The Second Waterfall
In March, a 17 year-old girl plunged to her death while hiking in Eaton Canyon. She was the fourth hiker to die there since 2011. Why is it so hard to make the canyon safe?
STORY BY // Matthew Fleischer
PHOTOGRAPHS BY // Nathaniel Taylor
On a recent scorching hot sunday afternoon, three members of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department’s all-volunteer Altadena Mountain Rescue Team, Tom Afschar, Zach McFarland and Mark “Tak” Takahashi, took their weekly patrol deep into the heart of Eaton Canyon in the Angeles National Forest. Dressed in full rescue attire and carrying 50-pound backpacks containing first aid and mountain climbing gear, the trio paused nearly halfway through their rounds to point out a small white cross planted in the rocky soil at the base of a craggy cliff.
“That’s where she came to her final resting place,” Afschar said. He was referring to 17-year-old Alhambra high school senior Esther Suen, who in March tumbled 200 feet off the ridgeline above, likely during an attempt to climb what’s known as the “Razorback Trail” to the second waterfall at Eaton Canyon.
An unauthorized, unmarked, practically vertical offshoot of the extremely popular (and extremely flat) Eaton Canyon waterfall hike in Altadena, the path to the elusive second waterfall has been the cause of four deaths since 2011. Hundreds more hikers have ended up with gruesome injuries or needed rescue while trying to reach the waterfall.
Afschar and McFarland were among the first emergency responders to the scene of Suen’s fall, while Takahashi coordinated rescue operations from AMRT’s headquarters at the Altadena sheriff’s station.
Tragically, there was little they could do.
“Cranial fracture,” McFarland, a 24-year-old EMT in his civilian life, explained clinically of Suen’s injuries. “She died almost immediately upon impact.”
Though Suen lost her life, the AMRT pair did help save a male companion who fell alongside her. Two other friends were rescued without injury.
Given her age and the promising future now lost-Suen was a bright girl who had been accepted to multiple Ivy League schools-the teenager’s death created a small media firestorm and prompted everyone from the U.S. Forest Service, who owns the land, to the Pasadena Fire Department, who assists in rescues, to demand that hikers cease all attempts to climb to the second waterfall.
One would think the insistence of authorities and the descriptions of Suen’s grievous injuries in the news media would have had some dissuading effect on hikers.
They have not.
“We are still up there all the time,” Takahashi said. “At least once a week. At least.”
Just two days before the team’s rounds, in fact, world-renowned rapper The Game and several of his friends attempted to find the second water- fall-only to get lost. The Game was able to find his way to safety, but one member of his crew was not. Pasadena Fire Department helicopters were called to locate the man, and with their help, McFarland and other rescuers hiked in and escorted him to safety, unharmed.
There were 14 rescues like this one in Eaton Canyon in the first four months of 2013 alone -accounting for more than half of all AMRT’s operations. Twenty hikers have been plucked from the canyon, seven of whom were injured. According to Afschar, a single rescue helicopter costs taxpayers nearly $4,000 per hour for an operation.
There is no truly safe passage to the second waterfall, but hikers who get into trouble usually do so in one of two fashions: They lose their way, or they fall victim to “the Nub.”
Because there are no signs on the Razorback Trail, many hikers confuse one of the area’s many unstable deer trails with the more navigable human-laid path. This was most likely the mistake that cost Suen her life, according to the rescue team, as it was for 19-year-old Christian Funes, who plunged to his death back in August only 100 yards away from Suen’s fall.
“These cliffs are made of decomposing granite,” Takahashi explained. “It’s very unstable-so unstable that when you veer off trail, even if you realize your mistake, sometimes it’s still impossible to climb back up.”
As for the Nub, Takashashi and Afschar don’t even like to think about it.
The Nub is a narrow gap in the Razorback Trail where hikers have little more to cling to than a sheer, decomposing rock wall. For hikers with no rock-climbing experience, the only apparent way to navigate the Nub is to hug the rock face for dear life and shimmy as delicately as possible from side to side. Lose your footing or panic and it’s 120 feet straight down to the canyon floor.
Several years ago Afschar and Takahashi were called in to locate a young woman who had reportedly fallen from the Nub. They have never forgotten what they found.
“This girl was no older than college-age,” Takahashi remembered. “She took a big fall, and when she landed she impaled herself on a log below.”
The girl miraculously lived, but had to spend a night in agony before she could be safely removed from the log and put on a rescue helicopter.
“It was particularly gruesome,” Afschar said. “I’ve been doing this for 11 years. I’ve seen plenty of injuries here in the canyon. You get used to it after a while. But what happened to that girl is something I have found difficult to get out of my head.”
Afschar has his own ideas about what needs to be done to prevent further tragedy.
“In my opinion, the time has come to build a safe trail.”
The logic is undeniable, given that the majority of hikers who run into trouble seeking the sec- ond waterfall either get lost, or attempt to tackle challenging elements they lack the skills to safely navigate. Directional signage and a well-maintained formal trail may have been enough to keep Suen, for example, from going astray.
Building a trail, however, is easier said than done. In fact, even putting up warning signs has become a source of contention. On few issues in L.A. County has there been so much hand-wringing with so little action.
The problem is largely jurisdictional. The U.S. Forest Service controls the land in question, where hikers have been getting lost and dying. The Forest Service prefers that no one-or barring that, only the most experienced hikers-enter the canyon at all.
“From our point of view, there is no safe passage to the first waterfall,” said Forest Service District Ranger Mike McIntyre.
That may be a bit of hyperbole. The hike to the first waterfall is technically not a maintained trail, but it is short and easily navigable, with a gorgeous (and some might say unearned) view of the falls, making it one of the more popular hikes in all of L.A. County.
That popularity, however, causes problems. When inexperienced hikers on a leisurely stroll to the first waterfall see their more experienced counterparts attempting the rigorous Razorback Trail they often try to follow suit.
“I can’t tell you how many people I’ve seen try to make this climb in flip-flops, or with no water,” Takahashi said. “They’re five minutes away from a Starbucks, so they some- how think there’s no danger out here.”
Here’s where things get even trickier. Given that it maintains no formal trails into Eaton Canyon, the Forest Service considers Eaton Canyon to be “backcountry”-suitable only for experienced hikers. The Los Angeles County Parks and Recreation Department, however, operates a widely visited nature center at the base of the most popular route into the canyon, less than two miles from the first waterfall.
L.A. County helps draw hiking neophytes to the first waterfall, and can’t keep them from exploring beyond their depth to the second. The Forest Service, meanwhile, preferring that no one enter the canyon at all, has not figured out a way to keep warning signage in place, and is unsure about what more to do, in part because the question of liability for injuries has not been settled.
After a pair of deaths only a week apart at the second waterfall in 2011, L.A. County Supervisor Mike Antonovich’s office called a multi-jurisdictional meeting to figure out how to stop the carnage.
The result was a public service announcement featuring harrowing rescue footage from failed ascents to the second waterfall.
“There is NOT a trail,” the video warned. “Death and injury occur every year as people try to hike to it.”
The PSA has been viewed more than 13,000 times on YouTube. It is, however, the fourth result when searching the site for “Eaton Canyon second waterfall.” The first result is a video of several teenagers safely sliding down the second waterfall’s plume like a Disneyland ride. That one has been viewed over 14,000 times.
Dozens of other videos reveal to prospective hikers the exact location of the unmarked entry point to the unauthorized hike-and give them a rough view of how to navigate the hike in what the video’s makers claim to be a safe fashion.
These videos are being shared on social media. As a result, Afschar said, teenagers represent the vast majority of those he sees climbing to the falls, as well as those he brings out on a stretcher.
Public awareness, it seems, is a mixed bag. And so the question remains: What can be done? “We are in the process of assembling a meeting with all the agencies involved,” said Tony Bell, spokesperson for Supervisor Antonovich. “All parties involved in this share a common goal in making this area as safe as possible and preventing further injuries or deaths.”
Bell wouldn’t say if Antonovich’s office plans to lobby for the construction of a safe trail to the second waterfall. LA County Parks and Recreation was equally non-committal.
“We’re looking at any or all avenues to prevent this from happening again,” Kim Bosell, Natural Areas Administrator for the LA County Parks and Recreation Department, said in a telephone interview. “Ultimately though, this is Forest Service land and they would have to choose to build a trail. These waterfalls have been here for many years and the Forest Service has not made this a destination spot they’ve wanted to develop.”
Forest Service District Ranger McIntyre gave no indication that that decision stands to change anytime soon.
“From our end, putting a trail up there would take engineering,” he said. “This is not going to be an easy place to put a trail. That would also mean someone would have to maintain a trail to keep it safe. That option would be cost prohibitive. This is not the only area of the forest that gets a lot of use. If you divert money to build a trail here, other areas may become neglected and unsafe.”
Money aside, Bosell noted that building a trail carries its own dangers. “Bigger picture,” Bosell said, “if you build a trail to the second, you’ll just have to rescue people from the third. There are multiple waterfalls.”
“These deaths are tragic,” McIntyre said. “I truly hope we can find a way to tell people, ‘there is no safe access
to the upper falls.’” Little has worked in that regard thus far.
Back on patrol in Eaton Canyon, Afschar estimated that nearly 20 people climb to the second waterfall on a busy day-even after Suen’s death. “We’ve had people pass us on the Razorback in the middle of a rescue,” Takahashi added. “Ultimately, you can’t save people from themselves.”
Indeed, as word of the danger spreads, the allure of the second waterfall may only be growing.
“We’ve put signs up before,” Afschar explained. “They get taken down or vandalized. We recently put up several signs up on the ridge where the deaths occurred. They were gone within three weeks.”
As if on cue, a family approached, with an 8-year-old boy in tow. “How do we get to the top of the waterfall?” a woman asked the rescuers. “We just saw some people up there.”
“You don’t want to go up there,” Takahashi said. “It’s extremely dangerous. People die going up there all the time.”
“Oh,” she replied, seemingly unconvinced, but unwilling to challenge the rescue team directly. One couldn’t help but get the impression she’d be back.