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Treasures of the Valley » Mike Lawler

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Montrose Search and Rescue – Campers Saved By the Whistle

On Wednesday, Jan 2, 1974, John Larson took his 3-year-old son John Junior on an adventure – a “cold-camping” excursion into the San Gabriel Mountains. Larson was an experienced outdoorsman with proper gear. He planned to camp on a trail a few miles out of Buckhorn Campground, an area he was familiar with. He would return home Thursday or Friday.

On Wednesday morning Larson and his son pulled into the parking area just off Angeles Crest above Buckhorn. The sky was gray and light snow was a possibility, but it didn’t look likely to Larson. The two hiked several miles down Burkhart Trail towards a waterfall in Cooper Canyon. As darkness approached they set up a tent trailside and crawled into their sleeping bags.

Mike Lawler is the former  president of the Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley and loves local history. Reach him at lawlerdad@yahoo.com.

Mike Lawler is the former
president of the Historical Society
of the Crescenta Valley and loves local history. Reach him at
lawlerdad@yahoo.com.

That night a snowstorm hit with unexpected intensity. When Larson and his young son woke up on Thursday, three feet of snow covered the trail. The snow was too deep for the boy to walk in, so Larson picked him up and began carrying him. With each step his legs sank into the deep snow, causing him to fall repeatedly. After 500 yards he knew he couldn’t make it, and he decided to shelter in his tent and wait for help.

Back at home, Larson’s wife Pam heard about the snowstorm and grew increasingly worried as Larson failed to show up. Friday morning she called the Montrose Sheriffs. They dispatched deputies up the Crest but they were unable to reach the campground. Rangers searched Buckhorn, but found no campers and no car (the car was hidden under deep snow). As darkness fell, the call was put out for the Montrose Search and Rescue team. Inside the tent, now completely covered by the deep snow, Larson and his son were doing okay – warm sleeping bags, food and water. They sang songs, prayed, slept and waited.

On Saturday morning, 13 members of the Montrose SAR reached Buckhorn Campground. By early afternoon they found Larson’s car when one of the sharp-eyed team members spotted the tip of the radio antenna poking out of a snowdrift. Deteriorating weather conditions and darkness forced the team back. The Larsons had been out four days now. The team knew their chances were getting slim.

Back in the tent, things were indeed getting critical. The warmth of the buried tent had melted snow beneath it, and an inch of icy water sloshed around the tent’s floor. The sleeping bags were soaked and useless. Larson sat shivering on an upturned saucepan all Saturday night, cradling his exhausted boy in his arms. Frostbite was beginning to be inevitable.

Sunday morning the Montrose SAR and other searchers split into five teams, and headed down different trails, shouting Larson’s name. By afternoon, Larson realized they would die inside that tent. He had to dig himself out, even if he risked exposure. He slit the side of the tent and began tunneling out. As he dug he heard faint shouts. He pulled out a police whistle he had brought as part of his survival gear, and, as he frantically dug, he blew the whistle with all his might. The SAR team could hear the barely audible sound of a whistle coming from what appeared to be just another big snow drift. They dug into the snow and at the point they heard the sound and quickly reached the tunnel Larson was digging. They pulled Larson and son out of the hole, extremely wet and cold. The young boy, who had remained stoic and brave throughout the ordeal, burst into tears from the pent-up anxiety. While Larson was fitted with spare snowshoes, the boy was stuffed into one of the SAR team’s backpacks. As it got dark, the group rendezvoused with a highway department “Snow Weasel” (an Army-surplus snow vehicle with tank-tracks). The Snow Weasel brought them back to Angeles Crest Highway, and 4-wheel-drive vehicles took Larson and John Jr. to Verdugo Hills Hospital. Father and son were checked and released, and the Montrose SAR returned from another successful rescue.

On Wednesday, Jan 2, 1974, John Larson took his 3-year-old son John Junior on an adventure – a “cold-camping” excursion into the San Gabriel Mountains. Larson was an experienced outdoorsman with proper gear. He planned to camp on a trail a few miles out of Buckhorn Campground, an area he was familiar with. He would return home Thursday or Friday.

On Wednesday morning Larson and his son pulled into the parking area just off Angeles Crest above Buckhorn. The sky was gray and light snow was a possibility, but it didn’t look likely to Larson. The two hiked several miles down Burkhart Trail towards a waterfall in Cooper Canyon. As darkness approached they set up a tent trailside and crawled into their sleeping bags.

That night a snowstorm hit with unexpected intensity. When Larson and his young son woke up on Thursday, three feet of snow covered the trail. The snow was too deep for the boy to walk in, so Larson picked him up and began carrying him. With each step his legs sank into the deep snow, causing him to fall repeatedly. After 500 yards he knew he couldn’t make it, and he decided to shelter in his tent and wait for help.

Back at home, Larson’s wife Pam heard about the snowstorm and grew increasingly worried as Larson failed to show up. Friday morning she called the Montrose Sheriffs. They dispatched deputies up the Crest but they were unable to reach the campground. Rangers searched Buckhorn, but found no campers and no car (the car was hidden under deep snow). As darkness fell, the call was put out for the Montrose Search and Rescue team. Inside the tent, now completely covered by the deep snow, Larson and his son were doing okay – warm sleeping bags, food and water. They sang songs, prayed, slept and waited.

On Saturday morning, 13 members of the Montrose SAR reached Buckhorn Campground. By early afternoon they found Larson’s car when one of the sharp-eyed team members spotted the tip of the radio antenna poking out of a snowdrift. Deteriorating weather conditions and darkness forced the team back. The Larsons had been out four days now. The team knew their chances were getting slim.

Back in the tent, things were indeed getting critical. The warmth of the buried tent had melted snow beneath it, and an inch of icy water sloshed around the tent’s floor. The sleeping bags were soaked and useless. Larson sat shivering on an upturned saucepan all Saturday night, cradling his exhausted boy in his arms. Frostbite was beginning to be inevitable.

Sunday morning the Montrose SAR and other searchers split into five teams, and headed down different trails, shouting Larson’s name. By afternoon, Larson realized they would die inside that tent. He had to dig himself out, even if he risked exposure. He slit the side of the tent and began tunneling out. As he dug he heard faint shouts. He pulled out a police whistle he had brought as part of his survival gear, and, as he frantically dug, he blew the whistle with all his might. The SAR team could hear the barely audible sound of a whistle coming from what appeared to be just another big snow drift. They dug into the snow and at the point they heard the sound and quickly reached the tunnel Larson was digging. They pulled Larson and son out of the hole, extremely wet and cold. The young boy, who had remained stoic and brave throughout the ordeal, burst into tears from the pent-up anxiety. While Larson was fitted with spare snowshoes, the boy was stuffed into one of the SAR team’s backpacks. As it got dark, the group rendezvoused with a highway department “Snow Weasel” (an Army-surplus snow vehicle with tank-tracks). The Snow Weasel brought them back to Angeles Crest Highway, and 4-wheel-drive vehicles took Larson and John Jr. to Verdugo Hills Hospital. Father and son were checked and released, and the Montrose SAR returned from another successful rescue.

On Wednesday, Jan 2, 1974, John Larson took his 3-year-old son John Junior on an adventure – a “cold-camping” excursion into the San Gabriel Mountains. Larson was an experienced outdoorsman with proper gear. He planned to camp on a trail a few miles out of Buckhorn Campground, an area he was familiar with. He would return home Thursday or Friday.

On Wednesday morning Larson and his son pulled into the parking area just off Angeles Crest above Buckhorn. The sky was gray and light snow was a possibility, but it didn’t look likely to Larson. The two hiked several miles down Burkhart Trail towards a waterfall in Cooper Canyon. As darkness approached they set up a tent trailside and crawled into their sleeping bags.

That night a snowstorm hit with unexpected intensity. When Larson and his young son woke up on Thursday, three feet of snow covered the trail. The snow was too deep for the boy to walk in, so Larson picked him up and began carrying him. With each step his legs sank into the deep snow, causing him to fall repeatedly. After 500 yards he knew he couldn’t make it, and he decided to shelter in his tent and wait for help.

Back at home, Larson’s wife Pam heard about the snowstorm and grew increasingly worried as Larson failed to show up. Friday morning she called the Montrose Sheriffs. They dispatched deputies up the Crest but they were unable to reach the campground. Rangers searched Buckhorn, but found no campers and no car (the car was hidden under deep snow). As darkness fell, the call was put out for the Montrose Search and Rescue team. Inside the tent, now completely covered by the deep snow, Larson and his son were doing okay – warm sleeping bags, food and water. They sang songs, prayed, slept and waited.

On Saturday morning, 13 members of the Montrose SAR reached Buckhorn Campground. By early afternoon they found Larson’s car when one of the sharp-eyed team members spotted the tip of the radio antenna poking out of a snowdrift. Deteriorating weather conditions and darkness forced the team back. The Larsons had been out four days now. The team knew their chances were getting slim.

Back in the tent, things were indeed getting critical. The warmth of the buried tent had melted snow beneath it, and an inch of icy water sloshed around the tent’s floor. The sleeping bags were soaked and useless. Larson sat shivering on an upturned saucepan all Saturday night, cradling his exhausted boy in his arms. Frostbite was beginning to be inevitable.

Sunday morning the Montrose SAR and other searchers split into five teams, and headed down different trails, shouting Larson’s name. By afternoon, Larson realized they would die inside that tent. He had to dig himself out, even if he risked exposure. He slit the side of the tent and began tunneling out. As he dug he heard faint shouts. He pulled out a police whistle he had brought as part of his survival gear, and, as he frantically dug, he blew the whistle with all his might. The SAR team could hear the barely audible sound of a whistle coming from what appeared to be just another big snow drift. They dug into the snow and at the point they heard the sound and quickly reached the tunnel Larson was digging. They pulled Larson and son out of the hole, extremely wet and cold. The young boy, who had remained stoic and brave throughout the ordeal, burst into tears from the pent-up anxiety. While Larson was fitted with spare snowshoes, the boy was stuffed into one of the SAR team’s backpacks. As it got dark, the group rendezvoused with a highway department “Snow Weasel” (an Army-surplus snow vehicle with tank-tracks). The Snow Weasel brought them back to Angeles Crest Highway, and 4-wheel-drive vehicles took Larson and John Jr. to Verdugo Hills Hospital. Father and son were checked and released, and the Montrose SAR returned from another successful rescue.

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1 Response for “Treasures of the Valley » Mike Lawler”

  1. Josh says:

    It was so good, i read 3 times.

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