A group of county officials and the Forest Service is working to stop the dangerous hikes to the second waterfall, through signs, trail work, and altering maps
by Laura B. Monteros
These are the facts: The US Forest Service maintains a safe, easy trail from the Eaton Canyon Nature Center to the bottom of the first waterfall. The Forest Service has not built and does not recognize any other trails to the falls or up the side of the falls.
These are also the facts: On their own, hikers have created a path to the top of the first and second waterfalls that entices adventurous people to slither along the rock face, often ill-equipped, resulting in numerous deaths and scores of rescues.
There is no actual designated official trail to the second waterfall. The one that people call Razorback Trail or Acrophobia Ridge, so-called because it is dangerously high and narrow, was created by hikers themselves. Deputy Mike Leum, the Reserve Chief who oversees the eight Los Angeles County Sheriff’s search and rescue teams, puts it this way. “There are 'use' trails -- in other words, trails that people have kind of created. There are no recognized or official trails, you won’t see them on any map, but we all know they are there.”
Razorback Trail leads to Eaton Canyon’s second waterfall, and that trail has been the locus of injuries, rescues, and fatalities for years. Even though the unofficial trail has a bloody legacy, social media -- Yelp, YouTube, etc. -- depict the hike an easy-to-accomplish lark for the young and strong.
Officials form working group
Therein lies the problem, and the impetus for Fifth District Supervisor Michael Antonovich to call a series of meetings to address the perception gap. Sussy Nemer, field deputy for Antonovich, told us that three meetings have been held over the past two years, with all the official agencies invited, to discuss the rescues and get input from the stakeholders on how to increase public awareness of the dangers.
Representatives from the Fifth District, Los Angeles County Parks and Recreation, LA County Counsel, Altadena Sheriff’s Station, LA County Search and Rescue, LA County Fire Department, US Forest Service, City of Pasadena, and the State Assembly attended the last meeting, held July 8. A date has not been selected for the next meeting.
Trail use and advocacy groups were not invited to participate in the meetings. “Trail users are not the problem,” Nemer stated. “Trail users and advocates are not the people who are hiking up to the second waterfall.”
Discouraging the hike
The group has no name, and Nemer said participants were brainstorming, not acting as a task force, which “describes a problem and takes deliberate steps to correct that problem.” She said, “It’s like county family” setting up a meeting. “The Forest Service was included because it is on their land. It’s not a comprehensive task force.” Altadena Sheriff’s Station Capt. John Benedict, who attended, referred to it as a “working group.” “The meetings were generally positive and collaborative in tone,” Nemer said.
Nemer was clear on the point of these sessions. “The goal has always been to discourage people from hiking to the second waterfall.”
Leum said, “It’s a discussion that needs to be had, and it’s important to get all the different partner agencies together and discuss it, because the only way an impact is going to be made is collaboration [among] all of the agencies. Every agency involved is a stakeholder in the issue in one fashion or another.”
Forest Service: no signs
However, there seems to be a disconnect between the US Forest Service, which is responsible for the area around the falls, and city and county agencies, which mount the rescues and treat the victims.
In a blog post on May 2, Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky wrote, “Ranger Mike McIntyre, who oversees the area, told the group that forest service lawyers wanted no warning signs placed on the agency’s land, in a spot where there’s not even a trail. Doing so, he said, could open the forest service to legal liability; attorneys representing injured hikers might argue that, if agency officials knew there was a risk of injury, then they had an obligation to make the area safer.”
(Altadenablog attempted several times to contact McIntyre, who has attended the meetings, by phone and email, and did not receive a response to questions.)
Thwarting social media
What came out of the first meeting was an effort targeting the most-often-rescued group of users, young adults ages 18 to 24, who, Nemer said, are enticed by social media to attempt the climb up Razorback Trail. They frequently are unprepared, without water or correct climbing gear. At the Altadena Sheriff’s Station open house a few weeks ago, members of the Altadena Mountain Rescue Team said some people attempt the climb in flip-flops or other insubstantial footwear.
“Before the first meeting, there were like 100 positive posts on Yelp.” Nemer stated. “Social media is where it’s advertised the most.” That led to warnings posted on social media sites and the production of a YouTube PSA with officers from the Pasadena and County fire departments and the Altadena Sheriff’s Station and AMRT. It was posted in April, 2012, but Nemer said it has not had the hoped-for impact.
A recent check of Yelp, however, found that reviews were limited to the two-mile hike on the main trail or warnings against going off trail. The site has apparently taken down the Razorback posts, with the exception of a few snapshots on the photo pages. Of the five hiking websites we checked, three explicitly warned against going past the pool at the bottom of the first waterfall, one said to ignore the faint trails leading off the main trail, and one had taken down directions to Razorback due to comments about the dangers.
YouTube is a different story, as we found when we did a video search. The top three results for “Eaton Canyon hiking trail” detail the climb to the top of second waterfall. The fourth video is the county’s PSA. A search for “Eaton Canyon waterfall” puts the county video much lower down. With “Razorback Trail” as the key, it doesn’t even make the front page.
Posting signs, closing trails
At the last meeting, the working group decided to take a more direct approach. Nemer said two action items were approved: posting signs that are more “strongly-worded” than the current signs at the Eaton Canyon Nature Center and the county and city access points, and assigning staff or Explorer Scouts with fliers at the entrances.
“All agree it has to be catchy language and doesn’t take a long time to read,” she said, but still something that “registers as a warning sign.” The signs will be posted by the county. Several options have been drafted, and County Counsel is currently examining the language. A follow-up meeting of the group participants will likely be scheduled to look at the recommendations, Nemer said.
In addition, Eaton Canyon Nature Center will alter its hiking maps and the relief map on display at the center to remove land beyond the county boundaries.
For its part, the Forest Service will be looking at ways to close off access to the unofficial trails, Nemer said, perhaps in the guise of habitat restoration. “They have done this with other unauthorized trails,” Nemer said.
Is a safe trail feasible in that area? “It would be a challenge,” Leum said. “It would have to be something along the lines of what you see in Yosemite. It would be a huge project.”
Nemer said, “My understanding from the discussion is that the topography doesn’t lend itself well to cutting a trail to any agency’s standard for safety.”
Make a safe trail, or barriers
Ranger McIntyre was quoted in the July/August issue of Pasadena Magazine that constructing a trail is not currently under consideration, because it would be cost-prohibitive to build and maintain.
Leum said, “Either the Forest Service needs to create a safe trail system or they need to create barriers to some of these use trails. Since it’s Forest Service land, it’s really up to them. [Our stake] in this is obvious. We just perform the rescues.”
Asked if there would be a concerted effort to monitor social media and hiking blogs, Nemer said, “The general consensus is that we made very little impact with those efforts. I wouldn’t say there will be no effort through social media, we will continue to communicate our message through social media, but the emphasis now is on signs at entry points. With the resources we have, how can we make the best impact on the issue?”
Leum stated, “You always have to have the education piece of this puzzle in place so there will be continued efforts to educate people, whether through signage or a public service announcement.”
Memorial plaque considered
“The focus for the County side will be on signs,” Nemer said, and one of those signs might be a memorial plaque for people who died making the climb. “The other thing we talked about,” she told us, “is paired with the warning sign a memorial plaque with the names and ages of these kids. That’s something we can relate to.” The hope is that if a young person sees the name of someone of the same gender and age, it will hit closer to home.
Charging rescued hikers for the costs is not an option, Nemer said. They are paid for through Measure B (Preservation of Trauma Centers and Emergency Medical Service, 2002), property taxes, and other funds. “I think it’s actually very important we don’t do that,” she said. “If you’re at the top of the waterfall and can’t descend, I don’t want people not to call.”
Noting that usage of the Eaton Canyon area has increased over the years, in part due to the Station Fire closures, Nemer said that it’s a continuing battle to get the word out. “There’s an ongoing commitment from all participants in our meeting. You’re not going to capture everyone, but if you kept at least one person from going up there and hurting themself, it’s worth it.”
In preparing this article, we also communicated with Tony Bell, Communications Deputy for Supervisor Antonovich, and Kim Bosell, Natural Areas Administrator.