2 die on Sierra camping trip near Lake Tahoe | SierraSun.com

2 die on Sierra camping trip near Lake Tahoe

Jeff Pelline
Sun News Service

LAKE TAHOE ” The discovery of two bodies in the Desolation Wilderness Area this past weekend came after one of the most extensive search efforts here in years and is a sobering reminder of the risks of high-country camping and hiking.

The bodies of Thomas Hylton, 70, and Jerome Smith, 78, were found after a day’s long search by dozens of people on foot, horseback and in a helicopter. The two friends and neighbors from Lincoln had set out on a 4-mile hike and two-night camping trip in the Desolation Wilderness Area just west of Tahoe’s Emerald Bay.

“They went on a short trip to get acclimated to the area for a longer trip in September,” said Stuart Smith, Smith’s son, who joined the search for his dad on the weekend.

Authorities surmised that Hylton died from a medical emergency, perhaps a stroke or heart attack.

Smith set out at dusk, slipped and fell to his death while trying to hike out and find help, his son and authorities speculated. The elder Smith was found with a whistle and flashlight.

“In all likelihood, he must have taken some kind of fall that made him unconscious,” the younger Smith said on Sunday.

Hylton was found dead Friday at the campsite about 1 mile south of Eagle Lake near Tahoe.

Smith’s body was found by search teams on Saturday afternoon near the steep shores of Eagle Lake, set amid mountain peaks that still were covered with snow.

The El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office responded to a report late Thursday that the two campers were overdue from their trip. The two were expected home on Wednesday night.

Hylton was a fairly experienced back-country hiker, the younger Smith said. Though fit and an outdoorsman, his father was not as experienced, his son said.

Smith faced challenges to hike out of the back country and find help for his friend. Besides having to navigate steep terrain at dusk, he had to contend with nighttime temperatures that dipped to freezing and a moon that provided only a sliver of light this time of the month.

A team of about 50 people was dispatched to find the two men. The group included members of the Sheriff’s Office, Highway Patrol and U.S. Forest Service, among others. Smith’s son joined the rescue effort on Saturday.

“There were helicopters, dogs and horses,” Stuart Smith said.

On Sunday afternoon, visitors to Tahoe had parked their cars on the roadside of Highway 89 to gaze at Emerald Bay and Eagle Falls at peak runoff – a scenic spot that was close to the trailhead where the two friends left for their back-country journey only days earlier.

Many of the visitors were unaware of the weekend tragedy.

“It’s a sad day and a reminder that the Desolation Wilderness can be a dangerous area for hikers and campers,” said Ian Wrens, a park aide at D.L. Bliss State Park, near Emerald Bay. Wrens monitored the search on the park ranger’s radio frequency.

“Our condolences go out to both the Hylton and Smith families in their time of loss,” said Lt. Les Lovell of the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office.

“We were all going to be together for Father’s Day weekend,” the younger Smith said, adding that his dad’s birthday was this Friday. “We’re still going to be together, minus our hero.”

A memorial service is planned for later this month in Lincoln.