A long, cold night of rescues on Mount San Jacinto's Skyline Trail ended happily at about 1:30 a.m. Friday, officials said. All told, two hikers and two state park workers were moved off the icy slopes by Riverside County Sheriff's deputies who navigated a helicopter in dark, dangerous terrain to airlift out a state park ranger, and hiked in to rescue the other three.
"It was pretty amazing," said Mike Dippel, chief ranger for the Inland Empire district of state parks, who also had firm warnings for would-be winter hikers.
The ordeal began shortly after 5 p.m. Thursday, as the sun was setting and temperatures plunged toward freezing. A man and woman, both in their sixties, called the state park's local office via cell phone to say they were not dressed in winter clothing and were struggling in icy conditions on the Skyline Trail, near the crest of the mountain just below 8,000 feet. They had hiked up from the valley floor near Palm Springs and were not adequately dressed or equipped, Dippel said.
"There's about a foot of ice and icy snow up there right now," he said. "There's not a lot of slush, it's really icy conditions."
A park ranger and wilderness aide hiked out to retrieve them, but the ranger "slipped on ice and fell about 100 feet down the side of the mountain," said Dippel. The sheriff's mountain rescue unit and an aviation unit were dispatched about 6:36 p.m. said sheriff's spokesman Sgt. Deanna Pecoraro.
"One of the State Park employees was first hoisted to safety by our rescue 9 helicopter. The employee was transported to a local hospital for medical treatment of minor injuries," said Pecoraro in an email.
"The conditions were not easy, it was dark and icy, and they did a fantastic job," said Dippel. "They got the ranger up the mountain and then down to an ambulance. He's got minor injuries, no broken bones; he's doing fine."
The wilderness aide, who'd brought in warm gear for the hikers, stayed with the stranded hikers and comforted them, said Dippel. "They were in a bad spot on the mountain, so they hunkered down and waited."
The sheriff's mountain unit hiked toward them and "after a few hours, were able to safely move the other employee and two hikers to safety. No injuries were reported," said Pecoraro.
"They were in good spirits and good condition when the search and rescue team arrived," said Dippel.
The Palm Springs Tramway was also kept running after hours by crews and security personnel to ferry rescuers to the top and bring the rescued hikers and workers down, he said. The last car down for the public on Thursdays normally leaves at 6 p.m.
Hikers who want to tackle the trail need to be ready, warned Dippel. That means being aware of how much daylight time they'll have, and the temperature changes they'll encounter on a hike with 8,000-feet plus of elevation change. Warm winter clothing, adequate water, and crampons or shoes with spikes for tackling ice are a must.
"Safety is huge. People need to be careful," he said. "When you're at the base of the mountain, it's Palm Springs weather, it could be 75 or 80 degrees. When you get toward the top, it's literally another world. You're in high-altitude wilderness areas that look like the Sierra Nevada, and some people just aren't prepared for that."
Janet Wilson can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @janetwilson66
Jonathan Horwitz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article originally appeared on Palm Springs Desert Sun: State park workers, hikers rescued near Palm Springs Tram