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Backpacker Magazine – October 2006

Lost & Found

John Donovan disappeared in a high-elevation blizzard, leaving rescuers and friends stumped. His backpack contained a miracle clue. Bill Donahue investigates.

by: Bill Donahue


Padgett said that once, when Donovan was hiking alone on icy snow in Poland's Tetra Mountains, Donovan had slipped and went careening down a long, glazed slope. Two other hikers had died in the area that same day, as Donovan told it, but he'd survived because the cord on his windpants snared a bush, arresting his slide. "He called those his lucky pants," Padgett says. "He wore them everywhere."

In the Mojave, Donovan accidentally left his lucky pants at a motel. He soon became obsessed with the loss. "One windy night in camp, I set up my tent and got in," Padgett says. "John was still out there struggling to set up that little tarp of his, so I yelled to him, 'Hey, comrade, how's that tarp treating you?'"

"The damn wind's blowing it all over the place," Donovan hissed, "and I don't even have my lucky pants."

A couple of days later, though, in the town of Warner Springs, the tables turned. Now, Padgett was frustrated. His feet were so swollen that he had to quit hiking after just 100 miles. Yet Donovan was jubilant. "Guess what, comrade," he exclaimed, waltzing out of the post office. "The guy at the motel sent me my pants–and he paid the postage!"

The euphoria was short-lived. From there on, Donovan would hike alone, into the clutches of a powerful storm.

San Jacinto, the first major mountain that north-bound PCT thru-hikers encounter, is a cragged giant rising from the desert floor 60 miles beyond Warner Springs. Everest-bound diehards frequently train on its north face, which is among the nation's steepest escarpments, climbing more than 10,000 feet in just 7 miles. Those mountaineers frequently mingle with ultra-runners and PCT hikers on the bald, rocky peak.

But Mt. San Jacinto also has a broader appeal. The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, located just up the road from the resorts and golf courses of Palm Springs, climbs to an 8,500-foot mountain plateau in about 15 minutes, delivering tourists to two restaurants, a lounge, and a gift shop near the summit. On May 6, 2006, a warm Saturday, two young Texans were among visitors looking for a view with their cocktails. Brandon Day, 28, and Gina Allen, 24, had met on MySpace.com a few weeks before, and Day, a financial advisor from Dallas, had taken Allen along to a conference at a resort in Palm Desert.

Neither had been so high in the mountains before. In shorts and tennis shoes, holding a digital camera, they strolled to a creek and, in the giddy throes of new romance, pelted each other with snowballs. They were also a little hung-over, the aftereffects of a gala at the resort. And so they were not too sharp of mind that afternoon as they drifted down a path, away from the tram, and away from all things familiar.

By the time Donovan began climbing Mt. San Jacinto on May 2, 2005, the signs of danger were legion. Snow was 3 feet deep up high, and meteorologists were predicting a heavy storm. Many thru-hikers elected to wait out the weather in Idyllwild, accessible via an easy 2.4-mile path branching west from an intersection called Saddle Junction.

These hikers feared the storm would hit as they were climbing Fuller Ridge, a steep, rocky spine rising to 8,725 feet about 5 miles north of Saddle Junction. Around noon on May 3, when three well-equipped hikers whipped down that ridge and encountered Donovan, they warned him that they'd seen clouds sweeping in. "But we weren't going to change his mind," says Brian Barnhart, a Pittsburgh-based metallurgist. "He was emphatic about going up Fuller Ridge."



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Somanath sethi
Jun 25, 2012

John j. Donovan was a true marine. Rest in peace john

Anonymous
Jun 03, 2012

it still hurts...

audra
May 17, 2012

Rest in Peace John Joseph Donovan. You are missed by so many, and will live on in the hearts and memories of those of us who knew, or knew of you.

k
Apr 04, 2012

ya I agree I also dont understand why if John donavan was such A big part of them surviving,why he didnt get recognized more,He evidently went through way more than mutt and jeff did.stay on the path dumby,thats what its for.

k
Apr 04, 2012

ya I agree I also dont understand why if John donavan was such A big part of them surviving,why he didnt get recognized more,He evidently went through way more than mutt and jeff did.stay on the path dumby,thats what its for.

Chris
Jan 12, 2012

Saw him on date from hell I shouldn't be alive

tarnish
Nov 14, 2011

this is a very touching story.
im glad to have encountered it

Hiker2011
Nov 06, 2011

The more hikers I meet, the more I am astonished to learn that many cannot read a topo map well, or even read that compass that they carry.

Yet they chant their misinformed, wrong headed, opinions that the PCT is "too well marked" for hikers to get into trouble.

If you don't know how to navigate, start practicing. Learning to use a compass is actually pretty easy once you wrap your thoughts around it.

A compass is considered the FIRST tool of navigation. The gps is considered the SECOND, or plan B, tool to use.

In a white out blizzard, you can't see. But you can use that compass (or gps) to find your way to some sort of safety such as a hut, or tool shed, or descending trail so that you don't have to bushwhack and die like Mr. Donovan.

Don't run your mouth and be the fool. If you can't navigate, great, but don't chant to others that they should risk their safety to satisfy your own foolish lack of skills.

Sean Jenk
Sep 27, 2011

Ozzy B. are you serious? Your funny! You said, "you go girl!" in response to hearing they broke up? It was two years later you moron! I almost think your comments were more shocking than that incredible story. My Gosh you suck.

Sean Jenk
Sep 27, 2011

Ozzy B. are you serious? Your funny! You said, "you go girl!" in response to hearing they broke up? It was two years later you moron! I almost think your comments were more shocking than that incredible story. My Gosh you suck.

mel
Aug 04, 2011

This is the stupidest episode yet. Gina Allen was worried about her bad breath?! This is simply natural selection at play.

marc
Apr 13, 2011

I watched that episode of "shouldn't be alive", and i have to concur. they should call that installment "almost to dumb to survive".

marc
Apr 13, 2011

"Though he trekked 4,000 miles a year, he was in some ways an amateur."

Is there such a thing as a proffesional "Hiker"?

Scott
Feb 28, 2011

Very interesting and intriguing story. Jon Krakauer, where are you? There is a book to be written here.

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