Winter months bring more heartache to Mt. Baldy

Members of the West Valley Search and Rescue Team prepare to spend the night Sunday near the Sugarloaf Peak trail after locating the body of a hiker who had fallen to his death. Aerial transport arrived the next morning. Photo/courtesy of West Valley Search and Rescue Team

By Peter Weinberger |

The San Gabriel Mountains have barely had any winter weather in 2024, yet the lure of climbing local peaks in the Mt. Baldy area can still bring injury and even death on the trails.

In most cases rapidly changing weather, coupled high winds and blowing snow make winter hiking risky, especially when someone is unprepared and inexperienced. And though officials warn hikers regularly, at this time every year the pattern inevitably repeats, often resulting in an injured hiker extracted via helicopter and flown to a hospital.

Rescuers wait for aerial transport alongside the body of Mt. Baldy resident Raymond Kopecky, 75, who fell to his death Sunday near Sugarloaf Peak trail. The area is known for its steep, rocky terrain. Photo/courtesy of West Valley Search and Rescue Team

During the winter, any mountain can be dangerous and risky to climb. And above 8,000 feet it becomes hard to predict the environment.

And the one mountain, the Everest of Los Angeles, draws crowds all year round.

At 10,064 feet, Mt. Baldy is the highest summit near the most populous county in the United States. And because of its location just north of Claremont, millions can see the majestic peak from all angles. Let’s face it, Baldy is literally in our backyard. It’s one of the things that makes Southern California so beautiful.

Yet since 2020, 11 people have lost their lives while climbing Baldy — including the latest on Sunday — and there have been more than 130 calls for rescues, according to the San Bernardino County Sheriff Department. British actor Julian Sands died on the mountain in January 2023, and his body wasn’t found for six months. Sands was one of many hikers who tried to conquer Baldy during one of last year’s strong winter storms, including two others who did not survive.

Although there are several trails that lead to Mt. Baldy’s peak, the most popular is the steep path that begins at San Antonio Falls (at 6,300 feet), that eventually cuts north towards Baldy Bowl at over 9,000 feet. You know there’s something to think about when a sign stating, “WARNING: EXTREME DANGER,” is clearly marked at the beginning of the trail. There’s even another warning advising patrons they will need crampons, an ice ax, a helmet and of course, waterproof mountain climbing boots.


Hiker dies after fall

Getting a call about an overdue hiker rarely ends well for Eric Vetere, commander of the West Valley Search and Rescue Team. That was the case on Sunday, January 14 when a 75-year-old man was found dead after falling off a cliff in a steep, rocky area near Mt. Baldy at the relatively small, 6,924-foot Sugarloaf Peak.

Mt. Baldy resident Raymond Kopecky was hiking up the 11-mile Sugarloaf Peak trail when he said hello to friends around 1:30 p.m. on Sunday. That was the last time he was seen alive. He was reported missing later that day. His body was found later that evening after he apparently fell from a rocky cliff along the trail.

Kopecky was an experienced hiker and had climbed the short but steep peak several times. It’s a very popular trail and often used by rock climbers. But Kopecky was hiking alone and had ventured off the trail to a less traveled location.

“It’s not your normal hiking area. It does require some extra skills and expertise that many folks don’t have when they get up here,” Vetere said. “It was very tragic, very unfortunate. We were happy to get there and bring closure to the family.”

Kopecky’s fall shows that no matter your experience level, it’s critical hikers take precautions to stay safe while enjoying the great outdoors. Hiking with a friend, staying on the trail, bring (and use) climbing gear such as hiking boots, ice ax, helmet, and if an area seems risky, or you are tired, turn around. The mountain will always be there when you’re ready to return.


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