[pct-l] Death on the PCT / John Joseph Donovan

dsaufley dsaufley at sprynet.com
Tue Jan 26 19:26:08 CST 2010


Since you have such an avid interest in this story, please let me offer
another piece of the chain of events. It is also somewhat cathartic for me
to write about this. John's friend from back east, who had only rudimentary
information on John's travel plans and no idea what numbers to call, wound
up contacting trail angels Pat and Paul down at Camp Anza. Pat called here
and asked if I had seen him (no) or if there was a box for him here (yes).
This type of call is fairly routine, and at that point there was still an
expectation that he would show up.

Days passed and Pat called once more, saying the person inquiring about John
called again and was getting frantic. John's friends knew that he had taken
the opportunity to meet with a cousin of his with whom he had maintained
regular correspondence for years.  He hadn't met face-to-face with this
cousin before coming to California for his hike. He did pay a visit to her
before attending the KO and starting the PCT. We hoped he had gone there.
This cousin was contacted, and she indicated that she had not seen or heard
from John since he'd started the trail.  She had not received recent
correspondence from him either, which was unusual and alarming. It was at
this point that Pat and I made calls to the Cabazon and Big Bear post
offices which revealed that he had not picked up his boxes at those
locations. John was clearly overdue, and that is when the alarm bells began
to ring loudly.  Pat called the USFS office (somewhere in the vicinity of
the San Jacintos, not sure which one), and she was told to the effect that
they had no idea, didn't handle that, and couldn't help.  

It was a challenging task on a Sunday morning to find out what jurisdiction
covered missing persons for the San Jacinto area.  This was complicated by
the fact that when the report was made, we did not know who had seen John
last, or where he was last seen. We only knew that he had not picked up his
boxes north of Warner Springs. After calls to agency after agency, the
"authority having jurisdiction" turned out to be the Riverside County
Sheriff. When they were contacted, they clearly did not comprehend the
gravity of the situation. Their policy was not get too excited over a
missing adult male. They literally said, "maybe he wants to be missing."
Missing day hikers and weekend backpackers were understandable to them, and
I suspect would have elicited immediate attention. But they did not
understand thru-hiking the PCT, someone not having a specific arrival date
at a trail head, or the depth of meaning of a hiker not picking up their
box. We all know that people outside of long-distance hiking circles do not
comprehend the whole world of long-distance hiking, and the nice fellows
manning the phones at the Sheriff's office were no different.  Persistence
and undoubtedly being very annoying produced the direct number of the
officer in charge of calling SARs. An impassioned plea was made directly to
him, but still a search was not called directly into action.  It wasn't
until one of John's friends from back home made the case to this officer
that the search was initiated.  The first official missing persons report
was made on a Sunday by me. The search was not started until the Thursday
morning that followed. It felt like eternity.

Posters were put up.  Everyone who arrived here at Hiker Heaven was asked if
they'd seen John, aka Seabreeze.  Those who had been well ahead of him had
never seen or heard of him.  There was an intense juxtaposition of oblivious
nobo hikers having the time of their lives, and the unfolding tragedy. When
the ADZ wave of hikers began to arrive, so did people who had seen him at
locations south weeks before.  There was a correlation between the arrival
date of hikers here, and the points northward where John had been seen. Many
had seen him at Warner Springs, in high spirits. Finally, by process of
questioning, those who had seen and camped with him last were identified.
They provided the details of their experience and map coordinates to the

It bothered me deeply that there was a delay in looking for John, and to an
extent still does. I was haunted by the fact that he'd been out there, and
might have been saved. When he wasn't found, it was clear he had met his
demise. The San Jacintos have claimed many victims, the area is vast and
extremely rugged and steep with breathtaking vertical exposure and long
runouts. It's famous for being icy in early season.  Some missing are simply
never found.  You probably know that while they were searching for John,
they found the skull of a missing hiker from years before.  Hopefully, that
brought some type of solace for that person's family.  It seemed to be
torturous for John's friends that they couldn't find him.  Then the tragedy
turned miracle when John's backpack and belongings saved the lives of the
couple who got lost in their "Palm Springs" clothes on a day hike from the
tram, an exact year to the day of John's farewell note. Only then did it
become clear from the date of John's notes that he had died before the
awareness of his absence was noticed, and certainly before the SAR was
called into action.  Circumstances being what they were, there was nothing
that any of us could have done that would have saved him.

Those are the facts as I remember them. I really appreciate your insights
into John's character and humanity. It helps to understand him in some tiny
way. It is my personal conclusion (not that it matters) that the entire
tragedy was preventable, and that the series of really bad choices up front,
combined with bad weather and challenging conditions on the trail, led to
John Donovan's untimely death. Another conclusion that I have drawn from
this experience is that he didn't make bad choices about his friends, as
they loved him so dearly. It's all so heart-wrenching.  It is a sincere and
lasting regret that I didn't get to have a chance to know him, too, but
then, I would probably want to smack him upside his head and ask, "What were
you thinking going out there so ill prepared???"  Unfortunately, it's a
question that should be put to far too many. If only my angel wings could
stretch as far as I wish they would.  


-----Original Message-----
From: pct-l-bounces at backcountry.net [mailto:pct-l-bounces at backcountry.net]
On Behalf Of Don Billings
Sent: Monday, January 25, 2010 5:49 PM
To: pct-l at backcountry.net
Subject: Re: [pct-l] Death on the PCT / John Joseph Donovan

I did some serious reading on the event and from what I read, nobody knew
what happened because the last people to see him
were headed down to shelter and merely advised him to do likewise as he
continued onward.

When he was found, his notes said that he had "taken a fall" and was unable
to climb out. It sounded as if he set camp after that.

As for having food, he wasn't prepared at all. He ate his final crackers
while camped. He had no food provisions to last him. In fact, that
was one of the sad aspects of the story. He celebrated his 60th birthday....
alone..... eating his last crackers.

He didn't start hiking out, either. They found his body about 150 feet from
his camp site and his notes indicated he was going for water. 
Someone else posted that the "water" was Hidden Creek. See pdf map file link

He did have matches left which were used by the (lost) couple who stumbled
across his camp. But maybe he died before he could use them. 
i.e. heavy wind / snow. The matches were found by the couple inside his
backpack buried within/within/within bags.

The sad part was that nobody knew where he was and his contacts back East
did not realize a problem for about 10 days... and he was dead by
then. They only realized he was in trouble when he failed to show up for
resupply and upon checking by phone with the post office. So, he was stuck
and he knew nobody was looking for him.

One person theorized that he saw the lights of Palm Springs below and
attempted to bushwhack downward. His fall may have actually broken a hip or
a leg so 
that he couldn't walk. They did the usual autopsy but I didn't see any news
item that reported after that aspect of the investigation. It would have
revealing to read that, yes, he had a severe broken bone which precluded him
from helping himself.

The link I'm posting here shows the area where the (lost) couple began their
own 4 day survival episode. They intended to merely hike a 1.5 mile tourist
which is directly outside of the Palm Springs Aerial Tram and then
intentionally went off trail. So, you can see where they started... and they
across Donovan's camp on their second day of being lost. 


Even the (lost) couple were in trouble despite attempting a common self
rescue tactic of following a creek down hill. They were blocked, as was
Donovan, at a steep "gorge." 

I think that there are lessons to be learned from this story, too. Thats one
reason I posted it. When I was young, I never used to think about the risks
of doing something solo... until I found myself in scary situations. :)
Now, I wish I could hike solo, but its just safer not to. Just like scuba
diving... it better to not be alone.

----- Original Message ----
From: Tortoise <Tortoise73 at charter.net>
To: Pct-l at backcountry.net
Sent: Mon, January 25, 2010 4:06:50 PM
Subject: Re: [pct-l] Death on the PCT / John Joseph Donovan

As I recall from the accounts, John had stopped and made camp. He still 
had food and supplies including matches. He could have stayed in his 
camp to wait out the storm. But for some reason he left camp and started 
hiking to ???.

To me an important lesson from this affair is that if you are lost in 
bad weather and camped, stay put in camp until better weather. Then 
signal for help as soon as you can get to someplace where others may see 

Even if you are just lost, really lost, stay put. Staying put makes it 
easier for people to find you.

At least long enough for STOPA.  Sit, think, options, plan, action.

We don't know what John Donovan was thinking nor why he left camp. 
Possibly hypothermia.


Because truth matters"

Don Billings wrote:
> Paul,
> I agree that turning back would have been the prudent thing to do in
John's case. From what I read, though, he routinely 
> hiked miles in the snow to and from work in his home state so he may have
simply had too much confidence in his ability.
> Nobody knows for sure what went wrong or WHEN it went wrong, but I suspect
he realized he made a mistake and then
> attempted to head for safety. Being without a compass and gps in the dark
and in a snow storm could have been his downfall. 
> Rather than being the most dangerous gear in his pack, he could have used
the backtrack feature to perhaps find his previous 
> location.
> In any case, his hiking without compass nor gps was a mistake. I even read
that the maps he had were of poor quality but I'm 
> not sure what maps were used. He was a poor man all of his life and
scrimped on everything. So, if he had photocopied maps, 
> that too may have been his downfall. When you read of his life, and his
low income (he didn't even have $$ for a phone at his 
> apartment)....  you have to cut him some slack. He finally found something
he could do on his income/retirement that he
> liked but he still had those lifelong habits of frugality..... but the one
thing, in my mind, that nobody should cheap out on
> is safety gear.
> The thing that struck me heavily was that after having a hard life
(parents gone by age 10, etc), he stated to friends that his
> lifelong fear in life was to die alone. So, imagine how he felt... in the
snow, injured, without food, nobody knowing where he was,
> no S&R initiated, and without the proper gear. The story just tugs at my
> ----- Original Message ----
> From: Paul Mitchell <bluebrain at bluebrain.ca>
> To: pct-l at backcountry.net
> Sent: Mon, January 25, 2010 1:00:42 PM
> Subject: Re: [pct-l] Death on the PCT / John Joseph Donovan
> With all due respect to the late Mr. Donovan, I'd chime in to say that
> more valuable than a compass and GPS in his situation would have been a
> of caution and sense.  John took on the San Jacinto stretch with
> gear, 3 feet of snow on the ground and foreknowledge that a storm was
> blowing in that night.  The other hikers who last met him had the sense to
> descent to Idyllwild to shelter from the inbound snowstorm, yet John
> to press on through serious snow into a high altitude snow storm.  
> If a compass and GPS gave you the confidence to enter a mountain range
> those conditions, than they just might be the most dangerous gear in your
> pack.
> - P178
> "This year the Idyllwild area has had its highest snow fall in 40 years,
> the area John was last seen in had approximately 3 ft. of snow and the
> weather report, (which John knew about) for that night was that a storm
> coming in. Other PCT hikers came into Idyllwild for shelter from the
> http://www.rmru.org/missions/2005/2005-017.html
> _______________________________________________
> Pct-l mailing list
> Pct-l at backcountry.net
> To unsubcribe, or change options visit:
> http://mailman.backcountry.net/mailman/listinfo/pct-l
> List Archives:
> http://mailman.backcountry.net/pipermail/pct-l/
> __________________________________________________
> Do You Yahoo!?
> Tired of spam?  Yahoo! Mail has the best spam protection around 
> http://mail.yahoo.com 
> _______________________________________________
> Pct-l mailing list
> Pct-l at backcountry.net
> To unsubcribe, or change options visit:
> http://mailman.backcountry.net/mailman/listinfo/pct-l
> List Archives:
> http://mailman.backcountry.net/pipermail/pct-l/
Pct-l mailing list
Pct-l at backcountry.net
To unsubcribe, or change options visit:

List Archives:

Pct-l mailing list
Pct-l at backcountry.net
To unsubcribe, or change options visit:

List Archives:

More information about the Pct-L mailing list