As a New Hampshire resident, I am surprised that I seemingly hear more about winter-time rescues, deaths, and injuries in the Southern California’s mountains than I hear about similar events happening in the NH mountains. After all, Mt Washington is Home of the World’s Worst Weather. It’s possible that I’m more “plugged-in” to the outlets that report the SoCal mishaps and that’s why I hear about them more. Maybe the proximity of the SoCal mountains to major populations combined with the ease of access to both Mt. Baldy and Mt. San Jacinto is to blame. Or perhaps it’s because people in New England live in the cold for 4-5 months per year and as a result, are better prepared for the conditions… maybe many simply decide to stay indoors when things get really bad. In reality it’s probably a combination of factors, but whatever the primary cause of these scenarios is, I am guessing ignorance of the mountains’ dangers plays some part. While the beauty of the snow-covered SoCal mountains is evident to many (I took the video below on my way to work one morning), I am guessing most have no idea just how dangerous the SoCal mountains can be.
The point of this post is not to judge others. I am hoping to raise awareness regarding the dangers that are present in these mountains during the winter. It seems that the number of accidents has steadily increased over the last couple of years. Perhaps I should count myself lucky for missing the majority of the last two winter seasons (my family moved in February 2016), as I would have likely been in the mountains on the days that some of these events happened.
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Mt. Baldy Area Deaths, Injuries and Rescues
As you can see below, rescue teams have been very busy over the last two winter seasons in the San Gabriel Mountains. I’m sure there are other events that I’ve either forgotten or never heard about, but this is what I came up with after a little time on Google. There were at least two rescues from 2016 (January in the Ice House Canyon area) that I am not able to find online.
- February 8, 2017
- February 4, 2017
- February 1, 2017
- January 26, 2017
- January 25, 2017
- January 16, 2017
- January 12, 2017
- February 17, 2016
- February 21, 2016
- February 8, 2016 – 12 Hikers were pulled out of the San Gabriels Mountains on this day
- February 4, 2016
- January 23, 2016
Limiting Wintertime Risk in the Southern California Mountains
Accidents happen, but realizing what dangers are present, knowing the limits of your ability and equipment, and making informed decisions can greatly reduce the risks. In these potentially dangerous conditions, it is not just hiking in the snow, it is mountaineering. Growing up in New England, as well as spending much of my free time in the mountains as a former CA resident, I have learned some valuable lessons. I have also learned much by just reading about the misfortunes of others. When others ask me about winter hiking, snowshoeing and mountaineering, here are a few things I recommend, as well as what I think about when I head out to play in the snow:
- I always have a clear trip plan before leaving and make sure to leave this plan with someone at home. For a detailed trip plan, check out the SAR Trip Plan Form. While don’t always fill out this form, at a minimum I let someone know:
- The trail name (if applicable) with a map showing my intended route
- For 3 season hiking, my plan will likely contain alternate routes or plan Bs. During the winter though, I generally plan one primary route and stick with it for safety reasons.
- Here is an example of a map showing my intended route: Trip Planning: High Sierra Trail, Summer 2015
- Departure & return time/date
- Trip itinerary. For trips that span several days, I will include expected campsites
- Here is an example of an itinerary: Trip Planning: High Sierra Trail, Summer 2015
- Vehicle description – make, model, & color
- Names and phone numbers of others in the group
- The trail name (if applicable) with a map showing my intended route
- I keep a close eye on the weather. I usually watch a couple of different websites – weather.gov and mountain-forecast.com, making sure I carry gear appropriate for the forecast. For Southern California and parts of the Sierra, here is a page with links to forecasts for some of my favorite hiking spots: California Hiking Weather Forecasts
- If venturing out into avalanche territory (yes, the Mt. Baldy and San Gorgonio areas qualify) taking a backcountry avalanche training course could save your life.
- I’m careful not to climb anything that I can’t safely descend. In my experience, the descent is usually tougher and more dangerous – it’s surprisingly easy to out-climb whatever traction device you’re using (especially slip-on traction, ie MicroSpikes) if you’re not actively thinking about it.
- If you need crampons to climb it, you need something to stop your slide if you fall (ie ice axe, whippet), as well as the training/skill to use it properly. I recommend taking a snow travel/mountaineering course (depending on what you plan on doing), or spending some quality time with experienced mountaineers. MountainEducation.org and SierraMountaineering.com both offer classes that come highly recommended. These organizations won’t only teach you to use your equipment, they’ll also help learn the limits of your ability/skill, as well as the limits of the equipment itself.
- Never hesitate to turn around or cancel a trip when the conditions dictate it. Over the years I’ve cancelled several trips to climb the Baldy Bowl or decided not to climb the bowl once I’ve arrived at the Ski Hut. Summit attempts have been cancelled due to poor/dangerous conditions, partners cancelling last minute, etc.
- For three season hiking, one of my focuses is limiting the weight of my pack. This is not the case during the winter months. While I am conscious of pack weight, I always carry extras – insulation layer(s), mittens, hat and food. On several occasions, others have used my extra layers and mittens. For day trips during the winter, I may even carry a sleeping bag or a bivy. One woman was very lucky that her group had a sleeping bag with them on a hike in 2015: Connecticut Hiker Dragged Two Miles To Safety Off Mount Washington
- I’m careful about joining groups and trusting my safety to them:
- I do my own research and prepare as though I will be on my own. I have met others on the trail that have gotten separated from their group, not knowing where they started or where exactly they were headed. On one trip a group had instructed the slowest hiker in the group to leave camp a few hours before the group so that they wouldn’t have to wait up for her. She missed the trail she needed to take and did not know what trailhead she was supposed to meet her group at. Luckily, I had researched the trailheads in the area and we were able to find her group.
- A couple of years ago, a friend joined a group from a well-known and well-regarded hiking club for a January trip up Rabbit Peak. We both thought he’d be safer with this group than going alone. Long story short, he ended up leading the group off of the mountain (using the breadcrumbs feature on his GPS) when the group got lost and had no alternative other than spending a cold, wet night (mid-30s and raining) on the mountain.
- Lastly, as hikers, backpackers & mountaineers, I believe we should try to watch out for one another. As my friend Tam recently posted on Instagram, “if you’re out there and you see someone without the proper gear or looking lost, please speak up“.
Most of these tips/recommendations are likely no-brainers for seasoned mountaineers and hikers, but they are not so obvious to beginners or those just visiting the mountains for a few hours. Hopefully as these unfortunate events are publicized, people will start to realize just how dangerous these beautiful mountains can be.
- 5 Avalanche Safety Rules of the Backcountry
- Enter at Your Own Risk
- What to know before you go: staying avalanche safe in the backcountry
- SoCal Snow Avalanche Center