How to hike safely when snow and ice make mountain trails dicey

Karen Garcia, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Outdoors

Eric Lewis' Christmas Eve hike up Cucamonga Peak offers a valuable lesson for anyone who's thinking about scaling the Southern California heights in the snow.

Lewis, 57, had been working his way through the SoCal Six-Pack of Peaks Challenge, and Cucamonga was his fifth in the series. But it was the first time he'd hiked a summit blanketed in snow.

So before he made the trip early on Dec. 24, the Riverside County resident researched the trail, the conditions and the equipment he would need — microspikes and hiking poles — to make the trek. He also grabbed the beanie his daughter had given him, not realizing the crucial role it would soon play.

Lewis said he ran into barely anyone on the trail, but he does remember encountering a female hiker who commented on his microspikes and her lack of snow-hiking gear.

After making it to the top and snapping a few photos, Lewis said, he came across the female hiker again on his way back down. She had fallen badly and was being attended to by three other hikers.

"She got a pretty significant gash on her head and she was complaining that her neck and back hurt a lot, but overall she was conscious," he said.


Lewis took out his Garmin inReach Mini, a satellite communicator, and activated the "S.O.S." function.

He and the other hikers stayed with the woman for almost two hours before a first and then a second helicopter arrived to airlift her to safety. The rescuers hadn't been able to spot the group at first, so when they asked Lewis for anything significant they could look for, he mentioned the emergency blanket he'd placed around the injured hiker and his beanie — both of which were bright orange. That did the trick.

Snow is now piling up on peaks across Southern California, including popular hiking spots in the Angeles National Forest and the San Gabriel Mountains. And as Scott Elliott of the California State Parks system noted, hiking in the snow, or simply coming to the mountains in the winter, can be a spectacular experience.

"That said, it's absolutely critical that everyone plan ahead and think through considerations for weather, vehicular travel and recreational safety once hiking to ensure a safe, and therefore enjoyable, time in the mountains," said Elliott, the system's deputy chief of law enforcement and emergency services. "Remember that even a seemingly quick jaunt to the snow can be problematic, or much worse, if hikers are not properly prepared."


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