Introduction ... A Painful Journey

                “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 yet again.

                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.