Hiking for Heroes: Fairbanks Ranch resident completes 6 Peaks Challenge
Dr. Dan Witcher’s climbs raise funds, awareness for Veterans Village dental clinic
Dr. Dan Witcher, a local oral surgeon and Fairbanks Ranch resident, recently completed the Six-Pack of Peaks Challenge, tackling six iconic San Diego County mountains: Volcan Mountain, Corte Madera, Cuyamaca Peak, Hot Springs Mountain, High Point and El Cajon Mountain, considered “the hardest hike in San Diego”.
Hiking for heroes, Witcher summitted the six to raise awareness and funds for the San Diego County Dental Foundation’s upcoming gala on Oct. 14 which supports the foundation’s charitable arm, the John Geis DDS Dental Clinic. Located at the Veterans Village of San Diego, the clinic provides free restorative dental care to underserved veterans, helping those looking to reclaim their lives to do so with a healthier and more confident smile.
Witcher has been on the board of the president of the San Diego County Dental Foundation for several years and currently serves as its president. For the last eight years, he has run Coastal Oral and Facial Surgery in Solana Beach.
Along with his buddies, Witcher had been thinking about different things they could do to bring awareness to the cause when they discovered Social Hiker’s Six-Pack of Peaks Challenge. Witcher has always been an outdoorsy guy and had hiked spots like El Cajon Mountain but many of the places he had never even heard of. They decided to take on the challenge and to do six peaks in six weeks, starting on July 16.
With some dads in the neighborhood and local dentists, the plan was to met at trailheads at 6 a.m. every Sunday morning, hike the peaks and make it home in time for brunch with their families afterward.
“One thing I learned was how big San Diego County was,” said Witcher. Many peaks were about an hour and a half drive from Fairbanks Ranch so getting to the trailheads early meant leaving around 4 or 4:30 in the morning.
The highest peak, Hot Springs Mountain outside of Warner Springs, was one of the more unique experiences. It is located on an Indian reservation and to gain access to the land, hikers must have a permit from the tribe Las Coyotes Band of Cahuilla and Cupeno Indians. Climbing to an elevation of 6,526 feet, the views were pretty amazing at the top: “We were the tallest people in San Diego County for a couple of minutes,” he said.
Witcher said Hot Springs might have been his favorite due to a trickier summit that involved big rocks with a few ropes and a rickety old ladder secured to the boulders that you had to use to reach the top.
The longest trek was High Point in the Palomar Range—Witcher learned that Palomar is not a single mountain but a range with a few different peaks. The one with the observatory is actually not the highest. High Point was just under 6,100 feet elevation and it was a 14-mile hike out and back.
At High Point, they spotted the U.S. Forest Service fire lookout tower, one of the few in the country that is actively manned by volunteer fire spotters rather than just a camera. As they arrived at the summit close to 8 a.m. they saw a man arriving for his shift, climbing up to keep watch over the county.
One of the more memorable hikes of the six was Cuyamaca Peak—he and his friend John Erickson, a Fairbanks Ranch resident, decided it would be a fun idea to bring their four-year-old daughters along with them.
“We, of course, envisioned them hiking for a bit, then taking a load off in our backpacks for a bit. It was over 90 degrees when we started the hike, so they were on our backs the whole time,” Witcher said. “It was work to get to the summit, but we all made it in one piece, and the girls loved playing around at the top and exploring around the trees and trails near the summit.”
Witcher took on his sixth and final peak El Cajon Mountain the weekend that Hurricane Hillary was threatening to hit the county.
“El Cajon is the most strenuous because it’s a lot of up and down and you end up doing 11 miles,” Wicther said. “You get to the summit and still a lot of climbing to get back to the trailhead. It truly is uphill both ways.”
With an eye on the storm, he and Erickson decided to get out there and get up the mountain before the weather turned. They had both done the hike several times before and packed enough water, emergency supplies and carried GPS with SOS buttons. Typically August gets really hot but the weather was nice and cool that day for their hike with a little sprinkling of rain. They saw a little bit of hail at the summit but it was peaceful and quiet at the top.
With the six peak challenge complete, Witcher said he wasn’t quite ready to stop: “To really kill ourselves, we did a bonus peak.”
With Erickson, he hiked San Jacinto Mountain on the strenuous Cactus to Cloud Trail trail in Palm Springs. The hike starts at sea level and rises 10,000 vertical feet over 21 miles with the first 10 miles essentially straight up. To fight the heat, they started the hike at 3 a.m. (it was still 85 degrees at 3 a.m.) Called by Backpacker Magazine as “one of the hardest day hikes in the world” after reaching the peak, heated hikers take the Palm Springs Aerial Tram back down.
Throughout the course of the Six-Pack of Peaks Witcher and his friends posted on social media to raise awareness for their cause, the Geis Clinic, and when they signed their names to the logbooks they always wrote that they were hiking for the heroes with the San Diego Dental Foundation website link.
Witcher started his career as an oral surgeon in the Navy. He trained in San Diego and was stationed on the Nimitz Class aircraft carrier, the USS George Washington, based out of Yokosuka, Japan, and then served the United States Marines at the Marine Corps Recruiting Depot.
Before he opened his own clinic in Solana Beach, he had started volunteering with surgical cases at the Geis Clinic.
The two-chair clinic is a partnership with Veterans Village and is open three days a week providing complimentary care for veterans who are struggling with homelessness and looking for ways to better their lives and become productive members of society.
Witcher said the VA rarely covers dental care unless it’s a service-related injury so Geis is very unique in that it’s one of the only clinics that provides 100% free and comprehensive care. Witcher teamed up with other leaders of the San Diego dental community to build the clinic in 2015.
“There are a lot of emergency clinics around but they take patients more on an emergency basis,” Witcher said. “This one specifically we really wanted to make it like a private dental office, providing cleanings and preventative care, restoring smiles and making sure that they look as good when they smile on the outside as they feel on the inside as they go through this journey of bettering their lives.”
His father James, a semi-retired general dentist who also served in the Navy, now serves as the clinic director at Geis, seeing patients along with volunteers and UCLA dental students.
“It is definitely a cause that’s near and dear to my heart, that was really why I come on board with the foundation,” Witcher said. “It’s such a tragedy when people serve our country and don’t have access to dental care.”
Along with serving in his role as president of the SD Dental Foundation, Witcher continues to volunteer his time seeing patients at the Geis Clinic. One step at a time—some harder and higher than others— he is doing his part to make a difference in veterans’ lives and smiles.
The San Diego Dental Foundation Gala, held this year at the San Diego Natural History Museum, is a sellout, however, donations and sponsorships are still being accepted and an online auction will be open for bids. Visit bit.ly/sdcdgala2023 to learn about ways to support the cause.
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