Greater Palm Springs is known as a hiker’s paradise, with more than 300 days of sunshine a year and countless trails winding across the beautiful desert landscape and even up into the pine forests of the San Jacinto Mountains. Though the panoramic views only get better the higher you climb, so too, does the potential for danger. Every once in a while, the faint whirring of a helicopter’s blades passes overhead as the Coachella Valley’s go-to team of search and rescue operators saves the day.
Officially known as Palm Springs Mounted Police Search and Rescue (PSMP-SAR), the volunteer unit has performed more than 1,000 technical rescues in Palm Springs since 1949. What began as a few men riding on horseback up into the mountains to help stranded hikers in their spare time has grown into a 13-member team. (To learn more about one of the founders, Jim Maynard, see p. 80.) PSMP-SAR once served as the honor guard for President Dwight D. Eisenhower and even appeared in a 1995 episode of the national television show Rescue 911.
The unit depends mostly on private donations and fundraising (all members are volunteers and purchase their own gear), and with a $2,000 average cost per rescue, the community’s support is crucial to their continued service. The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians is, in the words of Doug Stevens, a 37-year search and rescue volunteer, their “biggest donor” and has contributed to the organization for at least 20 years. “They donated to us before they ever had the casinos,” Stevens says. “They are amazing — we wouldn’t have half of what we have if it weren’t for them.”
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY PALM SPRINGS HISTORICAL SOCIETY
Palm Springs Mounted Police Search and Rescue, circa 1960s. The volunteer unit was founded in 1949, when a small group of men began helping stranded hikers in their spare time.
Often, Agua Caliente Tribal Rangers and the Tribal Emergency Services team are on-site to coordinate with the volunteer rescue officers in locating a missing or stranded hiker, as several popular trails are located on the Tribe’s Reservation and in the Indian Canyons.
“The rangers are a great asset — they really know the terrain,” Stevens says, recalling a recent three-day search for a hiker who had set off from Highway 74 and ended up getting lost in the canyons. The Tribe helped provide food and water for the countless officers and volunteers stationed on the reservation. “That was a team effort,” he adds. “They were such a help during that search.”
Though horses and motorcycles were used throughout that three-day stretch, Stevens notes the use of a drone as a key part of the successful outcome. When he began volunteering in 1982, the rescue unit primarily worked on horseback and on foot, but as technology has advanced, helicopters and other airborne crafts have come to play a crucial role in their missions. For instance, thanks to an 8-pound-capacity drone, Stevens can deliver small bottles of water to stranded hikers to help them stay hydrated while they wait for help.
“They just don’t understand the extremity of the heat,” he says. All it takes is a few minutes of walking in 80-plus degrees and your body already begins to lose moisture, and when hiking up the side of a mountain with practically no shade, even more so. “We’ve started carrying umbrellas in the summertime,” he adds with a light laugh, “because it’s the only shade we have.”
“Once Stevens and his team have located missing or injured hikers, their primary concern is to get them to safety and to paramedics as soon as possible, though all volunteers are trained in basic first aid and law enforcement if the need arises. (Many are even trained in rappelling and rock climbing, which alone can take up to 18 months of instruction.) So why do these men and women do it?
"I had an interest in law enforcement early on,” Stevens says, “and one of my friends was a search and rescue volunteer, so he got me [into it]. Back then you had to be sponsored. But it’s really to give back to the community. That’s how it all got started.”
The Palm Springs Mounted Police Search and Rescue volunteers use various means, from helicopters to rock climbing and rappelling to walking on foot, to rescue stranded or injured hikers.
Before hitting the trails, brush up on a few hiking tips from Palm Springs Mounted Police Search and Rescue. For more information, call 760-778-8470.
Always hike in an approved, open area with well-marked trails.
Be prepared for the trip by packing lots of water, even when it’s cool out. Once half of your water supply is gone, it’s time to turn back.
Always hike with another person.
Wear sturdy shoes; hiking in flip-flops, sandals, or other slippery-soled shoes has spelled disaster for many of the victims rescued by PSMP-SAR.
Tell someone where you are going, when you expect to get back, how long you will be gone, what you are wearing, and who is going with you.
If you are visiting from another state or country, turn your cellphone off and back on when you arrive to your hiking area to reset the calibration; if you find yourself in need of help, call 911 immediately.