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This is the second of three stories of "Harrowing experiences on the trail" by Roger Bell, from his 40 years as a trail contractor. See his first story, " Bees and Cliffs," and the third story, "Surviving a Chain Saw Accident." He tells many more stories in his book of poems, Trail Tales.


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Harrowing experiences on the trail: Part 2

Vice-Chair, American Trails Board of Directors

I’m guessing all serious trail users and builders can recall some intense and harrowing moments when quick decisions were crucial, and from which you gathered wisdom about being prepared in the wilds. And invariably such experiences help tap inner resources of inestimable value to our lives beyond the trail. So I want to tell about a few of our most challenging times in backcountry environments and what we learned as a result. Two of these were almost tragic, while one was mostly funny. My book, Trail Tales (available form the American Trails online bookstore) shares these in poetic form.


A near death fall (“Santa Ana’s Revenge” in Trail Tales)

Another major project in the San Bernardino National Forest above Angeles Oaks, the Santa Ana River Trail, also involved a cliff fall, only this one truly was death defying. About 15 miles in length, this was the Forest Service portion of a much longer crest to coast trail (Pacific Crest Trail to Huntington Beach) paralleling the River channel. It included some super tough work on steep, rocky, fragile hillsides and took us over two seasons to complete— definitely underbid.

photo of sticker on asphalt trail

The Santa Ana River Trail runs along steep cliffs

Toward the end of the first season we got to this really difficult section that seemed totally unsafe because as we cut into the slope large rocks from above were dislodged. Since the consequences for us and eventual users could be tragic, I had pushed hard with several detailed letters trying to convince the Forest Service to realign the trail and even found an excellent alternative line well below where they had it located. It took them all that winter to decide that we should go ahead and put it in the unsafe spot rather than following my advice, something they had relied upon in other instances. This all took place in the early 90’s, and I must admit I never have fully forgiven their decision.

Anyway here’s what happened. We had decent weather into December, and were working on this section which involved significant blasting on a sheer cliff area. Two of my crew members, Pat and Rob, were prying on a sizeable boulder which shifted suddenly catapulting Pat over the trail edge. He fell about 100 feet bouncing off the cliff wall as Rob and I looked on in shocked disbelief.

I climbed down, my heart in my throat, while Rob went for help. I heard him moaning so took solace that at least he was not unconscious or dead. Fortunately two weeks of blasting had left softer dirt on the rock surface where he landed. After checking him out, I retraced that climb for my jacket to keep him warm; luckily the moderate weather for that time of the year at around six thousand feet elevation helped considerably. Pat was in obvious pain but not bleeding much. I spent the next several hours keeping him calm with relaxation talk, positive visualizations, and other methods of distraction so that he did not go into shock. Working together we kept his pain and anxiety at manageable levels.

After awhile a helicopter came but with tall trees and at the base of a cliff, any kind of air rescue was impossible. So after sizing things up they waved and left.

The Search & Rescue team finally arrived well after dark— they had actually gotten lost enroute! But now the hard work could begin. The leader came down and administered first aid; and then we strapped Pat into a basket and literally pulled him up the cliff with me hanging on the side to assure the carrier didn’t get hung up on rock edges. The rescuers carefully rolled him on a one-wheeled gurney a mile or so out to the waiting ambulance for a ride to the hospital. By that time, it had been about six hours since the fall.

Pat spent the next month or so in treatment; they put a steel rod into his broken leg, sewed up a deep scalp wound, and wired his broken jaw before sending him home to Oregon. I’m sure it took a good while more to recover fully.

There were, of course, lawsuits— fortunately the Forest Service settled, based largely on the fact I had made so many written warnings about the safety hazards of this site. My insurance company did also. That was Pat’s intent as he did not actually want to drag me into a courtroom— we were good friends and he did know where my heart was.

The next year I pushed hard to have the contract people let us install a safety fence where he fell, because I could see it as a potential hazard spot for users, but to no avail. Their reasoning? Putting a fence there would tend to imply they should do so wherever a trail might be hazardous, supposedly creating legal vulnerability. Hummm…

Ironically, a section we completed beyond there passed by a spotted owl nest. So guess what: they had us obliterate what we had built and re-align that part of the trail! While I favor protecting the owl, shouldn’t moving the trail for people safety have had at least equal priority? And as if to emphasize my point, the next season an earthquake almost destroyed sections of the trail including the area near where Pat fell. Mostly it was from rocks dislodged above, just as I had warned.

So what did we learn?


Roger Bell, is a former college administrator with a PhD from the University of Washington. He has served with the Western Trailbuilders Association, Whole Access, and the Redlands Trail Committee. As a contractor, he has completed 300 projects in 14 states over a 40-year career.

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