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Pair of hikers found dead in Desolation Wilderness

Jeff Pelline
Nevada Appeal News Service

The discovery of two bodies in the Desolation Wilderness Area this past weekend came after an extensive search effort 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 daylong search by dozens of people on foot, horseback and in a helicopter. The two friends and neighbors from Lincoln had set out on a four-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 father during 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 Sunday.

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

Smith’s body was found by search teams Saturday afternoon near the steep shores of Eagle Lake.

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 Wednesday night.

Hylton was a fairly experienced backcountry 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 backcountry and find help for his friend. Besides having to navigate steep terrain at dusk, he had to contend with nighttime temperatures that dipped below freezing and a moon that provided just 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 Saturday.

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

On Sunday afternoon, visitors to Tahoe had parked on the roadside of Highway 89 to see the majestic Emerald Bay and Eagle Falls – not far from the spot where the two men left for their backcountry journey only days ago. Some of the visitors were not aware 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 father’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.