Lost in Willow Hole
April 15 tied the record for the most search and rescue incidents in a single day for the Joshua Tree Search and Rescue Team: four in 16 hours. It actually started the evening of April 14th, with an emergency callout for 5 lost hikers in the Willow Hole area. We should rename the area – give us your suggestions after you read its history.

There’s a hike described in multiple JT hiking guides that takes you from the the Boyscout Parking lot, north down the Boyscout Trail, then east to the Willow Hole Trail. After passing Willow Hole, you find the Wonderland Connector which leads you to the top of Rattlesnake Canyon, and out at Indian Cove. This season there were ten searches for lost hikers on this route.

One guide book gives it a “strenuous” rating. They apparently don’t have a “forgetaboutit” category. Don’t get me wrong. If you’re conditioned, experienced and well-equipped, it can be done. I estimate that more than 80% of the visitors who attempt this hike either turn back shortly after Willow Hole, or get lost and need a rescue.

Some of the difficulties are:

  • The Willow Hole Trail itself, that often gets washed out and hard to find and has confusing turns.
  • Finding the Wonderland Connector that looks on a topo map like a nice corridor between formations, but with smaller formations in the multitude of little canyons is very difficult to find.
  • The Connector itself, which includes more than a mile of giant boulder hopping and high fourth class travelling.

If you go in before 7AM with LOTS of water, a GPS, a compass, a topo map, shoes with sticky rubber, sun protection, survival supplies, two other hardbody friends and an attitude for adventure – you’re likely to have a great time and come out the other end in Indian Cove. Or at least you’ll come out somewhere near a road.

Back to April 15, 2012. If you happen to be in the right spot when you’re lost, and you can get up to the top of a formation, you might get cell reception. Five young men were in that spot the evening of the 14th, and made a 911 call. It resulted in a JOSAR callout, and the search was on. The incident continued through the night, until about 2PM on the 15th when they were located and lead out to safety. They did all the right things while being lost, and were in good shape.

Just after JOSAR finished their debrief and left the park, there was a second call from dispatch alerting us of two people hiking in the Willow Hole area who were lost and needed help. The second operation of the day began, and resulted just four hours later with the subjects of the search safe and sound in the parking lot.

Twenty minutes after the team left Boyscout parking for the second time that day, a call came in for a fallen climber at Hidden Valley. The climber was on Double Cross, a multi-starred classic responsible for more broken ankles than any other route in the park. As expected, a broken ankle, and he was helped off to the hospital.

The last call of the day was a pleasant one. Two older visitors were stuck in the park because their rental car’s ignition pushbutton wouldn’t work. JOSAR only had to call it in, reassure the visitors they would not be stranded overnight and wait for the tow truck to come (4 hours later). We were very tired by then, so a quiet talk with the visitors after sunset was a nice rest.

In addition to Willow Hole and Double Cross, there are several repeat “black holes” for incidents in the park. JOSAR has been involved in a long-term project to develop pre-plans for these areas for a quicker and more effective response. The planning done in the Willow Hole area has been resulting in faster and safer searches.

This last season JOSAR had 39 SAR callouts, 17 medical incidents and many visitor assists. The summer should be a bit quieter, and give us the time to build that garage.

Your idea for a new name for the Willow Hole-Wonderland Connector hike??