From Toro Peak to Fonts Point, barely

It was getting pretty bad

"I told him they hadn’t had water since this morning. I think I worried him that they were dying.”
  • "I told him they hadn’t had water since this morning. I think I worried him that they were dying.”
  • Image by David Diaz

Their plan was to start at Toro Peak, in the Santa Rosa Mountains just north of Borrego Springs, hike along the mountainous spine over Rabbit Peak and Villager Peak, then down through Rattlesnake Canyon to Fonts Point at the intersection of Highway S-22, a distance of about 30 miles. Four friends, two of them brothers, were taking enough food and water on their backs for a three-day hike. The journey was expected to be rough; supposedly there were no trails or water. They were only following the directions planned out by Ralph, who had read about this hike in a desert publication. The brothers, Steve and Eric, not taking the advice of their friends, decided to carry four gallons of water each, an extra gallon of water apiece. It was to be prophetic obstinacy. But now their packs weighed almost 60 pounds — 30 pounds of that being water.

At the bottom of the Santa Rosas they now had less than two quarts of water between them.

At the bottom of the Santa Rosas they now had less than two quarts of water between them.

It was arranged for a friend to drive them up to Toro Peak and for Ralph’s brother to pick them up at Fonts Point. In back of the pickup, they passed around sipping whiskey to key down the windy ride. Two miles off Highway 74, up toward Toro Peak, the truck overheated, and their friend decided it would be better to let them off there rather than risk engine damage by continuing. Before leaving, they shared several beers while staring at the night and talking about tomorrow’s hike up Toro Peak. They figured it was probably another five or six miles. After the beer was gone, so was their ride. They slipped on their packs and walked up the road about a mile and then it was time to camp.

Borrego Badlands. “I took off my clothes and laid in the sand. Heat was pouring off me like an oven."

Borrego Badlands. “I took off my clothes and laid in the sand. Heat was pouring off me like an oven."

Next morning they were up early. It was a tough climb up while getting adjusted to their heavy packs and their booty that hadn’t seen a trip in the last few months. Larry had brought cans of fruit juice and was freely giving them away to lighten his pack. Their philosophy was that the canned items weighed so much it was better to use up those first.

Later that afternoon they reached the piñon pine forest of Toro Peak and they stopped to rest. While roaming around free of his backpack, Ralph found an old long-handled axe covered in pine needles. He told his friends he planned to return for the ancient axe and he buried it again under the mulch.

Having reached the forest, the crest of Toro Peak, they started hiking down as originally planned. There were no trails, just open spaces through the forest. About two miles farther along they came upon a clearing and saw a deer. They dropped their packs again, this time to view below them the desert floor and their destination. Coming up Toro Peak, they had used more water than planned, but the packs were lighter and this helped. The day was warm, in the mid 80s, and they were experiencing Santa Ana winds. Near this clearing they found a campsite for the night. “We were dropped five miles below where we should have started,” Steve recalled. “We had to spend the next morning catching up to where we should have been the first night. The next morning we got a fairly early start. The packs were getting noticeably lighter.”

That second night and the following morning they had begun eating the heavier items in their packs. A lot of canned goods had been brought; because of the prospect of finding no water, it wasn’t conceivable to bring dehydrated foods. But the trip seemed poorly planned. The packs were heavy and the terrain rough. That morning they had a wide area of brush to cross before reaching Rabbit Peak, the first of two peaks they had to cross before heading down to Fonts Point. The brush was so thick it took close to an hour to make one mile. “Following directions from an article I read by a guy who did this same hike, we found a bandage box in a rock cairn,” said Ralph. (A cairn is a pile of rocks indicating a landmark or message.) “Inside the bandage box were pieces of paper, a pencil, and some old messages, some dating back to 1971. The guy whose article I read made a message concerning the lack of water in the area.”

The hike took them up and down steep inclines. The area was very rugged, but the unbroken silence, except for their own footsteps, made the terrain enthralling. Since they had left their ride at Highway 74, they had not met a single person, and nothing touched them except warm breezes and the occasional thorny outreach of a “Spanish dagger,” which would block their way. The wind was blowing toward them, which allowed sights of deer grazing on scrub. Eric, who had been wearing only tennis shoes, was lagging behind, and with everyone pushing forward to make up lost time and miles, he was soon out of sight.

Steve decided to trail back and look for him. Larry and Ralph waited, but a half an hour passed and no one came back. Larry called for Steve but no one answered. Ralph was worried. He was concerned about conserving the remaining water, and this minor manhunt was wasting valuable energy. Ralph and Larry decided to split up and look for them. Soon Larry came upon Eric and later they found Steve a little way below.

They climbed one more hill before stopping for the day. Their bodies ached with exhaustion. It felt good to unlace the boots and rub out the soreness. All agreed they must have done 15 miles that day, but it felt better for having made up a bit of the schedule. Just over the next rise the path to the end of the journey would be seen. “At the end of the second day we were a little concerned about water,” recalled Ralph. “It had been harder than we expected. We found a nice rock ledge to camp on that night. It overlooked the desert from all angles. We could see Palm Springs, the north end of the Salton Sea, Borrego Springs, Clark Dry Lake, Anza, and Palomar Mountain. A fantastic view in all directions. Near us was Rabbit Peak, some 6600 feet high.”

Ralph, the unofficial leader, told the others that it would be best to abandon earlier plans. They had not yet reached Rabbit Peak and they still had Villager Peak to climb before heading down to Fonts Point. If they had not the stamina to have done one peak today, would they be able to conquer two tomorrow? He criticized the way the water supply had been handled, and he was angry at Eric for having wasted a good hour of everyone’s energy and water. From here on out, the water would be rationed.

Since the canned goods had been eaten earlier, the dinner that night was fairly slim. They were feeling nauseous from the strenuous call on their bodies, so no one cared if he ate much. It was fortunate that Steve and Eric had brought an extra two gallons of water; they pooled their supply with Ralph and Larry and the water was divided to the ounce between them. Each was now responsible for making his share last by careful rationing. The next morning they were up before the sun rose and again food was a problem, which caused them to be sluggish and weak. They had only a breakfast bar apiece.

“The next rise was not so little as we had expected and we all felt as tired as we were the afternoon before,” said Steve. “When we got to the top rise, we were even more disappointed, for our path was much longer and much hillier than we had thought possible.”

Following animal trails to the top of Rabbit Peak, they found another message box. They stopped to look ahead of them and to look down. Each was down to a gallon of water, and they had to reach Fonts Point by nightfall. Being forced to hike up Toro Peak the first evening had severely changed the outcome of the trip. They were exhausted and they had a limited water supply. Normally a gallon of water would be plenty for most during the day; however, they were sweating out their moisture and they were exposed to the heat of the sun. In the mountains the temperature was about 85 degrees, but they knew that as they declined, the temperature could increase 10 or 20 degrees. It was either straight ahead on the same type of terrain they had been battling or straight down to the desert floor. They decided to drop to the floor as soon as possible. It was agreed that the next rise, Villager Peak, could not be assaulted.

They chose a ravine to descend the 6666 feet to the badlands. First appearances of the climb down had seemed easier than what it actually turned out to be. Gradually it became steeper, and huge rock formations with 50-foot drops would bar the way. They either had to take off their packs and hand them down like water buckets to a fire as each man found his own precarious foot- and handholds, or a way around had to be found. Coming down between two rocks, Eric slipped into a cactus. He fell with such force the spines penetrated deep. The curved end of each spine was like a curve in a whaling harpoon, and so they remained in his leg. As they continued to descend, the temperature rose, and when they reached the Borrego Badlands, some three hours from the top, the temperature had risen to 106 degrees. “We were amazed at the mountain we came down,” Steve recalled. “I would never have thought of climbing it from its appearance. I had almost fallen on numerous occasions and had plenty of cuts, scratches, and abrasions to prove it.”

“We were all exhausted,” Ralph added. “It was getting pretty bad, but we were all in good spirits. We didn’t anticipate the badlands, though.”

The Borrego Badlands are between the Santa Rosas and the desert floor. It is a plateau from which fat fingers of land, separated by miniature canyons, stretch out, sloping down to Clark Dry Lake. From the top of Rabbit Peak they had spotted a reflection at the south end of the dry lake. They picked a ravine that seemed to have the most direct route toward that reflection; it was the only thing different in the endless desert scenery of rock, sand, cactus, and scrub. From the top, the area surrounding the reflection was smooth and empty. They hoped it was an airport.

At the bottom of the Santa Rosas they now had less than two quarts of water between them. Each had conserved until the dryness of his mouth and the rising heat caused him to sip. Now, as they climbed down the ravine to the floor, they had to have water every once in a while. Sometimes the ravine was a sandy wash and other times they had to make several large drops, or they would jump from one boulder to another. “I could not depend on my legs after a ways,” said Steve. “They were rubbery…the going got slower and slower as I had to depend more and more on my arms. I couldn’t just leap from rock to rock.”

“When we had to jump from boulder to boulder, the whole weight of the backpack would hit your legs,” Ralph said. “We were getting really tired. Eventually we got spread out again, and we took lots of breaks waiting for everyone to group back together.

“The ravine got real discouraging as we kept making turns with no end,” he continued. “We’d go through one turn and we’d see two more. We go through those and see three more, then two, then one, and we would get our hopes up and then we’d see another turn.

“Larry and I lost voice contact with Steve and Eric. Finally, with the sun beating down on my head, I said to Larry, ‘This has to be the last turn,’ and sure enough it opened up to Clark Dry Lake. I spied a boulder as big as a house and I said, ‘Let’s go over here and wait.’ ”

Eventually Steve and Eric caught up. Steve’s feet were full of blisters caused by his boots and he was barely shuffling along. They both fell into the sand shaded by the huge boulder. Also resting in the shade was an animate angel of mercy. “A lot of people say you can’t derive usable moisture from barrel cacti; others swear by it,” Ralph had said as he pulled his mini hatchet from his pack.

“Let Eric do it,” Larry had cautioned. “He seems to be the only one with extra energy.”

Eric had been nervously tapping two rocks together. While the others were stretched out with no more movement other than wetting their lips, Eric seemed only nervously waiting to move on. He tossed away the object of frustration, took Ralph’s hatchet, and began hacking at the tough skin. Eric couldn’t finish, so the others took turns chopping the cactus until they had the top cut off. Inside was the juicy pulp and they cut into it, taking out wedges. They sucked and chewed the pulp until they got enough moisture to have made the effort worthwhile. The juice was bitter but everyone ate it like a watermelon at a picnic.

The plan was to wait under the shade until the sun went down and then cross the desert. No one talked much, except for an occasional comment about how good a glass of lemonade would taste right now. They had three to four ounces of water left between them. Overhead they heard the passing of a small passenger plane. Ralph had brought a mirror and he and Steve went out into the sun to signal with it. No reply. They tried again when a second plane flew over, but again the pilot did not see or recognize their SOS signals. They lay down to rest. The sun would soon be down and they would start across the desert to an oasis of cottonwood trees that Ralph knew to be ahead of them in the distance. All four were becoming a little delirious from the lack of water and exhaustion. “My mind began going in funny circles,” said Steve. “I realized the predicament we were in. I felt on the verge of hallucination. I worried over silly items, such as if we were rescued would they mind if my shirt was unbuttoned? I wondered if my mom would forgive me for the fact of losing two of her sons because of me.”

Finally the sun set and they started walking. The rest and the loss of the sun did not seem to revive them. Walking on flat land was difficult, almost like walking up a steep incline. A clump of trees was seen in the distance, but it seemed to take a long time to get there. “The next indication of trouble was that we were so exhausted,” said Larry. “We had to keep taking breaks. I knew the others were getting discouraged, and I knew when we reached the trees I was going to leave my pack and go on for help.

“I looked back at Steve once and he had this crooked smile on his face. He said, ‘I’m getting a little discouraged.’ Steve — the most optimistic person in the group. I was a little worried now. After that I never looked behind me. None of us did. We just hoped everyone could make it to the trees.”

When they reached the oasis, there was no water, only salt bushes. They had arranged for Ralph’s brother to pick them up, and in the far distance, at Fonts Point, they could see the headlights of a waiting car. They began to panic. The climb down had saved them from hiking over Villager Peak, but now they were far from their proposed trail and no one would think of looking for them here. Ralph and Steve knew they would perish by tomorrow if help did not come. Both tried lighting signal fires to attract the brother’s attention, but the headlights did not move. Each fire was a chore and they would have to rest between gathering sticks and lighting them. They finally became discouraged and lay down to rest. Four swallows of water were left.

Eric got up and started to wander around the oasis. Getting above the horizon of the topmost tree, he could see a steady light in the distance. It was in the same place they had seen the reflection earlier that day. Perhaps we could hike to that light, thought Eric. He walked back to the others and sat on a rock behind Larry, He pulled out his canteen and looked at Larry stretched out on the sand with his eyes closed. Larry had been the only one who could rest. “My body was so hot. I knew that things were getting worse,” Larry recalled. “I took off my clothes and laid in the sand. Heat was pouring off me like an oven. I laid there and thought, ‘I’m not going to lie down here and die.’ I watched Steve and Ralph lighting signal fires to be seen from the highway. The highway…sometimes we would forget about the highway. We were so delirious that a curtain would shut out real thoughts.

“Eric came up behind me and said he saw a light in the distance. Then I heard Eric take a big gulp of water. I yelled, ‘What are you doing! We can’t drink the water. We’ve got to save it!’

“Seeing the light firmed my decision to go ahead and I told the others I was going to head out toward the light and get help,” Larry continued. “I wasn’t going to leave behind a wife and two kids. I planned to see them before I died.”

Eric wanted to go with Larry but Steve wouldn’t let him. There was really only enough water for one, Steve told him. All of them gave Larry what water there was left, and he assured them he would be back. “I made up my mind I was going,” said Larry. “I wanted Eric to go with me but Steve wouldn’t let him. I wanted Eric to go along for company but at the same time I didn’t want him to go. I was afraid something might happen to him and I would have to leave him where he dropped. Steve told him that, too.”

Eric showed Larry the light. It was small. It was hard to judge just how far away it could be. The air was so clear that judging distances accurately had eluded them the entire trip. Eric and Steve walked with Larry a short way. They found a road but it headed east instead of south. Larry wanted to cut straight for the light and take no chances; he walked ahead, dodging shrub and cactus. His mind was vague and thoughtless except for the driving force of reaching that light. “After 30 minutes, the light got bigger,” Larry recalled. “Soon I hit some kind of road and the walking got easier. I could see a trailer in the distance with its lights on, and I knew it was going to be all right.

“I walked straight ahead to a group of telephone poles. There were two straight lines of them and they intersected like a cross. Earlier, when we saw the area on top of the mountain, we thought it was an airport.

“I wanted to turn on the lights to attract attention. The trailer was within walking distance but I wanted to turn on the lights. I found a power box and started to unscrew the back with my knife. I wanted to turn the lights on, but I couldn’t get the screws off.

“I was discouraged. I walked to the trailer and knocked. A man answered and I said, ‘We’re hiking and we ran out of water. There’s four of us. Can you help us?’ ”

“ ‘Well, the last guy that came through here was crawling,’ said the man. ‘You’re in pretty good shape. Come in.’

“I came inside,” said Larry, “and I was trying to tell him where they were. I kept spilling the water I was drinking. ‘I’m sorry,’ I would say. ‘I’m sorry I’m spilling water on your floor.’ And I kept staggering around like I was drunk.

“He asked me their condition and I told him they hadn’t had water since this morning. I think I worried him that they were dying.”

The man told Larry he would get his jeep. He said he knew where they were and that there was a road leading up to the grove of trees. The jeep wouldn’t start; the battery was dead. He told Larry not to worry because he could jump it, but that didn’t work. Larry was getting irritable and impatient. He had found help close by and the jeep wouldn’t start. “I could hear the cars driving by on the highway,” said Larry. “We could have made it if we hadn’t been so exhausted. It was embarrassing being so close to help.”

The man finally decided to take his Volkswagen Bug. They wouldn’t be able to go as far as the jeep, but they could make it to within a short walking distance. As they got closer to the grove Larry yelled out to his buddies. “I couldn’t remember anybody’s name but Ralph,” said Larry. “I kept yelling, ‘Ralph, we’re coming!’ ”

“In a shorter period than we expected, we heard a shout from the end of the valley,” recalled Steve. “It was Larry. We answered and were finally greeted by words which brought renewed life. ‘Hang on buddies! I’ll be there!’ Larry had reached help.”

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