Gary Borax and Barb Brussell contributed to this article.
On March 14 the Dove Mountain Hikers sponsored a presentation by Cathy Hufault of her new book “Death Clouds on Mt. Baldy.” In November 1958 six Boy Scouts attempted to hike to the top of the highest peak in the Santa Rita Mountains (Mt. Baldy/Mt. Wrightson). Due to a freak UN-forecasted storm that dumped several feet of snow in the Santa Ritas that weekend, three Scouts died on the mountain and three returned. Cathy’s 12-year-old brother Ralph Coltrin Jr. was one of the three Scouts that survived. As a follow-up to the book presentation Gary Borax scheduled a hike on Saturday March 31 to the site where the three boys died. Gary and Barb Brussell were prepared to discuss the events leading up to the tragic
deaths of the three Boy Scouts. However, this wasn’t necessary because Ralph Coltrin and his two sons Brian and David, along with his brother-in-law Steven Hess, joined the Dove Mountain Hikers and three members of the Sunflower Hiking Club on our adventure. Ralph did a fantastic job describing the events and discussing the mishaps that led to the boys’ deaths. The 25 hikers expected to have a great hike with Ralph. What we didn’t know was that before the hike was over we would be witnesses to a bit of history being made.
Our hike began at the Old Baldy trailhead in Madera Canyon. Ralph explained how the boys set up camp there in the early
afternoon when the weather was warm and pleasant with no rain or snow in the forecast. They had already hiked about a mile from where Mike Early’s father John dropped them off at the old Santa Rita Lodge. We hiked the Old Baldy trail to Josephine Saddle just as the boys did. At the saddle we paused for pictures at the Boy Scout memorial sign. From Josephine Saddle the Old Baldy trail continues up to Baldy Saddle and Mt. Wrightson, the boys’ intended destination. Ralph told us that on the Boy Scouts’ hike they began to see dark clouds hanging low over the peak and as a 12-year-old he was excited to think they would be hiking into them. None of the boys made it to the top of the peak. Instead the group split up before reaching Baldy Saddle with three returning safely down the Old Baldy trail to their campsite. The other three – Mike Early, David Greenberg and Michael LeNoue – were not so
lucky. Though it is not known for certain what happened after the group separated, Ralph believes the other three boys most likely continued up the trail for only a short distance before also turning around. From Josephine Saddle, our group walked just a few more feet up the Old Baldy trail to the point where it meets the trailhead for Temporal Gulch. We paused there as Ralph explained how the three ill-fated Scouts could very easily have made a wrong turn onto the Temporal Gulch trail as they were returning down the Old Baldy trail on what had become a very dark and cloudy night.
Ralph then led us about a half-mile down the Temporal Gulch trail to the site where the bodies of the three Scouts were found. Over the years Ralph formulated a theory that as the boys descended the trail the oldest boy and leader Mike Early slipped and fell 100 feet down the steep hillside, breaking his leg. Later, as a result of Cathy Hufault’s research for her book, her husband John further theorized that Mike Early’s fall was likely due to tripping over an old phone line. The phone line is still visible along the trail just above where the boys were found. At this point the boys had no choice but to stop and set up camp as best they could. They subsequently perished as several feet of snow fell and temperatures dropped below freezing. Several hikers joined Ralph and descended the hillside. Ralph pointed out
where the boys had made their camp and built a campfire. The three bodies were found 75-100 feet apart down the steep hillside. In 1959 the spot where each body was found was marked with a wooden cross and a metal plaque with the name inscribed. Over the years these memorials deteriorated and no longer exist. After much searching in recent years Ralph had found the plaques for Mike Early and David Greenberg. He gave David Greenberg’s plaque to his mother and Mike Early’s plaque to the Boy Scout Museum. Michael LaNoue’s plaque had never been found.
As it turns out, the day of our hike two other hikers from Green Valley, Andrew Scott Gallas and his son Scott, were also on the trail to explore the area where the tragic events took place. They had been to Cathy Hufault’s book presentation in Green Valley and read the book. At the presentation Cathy told them that Ralph would be hiking with our group later in the month. They decided to look for us and before we arrived they explored the death site on their own and found the lost plaque marking the location of Michael LaNoue's death. They passed our group as they were returning up the Temporal Gulch trail and learned that Ralph was on the hike. At that point they returned to the death site to find Ralph and give him the plaque. They then
went down the hillside once again to show Ralph and several other hikers where they had found it. Ralph was very grateful to have the plaque and told us he did not know yet what he would do with it. We were thrilled to be part of this historic find and very happy for Ralph.
Andrew Scott Gallas and his son Scott with Ralph Coltrin Jr. holding Michael LaNoue’s memorial plaque (photo by professional photographer Melba Cope)
Most of the writing on the plaque is no longer visible. We know from an old photo of David Greenberg’s plaque in the book that each plaque included the boy’s name along with his birth date and death date.
We then returned to Josephine Saddle for lunch and more pictures. We were grateful for sunny and warm weather for our hike and headed back down the Old Baldy trail to our cars in the parking lot. Many thanks to Ralph Coltrin for his willingness to share his story and answer our many questions. It was a hike we won’t forget.
Additional photos of the hike can be found using the following links: