One Man’s Trash Patrol Keeps Mountains Tidier

La Cañada High School hosted a “Be the Change Day” a couple of years ago, an event that welcomed dozens of the community’s most interesting and creative thinkers to campus. They urged students to find original ways to make a difference in the world.
Chuck Ernst, 69, taught chemistry, physics and a little geology at another school — he’s a retired Azusa High educator — but “be the change” applies to him, too.
He was inspired to do something impactful and different about a year ago while traversing Angeles Crest Highway above La Cañada Flintridge, and the former science teacher followed through.
“I would always see all this trash in the turnouts and I thought, ‘Somebody should do something about that,’” Ernst said. “And then I thought, ‘Maybe I should do something about that?’”
So the Arcadia resident with “a heart for the planet” drove to the first turnout and started picking up trash. He said he expected he’d just tidy up a few of the turnouts; no big deal. But then he looked over the side of the mountain.
“That’s where most of the trash was,” he said. “Bottles and cans and construction waste that people have dumped. And papers. I could name every fast food restaurant in La Cañada. And I found bongs — which is not surprising. If someone was using it and law enforcement came by, what do you do with it? You toss it over the edge.”
LCF’s Kevin Hughes, a member of the Montrose Search and Rescue team, attests to the immense amount of trash that collects along — and below — ACH: “You’ll see all kinds of construction waste: wood, plaster, tile, old carpets, broken concrete … check for food wrappers, paper cups, beer bottles and cans, clothing, cigarette butts, used baby diapers …”
And, again, Ernst had that thought: Why didn’t he do something about it?
“I’d done some rock climbing before, and I had a real old climbing rope,” he said. “So I would tie it up to the edge of the jeep and lower myself down; I bring a bag and a grabber and I pick up trash.”
It’s actually a healthy workout, he says, with beautiful views. He said he’s descended as far as 300 feet, but he promises he’s cautious. There are steep sections that he hasn’t tempted — and won’t, he said, until he has another experienced climber present to support him.
He’s sure the critters are better off because of his work, and oftentimes drivers will honk their horns at him to indicate their appreciation. Sometimes they’ll pull over and ask him for directions (he usually can help) and on an occasion, Caltrans workers have helped him by hauling off really big stuff.
Early on, he said, sheriff’s deputies stopped him on a couple of occasions, wondering what the heck he was doing.
“I approached him six months ago or something because I thought it was odd,” said Jason Johnson, a reserve deputy for the Montrose Search and Rescue team. “I wanted to find out what he was doing tying a rope to a car and going down the side. I honestly thought it was a little suspicious, but come to find out, he’s doing a good deed. All these big bags, turned out they were full of trash. He loads them up in his car and gets rid of them. It’s definitely pretty cool.”
LCF’s Peter Paek, formerly the owner of La Cañada Art and Frame, noticed Ernst at work during a recent training ride for a cross-country ride he has planned. He found himself compelled to stop and thank the stranger.
“When I go uphill, I see a lot of trash on the street,” Paek said. “So I thought, ‘What a nice guy.’”
Paek said he’d like to lend Ernst a hand one of these days.
Ernst said his wife, Debbie, thinks he’s lost it. Still, she’s supportive, he said, as he gets in his red 2005 Jeep and drives to ACH three or four times a week for a session of trash collection along the 34 turnouts between the base of the highway and the Clear Creek Visitor’s Station.
And, after spending about 12 hours a week for the past year clearing rubbish from the mountain, he said he sees a noticeable change.
“You can tell it looks better,” he said. “I’m getting close to the point where I’ve got them pretty clean, and now it’ll be weekly maintenance after that.”
What would really help him, of course, is if folks would stop trashing the mountain.
“You’d think it was common sense not to dump,” Ernst said. “But they don’t want to pay for going to the dump. But in that case, just drop the stuff on the turnout; it’d be a lot easier to pick up.”

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