Deaths In The San Gabriel Mountains

And Some Notable Close-Calls and Incidents Elsewhere

Table of Contents

Introduction and Overview

Deaths by:

Serious Injuries

Other Notable Deaths And Injuries Elsewhere

Introduction and Overview

Like any activity, including sleeping in bed or standing in line for what has to be among the safest rides at Disneyland, the "Tall Ship" ride, hiking has its hazards. This page compiles deaths and serious injuries that have occurred in the SGM as a result of hiking and other voluntary off-road activities there. It does not include the many bodies discovered in the forest that have been killed elsewhere and just temporarily relocated there, nor does it include the many deaths due to traffic fatalities, except for an overview for those topics:

It should be kept in mind that one is undoubtedly safer hiking in the SGM than crossing an L.A. city street, at least for experienced hikers, and the same probably applies to experienced mountain bikers. In 1996, 1,382 people strolling on sidewalks or across streets in the L.A. metropolitan area were killed or seriously injured (from Surface Transportation Policy Project, in SDUT 8/7/98, A3). This represents about one person out of 4,000 per year. If one experienced hiker dies per year, and there are more than 4,000 experienced hikers, which is extremely likely since there are 30 million visitors per year to the ANF (LAT 7/5/98, B1), then hiking is a safer activity than crossing the street in L.A. Your own experience undoubtedly confirms this: think about how many times you came close to death while hiking compared to how many times you came close to death while crossing the street. If you have had no close experiences while crossing the street, imagine what might happen when you jaywalk, dashing between cars, and you trip and fall.

A knowledge of how people have died should help us all know what to watch out for as we hike.

Some of the lessons from the reports below:

See also Safety Tips for the Wilderness by the San Gorgonio Search & Rescue Team.

In addition, note the absence of such things as attacks on hikers by criminals hiking on a trail, which I've heard is something that some people sometimes worry about. To my knowledge, that has never happened in the SGM, although I am pretty sure I have heard of that in more urban settings elsewhere. Also, attacks by animals such as cougars or bears on people are exceedingly rare.

The L.A. Times, in an article bashing the law enforcement focus of the Sheriff's Department Search and Rescue Teams on 2/26/99 (online edition), gave some amazing statistics that implied that 25 people died in 1997 in L.A. County from voluntary recreational activities. Further, since the focus of the article is on the ANF, it is easy to interpret these figures as mostly being deaths in the ANF. I found the statistics so hard to believe that I queried the Sheriff's Department, the stated source of the statistics, to find out the truth:

I thank Steve Sullivan, Reserve Commander, Mountain Rescue Division of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, for providing me with the correct numbers and categories.

The particular misinterpretations in the article may have been the unintentional result of the focus of the article, which was titled Do Rescue Teams Need Rescuing? and was a heavily negative article toward the Sheriff's Department Search and Rescue Teams. For the record, I think most hikers and other Forest users are deeply grateful that the people on the SAR Teams are willing to risk their lives in some cases to help people caught in unfortunate circumstances.

Given the clarifications of the reported numbers, I now consider it fairly likely that the listing below, culled from news reports, is fairly complete for at least the last year. The listing contains only 3 certain deaths in 1998 and 1 unknown disposition.

For comparison, in 1994, six people died in the ANF. There were also "17 nonfatal falls, 18 incidents of people stuck on cliffs, 7 mountain bike accidents, 76 motorcycle accidents and 44 reports of lost hikers, most of which turned up alive and well. The sheriff's 24-member search and rescue team averages about 90 calls a month, ranging from stranded and lost hikers to cars that have gone over the side of roadways." (LAT 7/13/95, B4)

As another check on the completeness of the listings below, about 90 visitors died in all national parks in 1997. It seems entirely reasonable that there would thus be only a few deaths per year from similar activities in the ANF. The Grand Canyon had 397 search and rescues in 1997, 30% more than the number in the ANF. However, at 30 million visitors per year, the ANF receives many more visitors than the Grand Canyon, and undoubtedly more of the ANF visitors are ill-prepared compared to the Grand Canyon visitors who get plenty of warnings at the trailheads there. Source for national park data: LAT 12/20/98, L2.

The abbreviations used below are: Los Angeles Times (LAT); North [San Diego] County Times (NCT); Pasadena Star-News (PSN); San Diego Union Tribune (SDUT). Craig Cheetham has supplied all of the items below with a source of PSN.

Deaths By Hiking

4/6/00. David Trinkle, 44, died after falling ~100-200' vertical distance from a bypassed washed-out section of the Mt. Wilson Trail just below First Water. That section of older trail was newly washed out in March 2000, and was clearly no longer part of the current trail after a bypass trail had been constructed above it. That older section was marked by yellow caution tape at both ends and covered with dirt and branches at its upper end, so he knowingly was on a dangerous section of trail.

On that closed-off section of trail, the water pipe was originally buried underneath the outer section of the trail. The washout in March created a 1-2' gap between the pipe at the outer end of the trail and the remaining trail, and hence several horizontal feet of hillside was missing, leaving only a ~1' piece of poorly-supported trail and the pipe itself. Probably a number of hikers negotiated that short section safely in the prior month by using the 1' trail remnant and/or walking on the pipe. Most likely, David was simply unlucky enough to lose his footing in a dangerous spot, after making the poor choice of not using the bypass trail.

Sources: personal observation on 4/11/00; Paul Fieseler email on 4/13/00; PSN 4/8/00, A1, A6.

3/6/00. Rosindo Segura of Montclair died probably from exposure as the result of alcohol consumption after hiking from Cow Canyon Saddle to Sunset Peak. He and his two companions were drinking tequila and Segura was wearing only a light jacket, a T-shirt, jeans and tennis shoes. According to Deputy David Smail, coordinator of the San Dimas Mountain Rescue Team, "It started to get very cold. They started walking back. He had problems walking, said he couldn't walk any longer," he said.

Instead of having one person stay with Segura, his companions abandoned him on the trail, and waited an hour for him at their car. Further, instead of going back for Segura, they drove up to Mount Baldy Village and asked for help. The San Dimas Mountain Rescue Team and the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department's search and rescue team found Segura, but he later died. (PSN 3/11/00)

6/4/99. Jong Hahm, 53, died after falling as much as 300' into the bottom of a ravine near Strawberry Peak. The county coroner will conduct tests to determine if Hahm died from the fall or perhaps suffered some medical problem beforehand. (PSN 6/6/99, online edition)

2/28/99. A 24-year-old Redondo Beach man was hiking with two friends in Monkey Canyon on an unmarked trail in search of a fishing spot when all three slipped at 5:30 a.m. The two friends saved themselves by grabbing plants, but this man grabbed a branch which broke, and he fell 200' (LAT) or 300' (SDUT) to his death. His friends tried to reach him, but the canyon was too steep, and they climbed out and called rescuers. His body was recovered by the Montrose Search and Rescue Team on 2/28/99. Sources: SDUT 3/1/99, A3; LAT 3/3/99 (online edition). Dave Anderberg writes that Monkey Canyon is a popular summer swimming spot on the Forest highway in Big Tujunga Canyon, located a couple of hundred yards west of Shoening Springs, approximately one mile west of Hidden Springs.

6/11/98. Jonathan Aujay, 38, an off-duty sheriff's deputy and an experienced hiker who hiked weekly in the SGM, never returned from a hike alone that began at the Devil's Punchbowl. He told his wife he was going for a day hike. Rescue teams with two helicopters, at least two dogs (bloodhounds) and about 30 search-and-rescue personnel searched for at least three days, finding footprints in the snow near Mt. Baden-Powell. No body was ever found, and the search was called off after a week. (A newspaper article four years later reported that the search continued for two months.)

For some reason, "law enforcement authorities" thought that a two-year undercover drug operation in the Antelope Valley would uncover information about Aujay. But four years later, there is still no further information about him.

Sources: PSN 6/14/98, A15; PSN 6/15/98; NCT 6/16/98, A8; LAT 6/18/98, B4, LAT 5/20/02, B8.

12/7/97. Karen Tellez, 40, was found dead two days after she became separated from friends while hiking near Lake Hughes. The weekend had considerable snow and rain. Source: NCT 12/8/97, A6.

4/2/97. Kenneth Andrew Pomykala, 42, of Mira Mesa, San Diego County, died from undetermined causes after his two hiking companions left him after he fell and lost his backpack. His companions inexplicably left him as he went to retrieve his backpack. This is all the more surprising since Kenneth's vision was impaired beyond a distance of 20'.

Nearly 300 searchers covered 100 square miles for two weeks in an unsuccessful attempt to find Pomykala. His backpack was found two miles from where he was last seen by his "friends".

Kenneth was working on a master's degree in counseling as San Diego State University, and was a veteran hiker and marathon runner in excellent physical condition.

His skeletal remains were found in August 1997 by firefighters battling the 17,263-acre wildfire near Wrightwood.

Source: SDUT 8/22/97, B7.

11/19/95. Jane and Flicka Rodman were killed by a motorist who fell asleep at the wheel as they walked along Highway 138 near Palmdale. They had nearly completed the 2,600 mile traverse of the Pacific Crest Trail after beginning their PCT hike at the Canadian border in July 1995. They had reluctantly decided to use Highway 138 as a brief detour to catch up with fellow hikers and make it home by Christmas. They had walked every foot of the PCT up until then, crossing numerous streams and snowy areas. The couple had previously walked the 2,150 mile Appalachian Trail. Source: SDUT 8/2/97, A22, A23.

3/7/94. John Henderson and his 9-year-old son Matthew were killed by a debris flow in Bailey Canyon about 4:30 p.m. John's body was found the next day, but Matthew's body was only found 15 days later in a mud-filled debris basin. Both Hendersons had often hiked in Bailey Canyon.

A number of other hikers were in the Canyon at the time. The Hendersons asked Charles Corp what "the noise was" just before "a 10 to 15' stream of boiling mud, sludge, logs, boulders came down". Everyone managed to scramble above the debris flow except the Hendersons.

Neill Southwick was one of those hikers, and sent me this email on 1/9/05:

My son and I were in the canyon in '94 and just made it to safety during the flash flood that killed John Henderson and his son. We were about at the point where the trail forks to the left (heading to the falls) and to the right heading to Jones Peak. There was an older gentleman that we'd been talking to when we all heard the distant rumble. It reminded me of the noise you hear when a train is in the distance and approaching. The noise got louder and louder and I remember the older fellow and I looked at each other wondering what the Hell is that?.

I remember looking down at the muddy trail we were on and seeing water seeping up through the ground. (We were on the trail, not the riverbed when I looked down.) I remember screaming at my son to get up the side of the canyon, the bank to our left. We literally climbing up the bank using feet and hands. My son stopped about halfway up the bank to rest by a tree and I again yelled at him to keep moving. We heard the water behind us but never looked back until we reached the top of the hill. I still remember my kid saying over and over again as we watched the wild torrent of muddy water roar down the canyon, "Oh, my God, oh, my God." At some point my son and I hiked out of the canyon and headed home. We were covered in mud and still in a state of shock.

The cause of the Henderson deaths was surely either a debris flow, or a "delayed debris flow", from upper Bailey Canyon, and not the "cloudburst deep in the ANF" that was reported in the papers. There is no evidence of any significant rainfall in the ANF at the time of the debris flow from the three closest stations reporting hourly rainfall. Furthermore, since Bailey Canyon is a quite small canyon, if a "cloudburst" was responsible, there would very probably have had to be similar "flash floods" in neighboring canyons, and none were observed. Also, of course, the cloudburst had to occur essentially right over Bailey Canyon. If the cloudburst were any "deeper" than the ridge separating Bailey from Little Santa Anita Canyon, the rain would not have entered Bailey Canyon! Any such cloudburst would definitely have been noticed by the hikers in the Canyon as well as in the rest of Sierra Madre. In fact, at most only a few tenths of inches of rain fell on the morning of 3/7, ending at 7 a.m., with no further rainfall before the debris flow occurred. The last previous rainfall was ~1" on 2/20. Finally, note the absence of the word "water" in Corp's quote above.

About a year later, Christopher Earls Brennen found direct evidence for a debris flow in the form of a huge scar on the east side of upper Bailey Canyon, with deposits still present below it at the base of the Canyon. Furthermore, the great fire of October 1993 had happened just four months earlier. Thus the most likely theory is that the denuded burnt earth simply failed and created a debris flow which surged downstream without warning. Such events happen frequently in recent burn areas. It is also possible that the landslide happened a week or two earlier, damming the canyon, and then the dam failed when the water overtopped it, causing a "delayed" debris flow.

These deaths are thus clearly tragic, in that a debris flow occurring when there was no rain could not have been foreseen, and were not due to poor judgment by hiking during a rainstorm. Sources: LAT 3/8/94, 3/9/94, 3/22/94, from their online archives; Brennen's Life And Death In Bailey Canyon and 2/22/00 email.

See also Debris Flow in San Dimas Canyon in November 2002.

Deaths By Mountain Bicycling

I can't even remember all the times while hiking that I've come across mountain bikers who have taken a fall along a single-track trail. It obviously happens frequently. Clearly, mountain biking a single track trail puts the biker in a much riskier arena than biking on fire roads. I personally only bike on fire roads, preferring to hike on what bikers call a "single-track trail" and hikers call a "hiking trail".

2/7/98. Nathan Cook, 20, an Occidental College student, died as a result of either a fall from his mountain bike or from a flash flood someplace 5 miles up trail from the Arroyo Seco / El Prieto Canyon trailhead. He was said to have been headed for Mt. Wilson. His car was parked at the parking lot at Windsor and Ventura in Altadena, and his bike, eyeglasses and helmet with a broken chin-strap were found "5 miles from" the trailhead a few hours after a search for him began. 7 February was the second day of a 4-day period of rain in a wet winter, so the trails were undoubtedly very slippery. In addition, at the location where his bike was found, search and rescue officials found water lines on trees in the mountains well above the height of a person's head. Officials said that such levels indicate that there might have been a flash flood.

Nathan was an experienced mountain biker and hiker, but was clearly biking under very poor conditions on single-track trails.

Helicopters, search dogs and over 20 people searched for him beginning on 2/9/98 after his friends reported him missing. His body, "partially covered with branches and debris and wedged up against the base of a tree" was recovered in Hahamongna Watershed Park (aka Devil's Gate Dam) on 2/11/98. Sources: PSN 2/10/98; 2/11/98; 2/12/98; LAT 2/12/98, B5.

5/2/93. Roger Dean Dahl, a 29 year old expert mountain cyclist and the bicycle repairman at the Pasadena Cyclery, fell 300' to his death after "missing a turn" on the Mt. Wilson Toll Road, 0.35 miles above the saddle that is 0.75 miles above the Idlehour Trail junction. A memorial cross marks the spot (see last picture on Roy Randall's Mt. Wilson Toll Road hike). Roger was said to have been angry at the time, accounting for why an expert cyclist could possibly leave the wide roadbed of the Toll Road. His reported "anger" was because of a bike chain that had come loose earlier in the day and which he stopped to correct, and because reportedly the bike seat was slipping. He wasn't angry at someone, just annoyed at the bike that he had built. Sources: an email from a reader who wishes to be anonymous; PSN articles from memory; personal observations; LAT 5/6/93, 9/5/93, online archives.

Deaths By Creek and River

2/23/98. Francis Lee McCall, 59, a software engineer, lost his footing in San Dimas Creek after he left his creek-side cabin to help a neighbor whose car was stuck. His body was found partially buried in mud near the San Dimas Ranger Station nearly a month later. Source: LAT 3/5/98, B4.

Deaths By Skiing or Snowboarding

2/7/98. Jeff Thornton, 14, and his uncle Marc Shapiro, 30, got off a chairlift at the top of a run at the Mountain High Ski Resort on the north side of Blue Ridge above Wrightwood and "headed into the trees in hopes of finding better snow".

Authorities said that they went out-of-bounds, crossing under a rope that marked the slope's boundaries, and headed down the rugged south (out of bounds) backside of the mountain. Shapiro said they were about 40 yards apart when he lost sight of Thornton.

More than 10 search and rescue teams searched for Jeff on alternating days. Six days later, on 2/13/98, the Sierra Madre Search and Rescue Team, following tracks through mud and snow, found him in Bear Gulch on the south side of Blue Ridge. His survival for six winter days amazed everybody. He drank water from a creek and ate snow, was in a full snow suit which kept him warm, and didn't lose a single pound of his 5'9, 215 pound body. He was a football player in good physical condition.

Jeff was airlifted to the Foothill Presbyterian Hospital where it looked for a while like he would make a mostly-full recovery, with only serious frostbite on his foot and hands due to a lost boot and his gloves while he was missing. Doctors experienced with mountain rescues expected him to be in much worse physical condition. His only medical anomalies announced at the time were the frostbite, a 94° body temperature, and bruises and trauma above his left eye and some broken bones from a probable fall.

Jeff initially appeared to be improving, but his condition worsened a week later on 2/19/98. He had gangrene, sepsis and lung problems, and probable immune system damage from his exposure, and died during surgery on 2/20/98 to prevent further infection from gangrene on his feet.

Sources: LAT 2/22/98, A1, A30, A31; SDUT 2/22/98, A19; PSN 2/14/98 A1, A10; 2/23/98, A7.

Deaths By Other Activities

6/2/96. A Marine fell 100-200' to his death and five others were hurt during mountaineering training. They fell during a moonlit nighttime training expedition. The five were hospitalized at Huntington Memorial Medical Center in Pasadena and Verdugo Hills Medical Center in Glendale, two in serious condition and three in good condition, The Marines were attached to 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, stationed at the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base in San Diego County. They were part of Joint Task Force 6, which coordinates military training in support of law enforcement. Source: AP 6/3/96.

Various. There is a sign at Switzer's Falls commenting on the number of deaths that have resulted from people attempting to climb the falls in either direction.

Serious Injuries

11/29/98. A woman hurt her back after falling while hiking near the Angeles Crest Highway, near mile marker 65.2. She was carried out on a gurney and airlifted to a hospital. PSN 11/30/98.

4/19/98. A 50-year-old man, his 10-year-old son, and two other hikers were injured after falling 20' in May Canyon near Sylmar after unstable ground gave way. After falling, the man was struck by a falling rock. He was hospitalized in serious but stable condition. His companions were not hospitalized. Source: SDUT 4/20/98, A3.

Other Notable Deaths And Injuries Elsewhere

5/9/99. Seven people were killed on a hiking trail at Sacred Falls State Park in Oahu, Hawaii when a cliff face gave way in a landslide. The slide occurred 850' above a pool beneath the park's 90' waterfall, where dozens of hikers were sunbathing. One hiker said that his girlfriend was sitting next to him near the pool when boulders the size of small cars suddenly came down and separated them. She was killed, and he was injured.

Five victims were female and two were male. Thirteen injured hikers were hospitalized, including a 29-year-old man in critical condition and five children.

It's interesting to note that even such a spectacular event as a "cliff face giving way" is not immediately evident even to very close observers. Dr. Geoff Scott was 50 yards from the falls when the landslide hit, and at first thought the noise was a flash flood. He only recognized what happened after he ran to the scene.

The park is well-known as one of Hawaii's most dangerous parks. Over 12 people have died in flash floods or hiking accidents since 1970.

Sources: NCT 5/11/99, A3; LAT 5/11/99, A3; LAT 5/12/99, A3.

3/7/99. A 38-year-old woman fell 30' off the side of a 1,500' peak in Iron Mountain Canyon in Poway, CA. She was severely injured and rescued by helicopter. She was hospitalized in fair condition with head and neck injuries. Source: SDUT 3/8/99, B2.

8/4/98. Jeffrey Alex Wingo, 27, of Smyrna, GA, lost his balance after striking a rock with his ice ax, and was killed by falling ~1,000' on the northwest side of Mount Whitney. One (NCT) or three (SDUT) other people with him on a backcountry route to the summit were not injured. This was the first fatality of the year in Sequoia National Park. Sources: SDUT 8/6/98, A3; NCT 8/7/98, A16.

7/27/98. Sun Hwa Kim, 52, from Los Angeles, suffered back, neck and head injuries after falling 600' from Bruggs Viewpoint at 8,500' along the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. She twice disregarded warnings to stay away from the steep slope. However, the warnings were undoubtedly in English, and the paper reports that she is "a Korean-speaking Bolivian who lives in Los Angeles". Hence she may not have understood the warnings. She was hospitalized in serious condition with numerous bruises and scrapes, but she had no broken bones and was expected to recover fully. She gave no reason for going so close to the edge of the bluff. Source: SDUT 7/29/98, A3.

5/31/98. A 39-year-old man died when the ground collapsed beneath them on the west slope of Mount Hood, Oregon. His party of six hikers from a Portland hiking club were crossing a ridge above Timberline Lodge. The avalanche buried four of them. Of the other three, two were hospitalized: a 44-year-old woman with pelvic injuries and a 28-year-old man with leg injuries. The fourth only had minor injuries. Source: SDUT 6/1/98, A3.

5/15/98. Janet McCallister, 44, of Hillsboro, Oregon, broke her neck after falling 150' down a seaside cliff at Tillamook Head. The trail connects Seaside to Cannon Beach, and is rugged enough that several hikers must be rescued each year. She found "what looked like a trail" along the steep, brushy cliff, and made it down a steep, slippery path to the beach. After a 2-hour walk, she began climbing up a 300' cliff using a different "trail", pulling herself up using trees and ferns since the rocks were slick. Halfway up, one of her handholds ripped out and she fell "like a rag doll" down the cliff. Legacy Emanuel Hospital spokeswoman Claudia Brown said:

She was very aware of the fall. She remembers rocks hitting her as she tumbled down the mountain. She kept thinking if she could roll herself in a ball she'd be safe. But she couldn't stop herself.

After falling, Janet landed on a rocky outcropping on the cliff, and spent the night there sheltered from the rain only by leaves and her windbreaker, covering her bloody face and head with her T-shirt. The next morning she made it down to the beach and tried unsuccessfully to flag down passing planes and boats. Afraid she would bleed to death if she stayed put, she decided to try to find the original trail she hiked down. She moved with tiny steps since she was unable to look down because of the pain in her neck. She found the trail at the end of that day, and spent another night amidst logs and leaves. She then crawled up the trail to her truck, turning on the heater and falling asleep.

When Janet woke up, she saw Boy Scouts nearby and honked the horn. They got help from a nearby house, and an ambulance took her to an Astoria hospital before transferring her to the Portland hospital. Although her neck was broken, and she was bruised and battered (Brown said "She looks like someone beat her with a big stick"), no spinal cord damage occurred and a full recovery was expected.

Source: SDUT 5/19/98, A3, A4.

5/8/98. Sheryl Flack, 48, of Glendale, CA, fell 500' to her death at Plateau Point in the Grand Canyon. She arrived at Plateau Point on a one-day mule trip, got off her mule to peer over the cliff, and leaned over a bit too much. Curiously, despite the fact that these mule trips usually have at least 10 if not 20 people on them, no one witnessed her fall. Her body was recovered at the base of a cliff 30 minutes later.

Nine people, mostly hikers, have fallen to their deaths at the Grand Canyon from July 1996 through this incident. Source: SDUT 5/10/98, A3.

5/7/98. A 12-year-old Anaheim boy slipped while crossing a creek near Green Valley Lake in the San Bernardino Mountains with his sixth-grade class from Woodsboro School. The current swept him downstream and he fell down a 300' rocky waterfall. Another boy and a counselor who tried to help him also fell but were only slightly injured.

The boy was hiking with a group of 30 campers and counselors at the time. A total of 80 children and adults from his school and Placentia's Wagner School were on a weeklong trip to the Arrowhead Ranch Outdoor Science School in Running Springs. Snow covered the ground, the temperature was in the low 30s, and "icy water gushed in torrents down a crevice studded with boulders" at the spot. Sources: LAT 5/8/98, A47; SDUT 5/8/98, A3.

8/13/97. Eleven hikers died after being swept away by an 11' wall of water from a flash flood in Antelope Canyon near Page, AZ. The canyon is so narrow that hikers can touch both sides in spots. A severe thunderstorm warning had been issued for the area, but the spot where the hikers died got only a trace of rain. Source: NCT 8/14/97, A16.

3/24/97. Henry Tien, 21, a Stanford University student, died from a fall just below Columbia Point on the Upper Yosemite Falls Trail in Yosemite National Park. His girlfriend went ahead on the trail and didn't see Tien fall. Source: SDUT 3/26/97, A3.

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Updated 1 April 2005.