All photos by the author
Never did we expect to be plucked by a helicopter from a ridge in the San Gabriel Mountains as our energy, water, and options were running short. But the experience – one we hope never to repeat – gave us new knowledge about the rescue forces at work in the San Gabriels and how to access them. We also learned how to better attempt to avoid a situation like this in the future and more precautions to take if it does happen again.
Our (mis)adventure began on a clear September day. We parked near the Sunset Ridge gate in Altadena and started out about 10 a.m., planning a hike listed at 12 miles, 2,500’ elevation gain, estimating at worst, it would take us 6 hours, leaving us an extra 3 hours of daylight. My husband and hiking companion Bill and I have hiked almost every peak in the Angeles National Forest. We also hike mountains – with and without marked trails – in central Italy, and we are Adirondack 46Rs – having hiked all 46 peaks in the New York State Adirondack region over 4,000 feet high. Even though we are in our mid-70s, we are knowledgeable about how long a hike will take and what margins we have for error.
We were following Hike 21, “Brown Mountain Loop,” in in the latest, the 2013 9th edition, of John W. Robinson’s well-regarded “Trails of the Angeles,” which we’ve used for many hikes. Brown Mountain (4,466 elevation) was named for the famous abolitionist, John Brown, by his sons, who lived in the area. Though close to civilization as the crow flies, it is one of the most isolated mountains in the range in terms of marked trails. But we got there, following the instructions: past Dawn Mine, up to Tom Sloan saddle (4 miles and 2000 feet of altitude to that point), then over several false summits to Brown (about 6 miles in).
Here the book says, “continue west along the firebreak, dropping 1600 feet in 2 miles to the upper end of the Brown Mountain Fire Road.” This implies that there’s some kind of trail off the western side of Brown. This is false. The descent is exceptionally steep, covered with loose rock and, especially lower down, impenetrable brush. We seldom fall, but on this on this descent from hell, Bill fell 15 times (with wounds on both arms, requiring on-mountain bandages), and I – who stopped counting – fell about the same number (torn pants, torn shirt). After about 3 hours of this descent and searching for use trails, we were totally exhausted (we had to sit every 10 minutes), down to 2 sips of water (out of 4 liters) and – though we had worked our way back and forth along the last ridge we were on – could not find a way down to the road through the dense brush and dangerously steep hillsides.
I only had the shirt I was wearing and Bill had a light jacket, so we didn’t have clothes for an overnight stay. It was now about 5:15 p.m. and we estimated we had less than 2 hours of daylight and, under the best of conditions, another 3 hours of hiking.
Realizing we were not going to be able to get to a marked trail or road before dark, I used my cell phone – fortunately I had cell service – to Google National Forest Service numbers and the Arcadia Forest Ranger station, only to get a voice message that said to call 911 in an emergency. We were dubious but had no options, and so I did. The 911 operators were clueless about where we were and how to get to us; they wanted to know the location of our car, which had nothing to do with how to reach us. We were 4 miles off any maintained trail, and 8 miles from where our car was parked. But 911 quickly put us through to the LA County Fire Department. That sounded like an improbable source of assistance, but it turned out they were the right people. Shortly after we called 911, the operator said, “do you see the helicopter?” Only then did we realize help was coming and in what form.
Chris DuBois, Captain of Station 12 of the LA County Fire Department, located in Altadena, stayed on the line with me as Bill and I verbally guided the helicopter to our location. (Fortunately, I had packed my cell phone charger.) As I was talking to him, I received another call from a number I didn’t recognize, so I ignored it, not wanting to get disconnected. Chris asked me to put a pin on a Google map of our location and send it to him. That seemed useless, since the pin was in the middle of a large green splotch, with no landmarks. But, as we learned that day, that pin’s longitude and latitude also show up on the screen and that’s what Chris was looking for. Still, the helicopter couldn’t find us as it made several loops around the area, while we stood on a ridge in plain view jumping and waving our hiking poles. We didn’t have bright clothing, nor a mirror – items we will take with us in the future.
To our relief, the helicopter finally spotted us. We thought they were simply trying to locate us and hoped they would throw down some bottles of water. When we saw a helmeted man dropping on a cable from the helicopter, we were stunned. I had tears in my eyes because I realized we were going to get out of there before nightfall. The man, a member of the fire station rescue crew named Jeff, attached a jacket and cables to Bill who was then pulled up and into the helicopter, at least 100’ above us. Then Jeff clipped me and himself to the cables, and we were pulled up together. Bill and I were taken off that ridge within 45 minutes after I made the call.
A few minutes after we were in the helicopter, it descended into the outfield of an Altadena baseball field. I saw two large fire trucks, lights blazing, many cars, and people along a fence around the park. I thought there had been some emergency. It turns out we were the emergency. After we exited the helicopter, I gave Jeff a hug, and we walked up to the fire trucks where we were greeted by the firemen, including Chris, who by now I thought of as our savior, and members of the Altadena Mountain Rescue (AMR) Team.
Our vital signs were checked, and we were handed bottles of cold water. We just had lots of cuts and scrapes, bruises, exhaustion and thirst. Chris and the AMR representative, Zach, took our information. Chris volunteered, “there’s no charge.” We were surprised and asked if we could make a donation. “No,” he said. “That’s what you’ve been paying property taxes for all these years.”
Before Zach and another AMR volunteer drove us back to our car, not far away at Sunset Ridge, one of the local people watching our arrival in the helicopter said to Zach, “Did you do the rescue of the naked man on Echo Mountain Thursday? Was he drunk?” And Zach replied, “I think there was alcohol involved.” We learned we were in interesting company on rescues that week.
Zach explained that 911 transfers these calls to the Fire Department, and sometimes to the Altadena Mountain Rescue Team, which is associated with the LA Sheriff’s Department. The call I’d received while on the phone with Chris was from him. We told Zach that after climbing up Brown Mountain via Dawn Mine in Millard Canyon, we had gone off the other side of Brown on a use trail recommended in Robinson’s book. Zach had asked us what book we were using and what edition. “I’ve bushwhacked up that side,” Zach said, “and there hasn’t been a trail there for a hundred years.” The trail description in the book mentions that the area in 2013 was still closed. In retrospect, it seems clear to us that the authors had not tried this loop since the 2009 Station Fire. That fire dramatically changed the landscape, eliminating old use trails, eroding fire breaks, creating new areas of rock and dirt and, nine years later, allowing the growth of impenetrable scrub.
Zach mentioned the dangerous loose rock, and seemed genuinely impressed that we had come down that slope as far as we did–most of the 1600 feet; we could see the road but could not get to it. To the south, we actually could see our car in the parking lot! We just couldn’t get there. The fact that the rescuers understood the way to get us was by helicopter shows how far we were from any viable trails.
When Zach dropped us off at our car, he added, “Don’t be discouraged. Keep on hiking. Don’t let this experience deter you.” Those were comforting words from a rescuer.
- Calling 911 works.
- The LA County Fire Department knows what they are doing for mountain rescues.
- Keep Altadena Mountain Rescue Team’s phone number on one’s cell. Reaching them through the Sheriff’s Station is probably the best bet: (626) 798-1131. Their Web site is https://www.amrt.org/. There are other volunteer rescue teams throughout the mountains; having at least one on your phone seems like a good idea.
- Invest in a GPS device, described in John Lewis’s recent guest post..
Here are some tips if you are going to be in an area without cell phone reception:
- Carry a mirror, some bright pieces of clothing, and take a cell phone charger.
- Re-evaluate day packs for the essentials one might need if caught overnight, even in good weather. A snake-bite kit and two emergency foil blankets might be in order.
- Always take plenty of water. That “plenty” may need to be upped. Some might be used cleaning cuts and scrapes and some to wash off poison oak/poodle dog bush oils.
- Read the trail descriptions carefully, and check online for updates. We did do that in this case, but we need to be even better at it. We wondered why Nobody Hikes in LA didn’t have this hike in its collection; now we know.
Dianne Bennett is the former managing partner of the largest law firm in Buffalo, NY. She and her husband, retired history professor William Graebner, have published two alternative guidebooks to Rome, Italy, where they spend several months each year. Their blog on Rome, www.romethesecondtime.com, features some hiking itineraries. Feel free to visit Rome the Second Time’s new Facebook page as well.