Hiking Mt. Baldy? You'll probably meet 'Sam,' a 78-year-old mountaineer

On Mt. Baldy’s rocky trails all the regulars know “Sam,” a sturdy hiker of 78 years.

By his count, Seuk Doo Kim has climbed the mountain nearly 750 times and aims to log 1,000 summits by next year. 

“If you go to Baldy tomorrow, you will run into him,” said his son, David Kim. “You will never see another man who loves hiking or who is as obsessed with hiking as him.”

On a recent Sunday morning, he ascended the domed peak for the 100th day in a row.

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

But it’s faith in his own legs and lungs that lets him veer off the main trail and scramble up routes that leave others gasping for air.

Hiking days begin with Kim driving about an hour and a half from his home in Culver City.

He parks his BMW at Manker Flats, throws on a 20-pound backpack full of snacks and three liters of water, and heads out, his presence as unsurprising as that of a scrub jay or a scurrying lizard.

“What time did you start?” he’ll ask weary hikers along the granite scree. “How old are you?”

Happy for a distraction from blisters and sore feet, most stop to talk.

Sam doesn’t take “no” for an answer when he hands them jelly beans, a bag of Doritos or a Clif Bar. He’s even more persistent about getting selfies with the people he encounters, posing for hundreds over the years.

“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.”

Sam has made the journey more than 240 times this year alone, and he has the time-stamped photos to prove it.

Climbing Mt. Baldy is not a remarkable feat. It’s a nearly 4,000-foot climb up a well-maintained trail that many hikers use to train for more difficult peaks. And others claim to have hiked it more times than Sam. But this septuagenarian’s resiliency impresses those many years his junior.

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

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.

Sam’s enthusiasm for the 10,064-foot mountain — the highest point in the San Gabriel range and Los Angeles County — has inspired dozens of hikers to share stories on blogs and social media.

Kevin Ngo, 28, of Long Beach was camping atop Baldy the week of Thanksgiving and awoke to find Sam outside his tent in the middle of the night.

“I could not believe my eyes when I opened up my tent and saw him standing out there,” Ngo said.

They exchanged food and talked awhile before Sam descended back into the darkness. “I still find myself asking if that all really happened,” Ngo said.

Nithin Siddharth met Sam earlier this year on the trail. He posted a photo on Facebook that shows Sam with his friends at the summit of Mt. Baldy, 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.”

Sam is vocal about his desire for peaceful reunification of South and North Korea — the impetus for those summit shots with other hikers holding a South Korean flag and a map of the Korean peninsula.

But it’s more than politics that pushes his thin frame up the same trail to the top of the same mountain day after day, through high wind, rain and snow.

“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 Kim said. “It’s a spiritual journey for him. He feels invigorated and finds peace of mind when he is up in the mountains.”

At the end of his daily trek, Sam usually stops by a cabin at Manker Flats where his friend Richard Tufts lives. Their routine: Tufts boils water and serves green tea while Sam brings gifts such as mangoes, trail mix or beef jerky for Tufts’ dog.

A former ultra-marathoner who has hiked or run to the top of Mt. Baldy more than 1,000 times by his estimate, Tufts, 73, said his friend’s determination is astounding.

“If I was 78 like him, I wouldn’t be doing what he’s doing. I admire him. It seems to me like it’s an addiction for him — it’s better than drugs,” Tufts said.

On the day of his 100th consecutive ascent, Sam brought his two grandsons along for the trip. The youngest, Jonathan, 11, quietly trudged up the path while his grandfather jawed with dozens of hikers in broken English. The boy seems to have caught the hiking bug.

“Thank you Grandpa for taking me to Mt. Baldy to hike,” he wrote on a hiking blog. “I hope I can keep hiking with you for a long time.”

ben.poston@latimes.com

Follow @bposton on Twitter.

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