San Diego Sheriff’s ASTREA helicopter came to the rescue once again on El Cajon Mountain in Lakeside Sunday night. Three hikers were hoisted to safety after becoming lost without warm clothing, food, or water. Their rescue marked the third close call for visitors of the backcountry in less than one month.
Such incidents may be a growing trend, according to helicopter pilot Deputy Scott Bligh: “I have been at ASTREA for almost six years and remember very few if any rescues before this year.”
On August 21, Bligh flew the helicopter that rescued two hikers, who narrowly escaped a wildfire. On the night of September 2, the helicopter was used to locate a hiker lost in a rugged area surrounded by high vegetation and boulders. Swirling ash from the recent fire further reduced visibility on Sunday night’s rescue, requiring the helicopter to hover at 200 feet above ground instead of the usual 50-foot hover altitude.
A lack of heavily traveled trails and steepness in some parts make the mountain (also known as El Capitan) difficult to traverse. Anything beyond the already steep hike from the road on the south-facing slope is for skilled rock climbers and everyone else should access the mountain from less treacherous areas off Wildcat Canyon Road on the way up to Barona. The mountain itself isn’t the problem, though, it’s the hikers, said Bligh.
“Mother nature demands more respect than some folks realize,” he said. Hikers should avoid the mountain on the hottest days of the year, and Bligh recommends letting ASTREA know the GPS coordinates of where they’ll be. They should also carry an 800Mhz radio, fully charged cell phone, signaling devices, appropriate clothing, and plenty of water.