and wasn't copied by mistake? Or were the time cards plastic ones that get swiped and given to you in a computerized alphabetical format?
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