Sunday, June 6, 2010

How the lost hiker got to the desert tram station

Richard Wong, 23, of Valencia and a college student in San Francisco, confounded Riverside County Sheriff’s Department (RCSD) searchers and all probabilities by turning exhaustion into a prodigious physical feat.

On Monday, May 31, Wong began hiking with several friends from Humber Park to what searchers believed was Tahquitz Peak. Around noon, short of the Saddle, Wong told his friends he was not feeling well, was experiencing extreme exhaustion and was going to head back to Humber. He never arrived.

At 3:30 a.m. Tuesday June 1, RCSD mobilized Riverside Mountain Rescue Unit, who, along with Desert Search and Rescue and an RCSD helicopter unit, combed the area from the top of the Palm Springs Aerial Tram to Humber and Tahquitz. Late Tuesday, at around 6:00 p.m., 32 hours after beginning his hike, Wong was sited by desert station Tram personnel in a canyon, under Tram towers, directly above the station. Officials hiked up and escorted him down.

How does a man who is too exhausted to go on after less than two hours on a trail, find the stamina and sure footedness to safely navigate his way to the peak. and then down the treacherous north face of Mt. San Jacinto, a descent that has beckoned to and broken other hikers?

“Tuesday was my mother’s birthday,” said Wong by telephone, “and I wanted to make sure not to worry her.” Wong then recounted his odyssey.

After his friends went on, Wong rested, then, feeling better, decided to start after them, but not to Tahquitz, as searchers initially believed, but to the peak of Mt. San Jacinto. And although Wong encountered other hikers and even a park ranger, neither search team nor RCSD’s helicopter ran into him because they weren’t searching where he was heading.

Wong said he got to the summit about sundown, and because it was still snowy there, realized he needed to hike out of the snow. “I thought I’d hike back to Humber, but the dark and the thickness of the trees convinced me I needed to stop for the night,” he said. Wong had on a t-shirt, basketball shorts and tennis shoes. “I also had a jacket and that pretty much saved me,” he said.

The next morning, at sunrise, Wong saw that he was still on the ridgeline and that the cables of the Tram were off to his right. He decided to follow the cables down to the desert station. “Ten decently sized hills turned out to be 80 or 90 with vertical drop offs,” re remembered. “I followed a little creek, with snow runoff, down the mountain. It looked shorter and a lot easier on a map.”

Wong said it took him 10 hours to get down the precipitous north face. “It was a bad guess and a bad gamble,” he acknowledged.

Many hikers lost and desperate hikers have looked from the ridgeline to the lights and civilization of Palm Springs below and decided to make the descent. Wong is one of the lucky few that made it on his own.

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