About 1,000 feet below the summit of one of the deadliest mountains in the United States, Ron Bartell and Christine Mitchell stood in soft snow beneath a brilliant blue sky.
It was just before noon on a recent Friday and so warm they didn’t need jackets. Ron wore no gloves.
They had climbed 3,000 feet up a steep trail covered in snow and ice. Less-seasoned hikers probably would not have stopped. But Bartell and Mitchell have been scaling mountains for decades; they’ve each summited this one more than 400 times. They knew what could go wrong.
Getting to the top one more time might be easy, they figured; getting down might not.
Mount Baldy towers above Los Angeles, rising to 10,064 feet and looking like a winter wonderland to millions of people living below.
Despite flashing signs on the road up from Claremont that say, “WARNING ICY TRAILS” and “HIKING NOT ADVISED,” some Angelenos with little experience in the mountains — let alone in winter — can’t resist giving it a try.
That familiarity and easy access to a huge urban area have combined to give the mountain one of the worst records for death and injury in the U.S.
Since 2020, there have been more than 100 searches for missing hikers on Mount Baldy, with six confirmed deaths, according to the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department. Comparable statistics are hard to come by, but knowledgeable climbers rank Baldy among the deadliest peaks in the United States behind New Hampshire’s Mount Washington and Mount Rainier outside of Seattle, both of which are accessible to major cities.
The last few weeks in particular have been exhausting ones for Mount Baldy search and rescue crews. As recent epic storms have dumped feet of snow onto mountain slopes, crews have been called out to look for lost climbers 14 times since Christmas. Two of those people died from injuries suffered in long falls. British actor Julian Sands, who disappeared on Baldy on Jan. 13, still has not been found.
“Nobody is going up there with any ill intentions,” said Eric Vetere, Commander of West Valley Search and Rescue, a volunteer rescue squad that works on the mountain. “I think there’s just a lack of awareness.”
The trouble with Baldy is that it’s a serious mountain within easy driving distance of an enormous city. Most of the year, it’s a long, tough hike but easily doable with no special equipment.
Even in winter covered in snow, the summit can be as pleasant and inviting as the Southern California beaches an hour away.
But once the sun goes down, or clouds roll in, or the wind picks up, it’s all mountain — risky even for experienced climbers.
Vetere’s team is regularly called to search for people who head up Baldy in running shoes and light jackets — typical SoCal winter gear.
“Then something happens,” Vetere said. “They slip and fall and hurt themselves. And there’s poor, if any, cell reception. You’re not going to be able to text a friend or call 911. You’re going to be up there for hours and hours until somebody reports you overdue.”
Most of those people are found and shepherded to safety before the elements do any real damage, but not everyone is so lucky.
On Dec. 28, 43-year-old Jarret Choi had just reached the saddle of nearby Icehouse Canyon and was heading toward picturesque Cucamonga Peak. He lost his footing in a spot where the trail narrows with a steep drop to the left, Vetere said.
Choi was more prepared than many visitors. He was wearing crampons — long, heavy steel spikes strapped to his boots — but his boots didn’t have the stiff soles required to hold them in place: a common mistake.
When his life depended on the spikes bearing his full weight, the boot appears to have flexed, and one of the crampons twisted out of position, Vetere said.
After rescuers were contacted and mobilized, steep terrain and bad weather complicated their efforts.
“It took us 3 1/2 hours just to hike into the general area,” Vetere said. “Then another 10-hour day to find him.” Choi was dead by then.
On Jan. 8, 57-year-old Crystal Paula Gonzalez fell more than 500 feet in the Baldy Bowl, a steep and technically challenging route on the upper reaches of the mountain that lures experienced mountaineers and those chasing social media glory.
Gonzalez was known as the “hiking queen” on Facebook. Her profile is full of images of her in the mountains, including an achingly triumphant video from a successful 2019 ascent of the Baldy Bowl in soft snow. She reshared it with the caption “Oh the memories” two days before her accident.
But conditions are always changing in the mountains. Seemingly subtle shifts in temperature and moisture, even the switch from direct sunlight to shadow, can turn an inviting slope into a deadly one.
Gonzalez suffered multiple blunt force injuries during her fall, Vetere said, but she was still alive when a rescue team lowered from a helicopter reached her. Then clouds rolled in, and the helicopter had to leave before she could be airlifted to safety.
Rescuers started the slow, painstaking process of carrying her down on foot. Her condition deteriorated along the way; the crew spent roughly two hours performing CPR. The weather had begun to clear, and the helicopter was coming back to get her when her heart stopped.
She was pronounced dead near the ski hut, a well-known landmark and gathering place at 8,300 feet on the Baldy Bowl trail, one of the most frequently traveled routes on the mountain.
Sands, 65, who starred in “The Killing Fields” and “A Room with a View,” was also an experienced mountaineer. In September, he shared family photos of himself clinging to a vertigo-inducing ridge high in the Swiss Alps. He once described his happiest moment as, “close to a mountain summit on a glorious cold morning,” according to The Independent, an English newspaper.
On the day they were there, as Bartell and Mitchell paused beneath Baldy’s summit to decide whether to keep going, a helicopter looking for Sands circled overhead: a thump-thump-thumping reminder of the need for caution.
Checking their watches, they could see it was nearly noon, which put them behind schedule. Experience told them that on the return trip late in the day, the snow they were standing in would be covered by the mountain’s shadow and could quickly harden into unforgiving ice. A fall could have devastating consequences.
Worse, where the trail passes beneath the bowl, the steep headwall can shed ice and boulders when it is warmed by the afternoon sun. That can turn the path below into a high-altitude bowling alley with climbers as the pins.
Mountaineers wince at the sound of falling debris the way the rest of us cringe at a sudden car horn and screeching tires.
The choice was obvious: Bartell and Mitchell turned back.
Stopping for lunch at the ski hut on their descent, they met Tony Banuelos, who had just climbed the bowl for the first time.
It was more adventure than he wanted.
A bowling-ball-size chunk of ice falling from above hit him in the chest, he said, knocking him off his feet and forcing him to self-arrest: the last-ditch, life-saving act of digging an ax and crampons into the snow.
“You gotta react immediately,” Banuelos said.
Any delay, even a couple of seconds, is enough time for a falling climber to accelerate so much that the mountaineering tools become useless. A professional guide was unable to save herself in a similar fall on Mount Shasta in June.
When Banuelos stopped sliding, he curled into a ball for protection and waited as more debris cascaded around him. Some bounced off his helmet, he said.
Banuelos had barely finished telling his story when Jesse Saldana, 28, bounded down the trail toward the hut, his long hair and full beard flowing in the stiff breeze. From a distance, it looked like he was having an animated conversation with himself.
“If you haven’t had any type of training, if you haven’t done it before, don’t do it,” Saldana announced upon arrival.
He, too, had just climbed the bowl. He had spared no expense on gear: helmet, ax, climbing boots, crampons. He had the latest GPS technology that allows rescuers to find you even without a cellphone signal.
And he had spent thousands on mountaineering classes and alpine trips with professional guides, he said.
Still, the bowl had left him a little shaken. The lower, flatter section was deceptively easy, he said. But as he ascended hundreds of feet to the steepest pitch, where traction can be a matter of life or death, the wind started “whipping around” and he encountered a thick slab of ice a few inches beneath the snow that his crampons couldn’t fully penetrate.
“Save other people the trouble of having to come out and rescue you,” he said. “All for a couple of pictures? It’s not worth it.”
Bartell and Mitchell shed layers of clothing as they made the two-hour descent to the trailhead in the afternoon sun. They took the spikes off their boots as the soft, slushy snow gave way to dirt and sand. Conversation turned from mountaineering to the things people chat about on a stroll with friends — work, family, what’s for dinner.
Near the bottom, they encountered a trim, middle-aged man in trail-runners and a thin cotton shirt heading up. He had no backpack, no mountaineering equipment, no extra clothes. If he had food and water, it was a mystery where he was hiding it.
“How high are you going?” Mitchell asked.
“To the top,” he said.
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