The Los Angeles County Medical Examiner-Coroner ruled this week that Narineh Avakian died from hypothermia and environmental exposure sometime after embarking on a solo hiking trip in the Angeles National Forest two Sundays ago.
The coroner also ruled the manner of Avakian’s death to be accidental. Although it remains unclear when she died, the 37-year-old Glendale woman’s body was located Saturday, March 13, off the Mt. Waterman Trail in the Angeles National Forest, north of La Canada Flintridge. Teams had been searching the area since Thursday last week, when her car was finally located parked at the Buckhorn Day Use Area just off Angeles Crest Highway. She’d been reported missing by her family on Monday, March 8.
“It was not the ending that we were hoping for,” said Sgt. John Gilbert, search and rescue coordinator for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s Crescenta Valley Station. “Our thoughts and wishes go out to the family.”
Although first responders reported no signs of foul play last Saturday, the Sheriff’s Department’s homicide bureau opened an investigation as per protocol. When asked, representatives with the Sheriff’s Department did not say how the coroner’s ruling affected this investigation. (Gilbert is not with the homicide bureau.) The coroner’s report did not indicate any other conditions that may have incapacitated Avakian.
According to the Glendale Police Department, Avakian told her family she was leaving for a one-day hiking trip on Saturday, March 7. Although she likely found hospitable weather on the Angeles National Forest when she started, winter storms that formed in L.A. County last week would have drastically changed conditions for her.
“When she went hiking initially, it was a very fair weather day, so the conditions she encountered on the trail that day would have been very dry,” Gilbert explained. “There would have been very little snow and ice based on which part of the trail she went on.”
What followed was “one of the larger snowfall events we’ve had this year,” Gilbert added, referring to the meteorological year that runs Oct. 1-Sept. 30.
“We haven’t had a lot of snow up in the mountains but in this particular storm, we had over 2 feet of snow that was dropped on that particular mountain,” he said.
Sgt. Christian Hauptmann, the spokesman for GPD, said Avakian’s family received a tip that her car, a Subaru Impreza, was seen at Buckhorn, found it themselves and called the department out. He explained that a logistical issue which prolonged the search was that Avakian had not said where she was hiking — leaving open a wide range of trails she could have traveled to for a day hike. Once investigators confirmed it was her car, they were presented with another logistical problem — five well-trafficked trailheads start from that parking area, which is around mile marker 58 of the highway.
“Starting off, we didn’t know which of those five was the most likely route, and we needed to treat all of those as likely locations,” explained Steve Goldsworthy, operations leader of the Montrose Search and Rescue Team with the CV Station. “They all have a waterfall or a mountaintop or some destination” that make them popular with hikers.
“The parking lot area sits at around 6,500 feet or so, but the search area itself goes almost immediately to 8,000,” he added. “The conditions in the Crescenta Valley compared to just a 40-minute drive into the mountains is extremely different.”
Goldsworthy, who is not with the Sheriff’s Department, said the Montrose SAR deployed five trucks within an hour of finding Avakian’s car (around 3 p.m. that day). They quickly encountered another logistical issue in roadways that weren’t usable even after they were plowed.
“Even though Caltrans cleared the road, there was so much ice that couldn’t move the vehicles,” Goldsworthy said. “We had to get the gravel truck to come down and lay gravel so we could get vehicles from one side of the road to the other.”
By the end of the week, the operation had ballooned to 25 teams of local volunteers and those from 17 other counties. Additionally, two Eurocopter “Super Puma” helicopters, including the Sheriff’s Department’s Air Rescue 5, brought another eight sets of eyes to the search, and an ability to drop teams far into the forest.
“This helicopter was critical in this operation,” Gilbert said. “It allowed us to search a wide area very quickly and helped us insert teams into the field.”
After searching through the rest of that Thursday, search teams suspended the operation at around 2 a.m. that Friday “due to the worsening weather conditions,” GPD said — at least 12 inches of snow had already fallen just that night. A thunderstorm that developed on Friday afternoon also exacerbated things because a number of teams were combing a ridgeline that was elevated around 2,000 feet from the operation’s command post at Newcomb’s Ranch.
What’s more, teams must go back and retrace areas searched at night because, with just helmet lamps as illumination, those are “very ineffective” searches, Goldsworthy said. (They are undertaken nevertheless in case the missing person is still alive.) Crews were wary of potential avalanche conditions as well; in fact, there was a reported avalanche on Mt. Baldy that Saturday — which, like where Avakian was found, was on a south-facing slope.
A fortuitous break in the weather Saturday allowed the operation to grow to its largest size, allowing a three-person team from China Lake in Kern County to locate Avakian’s body at around 1:30 p.m. She was at an elevation of 8,000 feet and her body needed to be airlifted out, according to the Sheriff’s Department.
“In a way we got lucky with the weather. We were able to put together a huge search effort on Saturday,” Goldsworthy said. “Had we not found her Saturday, with the new system coming in on Sunday and Monday, we would not have been able to search there for very long.”
The coroner said its autopsy was closed and Avakian’s body was released to her family this week. Her brother-in-law, Aramik Simonian, started a GoFundMe page — located at https://bit.ly/2QlkQhe — this week to raise money for Avakian’s funeral expenses. As of the News-Press’ deadline on Friday, the effort had generated more than $34,000.
“I’m super proud and honored to be part of this amazing community,” Simonian wrote in an update on the page Monday. “There are no words to explain how grateful we are for such an act of kindness that you showed us!”
GPD said Avakian’s family described her as a frequent hiker, sometimes in groups but often alone. Officials recommend that people avoid hiking alone, but should in any case tell a relative or friend what trail they’re using, what they’re wearing and when they expect to return. There also are devices that use satellite signals to transmit coordinates to emergency responders when activated.