Ralph, the unofficial leader, told the others that it would be best to abandon earlier plans. They had not yet reached Rabbit Peak and they still had Villager Peak to climb before heading down to Fonts Point. If they had not the stamina to have done one peak today, would they be able to conquer two tomorrow? He criticized the way the water supply had been handled, and he was angry at Eric for having wasted a good hour of everyone’s energy and water. From here on out, the water would be rationed.
Since the canned goods had been eaten earlier, the dinner that night was fairly slim. They were feeling nauseous from the strenuous call on their bodies, so no one cared if he ate much. It was fortunate that Steve and Eric had brought an extra two gallons of water; they pooled their supply with Ralph and Larry and the water was divided to the ounce between them. Each was now responsible for making his share last by careful rationing. The next morning they were up before the sun rose and again food was a problem, which caused them to be sluggish and weak. They had only a breakfast bar apiece.
“The next rise was not so little as we had expected and we all felt as tired as we were the afternoon before,” said Steve. “When we got to the top rise, we were even more disappointed, for our path was much longer and much hillier than we had thought possible.”
Following animal trails to the top of Rabbit Peak, they found another message box. They stopped to look ahead of them and to look down. Each was down to a gallon of water, and they had to reach Fonts Point by nightfall. Being forced to hike up Toro Peak the first evening had severely changed the outcome of the trip. They were exhausted and they had a limited water supply. Normally a gallon of water would be plenty for most during the day; however, they were sweating out their moisture and they were exposed to the heat of the sun. In the mountains the temperature was about 85 degrees, but they knew that as they declined, the temperature could increase 10 or 20 degrees. It was either straight ahead on the same type of terrain they had been battling or straight down to the desert floor. They decided to drop to the floor as soon as possible. It was agreed that the next rise, Villager Peak, could not be assaulted.
They chose a ravine to descend the 6666 feet to the badlands. First appearances of the climb down had seemed easier than what it actually turned out to be. Gradually it became steeper, and huge rock formations with 50-foot drops would bar the way. They either had to take off their packs and hand them down like water buckets to a fire as each man found his own precarious foot- and handholds, or a way around had to be found. Coming down between two rocks, Eric slipped into a cactus. He fell with such force the spines penetrated deep. The curved end of each spine was like a curve in a whaling harpoon, and so they remained in his leg. As they continued to descend, the temperature rose, and when they reached the Borrego Badlands, some three hours from the top, the temperature had risen to 106 degrees. “We were amazed at the mountain we came down,” Steve recalled. “I would never have thought of climbing it from its appearance. I had almost fallen on numerous occasions and had plenty of cuts, scratches, and abrasions to prove it.”
“We were all exhausted,” Ralph added. “It was getting pretty bad, but we were all in good spirits. We didn’t anticipate the badlands, though.”
The Borrego Badlands are between the Santa Rosas and the desert floor. It is a plateau from which fat fingers of land, separated by miniature canyons, stretch out, sloping down to Clark Dry Lake. From the top of Rabbit Peak they had spotted a reflection at the south end of the dry lake. They picked a ravine that seemed to have the most direct route toward that reflection; it was the only thing different in the endless desert scenery of rock, sand, cactus, and scrub. From the top, the area surrounding the reflection was smooth and empty. They hoped it was an airport.
At the bottom of the Santa Rosas they now had less than two quarts of water between them. Each had conserved until the dryness of his mouth and the rising heat caused him to sip. Now, as they climbed down the ravine to the floor, they had to have water every once in a while. Sometimes the ravine was a sandy wash and other times they had to make several large drops, or they would jump from one boulder to another. “I could not depend on my legs after a ways,” said Steve. “They were rubbery…the going got slower and slower as I had to depend more and more on my arms. I couldn’t just leap from rock to rock.”
“When we had to jump from boulder to boulder, the whole weight of the backpack would hit your legs,” Ralph said. “We were getting really tired. Eventually we got spread out again, and we took lots of breaks waiting for everyone to group back together.
“The ravine got real discouraging as we kept making turns with no end,” he continued. “We’d go through one turn and we’d see two more. We go through those and see three more, then two, then one, and we would get our hopes up and then we’d see another turn.
“Larry and I lost voice contact with Steve and Eric. Finally, with the sun beating down on my head, I said to Larry, ‘This has to be the last turn,’ and sure enough it opened up to Clark Dry Lake. I spied a boulder as big as a house and I said, ‘Let’s go over here and wait.’ ”