Their plan was to start at Toro Peak, in the Santa Rosa Mountains just north of Borrego Springs, hike along the mountainous spine over Rabbit Peak and Villager Peak, then down through Rattlesnake Canyon to Fonts Point at the intersection of Highway S-22, a distance of about 30 miles. Four friends, two of them brothers, were taking enough food and water on their backs for a three-day hike. The journey was expected to be rough; supposedly there were no trails or water. They were only following the directions planned out by Ralph, who had read about this hike in a desert publication. The brothers, Steve and Eric, not taking the advice of their friends, decided to carry four gallons of water each, an extra gallon of water apiece. It was to be prophetic obstinacy. But now their packs weighed almost 60 pounds — 30 pounds of that being water.
It was arranged for a friend to drive them up to Toro Peak and for Ralph’s brother to pick them up at Fonts Point. In back of the pickup, they passed around sipping whiskey to key down the windy ride. Two miles off Highway 74, up toward Toro Peak, the truck overheated, and their friend decided it would be better to let them off there rather than risk engine damage by continuing. Before leaving, they shared several beers while staring at the night and talking about tomorrow’s hike up Toro Peak. They figured it was probably another five or six miles. After the beer was gone, so was their ride. They slipped on their packs and walked up the road about a mile and then it was time to camp.
Next morning they were up early. It was a tough climb up while getting adjusted to their heavy packs and their booty that hadn’t seen a trip in the last few months. Larry had brought cans of fruit juice and was freely giving them away to lighten his pack. Their philosophy was that the canned items weighed so much it was better to use up those first.
Later that afternoon they reached the piñon pine forest of Toro Peak and they stopped to rest. While roaming around free of his backpack, Ralph found an old long-handled axe covered in pine needles. He told his friends he planned to return for the ancient axe and he buried it again under the mulch.
Having reached the forest, the crest of Toro Peak, they started hiking down as originally planned. There were no trails, just open spaces through the forest. About two miles farther along they came upon a clearing and saw a deer. They dropped their packs again, this time to view below them the desert floor and their destination. Coming up Toro Peak, they had used more water than planned, but the packs were lighter and this helped. The day was warm, in the mid 80s, and they were experiencing Santa Ana winds. Near this clearing they found a campsite for the night. “We were dropped five miles below where we should have started,” Steve recalled. “We had to spend the next morning catching up to where we should have been the first night. The next morning we got a fairly early start. The packs were getting noticeably lighter.”
That second night and the following morning they had begun eating the heavier items in their packs. A lot of canned goods had been brought; because of the prospect of finding no water, it wasn’t conceivable to bring dehydrated foods. But the trip seemed poorly planned. The packs were heavy and the terrain rough. That morning they had a wide area of brush to cross before reaching Rabbit Peak, the first of two peaks they had to cross before heading down to Fonts Point. The brush was so thick it took close to an hour to make one mile. “Following directions from an article I read by a guy who did this same hike, we found a bandage box in a rock cairn,” said Ralph. (A cairn is a pile of rocks indicating a landmark or message.) “Inside the bandage box were pieces of paper, a pencil, and some old messages, some dating back to 1971. The guy whose article I read made a message concerning the lack of water in the area.”
The hike took them up and down steep inclines. The area was very rugged, but the unbroken silence, except for their own footsteps, made the terrain enthralling. Since they had left their ride at Highway 74, they had not met a single person, and nothing touched them except warm breezes and the occasional thorny outreach of a “Spanish dagger,” which would block their way. The wind was blowing toward them, which allowed sights of deer grazing on scrub. Eric, who had been wearing only tennis shoes, was lagging behind, and with everyone pushing forward to make up lost time and miles, he was soon out of sight.
Steve decided to trail back and look for him. Larry and Ralph waited, but a half an hour passed and no one came back. Larry called for Steve but no one answered. Ralph was worried. He was concerned about conserving the remaining water, and this minor manhunt was wasting valuable energy. Ralph and Larry decided to split up and look for them. Soon Larry came upon Eric and later they found Steve a little way below.
They climbed one more hill before stopping for the day. Their bodies ached with exhaustion. It felt good to unlace the boots and rub out the soreness. All agreed they must have done 15 miles that day, but it felt better for having made up a bit of the schedule. Just over the next rise the path to the end of the journey would be seen. “At the end of the second day we were a little concerned about water,” recalled Ralph. “It had been harder than we expected. We found a nice rock ledge to camp on that night. It overlooked the desert from all angles. We could see Palm Springs, the north end of the Salton Sea, Borrego Springs, Clark Dry Lake, Anza, and Palomar Mountain. A fantastic view in all directions. Near us was Rabbit Peak, some 6600 feet high.”