Luck, And Rescue Helicopter, Thwart Another Death On Devil’s Backbone

With the further advance into Winter 2017, alluring but treacherous Mt. San Antonio has claimed its first, albeit not fatal, victim of the season.
An unnamed woman eluded death on Monday after she slipped from the Devils’s Backbone portion of the 12.9 mile long Angeles National Forest trail that leads to the peak of Mt. Baldy, and slid an unspecified distance down the steep and ice-encrusted precipice. A San Bernardino County Fire department helicopter, Air Rescue 9, was dispatched to the scene, roughly two miles from the 10,064 elevation summit. After she was plucked from below the ridge, she was transported because of her injuries to Cow Canyon Saddle, where a ground ambulance unit retrieved her.
The extent of her injuries was not detailed, though it was said her life was not in danger.
The Devil’s Backbone is a seven-tenths of a mile-long trail that stretches along a rocky ridge east of the Mt. Baldy summit. This trail, which starts at its east end roughly 1.3 miles from the 7,800 foot level Baldy Notch, boasts some of the most spectacular views in the Mt. Baldy area. Most of the Devil’s Backbone trail is between four and five feet wide, though at spots it narrows to little more than 18 inches across. Along one stretch of the Devil’s Backbone, the drop-off on one or both sides is very precipitous. Under dry conditions in the late spring, summer and fall, a hiker who happens to fall from that portion of the trial would most likely be able arrest his descent after a few yards and, with some effort, climb back up. In the winter, however, with both the top of the ridge and its sides coated with ice, even the strongest or the most skilled of climbers would be hard pressed to stop his downward slide and, having done so, climb the steep icy grade back to the top of the ridge.
To make matters worse, the winds are very strong in that area, gusting at times to 100 miles per hour. Indeed, the life expectancy of a hiker traversing the devil’s backbone in the winter, with the ground below his feet iced over and the howling wind buffeting him from unpredictable angles, is a fraction – and a minute fraction at that – of the life expectancy of those in the general population.
Scaling to the top of 10,064 Mount San Antonio, known colloquially as Mt. Baldy, is a rite of passage for dedicated hikers in Southern California. Modern day, serious, experienced and seasoned hikers who brave the climb to the peak of Mt. Baldy in the winter come outfitted properly with warm – i.e., woolen – clothes; broken-in hiking boots onto the bottoms of which are affixed crampons, traction devices with metal teeth that dig into the iced surface to prevent slippage; and an ice pick; not to mention communication devices such as a cell phone that can be used to summon help in an emergency. Nevertheless, no laws prohibit inexperienced individuals from foolishly braving the mountain in an unequipped state.
The mountain can be unforgiving to even the most experienced of adventurers.
The woman who slipped from the Devil’s Backbone on Monday was indeed lucky. Eleven months ago, three people lost their lives on Mount Baldy within a span of three weeks. Two of those deaths came on, or rather on the frigid and unforgiving ice below, the Devil’s Backbone.
On February 2, 2016 Daniel Nguyen, 23, was walking along the Devil’s Backbone Trail around 7 a.m. with a friend when his companion slipped. Nguyen tried pulling his friend to safety but as he did so, he himself slipped off the trail and down the mountainside, with fatal consequences.
Four days later, Dong Xing Liu, 47 of Temple City, was hiking with his wife at a level much further down the mountain in the Icehouse Saddle area when both slipped on the icy terrain below their feet. Liu’s wife suffered a broken arm but Liu succumbed to his injuries, which included severe head trauma.
The U.S. Forest Service shut down the Icehouse Saddle hiking trail in the weeks following Liu’s death.
A 45-year-old San Diego man whose identity was never released by authorities fell to his death while hiking across the Devil’s Backbone on Saturday February 20, 2016.
In addition, on both February 5 and February 6, 2016, 23 people were flown out of the mountain area around Mt. Baldy by the sheriff’s department’s helicopter, with twelve of those – either injured or stranded hikers – being airlifted from situations in which they faced possible death.
The mountain has proven fatal to dozens of hikers over the years.
In early December 2010, two weeks before the onset of winter, Michelle Yu, 49 of Venice, described by those who knew her as an experienced mountaineer who trained and hiked regularly on Mt. Baldy, perished when she fell during a hike and tumbled down a steep precipice into the rugged, ice-covered area known as the Fish Fork drainage northwest of Mt. Baldy summit. Her exposure to the elements over the course of the night, when temperatures dropped to below 20 degrees, contributed to her death.
60-year-old Dominic Belletti of Long Beach was hiking alone in the Mt. Baldy Bowl area in January 2013 when he fell to his death.
Mt. San Antonio has been no kinder to skiers and snowboarders. Mt. Baldy is known as a challenging ski resort. Though it does have one “baby run,” novices are discouraged from skiing there.
And it is no typical skiing venue, but is rather considered a backcountry locale., which bills itself as a backcountry skiing blog, provides a ski descent rating system for the world’s most challenging skiing settings, rating runs for both difficulty and risk.
Three of Mt. Baldy’s runs are listed high up on those rating schemes.
Zeke’s Chute at Mt. Baldy rates a D9 on the rating card, with this notation: “Slopes probably around 45 degrees. Crux sections are short.”
Dostie’s Dare at Mt. Baldy is pegged at D11 on the difficulty scale. “Slopes probably around 45 degrees, moderate amount of complicating terrain features,” the website states.
The site also references the ironically-named “Girly Man Chute at Mt. Baldy with this notation: “Steepest section probably around 50 degrees, moderate or no terrain obstacles.”
While those are difficulty ratings which are ostensibly unrelated to risk ratings, Mt. Baldy ski runs are notoriously risky. The proximity of the runs to trees, rocks and boulders along with the steepness of their grades give skiers little margin for error. Additionally, because there is oftentimes sparse snowfall at Mt. Baldy and Mt. Baldy does not have a water reserve for snowmaking, skiers are from time to time presented with a rock patch they must jump. Any miscalculations or failures to execute can result in very untoward consequences.
Precise numbers are not available but anecdotal accounts are that there have been more than 20 deaths of skiers on and off the slopes at Mt. Baldy since 1975.

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