After five long days of waiting for Eric Desplinter and Gabrielle Wallace to emerge from the San Gabriel Mountains, their families are beginning to lose hope. There has so far been no sign of the missing hikers anywhere, and by now the couple’s limited supplies will surely be used up. But then a search team discover a pair of footprints leading off the trail…
The San Gabriel Mountains are located in Southern California, straddling the counties of Los Angeles and San Bernardino. The dramatic range is actually often considered to be the scenic “backyard” of the metropolis of L.A. And so the location has become a popular hiking spot for the city’s estimated four million residents as well as for visitors from further afield.
Yet the San Gabriel Mountains are more than just a recreational destination; they also serve a very important function. That’s because the range is Los Angeles’ proverbial faucet, supplying the city with a third of its water for drinking. In 2014, in fact, then-president Barack Obama awarded the 350,000-acre site national monument status.
But despite being close neighbors to one of the biggest cities in the United States, the San Gabriel Mountains are also home to a variety of wildlife. Species that inhabit the range include the spotted owl, the coyote and the mountain lion, for instance. A group of endangered desert bighorn sheep live in the area, too, and are experiencing a resurgence thanks to conservation work.
Aside from wildlife, though, the San Gabriels also boast a rugged landscape of undulating peaks and canyons – making the area a challenge for hikers to explore. The highest point in the range is actually Mount Baldy, which stands at over 10,000 feet. There are dozens of other mountains for adventurers to get stuck into as well.
And thanks to the varied climate that the San Gabriels enjoy, there are many recreational activities on offer in the area. In the colder months, for instance, snowfall on the highest points of the range allows for a number of winter sports, including skiing and snowboarding. In more temperate weather, though, visitors can partake in walking, canyoneering, camping and picnicking.
Yet while the San Gabriel Mountains appear to offer something for everyone – regardless of fitness or outdoor experience – that’s not to say that the range can’t be a dangerous place. It’s not unheard of for climbers to fall or find themselves stuck, for instance – or simply become lost on a rugged outcrop.
For these types of eventualities, then, a number of search-and-rescue teams operate throughout the San Gabriel Mountains. But volunteers aren’t able to rescue everyone who may come into trouble, of course. And unfortunately, on some rare occasions, people don’t make it off the range alive.
One particularly tragic incident occurred in February 2019 and involved 38-year-old Ernesto Alonzo Rodriguez of Thousand Oaks, CA. Rodriguez had been exercising with friends in the San Gabriel range when he slid on some ice and toppled over a steep ridge. And sadly, he didn’t survive the subsequent 200-foot plummet.
In another shocking incident, 67-year-old Michael J. Yoo fell to his death while out walking with his hiking club in 2017. The Gardena, CA, resident actually slipped on ice while traversing Islip Saddle. And while firefighters were called, the teams struggled to reach the isolated location, which is around 7,000 feet above sea level. When the authorities got there, in fact, they found Yoo dead – plus four injured hikers, who had also reportedly tried to help their friend.
And the San Gabriels were rocked by another worrying incident in April 2019. It was then, you see, that two hikers mysteriously went missing in the ranges while attempting to climb Cucamonga Peak. Standing at more than 8,800 feet, the mountain is one of the tallest in the area.
The individuals in question are Eric Desplinter and his hiking buddy Gabrielle Wallace. Wallace’s mother, Brenda, would later identify Desplinter as her daughter’s boss, according to CBS Los Angeles. The pair are said to have been in the San Gabriel Mountains with two other coworkers, training for a hike that they were intending to complete later in the month.
Desplinter, Wallace and their colleagues had reportedly set off on their expedition of Cucamonga Peak on the morning of April 6. They had apparently expected the round trip – including a 4,000-foot ascent – to take approximately ten hours. Halfway through the hike, however, the group seemingly experienced an unexpected setback.
You see, it was at this point that Desplinter and Wallace’s coworkers reportedly became worried about the safety of the route. Seemingly sensing danger ahead, the pair apparently turned back, leaving their two companions to complete the hike alone. The group had supposedly agreed to meet up later back at their vehicle. But as the hours passed, there was no sign of Desplinter or Wallace.
Then darkness fell – and Desplinter and Wallace still hadn’t returned from the mountain. As a result, their friends began to grow more and more concerned. And so they decided to alert authorities to the pair’s disappearance. A search-and-rescue mission was subsequently launched, and teams began hunting 19,000 acres of hazardous terrain for any clues to the hikers’ whereabouts.
At this early stage in the disappearance, though, it no doubt comforted Desplinter’s and Wallace’s loved ones to know that the hikers had at least been well-equipped for their expedition. Desplinter, in particular, has been described as having considerable hiking experience. Plus, he had reportedly served in the National Guard and spent time in Afghanistan.
Wallace, meanwhile, had seemingly put a lot of preparation into her upcoming hiking trip, too. Her mom told CBS Los Angeles in April 2019 that her daughter had even bought new equipment especially for the expedition. Plus, the woman felt that Wallace was in good hands with Desplinter. “I know he wouldn’t leave her,” she explained. “And she wouldn’t leave him.”
But nevertheless, Desplinter’s and Wallace’s families presumably grew extremely worried as hours turned to days with still no sign of their loved ones. In fact, Desplinter’s mother, Karen Ziebarth, and his brother, Tim, flew from their homes in Iowa to California the day after the hikers had been declared missing in order to be closer to the search efforts.
Meanwhile, choppers circled above the San Gabriel Mountains, and dozens of rescuers searched the range on foot, desperately hoping to find a clue. But once again, their efforts came to no avail. And soon, Desplinter and Wallace were facing what would have been their second night on the mountain – if indeed they’d been able to last this long at all.
When the hunt entered its third day, Desplinter’s mom and brother arrived in Mount Baldy – a community in the San Gabriel Mountains. And there, they were reportedly welcomed with sympathy and kindness from the local residents. The sheer amount of people that they saw taking part in the rescue efforts made the family feel more positive, too.
Desplinter’s sister, Nikki Deardorff, told The Des Moines Register in April, “Morale was high. The locals were providing so much heartfelt support for my mom and my brother… It was so uplifting to know that these strangers, who don’t even know [Desplinter and Wallace], are giving everything to find people that we love.”
As day three drew to an end, however, Desplinter’s family felt their fears beginning to take over. And the following day, they became alarmed to see that bad weather was hampering the search efforts. Less people turned up to help, for one thing, while some of the search efforts were called off entirely due to low visibility.
At this point, Desplinter’s family found themselves at their lowest ebb. With still no sign of their loved one and his friend, and with all attempts to contact them having come to no avail, they were left to fear the worst. “The weather was such a reflection of how my family was feeling on the mountain that day,” Desplinter’s sister, Deardorff, told The Des Moines Register. “[We were] very desperate to find him.” But time was running out.
Then, the following evening – on the fifth day of the search – there came a startling development. While scouring the mountain, you see, rescuers came across a pair of footprints leading off a trail in the Cucamonga Canyon area. They therefore informed their group and began following the prints in the hope that they might lead them to the lost hikers – or at least some evidence as to what might have happened to them.
While the search team followed the footprints at ground level, a helicopter also flew above in an attempt to spot any clues that might hint at Desplinter and Wallace’s whereabouts. And it was from the skies that rescuers suddenly spotted a campfire flickering in the darkness – and huddling around it, the two missing hikers. Remarkably, Desplinter and Wallace were alive, and they were subsequently airlifted to safety.
Following the rescue, Desplinter and Wallace were taken to Mount Baldy fire station where they underwent medical examinations. And there, the pair were also reunited with their presumably very relieved loved ones. Later that night, Depslinter told CBS News reporters, “We’re very grateful to be found tonight. I’m ready to get to bed and get some rest.”
Meanwhile, Desplinter’s sister, Deardorff, was en route to the San Gabriels to help her family with the search. And just after she had touched down, she heard the news that her brother had been found. “I think I cried more when I found out that he was alive rather than hearing the news of him being missing,” she told The Des Moines Register. “The news of him being alive – that was true happiness.” So, what exactly had happened to the hiking duo?
Well, Desplinter revealed that his hiking partner, Wallace, had slid on an icy patch of ground as they’d been making their way to the summit of Cucamonga Peak on the first day. She’d plummeted over 100 feet, in fact, coming to a stop in some mountainside scrub. The fall had left Wallace with gashes to her legs and hands. And as a result, she and Desplinter had decided to call off their ascent.
Instead, Desplinter and Wallace went in search of somewhere from which they could make a call for a ride back down the mountain. “We just lost the trail and had a little bit of a slip going to the peak of Cucamonga Peak and decided we wouldn’t go back up the ice and snow,” Desplinter told KABC just after being rescued. “So, we tried to descend through a valley. But that valley was more treacherous than we thought.”
The route that Desplinter and Wallace had chosen turned out to be a whole lot riskier than the path they’d left, in fact. And as a result, they spent the next four days scaling rocks and hazardous terrain with no cellphone service to help contact the outside world. The hikers seemingly felt that they had little option but to keep going – and hope that they’d somehow manage to escape the range. But there had also been a chance that they wouldn’t make it out of there alive.
This terrifying thought didn’t deter Desplinter and Wallace, however. If anything, in fact, it spurred them on. And the hikers became the masters of their own destinies. “We didn’t anticipate that we were [going to] be rescued. At the end of day one, we knew where we needed to go — and we were [going to] do it,” Desplinter told The Des Moines Register.
But Desplinter and Wallace’s descent down the canyon wasn’t a walk in the park. After all, the pair had eaten most of their snacks on the first day – apart from four energy bars. They’d also used up all of their clean water. This meant that they had to drink from streams through a filtering LifeStraw for the remainder of their trek.
But the situation became more worrisome. That’s because on the second day, Desplinter and Wallace found themselves lost on their way to the bottom of the canyon. An unexpected bend in a river made them believe that they’d set off in the wrong direction, you see. But when the pair recounted their steps, they realized that they’d been going the right way all along. And as a result, they wasted a day of hiking just to end up where they’d started.
Then, on day three, Desplinter and Wallace were too drained to continue. “We started to descend, but our bodies were pretty beat up and tired, and our feet were really beat up,” Desplinter revealed to The Des Moines Register. “We thought, since we had a near miss with a helicopter on night two, it might be easiest if we can wait here in a nice, open valley.”
But another 24 hours passed, and Desplinter and Wallace were now facing their fourth day on the mountain. It was at this point that the pair decided that they had no choice but to keep on moving. And so, the friends began to lower themselves through the treacherous canyon once more – despite their lack of necessary tools for the difficult descent.
Without the right equipment, then, Desplinter and Wallace had to get creative. They fashioned a rope from tied-up sweaters, for instance, and used it to help them scale vertigo-inducing waterfalls and narrow ledges. “It just continued to get more and more difficult. Then we came to a place where the canyon got extremely narrow, and it was just like a waterslide. You had to sit down on your butt, slide down, and you end up in a pool at the bottom,” Desplinter explained to The Des Moines Register.
That night, Despliter and Wallace became even more desperate. They had been sure that search teams were onto them when they’d seen a helicopter circling overhead – but no one had come to retrieve them. So, with minimal food left, the hikers’ tiny flicker of hope vanished. “We were like, ‘There’s no way search and rescue’s [going to] find us if they didn’t see us on that one,’” DeSplinter told The Des Moines Register.
On the fifth and final day, though, Desplinter and Wallace made one last effort to escape from their nightmare. The pair continued their terrifying descent, even taking on two drops that totaled the same height as a 30-story skyscraper. But as the night drew in, they stopped once more and built a campfire. And thankfully, it was then that the helicopter spotted them and finally transported them back to civilization.
While Desplinter is appreciative of his rescuers, he also believes that he and Wallace would have escaped the canyon themselves if they had been given another couple of days. However, the experience has taught him to always come prepared for the worst on future hiking trips. And he urged other adventurers to do the same, too.
Speaking to The Des Moines Register, Desplinter warned, “Go into a situation assuming it’s not going to go as planned. You don’t have to necessarily plan for being out there for 60 days or something; you don’t want to carry 100 pounds of gear for a day hike, but have some sort of [backup strategy]. Think of things that can go wrong and try to plan for them.”