High season for rescues

July 25, 2012 

Transporting a stranded teen up a cliffside in June is all in a day's work for Malibu rescuers.

For the Malibu Search and Rescue team, things can get crazy-busy out there.

Emphasis on the crazy. Inspired by videos posted online, hikers are flocking to spots like Rindge Dam in Malibu Canyon, where the inexperienced, unlucky or foolhardy can get into trouble fast.

A dramatic, 7-hour rescue operation last week—in which three lost and stranded hikers who’d apparently learned of the spot in an Internet video had to be pulled out of a deep canyon in the darkness—illustrates what can happen when YouTube-fueled aspirations run into the rugged realities of the great outdoors.

Other factors attracting crowds to local wilderness areas include good weather, the opening of new trails and facilities in the Santa Monica Mountains, the popularity of online “meetups” for hikers and even a trend toward stay-at-home vacations.

In Malibu, that adds up to what may be the busiest season yet for the local rescue team, made up of about 30 reserve sheriff’s deputies and civilian volunteer specialists and support staff.

Coming off last year’s record-setting 128 call-outs, the team as of last week had logged 75 responses in 2012, compared to 68 at this time last year. “And we haven’t gotten into August yet,” said Jeremy Littman, a television writer who keeps the stats for the team and serves as its lieutenant.

Two people have died, one of them a suicide, at Rindge Dam in the past eight or nine months, said David Katz, another member of the team who also acts as its public information officer. Others have been injured jumping off the dam into the water below—a stunt immortalized in YouTube videos, some of them set to music.

“It’s a dam. It’s not built for playtime,” Katz said. “It’s a dangerous area and if you do get injured and have to be evacuated, you’re 600 feet deep in a canyon.”

The surge in rescue calls isn’t limited to Malibu. Through June, calls were up year-over-year for all but one of the county’s eight search and rescue teams.

“It sure has been an active few months across the county,” said Michael Leum, assistant director of the sheriff’s Reserve Forces Bureau and reserve chief of its search and rescue operations countywide.  “It’s been super-busy, with people staying around locally and doing the ‘staycation’ thing. On Sunday alone, Crescenta Valley had 10 different response calls.”

And Friday, July 13, proved to be a particularly unlucky day for hikers in Eaton Canyon—and an exceptionally demanding one for rescuers, who had to make three helicopter rescues within the space of an hour.

In Leum’s view, one of the risk factors for getting in trouble on the trail is simply being male.

“Ninety-nine percent of the people we go looking for are guys who go out by themselves and don’t tell anyone where they’re going,” Leum said.

Added Sgt. Tui Wright of the Malibu/Lost Hills Sheriff’s Station, who oversees the area’s search and rescue team: “There really is a lack of common sense out there and people do a lot of things to put themselves in peril.”

Still, you don’t have to be a thrill-seeker to run into trouble, said Malibu search and rescue team captain Mark Campbell. “Some things do happen to well-meaning people,” he said. Those who want to stay out of harm’s way should file a hiking plan with the sheriff’s department before setting out. (Download one here.) Other tips: allow plenty of time to complete the hike before dark; carry water, food and warm clothes; pay attention to the weather forecast; and bring along a well-charged cell phone.

Carrying a phone is particularly important. Because while technology leads some people into trouble, it also can help lead them out of it—sometimes in unexpected ways.

Consider the case of the 17-year-old hiker, stranded last month on a steep ridgeline, who used the light from his iPhone to help rescuers find him and whisk him to safety.

Posted 7/25/12

The Malibu search and rescue team is looking for volunteers. Details on how to join are here.

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