“None of us thought we would die!”
My brother Ralph’s voice trembled, his eyes misted, as his thoughts traveled back fifty years. We stood in front of his dining room table, staring down at the stacks of memorabilia accumulated there.
Yellowed newspaper clippings; curled black and white photos; a 45-rpm phonograph record about lost Boy Scouts; and three pages
of penciled notes, scrawled by a traumatized 12-year-old. The relentless horror of what happened so long ago enveloped us
The hike had begun innocently
enough. On Saturday, November 15, 1958 Ralph and five other Tucson scouts escaped the comparative humdrum of daily desert
city life to embark on their very own thrilling mountain adventure. Just five years earlier, Sir Edmund Hillary, along with
Tenzing Norgay, had become the first human beings to summit the tallest peak on the planet. On this weekend in southern Arizona,
the climbing youths hungered for their own conquest of the highest mountain in their section of the world. Completely alone
and without adult caution, the boys exuberantly climbed the steep and rocky trail, intent on reaching its wild, knobby, windswept
top. Unnoticed, three miles above, an innocuous group of puffy clouds silently
crept into the expansive sky.
The boys’ goal
was an aloof, rugged peak officially named Mt. Wrightson, but affectionately referred to as either Old Baldy or Mt. Baldy.
Towering above the high forests of the Santa Rita Mountain Range just south of Tucson, Arizona, Mt. Baldy boasts 9,450 feet
in height, making it the tallest peak in the area and, thus, the most sought after goal of young and not so young mountain
hikers seeking the nearby challenge.
The Old Baldy wilderness
trail is strikingly picturesque as it winds its way first through densely wooded lower slopes and then onto the rocky crags
in the higher reaches of the mountain. With the tightly packed, tall trees and tangled undergrowth, it is a pleasant contrast
from the hot, dry desert below. Along the continually twisting mountain path,
one can be distracted with ease by the spectacular views stretching over fifty miles across the entire valley to the other
mountain ranges encircling Tucson. Halfway up, as the path crosses Josephine
Saddle, hikers also catch breathtaking glimpses of Nogales and Mexico to the south.
While the hike is somewhat
challenging, the trail ordinarily is not considered to be a dangerous one. Overheating and lack of water are the usual concerns
of southern Arizona hikers. Blizzards and arctic weather are unheard of in the mild desert autumn, even at these heights. The weather forecast that morning was good.
By all accounts, it was a perfect day for hiking.
Three of the Boy Scouts
in the group were celebrating their birthdays in November and had forged a youthful pact to reach the top of this peak that
day. Great excitement dominated the boys’ moods as they began their climb. Zigzagging vigorously up the thickly wooded
trail, the sounds of their high jinks and boisterous chatter filled the air. Two
of the boys sprinted ahead to hide in the bushes, figuring to scare the others as they rounded the corkscrew bend. But, no
one was the least bit frightened or surprised. There was nothing to be afraid
of that afternoon. Only fun could be ahead.
Along the way, the boys
began to notice massive clouds that had dropped quietly down from high above and darkened while clustering and swirling around
the mountaintop. The scouts, however, were intrigued rather than alarmed by the unusual cloud pattern. Stopping to stare at them, Ralph thought, “It’s looking a little spooky.” But, not realizing the incipient danger these clouds posed to him and his friends, Ralph only wanted to
climb up even more. His fascination with experiencing what it would be like to “walk into the clouds” overcame
any apprehension of what they could mean. The looming peak tantalized them with its seeming closeness, mesmerizing and propelling
their young bodies upwards toward their quest.
As the day wore on, unfortunately
so did the boys. Closing in on their goal, the trail had become even steeper. Leg muscles began to scream. Gazing at sheer drop-offs of 200 to 300 feet, the boys’
pace slowed. While the air was definitely getting cooler, the wind had also picked up a bit. Unexpectedly, conditions on the
high mountain slopes were deteriorating. On their ever-frequent rest stops, the scouts began to feel the cold creeping beneath
their light jackets.
Yet, the group doggedly
continued to slog up, lifting one weary leg up after another on this seemingly endless, upward climb that was becoming excruciatingly
difficult for the younger boys. The intense muscle strain inevitably took its toll on the youngest and least experienced of
the group. Complaining about his painful blisters, the eleven-year-old, Ronnie,
protested that he simply could not go any farther.
Lou, the oldest at sixteen,
suggested that Ronnie sit down and wait by the trail for them to return. He fervently reassured Ronnie that the rest of them
would only hike up just a bit more and would return soon. At first, the little
scout agreed. But, as Ronnie watched his friends disappearing around the next
switchback, leaving him by himself on a darkening, desolate trail, he quickly changed his mind. The enormity of what was happening to the novice scout on his very first hike must have hit him like a
sledgehammer. He called out. He
beseeched his friends not to leave him alone. Trailing the group, Lou heard Ronnie’s
cry and hesitated.
Glancing around at the
other scouts, Lou puzzled over the dilemma. About an hour of daylight remained. Shadows were slithering across the trail.
How far were they from the top? The peak looked deceptively close. Should they
quit? No one else wanted to. There could be a rainstorm brewing. Lou agonized
about what to do. His eyes lighted on twelve-year-old Ralph. To Lou, Ralph also seemed to be tiring.
At the outset, the scouts’
simple plan to climb to the top had become flawed. With a late start up the trail around 1 p.m., prospects for achieving the
top before nightfall were slim. Most experts would anticipate a four-to-five
hour hike for average hikers to reach the top. In the late fall, the sun
set around 5:30 p.m. With an even slower pace, the ticking clock worked rapidly
against these youngsters. But even more disturbing, the young kids made the ill-fated
mistake that many older, more experienced mountain hikers had fatally made on their hikes.
The carefree, happy-go-lucky scouts had made no agreed upon turnaround time to stop and descend to their base camp
The six of them were
completely on their own. Lou and his friend and companion, Mike, had been alone
before on many weekend hiking trips together. But, the complexion of this trip
was different. The two older boys were saddled with the responsibility of four
additional youngsters between the ages of eleven and thirteen. For two of these
young ones, this was their first hike. As a result, the hike had gone much slower
than expected. Rest stops were becoming more and more frequent. No one had planned
on being high on the mountain after dark. Their overnight gear was sitting three miles back at their base camp, two thousand
feet below them. If caught in the upper elevations at night, the scouts had little
to protect them from the weather. There were no adults present or nearby. Mike’s
father had dropped them off that Saturday morning and wouldn’t return until Sunday to pick them up. Most, if not all of the other parents, thirty-five miles away in Tucson, believed these boys were out on
an adult-supervised scout hike. Moreover, the scouts had seen no one either ascending
or descending the otherwise popular trail all that afternoon.
With darkness approaching,
there were just two flashlights to share among the six scouts climbing single file up the narrow, sharpening incline. Time and danger for the unaware scouts began to race towards each other.
What happened next set
into motion a spiraling chain of compelling events that resulted in one of the most haunting tragedies in Southern Arizona
history. The unsuspecting youngsters were about to be hit with a
ferocious blast of arctic air, coming out of nowhere, bringing a deadly monstrous storm that delivered one of the largest
and earliest recorded snowfalls in southeastern Arizona history. Within twenty-four
hours, the mountains were smothered with three to seven feet of snow. An ordinary daylight adventure had dissolved and re-emerged
into a brutal struggle for survival. What had seemed to be a harmless decision or a simple mistake morphed into the difference
between who lived and who died.
As Arizonans learned
of the boys’ desperate situation unfolding up in the mountains, they volunteered in droves to save them. The extraordinary search was the stuff of legends. Old grizzled cowpokes; young athletic hikers; explorer
scouts; high school football players; cops off the street; recreational skiers; bloodhound handlers; amateur pilots; soldiers;
airmen; ham radio operators from all across the country; and just plain folks joined forces. Over seven hundred and fifty
souls in all assembled for the largest manhunt ever for lost persons in that state. Braving difficult terrain; enduring sub-zero
temperatures; fighting their way through chest deep snow; they risked their very lives to reach the boys in time.