The Story of Donald Downs – Part 1

January 7th, 2014 → 3:30 am @ // 4 Comments

Forester Pass looking south.

This view from the top of Forester Pass, looking south, likely includes the area where the trail crew camped. The actual incident occurred behind the masking rocks on the left.

Familiarity not only breeds contempt, it can also desensitize one to risk. Even dangerous work can become monotonous, and monotony can lead to inattentiveness, inattentiveness to carelessness.

The six-man trail construction team operating just north of Forester Pass in late August of 1930 certainly had plenty familiarity with explosives. Their primary tools were shovels, pry bars and other small implements, but when they had to move something outsized, dynamite was the only way to do it.

It had taken the team three days, on horseback, to arrive at this spot within the Kern River drainage. The John Muir Trail was still eight years from completion, and except for a certain stretch to the north (where the Golden Staircase would someday be carved out of the granite), this was the toughest section left to complete.

Another team was working on the north side of the pass in the Kings River drainage. If all went as planned, sometime the following year, the two trails would meet and connect the two valleys.

It was mid-morning on Tuesday, August 26th, when George Carey, the designated “powderman”, set off the blast. The other five team members were close–too close–but shared a false confidence that the boulders they hid behind would shelter them from the flying debris, and that the blast would be insufficient to have any effect on rocks substantially larger than the horses they rode in on. They were right on both counts, but had failed to take into account the talus upon which the boulders sat. As the blast echoed across the treeless terrain the talus began to slide, and so did the boulders.

They didn’t go far–five feet at the most. But when they stopped, four men were injured. Donald “Buck” Downs sustained the most serious of the injuries: his left arm was crushed all the way to the collarbone.

The two uninjured men, possibly assisted by one or more of the injured, managed to free Donald’s arm. The incapacitated and the walking wounded were evacuated to the camp, which was about six hundred feet away. Once there, Carey took off to get help, heading across Diamond Mesa, Tydall Creek and the Bighorn Plateau, all the way to the ranger station at Crabtree Meadow. That’s about eighteen miles on a good trail, today, but in 1930 much of it would have been cross-country.

He made it to the ranger station a couple of hours after dark and reported the accident to Ranger Sam Clark. Clark had to ride nearly five hours to the nearest telephone, which he did, arriving by early Wednesday morning. More than thirteen hours after the accident it was finally reported to someone in a position to assemble a rescue team, including a doctor.

Help was on the way, but would it arrive in time? And even if it did, just how bad was the injury to Downs?

More, next week.

Good hiking, Ray

UPDATE: This post was edited to place the location of the accident on the south side of the pass; in the original post it was mis-located to the north.

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4 Comments → “The Story of Donald Downs – Part 1”

  1. Ken

    2 years ago

    Hey Ray, I really enjoy following your travels through the John Muir Trail, your gear reviews, and other reflections along the way. I have a passion for backpacking and hope to one day hike the entire John Muir trail. Thank you for continuing to inspire!

    Let us live every day with purpose distant friend…


    • Ray Rippel

      2 years ago

      Thanks for the comment, Ken, and thanks for the link. Looks interesting!

  2. […] for Donald Downs, a kid who died while working on the trail. You can read more about his story here and […]

  3. […] something remarkable or momentous happened, without knowing. In the past I’ve described the ordeal of Donald Downs. Another famous fatality occurred almost exactly one mile from the John Muir Trail: the death of […]


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