About Joshua Tree National Park Search & Rescue

The first search ever recorded in the Joshua Tree area was for Matt Riley. Riley was a miner in the Dale Mining District who as a dare decided to walk from the Brooklyn Mine to Cottonwood Springs Oasis on July 4, 1905. Celebrating the nation’s independence, he had been drinking alcohol. Riley came within a half mile of the Oasis, turned back, and expired from dehydration and exposure. Miners searching for him found his body just north of the present Cottonwood Visitor Center.

The park’s first known SAR training occurred in July 1951 when an air rescue unit occupied Hidden Valley Campground for five days during a rock climbing training. However, it wasn’t until November 19, 1975, that surviving records shows the park had its first technical climbing rescue. These records also show the first training of rangers in technical rescue was January 15, 1981.

As rock climbing increased in popularity in the 1980s, the rescues began to increase and so was born Joshua Tree National Park Search and Rescue (JOSAR). The park needed a team that was trained, equipped, and prepared to respond to visitors in distress. The catalyst was the Rodica Ionasescu rescue in Rattlesnake Canyon on New Year's Eve 1981. Ms. Ionasescu was hiking on a first date with Dave Anderson at least 2.5 miles from the trailhead when they noticed the sun go down and the temperature rapidly plummet. They weren't dressed for cold or equipped with a flashlight so they started to run and boulder hop their way back to the trailhead before it became dark. At one point around 5 pm, she hit some “rollerbearings” (small pebble rocks) and fell about 25 feet, sustaining head trauma, a pelvis fracture, and a broken arm.  Dave Anderson treated her head trauma, covered her with spare clothing, began to climb down to summon help, and got lost in the dark. He finally made it out to the Indian Cove picnic area two hours later where he reported the incident to the Indian Cove Ranger Station.

Meanwhile, the Park’s New Year's Eve Party was just beginning at park headquarters. A “hasty team” (2 to 3 people) was organized with whoever was able to drive. They met Mr. Anderson at the trailhead. Because he got lost coming out, Mr. Anderson wasn't certain where he had left his friend, so the first goal was to conduct a search to find the victim. She wasn't located until about 10 pm in a semi-conscious and hypothermic state from laying in shock on the cold rock surface. She was treated for her injuries, warmed using external core re-warming methods (heat packs under her armpits). The limited manpower, rugged terrain, and her injuries convinced the team that a rough carryout would probably kill her. She was stabilized in place and an air evacuation was planned for sunrise.

Murphy’s Law struck about 5 am, with a storm front arriving which prevented the San Bernardino Sheriff’s helicopter from flying through Banning Pass.  The helicopter was forced to take the long way around through Cajon Pass and the north side of the National Forest. It was mid-morning before their old UH-1 B model “Huey” landed at the trailhead. The rescuers were then informed that the canyon was too tight for the helicopter to land (this was before they had hoist capability); so another call went out requesting their smaller Hughes 500 D helicopter. When the second helicopter arrived, the winds had reached 45 MPH, causing the pilot to twice abort attempting to get in close enough for a one-skid hover.  On the third attempt, the rescuers were able to load the litter on-board and Ms. Ionasescu was air-lifted out of the canyon around noon to Eisenhower Hospital.

The "Rattlesnake Canyon Rescue Team," as they were called, was awarded a unit citation by Secretary of the Interior James Watt which was presented by Western Regional Director, Howard Chapman, on May 19, 1982. Up to that time, the team was just a bunch of rangers, volunteer local climbers, and a few other members of the Park staff and Park wives who referred to themselves as the "Rolling Stone Rescue Service" (RSRS).  The RSRS logo was developed during a technical rescue seminar held in October 1981.  Upon presentation of the unit citation, Park Superintendent Rick Anderson said he didn't like the RSRS logo that was worn on their t-shirts and hats.  It depicted a single point suspension lower where the rescuer was negotiating the litter. Superintendent Anderson was a member Yosemite National Park’s SAR team which later was called YOSAR (Yosemite Search and Rescue).  Ranger Tom Patterson suggested the team be named "JOSAR" as a joke. The name stuck. 

During the after action review, it was determined that the Park needed to have an organized response to these types of incidents, and a full time team was born.

The rescuers and charter JOSAR team members were Michael Brinkmeyer, Karen and Ron Matthews, Becky and Tom Patterson, J. Brent Pennington, and Dr. Bill Clem.  Dr. Clem had been recorded as the first use of a volunteer by the Park on a SAR mission previously on November 27, 1981.  Bright yellow and free nomex fire shirts were the first issued uniform to JOSAR members after Park Superintendent Anderson spotted a photo of team member Becky Patterson in the local newspaper lowering a litter in a little white spaghetti strap tank top.


Did you know?

...these Statistics

  • Since 1982, JOSAR has performed more than a thousand searches and rescues.
  • The busiest recorded day was February 15, 1997 with three searches and one rescue.
  • The busiest year was 1995 with 25 searches and 43 rescues.
  • Park statistics show searches will most likely occur on a Saturday in April between 5 pm and 8 pm for a visitor between 19-27 years old in the Indian Cove area. 
  • Park statistics show rescues will most likely occur on a Saturday in April between 1 P.M. and 3 P.M. for a visitor 20-25 years old in the Indian Cove area.
  • The average distance most people fall is 15-20 feet. 
  • The most common injury is a fracture, and the most common part of body injured is the ankle or foot. 
  • Most of the incidents are from rock scramblers and not technical rock climbers.

...these Fun Facts & Records

  • During June 24-26, 1984 the world’s longest Tyrolean traverse of 854 feet 2 inches at Devils Tower National Monument, in Wyoming. 
  • JOSAR’s first use of a CHP helicopter for a rescue was in April 1985 for a hiker who fell while scrambling above Barker Dam. 
  • April 1985, the first helicopter hoist-extraction was performed at night in the Wonderland of Rocks by Marine Corps Air Station El Toro. The flight crew was later awarded a commendation by the NPS. 
  • Another JOSAR “first" in April 1993 was the use of an inflatable raft to transport a climbing accident victim across Barker Dam at night.
  • JOSAR even added a few new words to the English language.  “SARburban,” a sport utility vehicle dedicated to carrying rescue equipment.  And, “SARbeque”, a social gathering of team members.

In 2000, JOSAR was completely reorganized with new training programs, equipment, and a mandate to continue updating techniques and efficiency for safety and the best possible outcome for incidents. Since then, JOSAR has played a significant role in developing new rescue methods and testing old and new tools and techniques. JOSAR has made multiple presentations at the International Technical Rescue Symposium, and produced several training videos.

In 2004, JOSAR members received the National Park Service SAR Award pin authorized by the Director for "civilians who have made a significant contribution to National Park Service SAR programs in the areas of prevention, preparedness, training, and education".

JOSAR has spent 35 years perfecting SAR techniques and saving lives.