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Hiker, 53, Is Missing on Mt. Baldy

Times Staff Writers

An experienced 53-year-old hiker who tumbled 100 feet down a ridge near the summit of Mt. Baldy on New Year’s Day was still missing on the icy mountain late Saturday, authorities said.

The search for Charles Koh of Buena Park was halted at sunset on Saturday after 75 rescuers spent the day combing the 10,064-foot mountain. The effort will resume today at first light, said Sgt. Dennis Shaffer of the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department.

“We’ve already searched all the areas where he fell,” Shaffer said Saturday, as darkness and a deep chill fell on the search command post in Mt. Baldy Village, north of Claremont.

“There’s not really anything we can search at this time that has not already been searched,” he said. “Tomorrow we’ll be looking at some further areas.”

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When rescuers reached the spot early Friday where Koh had fallen, they found trace amounts of blood on the snow and a single ski pole that Koh had been using as a hiking stick.

A faint trail from the spot led into the brush, but quickly faded, authorities said. If Koh is alive, he has spent three nights on the mountain. Temperatures have been in the teens at night, rescuers said. Rescuers fear that Koh could succumb to hypothermia, which occurs when the body loses its ability to retain its heat. Hypothermia is considered the No. 1 killer of lost hikers, according to rescuers and mountaineering texts.

Koh is believed to be wearing a waterproof jacket, rain pants and hiking boots, authorities said.

It rained much of Friday, and visibility dropped to less than 50 feet.

“I haven’t seen anything quite like it,” said Michael St. John, 40, a member of Marin County Mountain Rescue, describing the conditions on Mt. Baldy Saturday morning. “At some points, the winds were easily 80 mph. The ground was so hard it was difficult to penetrate the ice with our crampons.”

Koh’s ordeal began New Year’s Day when he was hiking with his wife and two children along a popular trail to the top of Mt. Baldy, said authorities. His family could not be reached Saturday for comment.

At some point, Koh left his family and, with a male friend, began the long slog to Mt. Baldy’s peak on the Hut Trail. December storms had cloaked the top 2,000 feet of the mountain in snow.

For reasons that are unclear, Koh left his backpack behind before heading up the final stretch, Shaffer said.

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Bryan Choi was hiking on Mt. Baldy Thursday with the Korean Alpine Club. Choi said that he had been going down the mountain when he passed Koh, who was on his way to the top.

“I’m sure he was an experienced hiker because he was up so high,” Choi said. “He said he was tired and that he had already fallen because it was so icy.”

Koh made it to the top and then fell about 2:30 p.m. on a narrow stretch of trail near the remains of two Marine fighter planes that crashed into Mt. Baldy in the late 1940s.

Koh’s companion scrambled down the trail to a backcountry hut owned by the Sierra Club, where a club member used her cell phone to summon help, authorities said.

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A helicopter was dispatched before nightfall on Thursday and searched the mountain for 30 to 45 minutes to no avail, said authorities. No choppers could be used Friday because of the weather.

Shaffer said the rescuers needed a rest after 48 hours of combing the mountain. Many searchers were summoned from across the state because of their expertise in ice climbing. Four dogs and two helicopters were also used Saturday.

Rescuers said a similar search last month had a happy ending when a lost hiker on the mountain was found a day after getting lost. Mt. Baldy is a popular hiking destination because of its broad views of the Southland.

The area below where Koh fell is known as Goode Canyon, said Greg Anderson, a searcher with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. “Every time we have someone go up there, they say, ‘Why do they call it Goode Canyon? Because it’s a bad canyon,’ ” he said. “It’s steep and difficult and choked with boulders.”

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Search and rescue experts recommend that hikers carry survival essentials, including a map, a compass, matches, a flashlight, extra food and extra clothes for warmth.

Experts also said that lost hikers should generally stay put rather than wander and get themselves even more lost. Children are advised to wear a whistle -- to make noise if they get lost -- and to hug a tree.

Searchers said there is a good chance Koh will be found alive.

“He was able to get up and go mobile, so it’s probable that he fared OK in the fall,” Shaffer said. “He could be anywhere. He could be in Azusa. He could walk out on the other side of the mountains.”

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