Search Mt. Waterman

May 19, 2021
Mt. Waterman, San Gabrial Mts.

Written by Blake Douglas.

On Saturday May 15th, resident George Null of Los Angeles County was reported missing after not returning from a habitual day hike in the Angeles National Forest. His car was located in the Mt. Waterman area shortly thereafter, and a search was initiated by Montrose Search and Rescue. After two days of searching with no results, the search was escalated to an OES callout and RMRU’s assistance was requested. Pete and I responded on Wednesday May 19th, the fifth day of the search.

The last time I had been to this area was for a similar OES callout, for a missing hiker in spring/summer conditions that posed no weather hazards, meaning that a subject who was simply lost was highly likely to be alive. On the other hand, five days was a long time to be “stuck” in this area when you are never more than about four miles from a road, but that is coming from the perspective of someone who does bushwhacking for fun. The subject from my previous search had ended up at the bottom of Devil’s Canyon and was found there seven days later because he had no food and lacked the strength to move.

Mr. Null was reported to be an experienced hiker, particularly on the Mt. Waterman trail, and had no existing medical issues or concerns, so our working assumption was that he had experienced a medical accident and was incapacitated. The last ping from his cell phone had been traced to the slopes near Waterman, but these had been thoroughly searched, meaning that the search areas were now starting to get pretty large and widely spaced.

The Waterman area alternates between high-visibility slopes and ridges that are relatively light on vegetation, and steep, brushy canyons with unstable rock, meaning that the time and quality of a search is highly dependent upon the area. Mr. Null was reported to prefer high points, so our search grids for Wednesday focused on a south-facing slope between Waterman Ridge and the section of the Waterman Trail leading to Three Points. We completed our search area uneventfully and with little of note for the experience other than a few fun Class 3 moves to the top of the boulder piles that dot the ridgeline.

Blouder Pile to Check and Search Area down and left.
Image by Blake.

We had initially signed up for a second assignment, but the second area turned out to have far more brush than our first area, no downslope visibility, and no shade. It was now 1230pm and we felt that this area would be better as a morning assignment, so we returned to base and began our debrief.

Pete by large blooming Yucca on hike out.
Image by Blake.

We had barely begun the debrief when the command post team reported that the subject had been spotted, alive and uninjured, and Air 5 was preparing to hoist him out. Details beyond this were sparse because the command post wanted to keep the radio traffic clear, but Mr. Null was apparently in Bear Creek, far outside our search area and evidently working his way downstream over the course of the five days. Media reports stated that he had lost the Waterman trail due to the trail markers being destroyed in the Bobcat Fire and kept himself alive using skills he learned as a Boy Scout.

Lessons from this mission:
An emergency satellite communicator would have quickly resolved a situation such as this, but these devices are still relatively uncommon, particularly among casual hikers. A more relevant piece of advice for the average hiker is to ignore the “common sense” heuristic, that says to follow a stream because it leads to civilization; while this is true, it does not account for the waterfalls and brush that you will hit along the way. When lost, stay higher if possible, preferably on a ridge line or natural prominence with high visibility from the air. This makes route finding easier for you and searching easier for SAR teams, who almost always check popular landmarks and formations before brush-lined canyons.

Responding Agencies: (Montrose, Ventura County, Sierra Madre, Tulare County, Malibu, and LA Air Rescue 5 Helicopter)

RMRU Members Involved: (Pete Carlson and Blake Douglas)