Treasures of the Valley » Mike Lawler

Montrose Search and Rescue – Lost Hiker Calls For Help On His Cellphone – in 1991!

It’s a common scenario: A hiker gets lost so he whips out his cellphone, looks for a signal, and calls for help. But when this lost hiker used his cellphone in 1991, he was apparently one of the first to have done so.

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

The story begins in November 1991. Walter, 64 years old, was an experienced hiker and felt no need to bring a map when he embarked on a day hike in the San Gabriel Mountains around Big Tujunga Canyon. He was very familiar with the route he was on. But he did decide to drop his big new cellphone into his backpack, just in case of a problem.

Walter’s problem was of his own making as he took a wrong turn and ended up on a trail he’d not been on before. He had planned for his wife to pick him up at a pre-arranged point, and he decided to use his new cellphone to call her and say that he’d be late. But he faced the same problem then as someone in the same situation today would face in the mountains – no signal. After hiking quite a ways, he finally found a spot where he could transmit and called his wife at home. Walter told her he wouldn’t make the pre-arranged pick-up point, that he was sort of lost, but that he was hopeful he could find a road to follow.

Having none of that, his wife immediately called the Forest Service, which in turn called out the Montrose Search and Rescue team. Just as the rescue helicopter was taking off, Walter stumbled across the highway and thumbed a ride to a ranger station. From there he used a landline to call his wife again and the search was called off.

Not a very exciting rescue story, but what makes it interesting is the use of the cellphone to call for help. It was so unusual back in ’91 that it actually rated a big article in the paper. A spokesman for the Forest Service told the paper that it was the first time he had ever heard about anyone doing that. He further said that he expected it to happen more and more as the technology took hold. Indeed, Walter, regretting his decision to forget his map, told the paper, “I don’t think a cellular phone will ever replace a map, but I would recommend it. I’m glad I had it with me.”

The newspaper talked to a spokesman from PacTel Cellular. (Remember them? After several mergers, they are now Verizon.) He was quite impressed with this event. He told the paper that there were about 500,000 cellphones in use in the five county areas around Los Angeles. He was also quoted as saying that the diminishing size and weight of them would make cellphones a desirable safety addition for future hikers. He said, “You’ll find a lot of them are under a pound, and they’re pushing a half-pound.”

I was curious about that, as I remember some of those monster walkie-talkie-style early cellphones. According to the internet, those weighed in at about a pound and a half. They were actually called “brick phones.” But by 1991, the newer large-style flip-phones had come out and they indeed weighed in at about a half a pound. Phones got even lighter and smaller as time went on, but the trend has reversed itself now, and they are getting bigger again. As I’m writing this, my wife weighed her new smart phone, and it weighed just under a half-pound.

Of course, today the cellphone is omni-present, and every hiker has one. Modern cellphones even have a GPS chip that transmits the phone’s location. Search and rescue groups like the Montrose Search and Rescue team have taken advantage of this new technology to aid in their searches for lost hikers. Next week I’ll tell about the MSAR team’s use of cellphones, cellphone apps and even social media to save lives.