California, San Gabriel Mountains, Cucamonga Peak

Publication Year: 1960.

California, San Gabriel Mountains, Cucamonga Peak—Dennis Langford (16), Kirk Muscat (17), and Steve Brimhoff (17), of Ontario, California, hiked up Cucamonga Canyon, west of Cucamonga Peak, San Gabriel Mountain, California, early in the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, 1960. Their plan was to establish a small base camp around 7,000 feet, explore the surrounding area in the succeeding days and return before New Year’s Day, 1960. The boys carried most of their own food, planning to supplement their diet with fish from the stream in the canyon. All three boys were fairly well experienced in mountain travel and had visited the area previously.

On the morning of Wednesday, December 30, the group climbed up Cucamonga Canyon from their camp; however, the canyon itself was impassable due to vertical cliffs, waterfalls, and steep walls polished smooth by running water. The route followed under these circumstances wound up the canyon walls, and even though the boys had spent some2 to 3 hours climbing they were only approximately 900 yards upstream from their camp, but some 1100 feet above it.

At about 3:00 p.m. Brimhoff told his companion that he was returning to base camp and would meet them there later upon their return. Langford and Muscat continued a short distance farther but noticed that the weather was showing signs of deteriorating and the temperature was falling rapidly. Upon their return to camp it was found that Brimhoff had not returned. The two boys waited some time. The weather continued to become worse and their friend did not return. After a short local search around camp the boys felt sure something had happened to Brimhoff and that they had best go for help before the bad weather trapped them in the canyon. Langford and Muscat hiked out of the canyon leaving food and a sleeping bag should Brimhoff return. The hike out took 6½ hours under conditions of wind, rain, and snow. Upon arrival at the nearest phone they contacted the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s office, who in turn initiated search and rescue procedures.

At dawn, on the 31st, a search party attached to the Sheriff’s office attempted to climb to the boys’ base camp but was turned back by heavy snow, wind and 10° temperature. Rescue attempts were halted pending improvement in the weather. Later in the day, two members of the Sierra Madre Search and Rescue Team based in Los Angeles County arrived on the scene with a tracking bloodhound, but were informed by the county sheriff that weather conditions rendered it impossible to enter the mountains at that time. The crew and dog returned home that night, but decided to bolster their strength with additional members of the squad and return the next day to enter the canyon regardless of the weather. Permission to do this was reluctantly granted by the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s office and early on January 1, the crews began their search.

In the early afternoon one of the search crews found the body of Brimhoff at the base of one of the cliffs above the camp the boys had occupied. He had apparently tried to return to base camp by a more direct route and had fallen an undetermined distance to his death.

The body lay approximately 40 feet out from the base of the cliff which was around 700 feet high, but contained many broken ledges. The point from which the boy fell was unknown, but the minimum distance was greater than 80 feet. From the condition of the body (complete split of skull and numerous other fractures) it appeared the fall must have been quite long and that death was instantaneous.

All three of the boys were well equipped for inclement weather and cold as well as being experienced climbers. They had visited the area before and knew what terrain conditions to expect. The reason for Brimhoff’s decision to attempt a direct descent to base camp, alone, will never be known.

Source: R. C. Gardner.

Analysis: The party should have kept together and not split up. Appropriate equipment for the rock climbing attempted should have been present.