Tales from the Morgue: Lost in the Catalinas

2014-02-12T09:00:00Z 2014-04-28T06:13:06Z Tales from the Morgue: Lost in the CatalinasJohanna Eubank Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
February 12, 2014 9:00 am  • 

It's a story heard too often. A hiking party in the Catalina Mountains encounters an unexpected snow storm and is missing. This one involved two University of Arizona students.

From the Arizona Daily Star, Monday, Feb. 6, 1939:

Two Students Believed Lost In Catalinas
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FEAR THEY ARE STRANDED HELD BY AUTHORITIES
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Hike to Window May Have Brought Disaster in Snow and Cold
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POSSE PLANS HUNT
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Trip Which Was Started Saturday Is Checked by University
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Two University of Arizona students, gone from their dormitory since 11 a.m. Saturday, were reported last night to be missing—and probably lost—in the snow-covered Santa Catalina mountains.

The students, Ernest A. Taft, jr., of Globe and William D. Burney, Winslow, set out from Cochise hall Saturday morning to hike to "The Window," fellow students said.

"The Window," a hole in the ridge at the summit of the range, is visible from the outskirts of Tucson. That part of the mountains was swept Saturday afternoon and yesterday by heavy snows.

Sheriff Called

When the youths had not returned yesterday morning, Arthur H. Otis, dean of men at the university, called the sheriff's office, and deputies spent the afternoon searching trails in the lower part of the mountains. They returned to report that the snow and rain had wiped out any tracks the hikers might have left.

A sheriff's posse was to leave this morning to attempt to reach "The Window," where, deputies believed, the youths might have established a camp to await rescue.

Added fears for their safety were felt last night as the storm cleared and temperatures dropped, probably nearly to zero in the high mountains.

Father On Way

D. M. Burney, Winslow, father of the missing student, meanwhile started for Tucson to assist in the search.

Mrs. Belle Taft, Ernest's mother, and Frank Sawyer, his uncle, who arrived yesterday to visit the boy and found him gone, stayed over to await developments.

Taft and Burney wore cotton sweaters and leather jackets and carried no supplies. University authorities discounted the possibility they might have found the trail impassable and returned. It was definitely established they were not on the campus last night, and had not changed clothing.

Posse Planned

Fellow residents of Cochise hall last night moved to form their own posse to search for the youths, but gave up the project at the request of Sheriff Ed Echols. Echols said he might enlist some of the university students in his own posse, however.

Friends of the two students said they had planned to return Saturday night from their hike.

The two students made the second party to be reported missing in the Catalinas within a week. William C. Turpin, 38, and Jack Price, 70, were found last week after having been stranded overnight when their car broke down on an unfrequented mountain road.

A day later, more was learned. From the Star, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 1939:

U.A. Hikers Trapped In Storm; One Dead
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Survivor Recounts Nightmare Fight With Cold High In Catalina Mountains; Carried Mate Until Strength Gave Out
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A fight against the elements high in the Catalina mountains Saturday and Sunday caused the death early yesterday of William D. Burney, 19-year-old University of Arizona student, after he had been carried down from the mountain foothills and rushed to St. Mary's hospital. His companion, Ernest A. Taft, jr., 19, a fellow student who started out with him at 11 a.m. Saturday to climb to "The Window," a hole in a mountain ridge atop the Catalinas, was confined in the university infirmary but reported not in serious condition.

A sheriff's posse, headed by Undersheriff John C. Devine brought Burney out of the mountains and to the hospital about 3:30 o'clock yesterday morning after Taft had fought his way to the Hacienda del Sol girls school about 1:30 a.m. and reported their plight.

Carried Four Miles

Burney was unconscious when Devine and his men reached him. After carrying him for four miles through rugged foothill country to their car, which they had left at the foot of the trail leading up from Campbell avenue, he was rushed to the hospital. Warmth, rubbing, and finally an oxygen tank, failed to save his life.

Taft yesterday told how he and Burney left the university campus Saturday morning, clad in levis, cotton sweaters and leather jackets, to hike to "The Window." He said they realized late in the afternoon they would not be able to make it and started back down the mountain. They took a different canyon from the one which they had followed while climbing, however, and ran into a 300-foot drop, forcing them to turn back and find another way out.

Couldn't Make It

He said he and Burney retraced their steps but darkness began to descend when they still had a long way to go. They decided they could not make it and would have to spend the night in the mountains.

He said they gathered fire wood and built a fire under a rocky ledge which they believed would furnish them protection. He said it was about 7 o'clock Saturday night when they built the fire. About 11 o'clock it started to snow. About 1 a.m. their fire gave out and they were unable to find more wood in the darkness.

The two youths remained at the fire site until morning, battling snow and bitter winter winds. About a foot of snow fell during the night, Taft said. To get into the other canyon leading out of the mountains it was necessary to climb over a ridge separating it from the one they were in.

Burney Grows Dizzy

Taft said it took him and Burney about six hours through snow and over rocky mountainsides to get into the right canyon. Frequently they had to slap themselves to keep warm, and walking through the snow was difficult as they often could not see where they were going.

About 2 o'clock Sunday afternoon they were out of the worst of the snow, he said, and about 3 o'clock they reached a branch canyon.

Burney had begun to tire badly then and complained of feeling dizzy. About 5 o'clock they reached some cottonwoods where they found a trail. Taft said his companion sat down and said he couldn't go any farther. Each time he attempted to stand up he fell to the ground again. Taft said he believed Burney was "just tired out" so decided to stop a bit and let him rest. After resting, however, Burney was unable to get his feet again, although he crawled to a tree and pulled himself up, only to fall.

Carries Helpless Mate

Taft then carried Burney about a mile and a half down the trail. Burney was talking incoherently. Taft decided he would have to get him down and to a hospital as quickly as possible. Weary himself, he was forced to leave Burney by the trail and go ahead for help. He said he cautioned his companion to keep moving to keep warm and then set off down the trail. That was about 11:30 Sunday night.

At about 1:30 yesterday morning, he reached the Hacienda de Sol, where he found Bill Richards, who called the sheriff's office and reported what Taft told him. Devine and Ora Shinn and Louis Figueroa, deputies, left immediately for the scene, meeting Richards and Taft at the end of North Campbell avenue.

Taft went with the posse as guide as they started a four-mile hike to the place where Burney had been left. Deputy Figueroa located Burney when he heard him groaning. He was lying on his back with one leg raised in the air when they found him, Shinn said.

Never Regains Consciousness

Members of the posse attempted to restore circulation in Burney's body by rubbing him and placing a dry, warm coat on him, but with little success.

"His heart was beating a little but very weakly." Devine reported.

The posse then started back to the car, alternating in carrying Burney. An improvised stretcher gave out and Figueroa packed the unconscious youth for much of the four-mile trek, with assistance from Shinn, Devine and Richards.

Devine said they reached the hospital with Burney about 3:30 a. m. and that he died about half an hour later. He never regained consciousness, Devine said.

Officers' Efforts Futile

First report that the boys were missing was made to the sheriff's office at 11 o'clock Sunday morning by Dean A. H. Otis, dean of men at the university.

Devine said no one was able to tell him what trail the boys had taken into the mountains and that they checked every trail leading there Sunday afternoon but could find no one who had seen them.

Burney's parents, Mr. and Mrs. D. M. Burney had been advised that he was missing and arrived here Sunday night from Winslow. They were waiting at the car when the posse brought their unconscious son down off the mountain trail. Mr. and Mrs. E. A. Taft, Globe, who had likewise been informed, came here Sunday and were at the scene when the posse returned.

No Inquest Necessary

Coroner C. W. Gardner said no inquest would be held since there seemed to be no doubt that Burney died of exposure.

The body will be taken to Winslow today for funeral services and burial. Last night the body lay in the Reilly chapel and friends were allowed to view it.

These days, cell phones and GPS units make hiking a little safer, but we still hear tragic tales. The Morgue Lady's heart breaks for parents who must hear such news.

So always take water any time of year, layers of clothing in winter, sunscreen in summer, check weather reports and tell someone where you plan to start your hike and when you plan to return home. And even then, don't be complacent.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

About this blog

"Tales from the Morgue" is a way for the Star to share stories from the treasure trove of information held in its old files.

Johanna Eubank, aka the Morgue Lady, was a research assistant in the Star Library — also known as News and Research Services — for 18 years before becoming an online content producer. She has had her share of sneezing fits after digging into dusty old files, so she's sure to find a few old stories to re-examine.

If you have suggestions, comments or questions about this blog, e-mail jeubank@tucson.com

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