Image 1 of 2
Southern Kern Search and Rescue team in command van at the start of another all-nighter searching for a lost teen in the mountains just a month before the search for Ariel and Allison Fitzmorris. The Search and Rescue team is currently recruiting volunteers for training. [Gary Meyer photo for The Mountain Enterprise]
Image 2 of 2
Kern County Fire Department's helicopter 407 at Station 58 in Pine Mountain with one of the two Fitzmorris sisters aboard on January 2. [Doug Page photo]
By Patric Hedund and Gary Meyer
Allison Fitzmorris, 21 was clinging to a rocky ledge surrounded by snow and buffeted by bone-chilling winds on the morning of January 2 as she watched her sister Ariel, 16 being hoisted into a helicopter. The two of them had spent the night clinging to each other and a tiny pine tree after plunging down the craggy eastern face of Cerro Noroeste in pitch blackness. An unexpectedly quick sunset had caught the two by surprise.
Through the night the girls rotated positions frequently, so that different parts of their bodies would be exposed to the cold winds. They tried to make a small wind barrier with the snow on the sides of the ledge.
"Temperatures were in the teens," Mike Parker of the Southern Kern Search and Rescue Team told The Mountain Enterprise, commenting on the icy winds. "If they had not been together, they probably would not have survived the night," he said.
On a slope below, Allison’s father, David Fitzmorris—his view obscured by trees—saw part of the helicopter rescue operation. He had been searching through the night with the help of sheriff’s deputies and his daughter Amanda to locate the specific "crosshatch" Nike running shoe tracks that would finally lead them in the direction the girls had headed when they left on a day hike about 1:30 p.m. New Year’s Day.
The family was visiting their grandfather’s home at the far western edge of the Pine Mountain community. Parents Angela and David and their 9 children are familiar with the terrain, hiking here often.
"We’ve taught our kids survival skills," Fitzmorris said. Allison, a senior at Fordham University, is a philosophy major and an athlete. She rows on the NCAA crew team there. Her sister Ariel is in high school. The family lives in West Hills.
In an interview while Ariel was still in the hospital, Fitzmorris explained that the family often "howled like wolves" when they hike as a family, to communicate between the forward group and the stragglers. The girls said they had been howling through the night, hoping for help.
He recalled what it was like when he and Kern County Sheriff’s Sergeant Royce Haislip found an orange in the snow next to Allison’s crosshatch tracks. They were able to give a GPS heading to the pilots of Kern County Fire Department’s helicopter 407 to send them in the right direction.
Allison waved her red shirt to catch the crew’s attention. Both girls were taken to Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital for observation. Allison was able to go home the next day. Ariel was kept an extra day because the intense shivering had caused some blood chemistry changes, her mother said. The family’s youngest daughter has some minor frostbite but is expected to recover quickly.
From her hospital bed Ariel told her family about closing her eyes tightly at first as she was being hoisted up by the helicopter’s rope, but then deciding to open her eyes to see the sights. "It was amazing," she said, adding that she didn’t expect to have that view ever again.
Fitzmorris is an English Literature teacher at Cleveland High School in Reseda. Angela has just received her credentials as a registered nurse, and is starting at Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles in the Pediatrics Intensive Care Unit.
Allison told her parents she was having a hard time fully expressing how caring and nurturing the medics in the helicopter were when she was hoisted aboard. "People cared so much!" she told them, remembering how the crew worked to help her get warm.
Mike Parker, owner of Alpine Lumber & Mercantile, has been a search and rescue team volunteer for 32 years. He is always looking for a special kind of volunteer. "We pay it forward," he said. "You have to have a drive to help your fellow man to be on our team," he said, reflecting that "I was raised in Torrance but shed my L.A. mentality when I came to live here. The first thing we tell people is ‘welcome to our community.’ It’s a mountain thing."
This is part of the January 11, 2013 online edition of The Mountain Enterprise.
Have an opinion on this matter? We'd like to hear from you.