• Horsetail Falls Search - 1993
On September 25, 1993 Search and Rescue volunteers responded to the Horsetail Falls trailhead on Highway 50 to search for David, a 30-year-old man from Yolo County.
The scenario was almost a rerun of the search for Rob and Haviva seven nights before. In fact, this was the third weekend that most of us had been on overnight searches in Desolation Wilderness. The "Midnight Search of the Week Club" was getting to be a pretty familiar bunch.
David and several companions had climbed the Horsetail Falls trail on Saturday the 24th. After reaching the top of the falls, David decided to rest at Ropi Lake while his friends climbed Pyramid Peak; they were to meet up again at Ropi that afternoon.
However, when his friends arrived at Ropi, David was gone. After waiting until nearly dark, the worried friends descended Horsetail Falls trail and called 911.
Deputy Paula Cotter met the friends at Twin Bridges and learned that David had little outdoor experience, was not familiar with the area, and was wearing only shorts and a short sleeved shirt. Temperatures in the area were forecast to be from 17 to 36 degrees overnight.
An hour later three hasty teams were heading into the wilderness. Two of the teams (four of us) started up rugged, 1300 foot Horsetail Falls. The moon had set, it was dark, and temperatures were approaching freezing.
As many people know, this "trail" degenerates into a steep, hand-over-hand climb around boulders and up steep rock faces. It is treacherous even in the daytime. Over the years several people have been killed. As we made the climb by flashlight, often the route seemed to disappear in the dark, and at some points we found ourselves walking gingerly along rock faces directly above the falls. When we made the 7400-foot crest at about 4 a.m, however, we still had everyone we started with.
We had initially hoped that David had joined up with some campers at one of the numerous lakes in the area, but a check of campsites did not find him. However, one lady (who was gracious despite being awakened at 5 am) did report that she saw David to the west of Ropi Lake, walking in a northwest direction and calling out a name as if looking for someone. It was the only break we got. All the other campers, although concerned and eager to help, had not seen David. Most were pessimistic about his chances.
We continued searching and calling David's name as night gradually turned to day. Strategic catnaps kept us going despite our lack of sleep.
About 9 am (I think) rescue helicopter "Longline 7" from Fallon Naval Air Station arrived and began flying around the valley.
It seemed like only a few minutes later when Missi yelled "Paul! Paul! They found him!" Longline 7 had spotted David near the top of the cliffs somewhat west of Horsetail Falls. He was jumping up and down and waving an orange canteen. Since there was no place for the chopper to land, they hitched David to the end of a short haul line. He got a the ride of his life dangling under the helicopter all the way to Camp Sacramento. He was uninjured after his night out, and very happy to be found.
We in the search teams had no such ride, of course, despite Doug Walker's over-the-air hints about being at a good LZ. (This confirms the First Rule of Search Theory: no findee, no ridee). So, it took the teams 2 or 3 hours to make our way down the hill on rubber legs. However, in the daytime everything about Horsetail falls is impressive and the views partially distracted me from my discomfort. Also, nearly everyone coming up the trail wanted to know about the search, so Missi and I passed a lot of time chatting with people. Believe me, we are appreciated.
David and his friends were very grateful, and stayed to greet and shake hands with each one of us. For me, one of the rewards of SAR is the gratitude from the people we help, and I thought it that was very considerate of them to offer their thanks in person.
Under "Lessons Learned", I wondered why the search teams didn't find David. I quickly realized it was the wrong question - they did find him. The helicopter was part of the search, too. However, the reason the GROUND teams didn't find David is that they were hasty teams, sent to check the most likely places where most lost people would be - in this case, with other campers or at a lake. But David hadn't done the most likely things.
What he had done, actually, was pass between two teams on his way back towards the falls in the morning. Search Management had planned for this possibility, but didn't yet have enough people to set up a trail block at the top of the falls: there were only seven people to cover about four square miles.
What if there was no helicopter? There seemed to be dozens of people going up and down the Horsetail Falls trail Saturday morning, and there is no doubt that David would have seen them, or been seen by them.
After the search ended, I caught a badly needed nap under the trees. Then we ate a simple but welcome meal at Twin Bridges, and headed home about 2 pm with another successful search to our credit.