As Wilson Guarin watched the green helicopter roaring above, he wondered if the men being hoisted into the sky felt the risk had been worth it.
Moments earlier, Guarin and his children, Olivia, 11, and Brandon, 12, had hiked to Hermit Falls in Angeles National Forest, one of the most popular waterfalls in the Los Angeles area.
Soon after they arrived, they saw a man dislocate his shoulder when he jumped into the rock pool at the base of Hermit Falls. Less than a minute later, another man jumped and appeared to break both his legs.
Guarin, 40, of Long Beach said the cliff jumpers’ intentions were obvious: They wanted to get a video of themselves and post it to social media.
A thirst among hikers, often inexperienced and under-prepared, to gobble up “likes” and shares on Instagram and other social media sites has led to a significant increase in rescue missions by first responders.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s Search and Rescue teams conducted 681 missions in 2017, the largest number in five years. It’s a 38% increase from the 491 rescues they did in 2013.
The teams’ leaders say the single largest factor for that increase is people posting videos of extreme activities online. Then, without any thought about the difficulty, others try to re-create their own 15-second version of glory. Rescue teams in Santa Barbara and San Bernardino counties have seen similar increases.
“People will post videos of themselves jumping off of Hermit Falls or the Malibu rock pool, and they post it in the springtime when there’s a decent amount of water. But now, the water is a lot less, so what used to be a 10-foot pool is now a 5-foot pool,” said Michael Leum, who oversees the Sheriff Department’s Search and Rescue teams. “You don’t want to be a lawn dart going into that shallow pool.”
On Instagram, posts from visitors venturing to waterfalls and swimming holes in Angeles National Forest and other recreation areas show hikers morphing into models, striking seemingly the same poses in the same places. There’s the sexy pose on a rock. Sometimes it’s the contemplative one, in which they gaze into the sky. The subject line is often a quote about nature, but sometimes it’s just a pun referencing “Waterfalls,” a hit by the ’90s R&B group TLC.
Or maybe just someone bragging about how cool his friends are. A few visitors even dress up, either in suits and evening gowns for a photo shoot, or as mermaids. And then, sometimes, people just get naked — because YOLO (you only live once).
Growing up in the San Gabriel Valley, Robert Garcia remembers when Eaton Canyon and Monkey Canyon, a harder-to-reach swimming hole, were known only to locals. Today, it’s easy to find the routes online and videos on YouTube that explain just how much fun a person might have.
Garcia, the fire chief for Angeles National Forest, doesn’t discourage people from enjoying the outdoors. But he points out that many accidents are avoidable and happen either when people go off trail or ignore official warnings about an area being closed — such as the upper falls of Eaton Canyon — and visit anyway.
“Beyond the safety element, there’s an element of resource damage,” Garcia said. “Trails are designed with mitigation and resource protection in mind, so user-created trails don’t have that level of planning.”
Three years ago, Daniel Sedha and his family wanted to visit Switzer Falls, a stunning 50-foot waterfall and rock pool in Angeles National Forest. But they ended up on the wrong path. Planning to end their hike at the base of the waterfall, they instead ended up trekking to the top of the falls.
The waterfall dry, Sedha walked to the ridge and decided to try to climb to a flat spot where the top of the waterfall usually cascades down. Within seconds, he was sliding.
Sedha’s family heard him fall, a thud like a sack of potatoes hitting the ground, before they saw him. They thought he was dead.
Sedhe broke his pelvis and tailbone. He smashed the right side of his face and still has no feeling above his eyebrow. His elbows have scars from his attempt to stop himself from plummeting onto dry rock.
“I just remember feeling that sliding sensation, and then it was almost like a feeling of super bliss, like euphoria, that feeling of just lifting up,” said Sedha, 19, of La Mirada. “From the slope, I caught air, and that’s it. Boom! I fell 50 feet.”
Sedha is quick to admit he wasn’t prepared for his hike that day. For one, he was wearing sneakers that didn’t provide the same level of grip of hiking boots.
In the hiking world, “the 10 essentials” is a common phrase for an informal list of recommended items: a map, a compass, sunscreen, extra food, extra water, extra clothing, a flashlight or headlamp, a first aid kit, matches and a knife.
The lists vary, but officials agree that the majority of people they save don’t carry a fraction of the list. And sometimes, they hike in flip-flops.
The proximity of Angeles National Forest to Los Angeles — a drive from downtown L.A. to the Switzer Falls trailhead usually takes less than an hour — can give people a false sense of safety. But soon after entering Angeles, a visitor will lose cellphone reception, which will remain spotty throughout the forest. Many folks don’t plan for that, either.
Instead, people often enter the forest in hopes of mimicking an #adventure they saw.
“They might Google map the hike, and not realize it’s a 3,000-foot elevation change as well as a three-mile hike,” said Quintin Humphrey, an engineer with the Los Angeles County Fire Department who regularly goes on rescue calls to Angeles National Forest. “I think those are the things that never cross people’s minds, whereas 20 or 30 years ago people were maybe more prepared for it and had more of a camping mentality.”
Guarin still thinks about the two men he watched hitching helicopter rides to a hospital.
“You get concerned about what people are willing to do — to not have fun. It’s risking everything for no reason.”