By MARIE TABELA | Contributing Writer
Avid climbers and hikers know it is imperative to come prepared—both with knowledge and equipment—for anything Mother Nature may throw their way.
For one brave crew who sought to summit Mount Baldy, which boasts the highest peak in the San Gabriel Mountains, that preparation proved paramount on their most recent excursion up the rocky beast.
Palisadian kids Maslow Larson (11), Aidan Stuempfig (12), Pierce Bendikson (14) and parents Michael Larson, Alex Stuempfig, Aaron Bendikson and Andrew Scott were halfway through their climb when they were interrupted by screams and a thunderous rumbling that echoed through the expanse. It quickly became clear to the experienced crew that an avalanche was rapidly barreling down the mountain.
In a moment of shared clarity among the group, they knew immediately how to handle the situation and where to go. Without time to hesitate, they quickly made their way toward a large tree and sheltered in place.
Though they always come prepared with the necessary survival equipment, such as crampons, ice axes and avalanche beacons, it was their calm yet urgent demeanor that kept them safe on this climb.
“The kids were really composed,” Alex marveled. “Nobody panicked.”
It was their early game plan for their climb that allowed for safe passage, regardless of the disaster. While looking at the vertical face of the mountain, they noticed heavy traffic and exceptionally deep snow on the open face. Based on these facts, they decided to forge their own path and move leftward across the Bowl rather than follow the popular route.
Their assessment of the terrain appearing unstable was spot on, as that very path paved the way for the rapidly tumbling snow to reach a crescendo.
According to the So Cal Snow Avalanche Center, the human-triggered wind slab avalanche was roughly two to three feet deep, 75 to 100 feet wide, and ran for roughly 1,300 feet, all while remaining a safe distance from the group.
“We’ve trained during our hikes over the years to prepare for this, whether it’s how to utilize avalanche beacons or use an axe to break your fall,” Alex explained. “We’ve made sure to train them to not panic. We’re all about safety.”
Detective Brent Meelker of the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department and a search and rescue coordinator for the West Valley Search and Rescue Team explained “avalanche conditions can be caused by natural factors such as snow, wind, rain and temperature.”
“Avalanches can be caused naturally or by a person moving their weight on unstable snow,” Meelker added, which was the case in this instance.
The avalanche hit around roughly 9 a.m., three hours after their journey began. By 1 p.m., they were safely back down the mountain, exhilarated from their epic journey and brush with catastrophe.
The same group has climbed San Jacinto countless times, and the fathers are experienced with places like Mount Whitney, The Matterhorn and several of Colorado’s famed “fourteeners” under their belts.
The children share the same enthusiasm for outdoor adventure as their parents: When asked if they wanted to return to Mount Baldy after their harrowing experience, none hesitated to say that they not only hope to return, but to do so as soon as possible. For these kids, being faced with a challenge is not deterrent, but rather a call to action they are eager to take.
For information regarding potential avalanche danger prior to a hike or climb, Meelker advised checking the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Avalanche Center or local visitor centers.
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