The tragic result of a large search-and-rescue effort in the Angeles National Forest last week underscores how rapidly changing weather can put hikers in precarious situations.
Search teams found the body of Narineh Avakian, a 37-year-old Glendale woman, near the Mt. Waterman Trail at around 1:30 p.m. Saturday — six days after her family reported her missing. The Los Angeles County Medical Examiner-Coroner determined this week that her manner of death was accidental and due to hypothermia and exposure.
Avakian, whose family said she was a frequent hiker, had embarked on the hiking trip at around noon on Sunday, March 7. At the time, the weather in Angeles Forest was sunny and hospitable, but it later turned deadly as a fast-moving winter storm moved in not long after.
“When she went hiking initially, it was a very fair weather day, so the conditions she encountered on the trail would have been very dry,” explained Sgt. John Gilbert, the search and rescue coordinator for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s Crescenta Valley Station. “There would have been very little snow and ice based on which part of the trail she went on.”
However, last week’s winter storms brought rain, hail and — especially in the mountains — snow to L.A. County. When Avakian’s car was located in the Buckhorn Day Use Area on Thursday afternoon last week, at least 12 inches of snow had fallen in the area in just the previous night.
“It was one of the larger snowfall events that we’ve had this year,” said Gilbert, referring to the meteorological year, which runs from Oct. 1 to 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.”
Avakian’s family was not informed of where Narineh Avakian had planned to visit, only that she said it was a scheduled day hike alone. However, even after finding the woman’s vehicle, the search plan remained a challenge for rescue teams because there are five different, well-used trailheads that start there.
“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,” said Steve Goldsworthy, the operations leader of the Montrose Search and Rescue Team. “They all have a waterfall or a mountaintop or some destination,” which are big draws for hikers.
Given the substantial geographical changes from the foothill communities to all over the forest, Goldsworthy said the changes in weather conditions can likewise be vastly different even on the same day.
“The parking lot area sits at around 6,500 feet or so,” he said, referencing Buckhorn, “but the search area itself goes up almost immediately to 8,000. The conditions in the Crescenta Valley compared to just a 40-minute drive into the mountains is extremely different.”
Goldsworthy said his team deployed five search vehicles Thursday afternoon. By the end of the effort, it had ballooned to 25 total search and rescue teams comprising 80 volunteers from local and 17 additional counties involved in the operation. They were joined by two Eurocopter “Super Puma” helicopters with four-person crews each. A three-person crew from China Lake in Kern County ultimately located Avakian’s body.
Weather continued to be an impediment for those volunteers. Search efforts were suspended at around 2 a.m. Friday, March 12, because of the worsening weather conditions. A thunderstorm that developed Friday afternoon also impaired some search crews, who were 2,000 feet up from the effort’s command post at Newcomb’s Ranch and exposed on ridgelines.
Caltrans road maintenance crews needed to plow through much of Angeles Crest Highway early into the effort, but Goldsworthy said that wasn’t enough at first.
“Even though Caltrans cleared the road, there was so much ice that we couldn’t move the vehicles,” he 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.”
Operations leaders also were concerned about there being avalanche conditions given the fresh snowfall. Avalanches have occurred unusually frequently this year and just on Saturday there was one recorded on Mt. Baldy — like Mt. Waterman, a south-facing mountain slope.
Gilbert, who has been at the CV Station for more than four years, said his deputies and search teams do not very often respond to hikers caught by surprise in the weather, but still emphasized that people should observe forecasts and prepare accordingly.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a lot,” he said. “There is a percentage of people who are unprepared for even the weather on hand. In the wintertime, when we come across lost or distressed hikers, they don’t have the proper amount of layers to keep them warm, and in the summer, we respond to people with heat related issues who may have only brought one small water bottle.
“We don’t very often find people caught in unexpected weather as we do in weather that is predictable,” Gilbert added.
For safety reasons, Gilbert said people should hike in groups so that if one person becomes injured or incapacitated, others can call for help. Hikers will go solo, he said, for the solitude of it and to enjoy nature quietly, but it can be risky.
“We generally never recommend hiking alone,” he said. “It’s understandable why people want to hike alone, but there are inherent risks to that.”
In any case, Gilbert also recommended informing others of where you’re hiking, on what trail, what you’re wearing and when you’re expected to return, so that they can provide that information to first responders if you don’t return on time. There also are devices that will use satellites to transmit an emergency signal when activated.
“The nice thing about that device is that if you’re in back country where you don’t have cellphone reception, you can still call for help,” he said.