Airlifted Off Mt. Baldy: One Hiker’s Story Of Getting Help Before Things Got Seriously Bad
Among the at least 19 search and rescue operations that have taken place on Mount Baldy since Nov. 1 was the one that rescued David Chen and Luming Wang. The Fullerton couple’s day began with what seemed to be mild conditions.
It ended with a helicopter rescue.
Chen and Wang’s story illustrates many of the do's and don'ts that experienced mountaineers and professional rescuers told LAist they wish more hikers knew.
"People have a hard time believing that 20, 30 minutes from the populace of L.A. that there is this wild land," said Steve Goldsworthy, operations leader for Montrose Search and Rescue. "And there's real lions and tigers and bears, and there's real canyons full of ice and there's real dangers."
Here's what happened.
Escape From The Pandemic
Chen, 59, said he and his wife hiked A LOT during the pandemic. "Every Saturday, every Sunday we would go find some trails and hike for several hours, sometimes the whole day," he said.
They were familiar with the region's tallest peaks, including the 10,064-foot Mount San Antonio, affectionately known as Mount Baldy. Chen said he and his wife had hiked the peak 10 to 12 times before, including when it had snow on it.
"We thought we were quite ready for this hiking experience," Chen said in a phone interview with LAist.
Always plan for the worst and hope for the best. Carrying a few extra items can save your life. At a minimum, always carry the "10 Essentials":
- Extra food and water (more than you think you'll need)
- Extra clothing (more than you think you'll need)
- Map and compass (know how to use them)
- Flashlight or headlamp (plus extra batteries)
- First-aid kit
- Fire-starting kit
- Pocket-knife or multi-tool
- Signaling device (mirror or whistle)
- Sunscreen and sunglasses
- Emergency shelter (emergency blanket or bivy sack)
- Before you leave home, always tell a friend or family member where you plan on going and when you plan to return. Leave them with instructions on what to do if you don't return on time.
- In case of an unexpected problem or emergency, always have a back-up plan for escaping the area safely. Also provide this back-up plan with your friends or family before you leave.
- Although it's sometimes nice to be alone in the outdoors, it's always safest to go with at least one or two partners, especially if you're a novice or unfamiliar with the area.
- Have the appropriate level of knowledge and experience for the adventure you plan to have. If you are a novice, please rely on a professional guide or at least a highly knowledgable and experienced partner.
- As much as possible, study and become familiar with the area you plan on exploring. Gain a thorough understanding of the terrain and its potential hazards.
- Review the local weather forecast in the area you plan on going and take the appropriate clothing and equipment. During winter-like conditions in mountainous terrain, check the current avalanche report in the area.
- Be healthy, safe, and smart. Know your limits, don't over-extend them, and don't take unnecessary risks. It's advisable not to go hiking with an existing injury, as it could become unpredictably worse during activity.
- While in the backcountry with young children, always keep them within sight. If your dog is with you, be courteous and keep it leashed in areas that require it. Doing so will keep you, your dog, other people, and the wildlife more safe.
- Be aware of your surroundings at all times. There are many objective hazards in the wilderness, and they aren't always obvious. Keep a keen eye out for deteriorating weather, dangerous trail conditions, avalanche risks, and wildlife.
The day they set off, Dec. 17, was sunny. It was cold but Chen and his wife were wearing warm clothing. They had also purchased footgear that he called "mini spikes" — commonly known as microspikes or ice cleats. They thought they would provide more secure footing in the snow. They were wrong, as the couple would find out later.
A Slide, And Then Another
Somewhere between 7,000 and 8,000-foot elevation, while wearing only his regular, sturdy hiking boots, Chen tripped and fell. He only slid a little but the minor mishap left him "very shaken."
"On both sides, I saw very deep cliffs. And if I really rolled down, it could be very dangerous," he said. He called to his wife, who was trudging along ahead of him, and they both stopped to put on the boot spikes they had purchased.
"In the beginning, it was OK," Chen said. "When we were at low altitudes, our mini spikes could grab the ground."
But then, suddenly, his wife fell. "Not only fell but her body was sliding down the slope for a few feet. And that was really scary to me," Chen said. "At that time, I said 'we should stop.'"
A Chance Encounter
The couple decided to head back down but their traction on the icy mountain was so tenuous that they quickly realized going down might be more dangerous than going up. They stopped.
Nearby, Joseph and Janelle Rasich, who were hiking with their two dogs, had come to the same conclusion after their own slide scare. They had already called 911, and a helicopter from the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department was on its way to pluck them off the mountain.
When rescuers showed up, Chen and his wife asked if they could hitch a ride.
Two technical ice rescuers were lowered from the helicopter. They set up a rope system on the slope so they could reach the hikers and help them move to a clear area where they could be hoisted up to the helicopter. Then the people and dogs were put into harnesses and lifted into the air.
"It was almost like I was in a movie, you know?" Chen said. "I was playing the role of a victim being rescued."
Rescues often require significant resources — besides multiple volunteers, they often involve Sheriff Department staff, rescue equipment and helicopter fuel — that can cost "thousands of dollars per hour to tens of thousands of dollars per hour," Goldsworthy said. Hikers might have to wait hours and even days to be rescued. Chen and his fellow rescuees were lucky — he calculated that it took just a few hours to get him, his wife and the other couple off the mountain.
Yesterday, our team spent its training day assisting with the ongoing search near Mount Islip. Team members checked trails and drainages on the north side of the mountain. Veteran team member Robert Sheedy put his vertical waterfall ice training to use in one drainage. pic.twitter.com/O1toQwFej0— Montrose Search & Rescue Team (Ca.) (@MontroseSAR) January 30, 2023
What Chen Learned
Chen said that unlike wintry upstate New York, where he used to live, living in the L.A. area allows people to drive up to the mountains, enjoy the snow, and then head back to the warm flatlands.
"The snow does not bother us," he said. "You just go to take a look and you come back. And that's the beauty."
But that also means many people are unprepared for the wide variety of trail and weather conditions that come with high-elevation winters.
Chen found this out the day he was rescued on Mount Baldy. "This was the first time when we felt ice beneath the snow," he said.
He also realized that the gear they thought was sufficient — warm clothing, hiking poles, a few bandaids and, notably, microspikes — wasn't adequate.
"If it's not a mountain trail, if you're just on the road and you don't want to slip and fall, then [microspikes] are very helpful," Chen said. "But once you go to a mountain where you can fall and slide down the hills, then crampons are what you need."
Goldsworthy, the rescuer, told LAist that most of the recent rescues and deaths on Mount Baldy and other Southern California peaks involved hikers wearing microspikes. "They're designed for flat level surface," Goldsworthy said. "They're not designed for mountaineering."
Crampons are a much burlier version of microspikes made for ice climbing and mountaineering. The U.S. Forest Service strongly recommends that people climbing Mount Baldy carry crampons in the winter months, along with a helmet and an ice ax, which can be used for balance or to stop a fall down a steep slope.
Winter Weather on Mt Baldy Makes for Dangerous Conditions; Hikers Urged to Think Twice and Heed Warnings https://t.co/ihWIo2UwfX pic.twitter.com/uXv4Ln4Chv— San Bernardino County Sheriff (@sbcountysheriff) January 18, 2023
Chen said he's glad he and his wife didn't take their chances and continue up the mountain that day — so he can keep hiking and maybe try a winter peak again when he's better prepared. "One lesson we learned is it's better to be conservative," he said.
"I really feel privileged to live in this area because we can visit the beautiful mountains," Chen said. But, he acknowledged, "hiking has its risks."
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