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Climate and Environment

Here's Why It's Especially Dangerous To Hike SoCal Mountains Right Now

Downtown Los Angeles skyline is seen as snow cover the mountain tops in the distance.
"People have a hard time understanding that literally 30 minutes from a Starbucks, you could die," said Steve Goldsworthy, operations leader for Montrose Search and Rescue Team.
(Chris Delmas
AFP via Getty Images)
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A woman from Colorado slipped on ice on Christmas Eve day and fell 200 feet while descending from Cucamonga Peak in the San Gabriel Mountains.

Hiker Crystal Paula Gonzalez-Landas died on Mount Baldy on Jan. 8 after sliding as much as 700 feet down a snowy slope — the second death on Mount Baldy in a two-week span.

LISTEN: SoCal's Winter Hiking Conditions Are Treacherous. Here's How To Be Prepared

At least three other hikers in the area went missing in the following two weeks. Rescuers found 75-year-old Jin Chung this week, with relatively minor injuries. But 61-year-old Robert Gregory, who was hiking near Mount Islip, and actor Julian Sands, who set off to hike Mount Baldy on Jan. 13, are still missing.

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  • Gregory's body was recovered on Feb. 18. Rescuers from the L.A. County Sheriff's Department said the body was discovered about 300 feet below the summit of Mount Islip in snow and ice. The search for Sands is now on pause due to incoming storms.

  • San Bernardino County sheriff's officials said another hiker, Abdollah Katbab, was rescued by helicopter Saturday, Jan. 28, after he slipped and fell about 50 feet during a hike in the Ice House Canyon area of Mount Baldy. Katbab, 71, had minor injuries.

  • It's important to note that he had a Garmin inReach, a satellite communication device, and was able activate it after he slipped and believed he could not get back to the trail safely.

All of these people were experienced hikers. So why is it so dangerous to hike right now in Southern California? Expert mountaineers and rescuers told LAist it comes down to these things:

  • Conditions are legit dangerous right now.
  • Southern California doesn't get high snow levels often enough for hikers to have the winter experience — and gear — they need to stay safe. 
  • Few, if any, companies and organizations in SoCal offer winter outdoor training. 
  • Close proximity to a massive urban area — and a usually warm one — can lead to overconfidence. 

Let's unpack all that.

Conditions Are Legit Dangerous Right Now

The series of "Pineapple Express" rain and snow storms that hit California in late December and early January brought lots of precipitation to our mountains.

You can't walk on ice.
— Steve Goldsworthy, operations leader for Montrose Search and Rescue
Looking down a snowy ice chute with snow- and tree-covered mountains in the distance.
An ice chute on Mount Baldy, Jan. 11, 2023. Crystal Paula Gonzalez-Landas died on the mountain just days earlier after falling and sliding as much as 700 feet.
(Courtesy Chad Nelson)

But temperatures were relatively warm, so that precipitation froze, then melted, then froze again multiple times, leading to extremely icy conditions on some trails, said Steve Goldsworthy, operations leader for Montrose Search and Rescue. The group is one of seven volunteer teams that works with the L.A. County Sheriff's Department.

"You can't walk on ice," Goldsworthy said. "Some slopes [on Mount Baldy] are 40, 50, 60 degrees. You hit that and you're going to go down an ice chute at extreme speeds and you're usually going to bounce off a couple of trees along the way and that's just not survivable."

Since Nov. 1, there have been 17 search and rescue operations at Mount Baldy, according to the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department.

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Also, for the first few days after a storm — which is when some of the recent accidents happened — snow is unstable. Experts we interviewed recommend waiting a few days after a storm before you hike in the mountains.

Safety Tips

  • 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)

    • Allow snow to settle. The National Weather Service recommends you wait at least 36 hours after a storm before hiking in the mountains.
    • Microspikes are not the same as crampons. Don’t attempt mountaineering with them.
    • Check the weather carefully, including the local avalanche report
    • Practice with your winter gear in advance and in controlled conditions. A major hike is not the time to test drive it. 
    • Carry a satellite phone and keep it on your person in case you lose your backpack. 
    • If you’re hiking in L.A. County, fill out a hiking plan worksheet and leave it with someone who can give it to authorities in case you need to be rescued. 
    • Proceed with extreme caution. Do not attempt hiking mountains in the winter without training and proper equipment.

"Every time you get a new set of snow, it has to bond with the snow below it," said Natalie Brechtel, who owns Bishop-based Gut-Z Journey, a company that teaches wilderness skills. Until then, avalanche danger is high, she said. "And that's not something that people think of typically in Southern California."

A layer of new snow on top of several layers of ice, like we had in mid-January, makes avalanche danger especially high.

Strong winds, like the ones we're experiencing this week, can also blow snow into avalanche-prone formations. "We have wind-blown snow up there that's 10, 11-feet tall," said Goldsworthy, who calculated that he had logged more than 100 hours in search and rescue work in the first half of January.

"You have these huge slabs of snow or ice that are cracked, so it's like a rock hanging off of a cliff just waiting to go," he said.

A man in a helmet, yellow jacket and red backpack with skis strapped to it standing in the snow next to a tree covered in thick, sharp icicles.
Chad Nelson, a mountaineer and back-country skier, on Mount Baldy, Jan. 11, 2023.
(Courtesy Donatien Laeuffer)

When temperatures warm up, there's also a risk of wet slides — heavy accumulations of wet snow that can also bring down mud and rocks. Chad Nelson, a mountaineer and backcountry skier who recently ascended Mount Baldy, said the Baldy Bowl — where most people ascend the peak in the winter and where several of the recent accidents took place — is especially vulnerable to wet slides and rock falls right now.

"People need to remember that being right in the middle of that bowl, especially when it's sunny out and warm during the day, it exposes you to stuff [falling] from above," he said.

More Snow Coming This Weekend

More weather fluctuations are on the way: A storm is expected Sunday through Monday, according to the National Weather Service, potentially bringing up to an inch of rain in the San Gabriel Mountains, up to 4 inches of snow between 2,500 and 5,000 feet, and up to 10 inches of snow above 4,500 feet.

A snowy ledge with a tree at the end covered in thick ice. The sky is blue with wispy clouds.
Mount Baldy near the summit on Jan. 11, 2023.
(Courtesy: Chad Nelson)

For reference, Manker Flat campground, where many Mount Baldy hikers start out, sits at 6,000 feet; the summit of Mount Baldy is at 10,069 feet.

In a Tuesday statement about Chung's rescue and the continued search for Sands, the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department said even if hikers take precautions, it "highly recommends hikers avoid hazardous mountainous areas, such as Mount Baldy, at this time."

SoCal Doesn't Offer Enough Opportunities For Snow Experience

Hiking experience on and off trails — even hiking experience in winter weather — does not equal experience hiking in the particular conditions that have characterized SoCal mountains this winter.

"Snow itself is a medium that we're very unfamiliar with — most people, at least," Brechtel said. And snow can take on many, MANY different forms. "Maybe if we grew up in Alaska, we'd be very familiar with all of that," Brechtel said, "but in Southern California, we don't get the time and exposure, necessarily, to become familiar."

Goldsworthy said many of his fellow volunteers were in the Mammoth area last week scaling up frozen waterfalls as practice for steep local rescues. "We have to go out of the area to train in those conditions so that we're ready to operate in our local conditions."

Goldsworthy and Nelson also said they're unaware of any organizations or companies that offer training for safe, backcountry winter adventures in Southern California.

"The Sierra Club has a wilderness course," Goldsworthy said, "and I would highly recommend that class, but they really aren't out there with ice axes teaching self-arrest and some of the skills that you need to safely traverse Mount Baldy in the wintertime."

A closeup of an ice ax with an orange handle sticking into the ice covering a tree branch.
Thick ice covered the trees high on Mount Baldy after a series of storms in January 2023. "I've never seen that much ice in Southern California," said Chad Nelson, who climbed the peak on Jan. 11, 2023.
(Courtesy: Donatien Laeuffer)

Ice axes can be used to dig into steep slopes or ice for climbing, but also to stop your slide, called a self-arrest, if you slip down a steep slope.

Nelson got much of his backcountry training in much-snowier places, like Washington state, where he went to college, and Canada, where he took an avalanche safety course. Nelson said, he has ramped up his winter adventures "very slowly."

"Early on when I was getting into mountain sports and hiking in our local mountains, I never pushed it," said Nelson, who grew up in Southern California and now lives in Redlands. "And I never really climbed any steep snow … until I had been around some people who were very, very good at it."

Where Are Your Crampons?

Despite a sign posted at the base of Mount Baldy "strongly recommending" that climbers have crampons, a helmet and an ice ax in winter weather, Goldsworthy said many of the people recently rescued or killed on the peak lacked that critical gear, particularly crampons.

Crampons are harnesses for your boots with spikes on the bottom that dig into ice and snow. Some people instead carry microspikes, a much less burley version of crampons, which Goldsworthy said are inadequate for any kind of winter hiking.

"Microspikes are great to go to the grocery store in Big Bear," he said. "They're not designed for mountaineering."

Even if winter hikers do have the proper gear, they need to practice with it, Goldsworthy and Nelson said, before heading out on a majorly dangerous hike like Mount Baldy.

Nelson recommended finding a gentle slope to practice hiking with crampons and using an ice ax to self-arrest. And don't forget your helmet.

How To Be Prepared For Winter Hiking

Hikers that Goldsworthy has had to rescue are often "woefully unprepared," he said. Start by making sure you have the 10 essentials, which Goldsworthy said he fits into a small 6-ounce bag. "That's your backup plan," he said.

He and Nelson also recommended carrying a satellite phone — but also, Brechtel warned, don't count on it saving your life or leading to an immediate rescue. It can often take 24 hours or more for rescue teams to reach you in the event of a mountain emergency.

Besides telling someone where you're going and when to expect you back, the L.A. County Sheriff's Department also asks that you fill out a hiking plan worksheet and leave it with someone who can give it to authorities in case you need to be rescued.

Check up-to-date weather conditions — Nelson recommends the So Cal Snow Avalanche Center, and the National Weather Service — and trip reports from people who have recently been on the route you plan to take. Nelson said he checks out trip reports on Facebook groups and by searching hashtags of local mountains on Instagram.

Above all, don't head out into the wintery mountains unless you are truly, fully prepared.

Goldsworthy advises: "Either stay home or get the training and equipment."

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