Calls for Help Common in Malibu Park Where Climber Fell to Death
When Arthur Rocco Jr. of Mission Hills and three companions set off into the craggy mountains of Malibu Creek State Park on Wednesday, they probably expected a day of leisurely hiking in an area that stands defiantly apart from urban environs only miles away, authorities said.
But the hike would strand four people and lead to death for Rocco, 19, after he lost his footing on the top of Goat Butte Mountain and fell 250 feet into brush below.
Authorities said it was the first fatal accident at the park in four or five years, although the last three months have seen 10 to 15 rescues of people stranded in precarious spots or injured in less serious falls. Virtually all areas of the 7,000-acre rural park are unrestricted to hikers, and its remote atmosphere usually attracts more than 1,000 people on weekends.
In the San Fernando Valley, a 23-year-old man from Panorama City plunged 150 feet to his death last Friday from Stoney Point, a rocky hill in Chatsworth.
Many details of this week’s accident were still unavailable Thursday, but officials from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and the state park described it as a tragic case of inexperienced hikers venturing into terrain beyond their abilities.
Climbing with Rocco were his fiancee, Julie Cummins, 19, of Mission Hills, and two friends, Robert Silver, 22, also of Mission Hills, and John Jasinski, 22, of Sepulveda.
Cummins declined Thursday to comment on the accident, and Rocco’s two friends could not be reached.
Accounts by sheriff’s and park rescuers indicate that the group clambered to the summit of the 1,000-foot peak along an unofficial trail, then realized how dangerous the trip back down the mountain would be.
At that point, Rocco, possibly standing on crumbling, unstable rock, slipped, fell backward and dropped over the ledge to his death. A coroner’s autopsy is pending.
Two other, unidentified hikers on the mountain heard his companions’ cries for help and scrambled to the top.
Cummins, apparently not knowing whether Rocco had died, descended from the peak in 20 minutes and summoned authorities shortly after 5:30 p.m. Wednesday.
About 30 rescuers from the county Sheriff’s and Fire departments, as well as park rangers trained in mountain rescues, responded to the call for help. A county helicopter landed on a flat patch of rock on the summit and flew the four remaining hikers to safety. A rescue team rappelled over the side of the sheer cliff to recover Rocco’s body.
“Very few people go up there, but most of the people who do have difficulty,” said Sgt. Samuel Olmstead, who heads the sheriff’s Malibu Mountain Search and Rescue Team.
“This is very typical. People get up there and see how steep it is going down,” he said. “It’s awfully easy when you’re out there hiking to get yourself in a position like that.”
Olmstead and park ranger Ron Jones said the group failed to check with park personnel about what kind of terrain they were headed into. The hikers also apparently had little or no training in hiking and carried no hiking gear, wearing simple tennis shoes for a rugged climb.
Emergency calls are a frequent occurrence at the park, which is home to coyotes, deer and an occasional bobcat. Film makers also find the remote tract useful. Television series, such as MASH and The Rifleman, and many films, including some Tarzan movies and The Swiss Family Robinson, have shot sequences there.
Sheriff’s officials say they typically receive three calls a month from the park for help. Jones said the number of serious hiking accidents has ranged from three in a week to none in four months.
The last fatal accident happened on Christmas Day four or five years ago, Jones said, when a woman hiking alone slipped and fell to her death.
Jones said park authorities have not considered adding hiking restrictions to the park because they would be extremely difficult to enforce, given the tract’s vast spaces and shrub-filled nooks and crannies. Although there is a single sign near the base of the mountain informing climbers that there is no trail, there are no barriers or fences to keep novices off.
“We’re not in the business of closing off an area,” Jones said. “I can’t legally stop them from climbing up there. People have to take a certain amount of responsibility for themselves, and by and large, most people do it safely.”
Park officials are also concerned about youths using a nearby rock pond for diving from stone outcroppings 30 to 40 feet above the murky green water. However, the problem has lessened over the last three years since citations were issued.
Jones said the only park restrictions prohibit walking on top of the dam blocking Malibu Creek in the center of the park and swimming or diving into a rock pool nearby. A man in his 30s was critically injured last summer when he slipped from the narrow dam, which rises a few inches above the water, and plummeted onto the rocks 50 feet below on the other side, Jones said.
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