San Gorgonio Mountain
The Magnet For Aircraft
Old Greyback Peak Hidden in Clouds During Winter of 1950
Living at 228 South Second Street in Yucaipa provided me with towering, majestic San Bernardino Mountain every time I looked out the bay window or stepped out the front door. It was huge. It was beautiful. And it beckoned to me every day. During 1950-1952, I climbed the 10, 650 foot high mountain several times. By age 15 my name was in the logs on all the high peaks that had metal boxes with a log for signing. Mr. Fiddler lived next door and asked me to take him to the top of the mountain. Grandad dropped us off at Forest Home and we took the trail to Dobbs Cabin and on up to the top of San Bernardino Mountain. We spent the night just below the summit where we looked down steeply at our homes in Yucaipa. The next morning after breakfast, we came straight down the face of the mountain until stepping out on the Forest Home Road. Mr. Fiddler could never quit talking about his round trip to the peak.
San Gorgonio Mountain was a constant challenge. Old Greyback as it was called by everyone in the area, is the highest peak in Southern California and recorded as 11,502 feet high. It was always white on top because it was above the tree-line and in the winter it was covered with snow, while in the summer the white granite gleamed through any remaining snow. I climbed it whenever the opportunity existed. Grandad would drop me off at Forest Home or Fallsvale on Friday and then pick me up on Sunday in Banning. It was a pristine wilderness but I never saw or heard a mountain lion but I saw herds of big horn sheep and other wild animals. Hunters kept the mountain lions killed out. It was safe for humans anywhere in the San Bernardino National Forest.
In the summer of 1951 I visited my mother in the midwest. A bomber wing plant was being built cost-plus in Kansas City and I hired on as a 16 year old by saying I was 18. The pay was about $2.25 per hour with double time on weekends. Working for my Grandad who was a Home Building Contractor paid me only 75 cents per hour. I was rolling in money as a plumber's assistant while on summer vacation. I stayed with the job and entered high school while still working for double time on weekends. That lasted about two weekends and I was fired.
My Grandma called from California about December 1, 1952, telling me about the crash of a DC-3 into the side of Old Greyback. She said, "There's snow on Greyback and the officials say they can't get to the crash. Mr. Fiddler says that you could get them to the crash." She wrote me and sent a clipping. she told how a helicopter had crashed trying to get to survivors. Apparently only the helicopter crew survived. She said the rescuers were going to wait until Spring to try and get the 13 bodies out of the wreckage because there was too much snow. She told me to come on back to Yucaipa and take them to the crash site. All that made me feel good but I knew the government would get to the wreckage if it was possible. Besides, I was playing football on a team with an unbeaten and untied record. A bowl game was a certainty.
Old Greyback Looks Down on a Section of F-8E Crusaders
In the summer of 1970, I was flying a Marine VMA-214 Blacksheep A-4C Skyhawk west through the Banning Pass. The weather was CAVU [Clear of clouds and visibility unlimited]. From my altitude of about 13,000 a flash caused me to look toward Old Greyback. It was a bright reflection from an object near rocky cliffs below a ridge about half as high as Old Greyback. I circled the brilliant object and could see wreckage from what had to be an airplane. I took several pictures of the wreckage and the surrounding terrain. If the crash had not been reported, the photos would be helpful for rescuers. Checking with the FAA after landing at El Toro revealed that a Cessna Skymaster had crashed the previous October near the location I described.
The Wreckage Was Near Rocky Cliffs in the Wilderness Area
My sons, Mike 12 and Chris 10, watched me looking at the pictures of the crash site. They had been climbing Old greyback with me twice a year since I returned from Vietnam. They liked climbing the mountains that I had enjoyed as a youth. They became interested in the crash. Mike said, "We could climb up Greyback and down to Big Tree and cut across to the wreckage."
I said, "Yes we can. But why do it? The people were killed in the wreckage and rescuers recovered the bodies."
Chris joined in with Mike and both pleaded to hike up the next free weekend. We discussed how arduous the trek would be. The boys did not care. They wanted to take along John, their friend next door. Being always ready for a trip to Old Greyback, I agreed we would go to the crash site.
Sport the dog, Mike, Chris and John piled into the station wagon and at 5 AM we drove from Tustin and arrived at the parking area beyond Barton Flats at 6:30. Mike and Chris donned 15 lb packs that contained only water and their sleeping bag. John was out of shape so I carried his sleeping bag and all food and everything else necessary for spending the night in the wilderness. My pack weighed about 60 lbs. Mike and Sport were first up the trail. The first leg to Poop Out hill was tough. No switchbacks. Just a steady climb up the mountain. Poop Out was aptly named. Many starters quit before reaching the first goal.
Two hours of switch backs later we had covered the 3 and 1/2 miles to Dry Lake. Sport was in the water cooling his paws and the boys were exploring. The lake was at the 9,000 foot level.
After a brief rest the boys were eager to press on up the trail. The divide was reached by 10 AM. We started down the back side towards Big Tree. Downhill went fast. I called a halt when we reached the end of the trail. Our maps indicated we were at the point where we should cut across the ridges to the rocky cliffs. Mike took the lead and headed across to the first ridge. After turning the corner on the first ridge, we saw many more ridges than we counted on the map. The hike became grueling. The green grassy looking growth on the pictures was manzanita and buckthorn bushes. We clawed and pulled our way across and around each slope as we slowly worked toward that last ridge with the cliffs. We stopped, rested and checked the maps and photos frequently. The buckthorn caused us to detour around, over, backtrack, and push through where possible. We finally reached the saddle in the ridge we had picked for our final checkpoint. We rounded the corner and what a beautiful sight we found. Not only were the cliffs that marked the crash site in front of us but we could also see Saddleback Mountain in the distance and the entire Los Angeles Basin. Numerous deer and big horn sheep were scattered about the mountain slopes.
We guessed the crash site was only about 300 yards away. So it was decided to leave the packs and only take the camera and our canteens over. The final distance proved the toughest of all. The manzanita and buckthorn brush was so thick we could find no trails. We were back to crawling and climbing over the tops which ranged from knee high to over our heads. It took over an hour to make the short distance to the other side of the cliffs. I suggested we give it up but the boys said "No! We want to see the wreckage! We can make it!"
It was 3:30 in the afternoon when we passed the edge of the last cliff and saw the wreckage. We saw it was an Air Force FAC aircraft with an engine in the front and one in the back. We called them a push-pull. It had a double boom tail but it was unrecognizable. The wreckage was demoralizing. The boys realized it was just a pile of broken airplane parts and was not really worth all that pain and exertion expended to reach it.
It Was Not Worth All the Pain and Suffering to Get to the Crash!
Sport and the boys drank up their water and rested. I took pictures of the wreckage. Mike said, "It is just a crash. I'm not sure why I wanted to make such a difficult trip. I'm disappointed and I don't think I will ever do this again."
"You will look back at this trip as an adventure. Something to be proud of. You proved that you can do anything you set out to do. You will have the confidence to make sacrifices in the future when someone has to be rescued from a crash." I reassured them.
We climbed up higher to make the trip back to our packs. The brush was not as thick and we quickly arrived back at the saddle. Our water was depleted. We had to hurry down to the creek before dark. The canyon was steep but lacked the brush we had fought across the slopes. It was 6 PM when we reached the creek. The brook was deep, clear and cold. We went face down in the refreshing water. Sport was submerged for a while as he tried to both drink and cool down. We ate our big meal, rested for an hour and then started up the canyon to find a secluded place to bed down out of the wind that rushes down the canyon. A half mile up the creek we found a willow grove, made a fire and laid out our bags for the night. We talked about our trip until John started snoring. We all slept soundly until daylight.
Next morning we were up early, loaded our packs and canteens and prepared for the climb back up Old Greyback. Soon, we were past Big Tree and on the switchbacks up to the 10,000 foot ridge. We reached Dry Lake before noon and soaked our blistered feet while we ate the last of our canned food. We set out at a fast pace down the final 3 and 1/2 miles past Poop Out Hill and to the parking lot. We were in the car and starting down the road to civilization by 1 PM. We were looking forward to stopping at Barton flats and buying a soda pop or other belly wash to replenish our energy.
Old Greyback called us back many times over the years. It is more difficult to visit our National Parks and Wilderness areas than when I was young and when my children were kids. The reservations and waiting take a lot of the enjoyment away. Nothing can be spontaneous any more. Permission required well in advance, otherwise stay away. Doing it alone is dangerous because of the protected species of predators reestablished where it once was safe for boys and girls to explore and camp.
Old Greyback has been a magnet for airplanes throughout 100 years of aviation. Many aviator ghosts surely linger around the massive white top of the mountain. Famous people have died in crashes into Grey Back. Frank Sinatra's mother died in a flight out of Palm Springs. Dean Martin's son was killed when his F4 Phantom impacted near the crash site where the boys and I trekked to the O-2 Skymaster crash. Flying is inherently dangerous, but it is suicidal to fly around Old Greyback at night or in clouds without knowing exactly where the aircraft is and where Old Greyback is lurking.
Donald E. Cathcart
For The Record: After publishing this story Noel Oxlade in Australia, a researcher of USAF Skymaster aircraft, advised me that the crash site had to be the wreckage of an Air Force B-25, BuNo 44-30805 that crashed in 1956. A Google search revealed that the Skymaster crashed about 5,400 ft. elevation while the wreckage we found was near 9,000 ft which coincides with Noel's B-25 crash details. The data provided me by the FAA when I reported the 9.000 ft. crash site on the south slopes of San Gorgonio Peak in 1970 was inaccurate. My thanks to Noel Oxlade for correcting the record.
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