'Spirit' of Mt. Baldy killed in fall near peak he climbed more than 700 times

Seuk Doo Kim, a 78-year-old South Korean hiker from Culver City who climbed Mt. Baldy more than 700 times, died from injuries sustained in a fall on the north side of the 10,064-foot mountain, authorities said Thursday.

An autopsy found that Kim suffered “multiple blunt trauma” after he “fell down a mountain trail,” according to Lt. David Smith with the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office.

Kim’s body was discovered by a flight crew just northwest of the Mt. Baldy summit about 2:10 p.m. Tuesday, slumped over at an elevation of 8,800 feet, said Lt. Elisabeth Sachs of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department in San Dimas.

A sheriff’s helicopter airlifted Kim’s body off the mountain, she said.

Kim’s enthusiasm for climbing the mountain made him a minor celebrity among local hikers, most of whom knew him only as Sam.

He had parked his car Friday morning near the trailhead at Manker Flats, as was his custom. His family became worried when he didn’t return and alerted authorities.

On Tuesday afternoon, as the rescue operation wound down, Kim’s white Toyota Landcruiser was still parked where he’d left it. Tucked under the windshield wiper was a note from a sheriff’s deputy: “Sam stop by the firehouse.”

In December, on his 240th trip up Mt. Baldy that year alone — his 100th daily ascent to the summit in a row — Kim repeatedly encountered regulars he’d met on the trail before.

In his self-appointed role as mountain ambassador, Kim handed out Clif bars, jelly beans and Doritos. He was always eager to chat, and charmingly assertive in demanding that everyone he encountered pose for a selfie.

“It got to the point where I said, ‘No more pictures,’” said Ellen Coleman, 63, of Riverside, as she descended the ski hut trail. “He calls me Superwoman, but he’s significantly older than me so I call him Superman. He’s incredible.”

“That’s my idol right there,” said trail runner Thavee Nantarojaporn, 49, of South Pasadena. “Anybody who can do it 100 days in a row is awesome.”

Kim was vocal about his desire for peaceful reunification of South and North Korea.

Another hiker on the trail that day, Nithin Siddharth, said he had posted a picture on Facebook that shows Sam with his friends at the summit, holding the South Korean flag.

The caption reads: “Here's to Kim and the power of the human spirit. For me he is literally the spirit of that mountain.”

Kim didn’t hesitate to show his love of Mt. Baldy.

“I’m feeling God’s embrace — this is better than church,” Sam said on the way up. “My shortcut is the holy spirit.”

At the time, his son, David Kim, tried to explain his father’s passion.

“My mother can’t understand why he goes to the same mountain every single day. She says, ‘Who cares if you hike this 1,000 times?’ But it means a lot to him,” David said. “It’s a spiritual journey for him. He feels invigorated and finds peace of mind when he is up in the mountains.”

In 1981, Sam and his family moved from South Korea to Southern California, where he worked as a manager at the Bank of Seoul. He later bought and operated a convenience store. At one point he did not take a day off for nine years, his son said.

On Tuesday, search and rescue teams from across Southern California scoured the Mt. Baldy area, using tracking dogs and a helicopter.

A team of three search volunteers from the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department who had flown to the summit in the morning made their way down the south side of the mountain tracing the ridge of Goode Canyon, blowing a whistle and shouting: “Sam!” and “Mr. Kim!”

Just after 2 p.m., volunteer Andy Puhek’s hand-held radio crackled. Another search team had found a body matching Kim’s description.

Puhek’s posture changed. It was not the outcome any searcher hopes for.

“You think of the family,” said Puhek, of Moorpark. “They want closure. If it didn’t work out, it didn’t work out, and they are entitled to know.”

Back at the trailhead, Mt. Baldy Village resident Robin Riggle, who had met Kim and his wife on the trail, was saddened to hear the news.

“He is adorable, and that just breaks my heart,” Riggle said. “He was just the most amazing, generous spirit.”

A funeral service will be held at 10 a.m. on April 22 at St. Gregory Nazianzen Church, located at 911 S. Norton Ave. in Koreatown. A reception will follow and the family has invited hikers who knew Kim to attend and share stories and photos.

ben.poston@latimes.com

Follow @bposton on Twitter.

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UPDATES:

April 17, 11:05 a.m.: This article was updated to include details about Kim’s funeral.

April 13, 3:15 p.m.: This article was updated to include details from the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office about the cause of death.

April 12, 8:50 a.m.: This article has been updated with authorities confirming that the body found was that of Seuk Doo Kim.

9:40 p.m.: This article has been updated throughout with additional information and quotes.

This article was first published at 5:25 p.m. April 11.

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