It was a seemingly pleasant Tuesday morning when Altadena Mountain Rescue Team member Chuck Rozner spoke calmly via satellite as he helped man a command post near Mount Waterman in Angeles National Forest to oversee the search for a missing Pasadena hiker.
The search was proceeding at full speed after cloudy conditions lifted, and the Sierra Madre Mountain Rescue Team said it was zeroing in on a location and expected a helicopter to arrive soon.
Rozner, a 43-year veteran of the all-volunteer nonprofit Altadena organization, spoke with measured optimism. He’s assisted in or conducted dozens of rescues over the years and is one of about 120 trained mountaineers across eight teams that provide a backbone of support to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and are dedicated to saving lives through mountain rescue and safety education.
“I’ve been doing this pretty much since I was a Boy Scout,” said Rozner. “It’s a great way to volunteer and become part of a team, especially if you love the outdoors.”
Founded in 1951, the Altadena team is the oldest organization of its kind in L.A. County and has been deemed a member unit of the Sheriff’s Department Reserve Forces Bureau since 1956. Headquartered at the sheriff’s Altadena Station, the team is staffed by reserve deputies and civilian volunteer specialists and is operational 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Though members come from all walks of life and professions, it isn’t unusual for them to get a call in the middle of the night or wee morning hours to help assist in a missing or injured person’s case, noted Rozner.
“You never know when you might get called, but everybody has jobs and personal lives, so not everyone goes every time they’re called,” he said.
Altadena team member Alexia Joens can attest to some late nights — she assisted in a search last Saturday morning and afternoon, then went home before returning for a new shift after 9 p.m., finally arriving home at 5 a.m.
Joens doesn’t think much about the hours, she said, knowing only that when she can go, she will. That’s part of the team’s mantra and commitment, members acknowledge.
“I can’t tell you what an honor it is to be able to do this kind of volunteering,” she said. “When you first come to the team, it’s a huge commitment and it really changes your life and the way you focus your activities. It’s really neat to be able to give back in this way and be a part of this effort, to be able to help someone who is out there injured or lost and return them to their families.”
On average, the Altadena Mountain Rescue Team conducts about 100 search and rescue operations every year. In addition to rescues within Los Angeles County, the team has participated in operations throughout California, and in New York, Hawaii and Mexico.
Locally, the number of hikers injured or lost has seemingly increased over the years due to a number of factors. One is social media, Rozner said, with thrill seekers in search of post-worthy selfies and photos risking a hike to areas they are unfamiliar with or requiring more skills than they possess.
Eaton Canyon — which is in the Altadena team’s jurisdiction — in particular had some tragic endings in recent years, as some trekkers jumped or fell from the trail’s popular waterfalls. Another factor is technology: Though hiking and map applications have opened Angeles Forest to a more geographically diverse crowd, if those phones fail (batteries die or users hit a dead zone), the hiker can quickly get in trouble.
“In some ways technology has made our jobs a little easier as it can help trace someone, but it also emboldens people to go out into areas they’re just not familiar with or prepared for,” Rozner said.
Then there are more typical hazards, such as running out of water, getting caught in rain or snow, or getting turned around at dusk — a well-known occurrence in which the trail can suddenly appear completely unfamiliar to someone who previously has been on the path.
Altadena resident and rescue team member Fred Pearce has come to know part of the phenomenon as the “REI effect,” a nod to the outdoorsy inspirational marketing of REI sporting goods store.
Pearce, who by day is a full-time environmental consultant, recalled helping some hikers who still bore tags on their newly purchased equipment. In one instance, he recalled, the trekker didn’t know enough to remove the rubber guards on the hiking poles.
“We try and advise people as much as we can,” he said.
The team trains throughout the year using life-saving techniques, often in conjunction with other teams across the county and the Los Angeles County Fire Department and U.S. Forest Service. They practice hoisting victims into helicopters and over cliff sides with a “basket,” or stretcher.
Members conduct weekend patrols of the mountain areas within their team’s jurisdiction, namely the 20 canyons behind Altadena and Pasadena, and are assigned weekend duty on a rotating basis, which averages once every other month. Those patrols ensure a quick response to emergencies during a time when they are most likely to occur, and also serve as a means of fire prevention and mountain safety.
Over time, members have assisted in some high-profile rescues, garnering media attention and reaping praise from local organizations. Recently, the Ayrshire Foundation took note of the group, granting it $55,000 for a new 2020 Ford F-250 Super Crew and A.R.E. Truck Topper — a much needed and welcomed piece of equipment that will help the team get to hard to reach places and save lives, Rozner said.
Members have also accumulated impactful rescue stories and assisted in life-altering experiences. For Pearce, one of those was the time he and team colleagues found a hiker in Angeles Forest who had been missing for an entire week.
“I’ll never forget that day — it was an incredible feeling,” Pearce recounted. The team had hiked for hours down a new search point into a canyon, where they followed a rushing river downstream. Suddenly there appeared the missing 73-year-old who’d been separated from his hiking group. Apart from some malnourishment and dehydration, the man was OK.
“We’ve been on many, many searches, but finding someone alive after a week makes it all worth it,” said Pearce, who has also aided in multiple body recovery missions.
Though not every search has a happy ending, there is also “value in helping families reunite with their loved ones and help bring them closure,” Rozner added.
Apart from saving lives and educating residents how to safely navigate their backyard forest, the Altadena team has kindled a strong kinship among its members.
“We really look out for each other; there’s nothing they wouldn’t do for me, and that goes both ways — this group feels like a second family,” Pearce said.
The Altadena Mountain Rescue Team is always seeking new volunteers. Those interested should come ready to spend time in the outdoors and have a “desire and determination to help people,” Rozner said, adding that the nonprofit organization provides all the training and equipment. To learn more, visit amrt.org.