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October 2006

Lost & Found

John Donovan disappeared in a high-elevation blizzard, leaving rescuers and friends stumped. But his backpack contained a miracle clue.

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 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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