Chuck Ballard has spent more than 50 years helping lost and injured hikers as a member of the Altadena Mountain Rescue Team.
By Tariq Kamal 08/01/2014
After the deadly Station Fire raged across Angeles National Forest and nearby communities in 2009, the Altadena Mountain Rescue Team’s workload just about doubled — hikers and climbers pushed out of the burnt acreage were crowding into the team’s jurisdiction, which includes 20 canyons, triggering as many as 90 rescues a year. A call that came in during this busy period prompted Chuck Ballard, the team’s senior member, to begin coordin-ating a search. With only a few of the 25-plus members available, Ballard concluded they were shorthanded, recalls team Captain Rich DeLeon. “He jumps in the truck and says, ‘OK, let’s go!’ And we said ‘Chuck, have you forgotten? We can’t take you!’ If we’d let him, he would have gone out and hiked as far as he could. He has that burning desire.”
Never mind that Ballard is 87 years old. Now desk-bound, nearly 20 years removed from the decades he spent in the field, he remains an indispensable part of the team and an inspiration to his fellow rescuers. “Chuck is, without fail, one of our most reliable members,” DeLeon says. “He is often the first person there. He can still coordinate an entire rescue.”
So when Ballard and his wife, Rae, moved from their longtime home up the road from team headquarters to nearby Duarte in July, the move caused some consternation among crew members, including DeLeon and Alexia Joens. “It was a shock to us that he was moving, when he told us he wouldn’t be there for everything the way he is now,” says Joens. “I just figured, quite honestly, that he would always be there for us. The good news is, he’s not retiring.”
And that’s a relief for team members like DeLeon, a 17-year veteran, who says it’s difficult to imagine Altadena Mountain Rescue without Ballard in the picture. “We’re going to miss his regular presence and how dedicated a person he has been over his lifetime,” DeLeon adds. “He has always done it very willingly and cheerfully. That guy is amazing.”
And the team’s task is more challenging than ever. Its territory includes Millard Canyon and Eaton Canyon, which draws 450,000 climbers a year and has been a flashpoint for controversy over safety — Angeles National Forest officials recently announced a plan to close the canyon above the first waterfall on Aug. 1 because the half-mile trek to the second waterfall is so dangerous it has caused five deaths and dozens of injuries.
Safety is job one for the the all-volunteer crew headquartered in the Altadena Sheriff’s Station at the southern edge of Angeles National Forest. The team’s mission is to search for and rescue lost and injured climbers and provide security, evacuation support and traffic control during emergencies. When a call comes in, the operations manager is tasked with assembling a team and coordinating with law enforcement agencies as well as other air- and land-based rescue teams. Available crew members assemble at the sheriff’s station, change into uniform and strap on their 30-pound field packs while the operations manager determines how to proceed. Callers can provide clues to their location and can sometimes be “pinged” by their cellphone provider; searches for missing subjects typically begin by locating their vehicle and checking for footprints. From there, the team ventures out along the most likely paths, shouting the subject’s name. Injured climbers are treated and hauled out on a specially built litter or airlifted to safety. “Cliffhanger” rescues may require team members to climb up or rappel down ridges. When a body is found, they must treat the area as a crime scene, take photos and get authorization from the police and the coroner before they can remove it.
Not surprisingly, the recruitment standards for the Altadena team are at least as rigorous today as they were when Ballard joined in 1964, after graduating from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Reserve Academy, where he earned his emergency medical technician (EMT) certificate and completed the team’s rescue training program. Over the years, Ballard has worked two day jobs — Bank of America branch manager and registered nurse in Huntington Memorial Hospital’s pediatric unit, a job he took after enrolling in Pasadena City College’s nursing program at age 58. Teammate Joens believes Ballard’s desire to help his neighbors motivated him to change careers. “I don’t think there’s anyone out there that doesn’t have a tremendous amount of respect for Chuck,” she says.
Ballard’s calm demeanor has been a boon to his under-the-gun peers, who participate in one or two missions every week during the height of the summer climbing season, according to DeLeon. Having seen him in action countless times, DeLeon says, the man is unflappable. “He doesn’t have to flip a switch. Chuck is pretty much the same guy all the time.”
The modest Ballard prefers to discuss the work of the team and its associated agencies rather than his own accomplishments or heroics. Asked about his first operation, he responds that it was “probably a search,” describing his role simply as “team go-fer.” But as the decades rolled on, Ballard took on the mantle of leadership. He would complete three three-year rotations as team captain and, when the years began to catch up to him, took over as base camp operator and operations leader.
“The team was founded in ’51. The procedures were pretty well established by the time I joined,” Ballard says. “But our skills are greater now than they were 40 or 50 years ago. It used to be a call would come in and the station would call the duty officer, who would then have to call the entire list by phone. Finally we got CB radios and then I guess about 30 years ago we had pagers, which sped up the process greatly.”
As reserve sheriff’s deputies, most team members are not volunteers — technically. Ballard drew a $1 annual salary (“minus taxes,” he notes) from the county until the age of 72, when he officially retired and became one of three full-time volunteers. The paycheck ensures that rescuers are county employees and thus eligible for workers’ compensation benefits. Mountain work is inherently dangerous, and Ballard discourages applicants whose talents would be put to better use elsewhere. “Some of them want to be a cop and that becomes obvious fairly soon. We suggest they go to the green reserves, the ones that look like deputies,” he says. “We’ve got red shirts and climbing boots and red hardhats.”
Asked whether hikers are becoming more aware of the dangers, Ballard replies, “On average, no, and I think it may be going down. Typically our subjects are teenage boys. Among other things, they’ll take chances that they shouldn’t.” The prevalence of mobile phones and improved reception in the canyons has made it easier to call for help, he adds, but that’s a double-edged sword. “They’ll go up in Eaton or Millard and get up on a ridge and think, ‘This is kind of steep. I don’t like this.’ So they’ll get on the cellphone and get bailed out. It used to be they would bail themselves out. I can’t prove it but I think some of these teenagers want a free helicopter ride.”
In typical fashion, Ballard is matter-of-fact about the passage of time and his changing role. “I haven’t been in [the field] lately because I just don’t have the stamina anymore. I’m 87, so I wear down a little too fast.” With another chapter completed, he is ready to move on. “I appreciate the call and nice talking with you. But if you don’t mind, I’d better get back to work.”