Companion blog: Adventures In Stoving

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The Road to Hell is Paved with... Weather Balloons?

I just went to Hell and back again.  Well, kind of.  I went to Hell for Sure Canyon in the San Gorgonio Wilderness – which is about as wild and inaccessible of a place as you'll find in Southern California.
Hell For Sure Falls, Hell For Sure Canyon, San Gorgonio Wilderness, Southern California.
But let me back up a bit and explain what I'm doing.  You see, there's this balloon, a weather balloon.  A friend of a friend has a grandson, Adrian, who put together a weather balloon as a school project. The balloon went up and then came down into, you guessed it, some of the harshest and most inaccessible terrain in all of Southern California, the Hell For Sure Canyon area.  The balloon had a transponder.  The transponder sent out GPS coordinates as the balloon descended.  The signal was lost shortly before landing, but interpolating the direction of travel and speed of descent places the balloon's landing point at about 34.07031, -116.71899, i.e. in the drainages just east of Hell For Sure Canyon.  For further information on the balloon and searching, see "Notes for Potential Searchers" in the Appendix, below.

Access to the canyon is blocked near the mouth by a high waterfall, Hell For Sure Falls.  Maybe a technical climber could ascend the falls, but most can't, so a lengthy detour is required to access the drainages behind the falls.
The falls are the end of the line in terms of going up Hell For Canyon.
Photo credit:  Jim D.
Hell For Sure Canyon is part of the San Gorgonio Wilderness.  The San Gorgonio Wilderness was a favorite place of my dad's and my grandfather's before him.  I've been visiting since the 1960's and have spent a fair amount of time over the years there.  I like maps and have put together things like an Interactive Map of the San Gorgonio Wilderness (which was cited by the founder of Caltopo, Matt Jacobs, in his interview with Andrew Skurka as an example of what could be done with Caltopo.  Hey, why, I'm almost famous, lol.).  I'm also an off trail hiker, not intimidated by a lack of established routes.
Yours truly, on a recent trip in the San Gorgonio Wilderness.
Photo credit: Barbie
Anyway, I guess somebody figured I might have some insight, and word of the lost weather balloon made its way to me.  I decided to go and look for the danged thing.  Never strong in the brains department, I'm always up for a long-shot, harsh terrain challenge I suppose.

Now, the first challenge is to get back in there.  The mouth of Hell For Sure Canyon is about 18 miles round trip from the nearest place accessible by a vehicle.  One reaches the mouth of Hell For Sure Canyon by ascending the Middle Fork of the Whitewater River.  The river bed is rough and boulder strewn and can be pretty slow going.
The Middle Fork of the Whitewater River.
The low spot that the river more or less points to is Hell For Sure Canyon.
But I had a plan.  There was an old road from years ago that went into the Middle Fork.  I had traveled this road before and knew that it was more or less passable for a person on foot.  The road bypasses much of the boulder strewn wash.
Walking the old road to the Middle Fork of the Whitewater River
Photo credit:  Jim D.
The old road is waterless and exposed, but with proper planning (i.e. start early and bring lots of water) is very doable and would be a far better way to get up the Whitewater than simply walking the riverbed.

Naturally, I didn't want to do this alone.  But who on earth would be dumb enough, er, such a great friend, that they'd join me on a fool's errand like this?  I mean I knew from the get go that this was going to be a real suffer fest.  I immediately thought of my friend, Jim.  Great name.  How can you go wrong with a guy with such a great name. right?
My buddy Jim who graciously puts up with my off trail antics
So, the two of us set out.

Day One – The Journey In
Now, yes, this was once a road, but now it's hardly a superhighway into the interior.  And even though it cuts off part of the slog up the river bed, it's still a good bit of doing to get to the Hell For Sure drainage.  I figured it would take us the better part of a day to get to the mouth of Hell For Sure Canyon.  I then would have to figure out how to get up around the falls into the drainages behind – and conduct my search.  For this effort, I allocated three days:  One day to hike in, visit the falls (which are a worthy destination in their own right), and set up a base camp; one day to conduct a search; and then one day to hike back out.

Sometimes the desert is thought of as a more or less lifeless place, but it's not that at all.  While I definitely prefer cool pine forests, the desert has a beauty all its own for those willing to see.
Beavertail cactus in bloom
One sees things in the desert that one would otherwise miss, things worthwhile indeed.
Cholla cactus flowers

We arrived at the confluence of the Middle Fork of the Whitewater River and Hell For Sure Creek around 2:00 PM.  We then proceeded up the creek to visit the falls.
Rounding a bend in the canyon, one gets one's first view of Hell For Sure Falls.
Hell For Sure Falls is barely a trickle many times, but this year, we'd had a decent rain year, and the falls were flowing.
Hell For Sure Falls.
We stopped for a late lunch at the base of the falls.  I pulled out my MSR Windburner, which is the latest stove that I'm evaluating on my Adventures In Stoving blog.  Nice stove.  The Windburner is astoundingly windproof, which makes it the perfect stove for the desert.  On any desert trip I've ever been on, it's always been windy.
An MSR Windburner with a 1.8 L pot.
After lunch, we went back to the confluence and set up camp for our first night out.
Bivy camping in the desert.
Day Two – The Search
Now the fun really starts, ha ha.  We had to get in behind the falls – but how?  Our best reckoning, based on the track of the balloon, was that the most probable point of impact was in some drainages east of the main Hell For Sure drainage.  "Map scouting" in the weeks leading up to the trip had lead me to consider some ridges to the SE of the falls as possible bypass routes.  At least on paper, these ridges looked doable – but I knew they'd be tough.  The Whitewater River near the base of these ridges is at an elevation of about 4100' above sea level.  The top of the ridge is at just over 6500'.  That's a gain of some 2400', but, oh, that's not all.  There's no trail, there's a good bit of brush, and one gains 1500' in just a little over a mile in the first portion of the ascent.

Now, maps are a fine thing, but one never knows until one sees things first hand.  After a visual study of the terrain, we picked out a particular ridge, a ridge we dubbed "Stairmaster Ridge."
Two Snake Peak is the peak slightly left of center.
Stairmaster Ridge is just slightly right of center.
The gain is 1500' in just over a mile.
Stairmaster Ridge leads to the top of Peak 6511 which is part of Hell For Sure Ridge, the major ridge east of Hell For Sure Canyon.  In and around Peak 6511, we both just about stepped on rattlesnakes in two separate incidents.  I don't mind snakes when I can see them, but there were plenty of places where I could barely see my feet due to the brush.  Rattlesnakes sounding off unseen just underfoot makes me one nervous hiker!  Based on these incidents, we dubbed Peak 6511, "Two Snake Peak."

As it happens, our map scouting and visual assessment bore out:  The route was doable.  It was steep, it was brushy, but it was doable.  One simply had to bear with the steepness.  There were no sections so steep that the use of hands were required.

From Two Snake Peak, we dropped down to a saddle to the NW and from there descended towards a point I had identified as potentially having a commanding view of our search area.  The weather balloon had been equipped with a bright red and orange parachute.  Our hope was that we might be able to glimpse the brightly colored chute and thereby find the object of our search, the electronic payload that the balloon had originally carried aloft.
The author atop Surveyor's Point with its commanding view of the landscape.
Photo credit:  Jim D.
We made our way down the ridge down to our panoramic viewpoint, but there was a problem.  Even though it was a scant 2.5 miles from the river to our viewpoint, it had taken us until mid-afternoon to get there!  Given the difficulty of the terrain and brush, we knew we had to leave soon or we'd be caught out after dark on Stairmaster Ridge on the return.  A descent in the dark on a brushy, steep ridge would not be a good situation to find oneself in.  So, with what time we had, we split up and did what searching we could.
The ravines were so rugged that we couldn't always see into the bottom of them.
The terrain was so steep and precipitous that we could not see into the bottom of many of the ravines surrounding the point.  Interestingly, we did find one thing, a survey marker from the 1927 survey of the area.
Survey marker from 1927.
This marks the boundary of, among other things, the San Bernardino National Forest and the San Gorgonio Wilderness.
More specifically, this is an "Angle Point" on the section line for Township 1 South, Range 2 East, Section 24, San Bernardino Baseline and Meridian.
Late in the day, we beat a hasty retreat back up the ridges to Two Snake Peak and then down Stairmaster Ridge.  We got to our camp with about 10 minutes of fading twilight to spare.  That, in retrospect, probably wasn't the best decision, to continue to search as long as we did, but we really wanted to find that darned weather balloon.  Alas, it was not to be.

We cooked dinner in the dark and reflected on our day.
Firing up my MSR Windburner for a dinner in the dark.
We overstayed our time on the ridges east of Hell For Sure Canyon.
After Action Review
Despite not finding our objective, I don't consider our "mission" a failure.  Heck, any time spent in the backcountry is time well spent, but we did do several things:
  1. We established a very doable route for any future searchers.  Hopefully others will follow after our initial scouting foray.  However, see "Notes for Potential Searchers," below if you plan to look for the balloon yourself.
  2. We established a sense of the effort necessary.  It took us about 5 hours to go 2.5 miles from the Whitewater River, up over Two Snake Peak, and down into the search zone.
  3. We got to visit and get some good photos of Hell For Sure Falls in a good rain year.
  4. We got some great views of the Middle Fork Jumpoff, Kitching Peak, San Jacinto Peak, etc. and did some highly valuable scouting for future trips into the area.
A spectacular view of San Jacinto Peak and the surrounding territory can be had from Hell For Sure Ridge.
Had I to do it over again, I might have gotten an earlier start on day two, perhaps starting at first light.  For a future trip, I might try to find a camp site above the falls to serve as my base camp so that I might spend more time searching.

This trip, as do many trips, only whetted my appetite for more trips into this area.  The intriguing geological formation known as the Middle Fork Jump Off, essentially a giant cliff-like headwall at the top of the Middle Fork of the Whitewater River, certainly deserves a visit.
Middle Fork Jumpoff lies at the head of the Middle Fork of the Whitewater River.
The snow capped peak to the right of the Jumpoff is San Gorgonio Mountain.
To the right of San Gorgonio Mountain is Ten Thousand Foot Ridge.
The somewhat flat topped peak far to the left of the Jump Off is Snow Peak.
While I did not achieve my primary objective, that of finding the balloon, I did have a great adventure in the wild, trail-less backcountry of the San Gorgonio Wilderness, an area little touched by the hand of man even in this, the Twenty-First Century.  I also gained valuable intel on the region for future trips and plan to visit again soon.

NOTE:  This is hot, exposed country with rugged, brushy terrain.  Examine weather reports and plan carefully before setting out on a trip here.

I thank you for joining me on the Journey,


P.S.  If you're interested in joining the challenge of searching for the lost weather balloon, please see the "Notes for Potential Searchers" in the Appendix, below.
San Jacinto Peak and the desert from near the summit of Two Snake Mountain

Appendix – Notes for Potential Searchers

Up for a challenge?  By all means please join me in helping Adrian out.  Let's get the poor guy his instrumentation package back.  And it's not just that.  This is sort of a challenge.  Can you devise a search strategy and execute it in the rugged backcountry?     Let's see if we can't find that thing – and in the process have an excuse for challenge and adventure, not to mention one heck of a set of bragging rights for the person who finds it.

Here are some thoughts for potential searchers:


  1. Heat stroke.  Heat stroke is a very real possibility.  Pick a cool day.  If the predicted high in Whitewater, CA during your trip is over 90 degrees Fahrenheit, think seriously about not going.
  2. Water.  Water is reliably available  – as long as your near the Whitewater River.  Once you're away from the river, water could be pretty scarce.  If you're near Hell For Sure Creek, it will probably have water most years although in some spots it may run underground.  If you're away from the river and the creek, in all likelihood, the only water you'll have is the water you carry. Water was available at the Stone House and Whitewater Preserve as of April 2017.  Note:  The water at the Stone House has high fluoride content and should not be frequently consumed.
  3. Parking.  Parking is available on Wildlands Conservancy land at either the Whitewater Preserve or the Mission Creek Preserve. The closest approach, one that lets you take advantage of the old road into the area, is to park at the Stone House.  The lot at the Stone House is well inside the locked gate of the preserve.  You need to contact the conservancy well ahead of time to get permission to park there.
    If getting permission seems like a drag, you can park outside the gate in the main Mission Creek Parking Lot, but that does add 1.6 miles each way to your trip.
    Parking is also available at the Whitewater Preserve.
  1. You could just follow my route into the search area.  It's a known and proven route.  It's also a real bun kicker, and it requires you to climb to 6500' when the balloon most likely landed around 5500'.  In other words, you're climbing 1000' unnecessarily.  I chose the route because I was being conservative.  The contour lines are never so close together that I was worried about impassible terrain.  An on site visual inspection also did not turn up anything that might have caused a problem.  In addition, I wanted to get to Surveyor's Point from which I hoped I might be able to simply search with binoculars.  No such luck.  The ravines are too deep and twisting to be effectively searched from the point.  While my route was a reasonable first scouting route, it is not optimal.
  2. From my vantage point on Surveyor's Point, I got a good look at the ridge that runs immediately to the west of Hell For Sure Falls.  It looked doable.  Whereas my first scouting route topped out at 6500', the route around the falls to the west tops out at a far more reasonable 5400'.  Now, I said "doable," not "easy".  It looks rough and rocky, and the rock is loose.  I found a canyoneer's trip report that said that a party went up the west ridge successfully, so it can be done.  The report mentioned that one of the party was injured when a rock shifted and cut his leg. so be careful if you use this route.  Despite the danger, I think this is the way to go.  My initial scouting route just takes too long and gains unnecessary elevation.  Please see the topo map, below.


The balloon itself is of a sort of semi-translucent whitish material but would be shredded.  The balloon was designed to burst when it reached a very high altitude, and then a parachute would lower the payload, an instrumentation package, back to earth.
The balloon.  From a video capture
The parachute is made of nylon and is red and orange.  It is approximately six feet (two meters) in diameter.
The parachute.  From a video capture.

The payload is an instrumentation package inside a protective box.  The box is yellow and measures approximately 10” x 14” x 4”.  Gray nylon straps and yellow riser cords attach the box to the parachute.
The instrumentation package of the weather balloon is yellow and measures approximately 10” x 14” x 4”.
For reference, here is a person standing with the instrumentation package in his hands.
A person holding the instrumentation package.  Shown for scale.

The balloon sent out a series of "pings" containing data like elevation above sea level and GPS coordinates.  Based on the data, we can calculate the speed of descent and direction of travel.  Based on the speed of descent and direction of travel, the most probable landing point of the balloon is lat/lon 34.07031, -116.71899.  However, of course, this is only an estimate.  It should be a pretty good estimate, but wind gusts, downdrafts, etc. could have altered the point of landing.  I would assume that the coordinates 34.07031, -116.71899 constitute the center of a search area and the immediate surroundings would be need to be searched extending outward from that center.
The end track of the balloon plotted on Google Earth.
The last ping is shown by the orange and red parachute icon.
The landing point is interpolated based on the spend of descent and direction.
Below is a hand drawn map based on my search of April 26 - 28, 2017.  This is NOT from a GPS unit, but it will definitely give you the sense of things.  My map is more about illustrating how things fit together and what the critical landmarks and junctures are than it is about GPS-like precision.  If you really want to take a close look at the map, it's probably best to open it in a separate window.

The most probable landing point of the balloon is plotted on the map using exact (but interpolated) lat/lon coordinates of 34.07031, -116.71899.

You could just use a GPS unit while you're out there, but if your batteries die or the unit malfunctions, you could be in trouble.   Personally, I'd bring paper maps and a compass to back up a GPS.  Up to you.

Here is a Google Earth screen capture with the last ping from the balloon shown along with my initial scouting route to Surveyors Point, sketched in with a red line.  The approximate location of Surveyors Point is indicated by the black "X".  Personally, I would use the ridge immediately west of Hell For Sure Falls were I to return to the area.  See above topo map for a sketch of this alternate route.
The last GPS position of the balloon is indicated by the red and orange parachute icon.
The landing point of the balloon is estimated based on the speed of descent and direction.
My initial scouting route is sketched in with red line.
Surveyors Point is shown with a black "X".
Good luck and happy searching.  Even if you don't find it, it's a heck of an adventure.