First published in the Nov. 27 print issue of the Glendale News Press.
Embedded in the foothills of La Crescenta, the Montrose Search and Rescue team spent the early hours of a warm November morning setting up a recruiting event at Deukmejian Wilderness Park for the first time in its 74-year history.
More than 30 recruits were faced with one task, to complete the near 2-mile trek with dozens of switchbacks and close to 1,000 feet of elevation change in 60 minutes. Waiting for them at a lookout point were a windbreak of rocks and a flagpole, known by many local hikers as the “rock circle.”
By the end, nearly everyone completed the test within the hour.
In the last 18 months, the COVID-19 pandemic led to a lapse in recruiting for the group. Exacerbating matters, some of the team members have decided to either retire or step down. Now, with the wide availability of the vaccine, the team has resumed its search for fresh volunteers.
From start to finish, it takes nearly three years to become a full-fledged member of one of the busiest rescue teams in the state. Recruits are required to take a 22-month sheriff’s deputy course, become a certified EMT and complete the team’s mountaineering training prior to joining.
Montrose Search and Rescue volunteer Mike Leum, a La Crescenta resident, was the event organizer and is an assistant director in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. He’s been with the team for about 30 years.
“I’m an administrator by day,” said the 1980 Hoover High School graduate, “but when the bell goes off, I become a rescuer.”
Growing up in Glendale, Leum decided to join the team after a boy scout went missing over 30 years ago and, after hearing about it on the news, he sprang into action, taking all the necessary steps to join the search party team.
“We consider ourselves to be in the reunion business,” he said. “We try to reunite loved ones with their family. Most of the time it works out great, but there are times where it’s just about providing closure to a family who may have lost someone.”
On average, the Montrose Search and Rescue team receives about 150 calls per year. Leum said there can be weeks when the calls are pouring in, but then there are slower ones, too.
“There’s no better feeling than yelling someone’s name in the middle of the darkness and having them respond,” Leum said.
Founded in 1947, Montrose Search and Rescue was originally known as the “Montrose Mountaineers” and is one of eight other search and rescue teams in L.A. County. The team must be at-the-ready to spring into action, so they are typically called by phone or via pager. Much of their rescue effort is dedicated to the immediate area. However, they can be called to assist in other parts of the state.
Leum has participated in more than 1,100 missions: “Every year there are a few that are very memorable. Team members can be walking on Honolulu Avenue in Montrose and have somebody come up and say, ‘You rescued me.’ It’s pretty cool when that happens.”
Most recently, Leum encountered this firsthand when someone approached him in Montrose and it happened to be the brother of the person he rescued. Leum joked with the man and said, “Good, I’m glad it worked out.”
For the search team however, the rescue operations don’t always end in good news.
“Despite all of our efforts in getting them to the hospital … still alive at that time, sometimes they might pass away as a result of their injuries,” Leum said. “It’s pretty awful. Just so long as we’re able to say we did everything we could do. I want to be able to go to sleep thinking I did everything I could possibly do for that person.”
One of the most challenging parts of the job is the extreme physicality of the rescue operations. Part of the recent recruiting event’s purpose was to showcase the potential hazards of the environment. Danger is part of the job description, Leum noted.
Throughout the 500-mile span of the L.A. County portion of the Angeles National Forest, dense mountain tops with razor-sharp rocks and the thick chaparral landscape can endanger the lives of not just the everyday hiker but the team members themselves.
“There have been many stories of times we’ve saved each other’s lives,” Leum said. “There have been times where one of us may have fallen and got caught by another team member. We have to put ourselves in the same situation that our victims are in so often that it puts us in precarious situations. So, we need to be able to handle those and come home safely at the end of that rescue.”
Sgt. John Gilbert is the search and rescue coordinator for the Sheriff’s Department’s Crescenta Valley Station and works as a liaison between the station and the team.
“I really enjoy this type of work because you get a chance to help people,” Gilbert said. “It’s not everyday people want to see you in law enforcement. This is a different aspect, where people are calling you and they actually want you to be there so they can appreciate your efforts.”
When he’s not busy saving lives, Gilbert is an avid hiker and spends his time out in the wilderness. While growing up, he said he was part of the Cub Scouts and was an avid mountain biker.
“To go out there and help people is really rewarding,” he said. “Now some of them are volunteers, and they are the true angels in all this.”
Team volunteer Dominic Carone is a landscaper by trade, but recently decided to follow his passion and join the search and rescue crew. Growing up, he said, he spent much of his time outdoors with his family camping, hiking and fishing.
“I always played in the backyard making a mess,” Carone said, “and I grew up here. I’m in a position now to help give back a little bit so here I am. It’s rewarding to help people in need.”