Monday, July 7, 2014

A Deadly Vision

June 30, 2014 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

From left: Missing Utah hikers Adrean Charles, Malcolm Meeks and Curtis Merworth.
Gold and treasure have attracted men and women to the Superstition Mountain region for more than a century, and their quest for lost treasure or gold has often turned tragic. Searching for gold or lost treasure in the summer months with little or no experience in the region can result in deadly consequences. The vision of riches has led many to their final resting place among the rocks and cacti of this unforgiving land known as the Superstition Wilderness Area. This column is a reminder of how dangerous and deadly these mountains can be in the summer months. An early morning hike into the desert or mountains can be tragic if a person is injured or underestimates the desert heat.

In July, 2011, three men from Utah embarked upon a treasure-hunting quest that ended their lives. Curtis Glenn Merworth, Malcolm Jerome Meeks and Adrean Charles headed for an unknown destination deep in the Superstition Wilderness Area. At that particular time of year the ground surface temperatures could heat up to 180°F. The darker the ground the hotter the temperatures can be. The air temperature was above 110°F and water was scare within the vastness of this mountain wilderness in July. A blind vision of golden riches drew these men into this internal hell like a magnet. The men were aware of the dangers apparently because they carried umbrellas to protect themselves from the burning rays of the sun. However, they failed to carry enough water to survive the stifling heat. The victims’ car was parked at First Water Trailhead around Tuesday, July 6, 2010.

The last person to visit with these three men prior to their fatal journey was Louis Ruiz at the Blue Bird Mine Curio Shop and Snack Bar on the Apache Trail. Curtis Merworth purchased a map and bid Louis farewell.

Soon after the men arrived they were reported missing. The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office set up a search and rescue command post at First Water Trail Head on Sunday, July 11, 2010. This was three days after they had gone into the mountains from First Water Trail Head. The sheriff’s office had a helicopter transporting search crews to different points within the wilderness to conduct searches. The helicopter crew searched the area by air looking for any visible clues. Approximately a hundred people were searching the area on foot, horseback and by air. All of this searching did not produce a single clue as to  what had happen to these men. The MCSO Search & Rescue Command Post was taken down on Sunday July 18, 2010. Members of the MCSO, PCSO, Superstition Search & Rescue, and other volunteers continued searching for the three missing men through December 2010. As of January 1, 2011, not one clue had been found associated with these three missing men. It was as if they had vanished from the face of the Earth.

Ironically, searching for hikers is one thing, but searching for treasure hunters is something entirely different. Hikers and horseman generally remain on wilderness system trails. However, treasure hunters (Dutch hunters) wander in all directions over the mountain’s vastness looking for clues to lost gold caches.  A clue might be a pictoglyph, a certain shaped rock, a cactus or maybe an old claim marker. These treasure hunters are usually far removed from system trails and often in extremely rugged country. I am sure the MCSO and other search groups did everything possible to locate these missing men. These officers are dedicated men and women who are here to protect and serve us. Once the officials scaled back their operations the volunteer groups began their search for the three missing men. I followed the activities of the Superstition Search & Rescue Teams during their searches. They are a very dedicated and highly trained group of young men and women who devote hours of volunteer time to help others. This team is a member of CERTS, a Community Emergency Response Team working with the Apache Junction Police Department and trained by the State of Arizona. We cannot fault anyone for not finding these men sooner because in the end they were far off any beaten path. They were in an area it was highly unlikely anyone would search.

Richard “Rick” Gwynn, author and prospector was hiking in the Superstition Wilderness Area on Wednesday, January 5, 2011 trying to piece together clues about the lost gold of these mountains about two miles east of First Water Trailhead. He made a gruesome discovery on the NNE slope of Yellow Peak. He found two skeletons fully dressed lying on loose steeply sloping black-basaltic rock talus about 150 feet wide and 1000 feet long. Nearby he found two umbrellas they had been using for shade. Near the bodies was a battery-powered lamp. Rick said it appeared the men had died of natural causes. They had no water. Summer temperature on the black basaltic rock probably reached an easy 180°F.  No human or animal would have lasted very long lying or crawling across that black rock.

Again the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office helicopter and search teams searched for the third victim. You must bear in mind this is extremely rough terrain. Again they didn’t have any success. After the MCSO was done searching the Superstition Search and Rescue Team returned to the field. They began a search on Thursday, January 13, 2011, searching northward toward Black Mesa near the southeastern part of the mesa. It was in this area about ¾ mile north of the first site that SSAR team found what appeared to be debris field that included a bone. They had no idea it was human, but thought it was fresh. The team returned to area on Saturday, January 15, 2011 and found skeletal remains.

Search Commander Cooper immediately notified MCSO. The MCSO called out their helicopter rescue team under the direction of Deputies David Bremeton and Jesse Robinson. They supervised the removal of the third victim’s remains from the wilderness area. This discovery and removal of the last body closed another sad chapter in the history of these mountains and the search for missing Utah prospectors. The failure of these men to understand the dangers of the mountains in the summer months cost them their lives. Finally, the three Utah gold hunters had been found; ending one of the most difficult searches in Superstition Wilderness Area history.

Their vision of lost gold had been a fatal attraction for them.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Arizona's Monsoons

June 23, 2014 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

According to legend the great “Thunder God”
roars during the summer months in Arizona.
According to legend and myth the great “Thunder God” roars during the summer months in Arizona. Many of us do not find this hard to believe if we have experienced a severe and violent thunderstorm in the Apache Junction-Gold Canyon area during the summer monsoon season. The lightning, thunder and winds will convince the non-believer these storms can be dangerous and violent. Our summer monsoons are just around the corner. They usually began in early July.

During the summer months most of the storms over central Arizona and the eastern portion of the Superstition Wilderness Area result from warm moist air flowing in from the Gulf of Mexico and sometimes from the Gulf of California (Sea of Cortez). As this air mass moves across Texas, New Mexico, and Mexico it is dried out some. Mountains force the warm moist air upward forming clouds that eventually release their moisture as they rise. This is known as “orographic life.”

These massive anvil-shaped thunderhead clouds that form over Superstition Mountain from July to September normally combine both orographic lift and convectional activity together. Convectional storm clouds result from the rapidly rising and expanding warm moist air and the rapidly falling cold moist air. It is during this convectional activity that lightning is generated. The uneven heating of the earth’s surface causes convectional activity in the atmosphere.

Lightning can be caused by the attraction of unlike electrical charges within a large storm cell. The rapid movement of ice and water molecules, going up and down in a thunderhead cell, creates friction that results in enormous amounts of static electricity being produced. A single lightning discharge can produce about 30 million volts at 125,000 amperes. A discharge can occur in less than 1/10 of a second. The results of a lightning strike can be horrific.

The rapid rising and falling of warm and cold moist air also creates violent bursts of energy. This type of storm activity can result in microbursts. A microburst can develop winds that momentarily reach up to 200 mph. As the clouds build and combine they form massive anvil-shaped thunderheads called Cumulonimbus clouds.

These clouds are massive static generators dispersing lightning and creating violent winds. These summer storms can be extremely dangerous and violent.

These giant thunderheads dominate the sky above Superstition Mountain during the monsoon season and the lightning produced by these storms over the Mountain can be spectacular.

According to most sources, the safest place during a lightning storm is in a non-grounded automobile. Don’t make yourself part of a lightning rod during an electrical storm by standing by a lone tree or on a high point. The use of your telephone during an electrical storm could be your last conversation, depending on the circumstances of a lightning strike. The same is true when connecting to the Internet during a violent lightning storm or thunderstorm.

Standing near or in a swimming pool is asking to meet your maker. Boating on a lake during an electrical storm is certainly risky behavior. This kind of activity could certainly reduce your chance of living to old age. Common sense needs to prevail during severe thunder and lightning storms.

Most Arizona monsoon storms are associated with two other dangerous conditions. They are flash floods and dust storms. A thunderstorm can dump three to ten inches of rain over a small area in an hour and create a massive flash flood. A flash flood near Payson, Arizona in the 1970’s claimed the lives of twenty-two campers along Christopher Creek. Many years ago I witnessed a four-foot wall of water roaring down Queen Creek claiming trucks, horse trailers and horses. This flash flood resulted from a thunderstorm in the mountains no one saw coming.

Huge dust clouds are often associated with Monsoons storms in the desert. Local weather reporters often refer to our dust storms as Haboobs.  Actually, Egyptian dust storms that blow in from the deserts of North Africa are known as Haboobs.

Dust storms are extremely dangerous to vehicular traffic along our state’s highways. Extreme caution should be taken when dust storms are encountered. It is recommended that motorist pull as far off the highway as possible and turn off your lights. While waiting a dust storm to blow over don’t rest your foot on the brake pedal. Your taillights or brake lights might attract drivers in the storm who might think they are following you.

If you’ve ever witnessed a violent electrical storm over Superstition Mountain it is not difficult to see why the early Native Americans held this mountain in such awe. We can partially explain the phenomena today with modern science, but the early Native Americans could only look to their religious shaman for an explanation. It certainly was their “Thunder God” with all it fury.

We, as late arrivals, should also respect the awesome power of these primitive peoples’ “Thunder God.”