The three hikers weren’t supposed to be off trail Tuesday around noon while going for a hike in the 2,500-acre Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park in the Foothill Ranch/Trabuco Canyon area.
Thanks to a very challenging cliff rescue by the Aviation Unit of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, during which the three hikers were close to plummeting about 150 feet to their likely deaths, the three today are safe.
The trio — two females, 19 and 18, and an 18-year-old male — were hiking north up the Borrego Trail, whose trailhead is off Portola Parkway in the Ralph’s shopping center, when, for unknown reasons, they decided to go off trail on the left as they approached Mustard Trail and try to scale a cliff, said Candice Hubert, senior park ranger at Whiting Ranch.
A fellow hiker who spotted the three trapped hikers called park ranger headquarters, who then summoned the OCSD, who received the call around 12:30 p.m. Jan. 3.
The hikers weren’t able to move off the cliff due to the steepness of the terrain and one of the women was holding onto just a branch to keep from falling when one of two rescue paramedics on the scene held her with both hands and tried to keep her calm as she cried in panic.
Duke 1, an OCSD patrol helicopter, was dispatched to search and locate the hikers, and Duke 3, a brand-new hybrid patrol helicopter that has extra power to carry more weight and comes with a hoist, was dispatched with rescue paramedics that are part of the OCSD’s Duke team to airlift the victims from the cliff.
The rescue paramedics on Duke 3 — Public Service Responder Jim Slikker, a retired deputy sheriff who now is a reserve deputy, and Deputy Jason McLennan — were able to hoist each victim off of the cliff one by one, said OCSD Sgt. Bill Fitzgerald, pilot and supervisor of the OCSD’s Aviation Unit.
“This was a big one,” Fitzgerald said of the rescue.
The woman pictured in the zoomed-in photo above and picture below was the second of the three hikers who were saved from falling. The other woman who was in a similarly dangerous spot was the first hiker to be plucked to safety.
The male, who was in a slightly better spot, was the third rescued.
Fitzgerald said he and other OCSD personnel who viewed the pictures after the rescue were reminded how dangerous — and valuable — their work is.
“We all thought, ‘This is why we do this,'” Fitzgerald said.
Hubert stressed the importance of staying on marked trails.
“It’s crucial for all kinds of reasons,” she said. “It’s important for resource protection and public safety. Plus, we have wildlife in the park and poison oak, and other hazards. These hikers were lucky. They were lucky a park ranger happened to be patrolling in the area when the call came in.”
The three hikers will not have to pay for the rescue. Any rescues by the OCSD are considered emergency services, and the OCSD does not charge individuals for that.
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