GREEN VALLEY, Ariz. — The Santa Rita Mountains gave up a secret last Saturday, a secret that stretches back more than 50 years to one of the saddest stories in Arizona history.
And it did so in startling fashion.
On Nov. 15, 1958, six Boy Scouts from Tucson started out on a day hike from Madera Canyon to Mount Baldy (Mount Wrightson) in the Santa Rita Mountains.
The temperature was in the 70s and the forecast called for wind but no chance of rain. They planned to return and spend the night in Madera Canyon, and stashed their overnight gear in a picnic area about a mile from Santa Rita Lodge. Around noon, they started up Old Baldy Trail toward Josephine Saddle.
On the hike were Louis Burgess, Ronny Sepulveda, Ralph Coltrin Jr., Mike Early, Michael LaNoue and David Greenberg, who was celebrating his 12th birthday.
Part way up the mountain, two young Scouts became tired and, with a third, turned back for base camp. The others, sensing they were on the verge of conquering the region's tallest peak, forged ahead.
Not long after, everything started to come apart.
Unsophisticated weather forecasting methods of the day couldn't predict what was to come. The wind kicked up and as night fell, the rain came. Snow began to fall around midnight and it seemed like it would never stop.
Burgess, Sepulveda and Coltrin headed down the mountain and made it to their gear where they huddled overnight in freezing sleeping bags under a picnic table. On Sunday morning, they found themselves under two feet of snow; Sepulveda had lost his shoes and walked barefoot with the others to the lodge.
The freak storm caused chaos as it dumped six inches of snow in Tucson, but on the mountain the scene was far worse with several feet of snow covering trails and landmarks.
The three lost Scouts prompted the largest rescue effort in Arizona history, with 700 volunteers combing the mountains. A week later, the search officially ended, but not everybody gave up. On Dec. 4, a rancher found three bodies east of Josephine Saddle. Soldiers from Fort Huachuca stacked rocks and erected crosses where the boys were discovered. Then they carried Mike Early, Michael LaNoue and David Greenberg off the mountain.
In August 1959, Ralph Coltrin Jr., who was just 12 on the day of the hike, returned to the site with John Early, Mike's father.
They carried three small markers fashioned by a metal worker with the Southern Pacific Railroad. Rescuers believe the boys died at a campfire about 100 feet below the Temporal Gulch Trail, and that two of the bodies then slid part way down the mountain.
Coltrin and Early found the three stone piles and wooden crosses erected by the soldiers and wired the metal markers with each boy's name to the memorials.
Thirty years later, in 1988, Coltrin returned to the mountain and found two of the three markers deteriorating. The third, Michael LaNoue's, was missing. He decided to take the markers off the mountain.
Greenberg's went to his family, but by then the Early family was gone and the metal marker was placed in the Otis H. Chidester Scout Museum in Tucson.
In 2010, Coltrin's sister, Cathy Hufault of Vail, wrote a book to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Boy Scouts' deaths.
"Death Clouds on Mt. Baldy: Tucson's Lost Tragedy" sparked renewed interest about the event in the mountains overlooking Green Valley and Sahuarita. Hufault went on television and radio to talk about the book that honored the Scouts who died and those who survived. She continues to do public speaking engagements, including one in Green Valley last month.
And that's where Andrew Scott Gallas comes into the picture.
Gallas, who goes by Scott, is 54 and only recently started hiking in the Santa Ritas. He heard Hufault speak at the Green Valley library and had read her book. She mentioned that the third marker had been lost for decades, and that her brother still led hiking groups up the mountain to the site where the boys died. Gallas was intrigued by the story, especially since the mountains are practically in his front yard.
On Saturday, Gallas and his 23-year-old son, Scotty Jr., went to Madera Canyon, then, like six Boy Scouts more than 50 years ago, they headed up the mountain.
"We got up to Josephine Saddle and saw people there," Gallas said.
The hikers were congregating around a memorial to the three young boys. It reads, "Strangers pause here and remember David Greenberg, 12, Mike Early, 16, Michael J. LaNoue, 13, who passed to a better place. Nov. 15, 1958."
"I took a quarter out of my pocket and stuck it on the memorial and we just kept going," Gallas said.
Then, he said, things got odd.
"It was like somebody poked me in the back. I got goose bumps. I told my son, 'We have to find where those boys were.'"
"In (Hufault's) book there's a map that marks the death site, and so I followed the map."
Gallas and his son left Temporal Gulch Trail just after McBeth Spring and found piles of rocks that looked like they'd been stacked.
That's when the mountain gave up its secret.
"My son and I sat next to it and there was the cross part of the plaque sticking out of the rocks," Gallas said. "I pulled it out and it had wire on it that had been wrapped around the stick of the wooden cross. I wasn't sure this was the long-lost (marker) because I walked right to it."
"I says to my son. 'I think this is that plaque.'"
"I wasn't looking for the artifact at all. I was looking for the site," he said.
The two men discussed whether it was proper to take the marker from the site. Scotty Jr. had misgivings, but Gallas said the plaque was lost to the world and he wanted to get it into the right hands.
Turns out, it wouldn't be long before he had the opportunity.
The men climbed a steep incline back to Temporal Gulch Trail then headed in the direction of home.
"Twenty yards down the trail we run into a group of hikers," Gallas said. "I got about halfway through them and I ask, 'Are one of you named Ralph?'"
"When I listened to his sister speak three weeks earlier, I heard he still took people up there and had a trip planned soon."
Moments later, he was face to face with Ralph Coltrin Jr., the man who narrowly escaped death on Mount Baldy more than 50 years ago.
"They asked me to describe (the marker)," Coltrin said Monday from his home in Tucson. "I drew it with my finger in the dirt."
Gallas brought out the marker.
"He immediately said, 'This is Michael LaNoue's plaque,'" Gallas said. "He was shaking."
"It was quite emotional for me," Coltrin said. "It's kind of like finding a long-lost friend in a way."
The Scouts, Coltrin said, had paired off that day. He was LaNoue's hiking and bunk partner.
"With all the interest in the book, I felt that somebody somewhere would come along and find it," Hufault said. "We are so grateful to the man and his son who found it and returned it."Comment on this story
Coltrin now has the plaque but he isn't sure what he's going to do with it.
"I wasn't expecting to find it so I didn't have anything in mind just yet," he said, adding that it probably would go to the Boy Scout museum to sit alongside Early's plaque.
As for Gallas, he's humbled at his role in a story that has stretched more than five decades.
"It was like this kid wanted to be found again," he said. "And his friend is at the top of the trail when I get there."
"I feel so honored to be a small part of the legend of this area. Like the final mystery."
Information from: Green Valley News, http://www.gvnews.com