Hiker recounts wayward Desolation Wilderness trip
June 17, 2011
Brandon DesOrmeaux stripped down to nothing. He picked some food, a few articles of clothing, his map and his compass from his pack and put them in his dry-bag. He left his skis, skins, backpack and the rest of his supplies on the tiny island in Rockbound Lake and entered the frigid water naked with only a log as flotation.
“There was a waterfall system that the current of the lake was pushing me into,” Desormeaux remembered. “I had to fight a little bit. It was probably 40 or 50 yards I had to swim. I finally got across. There was ice still in the lake, small little icebergs. I was freezing.”
Thinking he was at Dick’s Lake, Desormeaux believed swimming across would be a shortcut to his trail home. In truth, he was dangerously confused. Four days earlier, DesOrmeaux had been dropped off by a friend and planned on hiking from Echo Summit to Emerald Bay. A day over his projected time in Desolation Wilderness, he was off his course by miles and discombobulated by this year’s unusual conditions in an area he thought familiar.
“I’ve navigated through that area a couple times in the winter, so I figured I’d be good, but I’ve never done it this late in the spring when everything is melting,” he said. “I didn’t even realize I was lost or off my path until a day after I was (supposed to return).”
Snowmelt has created temporary streams, rivers and lakes and snow still covers some of the permanent lakes and creeks. If a confusing landscape isn’t enough, dangers for hikers, such as spring avalanches and under-snow streams that create weak spots in the snowpack, are numerous. A day after he was supposed to return from the wilderness, DesOrmeaux’s friends called El Dorado County Search and Rescue.
“I knew people were going to be freaking out,” he said. “I didn’t want to cause trouble, but I knew with people not knowing what really happened and the conditions out there, it was inevitable. People were going to be looking for me.”
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Around this time, Saturday afternoon, DesOrmeaux summited a peak to try and get his bearings. In the distance, he could see a trail. He made his way onto what turned out to be the Rubicon Off-Road Trail and into a empty campground, bears and wildlife the only tenants. He pointed in the compass direction for Emerald Bay, but the trail soon turned to a river and the light began to fade.
On top of a granite knoll, he made his berth for the night. With his sleeping bag still on the island, DesOrmeaux built a fire, heated rocks and placed them around him for warmth. He kept the fire going all night and woke with a resolution.
“I knew I had to get my bearings,” he said.
Around this time, about 60 members of El Dorado County Search and Rescue, Douglas County Sheriffs, Placer County Sheriffs and Tahoe Nordic Search and Rescue were fanning out along DesOrmeaux’s intended route. A California Highway Patrol helicopter was scanning the area from the sky and a Navy helicopter out of Fallon, Nev. was shuttling crews in and out of the backcountry.
“We assigned volunteers to search the most reasonable route that he took,” said incident commander Greg Almos, a member of the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Department. “We put people in there and ask them to search that area as best they can.”
Even DesOrmeaux’s friends went out to look for him. Wes Minton was the one who dropped DesOrmeaux off for his lone trek. He hiked Dick’s Peak, searching for any sign that would take him to his lost friend.
“I didn’t see any tracks,” Minton said. “I was getting pretty nervous at that point.”
Meanwhile, DesOrmeaux had found his way back to the lake where he left his stuff. He’d also happened across a sign that pointed him in the direction of some named lakes on his map. That’s when he realized just how off-track he was.
“I freaked out for about 20 minutes, just being like ‘What am I going to do?'” he said. “But knowing you’re not supposed to freak out in situations like that, I calmed down, collected myself, and was just like, ‘Dude, you’re smarter than this. You can do it.'”
After stumbling on a backwoods cabin where he rested and left a note for the owner, DesOrmeaux plotted a course out. He was about eight miles from his original route and even farther from his planned final destination. Heading towards Loon Lake was the easiest and fastest way. He left markers all the way.
“This case could’ve been so much worse,” Almos said. “The area he came out in was so far out there we wouldn’t have made it there until the third or fourth day.”
Not gauging his distance traveled each day and the baffling conditions was likely DesOrmeaux’s initial problem, Almos said. Yet, having a plan, sufficient supplies, a map, compass and the will to survive were things that he did correctly, Almos added.
Five days after leaving on the hike that would allow him to “just get away” for a couple nights, DesOrmeaux was carted by sheriffs back towards South Lake Tahoe. He learned a lot during his journey, a testament to the bewildering power of Mother Nature.
“Things that you planned on aren’t always going to happen, but definitely be prepared for anything,” DesOrmeaux said Wednesday during a midnight hike near Twin Peaks. For which, he didn’t bring a flashlight.