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Hiking Family Searched Trail's Dangerous Places

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February 02, 2004 10:43AM
Hiking family found body
Trail encounter sparked search
Staff Writer

Sunday, February 01, 2004 - FOREST FALLS - A Redlands family of three climbers who saw Eugene Kumm alive Jan. 17 said Sunday they were so disturbed by his disappearance and the fruitless search they went looking for the Seal Beach man themselves.

They did not know Kumm, but their initiative and knowledge of the San Gorgonio Wilderness high country paid off.

Sheriff's search-and-rescue officials said Sunday it was Shelby J. Harris, 52, his wife Claudia, 51, and their 17-year-old daughter, Chelsea, who found Kumm's body Saturday and led county volunteers to the spot in a narrow ravine east of Halfway Camp.

"He seemed like a really nice guy, he was really excited to do the hike," said Chelsea, who was out to practice snow and ice skills on a day-trip with her father when Kumm passed them on Vivian Creek Trail on Jan. 17. "He just wanted to get up there and go to the mountain. He had a huge smile on his face."

Kumm was reported missing Jan. 18. His body was flown out in a helicopter Sunday.

Shelby Harris said Kumm mentioned how steep the trail was as they began climbing the switch-backs out of Vivian Creek Valley. The next day, Claudia Harris joined her husband and daughter to climb above the 10,500-foot timberline.

Shelby Harris and Chelsea both saw a man near a trail junction below the Mount San Gorgonio summit. But they weren't sure if it was the same person they'd seen the day before.

Three days later, they recognized Kumm's picture in newspaper reports about the missing 25-year-old man. Shelby Harris said he offered information to search-and-rescue officials nine days ago, when trails were closed while more than 40 volunteers searched ridges and drainages up and down the mountain.

"We told some search-and-rescue people we'd seen him and they said they'd log it in, but they didn't spend any time talking to us," Shelby Harris said. "I felt a little rebuffed, like they were saying, 'We can handle it.'"

The Harrises, who moved to Redlands 13 years ago, hike and climb regularly in the San Gorgonio Wilderness. Chelsea first climbed the 11,499-foot summit of Mount San Gorgonio when she was in first grade, and she estimates she and her parents do parts of Vivian Creek Trail 30 times a year.

Shelby Harris, who said he and Chelsea have been up the trail at least six times this year, believes treacherous ice conditions in the high country stem from the same Dec. 25 storm that caused fatal floods in Waterman Canyon north of San Bernardino and in Devore.

"We went up the day after Christmas, thinking we'd hit a lot of fresh snow, it would be a really nice hike," Shelby Harris said.

"We got up to High Creek Camp and there'd been an ice storm. There was ice all over the trees, covering the snow on the ground and the trees. Parts of the trail were totally iced out."

Kumm was one of seven people who died in local mountains in January, making it one of the region's deadliest months for recreationists on record.

But the Harrises, confident in their knowledge of the Mount San Gorgonio high country and its hazards, decided last week to look for Kumm on their own.

"We were talking about the most dangerous parts of the trail, and we both decided to check this one corner where the trail is real icy and steep," Shelby Harris said.

"It's a 70 to 80 percent grade, where you can see it just drops away there. It's a sheet of ice, about 150 feet to the bottom. You couldn't dig an ice ax into that. Chelsea thought it was a good spot to look. She was riding me all week about it."

On Saturday, they'd made their way into the likely drainage by about 11:30 a.m.

"We followed the creek bed about 50 yards and I saw some snowshoes," Shelby Harris said. "Then I looked up and saw where he'd landed between a tree and rock. Claudia was just behind me, and I told her 'We've found Eugene.' My voice and demeanor changed. Chelsea stayed back. We didn't want her to see him like that. We were all shocked."

Searchers found Kumm's trekking poles, but no ice ax. It was clear he had tried everything to stop himself, Shelby Harris said.

"His wool gloves, the fingers were worn away like he'd tried to claw his way in to get a hold. There was blood on his fingers," Shelby Harris said. "He wanted to live. It looked like it happened so fast. We didn't know him, but it was so emotional when we found him."

The Harrises went for help and found search-and-rescue veterans Bill and Ellyn Loenhorst coming up-trail. They led the Loenhorsts to Kumm's body and walked out before dark. Kumm's parents got word to search-and-rescue officials Sunday they were grateful their son's body was found. Chelsea was still trying to cope with the experience Sunday. She normally keeps her pack and ice ax on a shelf in her room where she can see it. Saturday night she didn't take it into her room at all.

"Not many people my age climb and I like to look at my stuff. It reminds of something I do that I love," she said. "But last night I tried to get it off my mind. It's tough seeing a fellow hiker go down like that."


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