I’ve run into Sam a half dozen times on my trips up Baldy. Every time, he’d pester me with questions. Always in his Korean-accented English: “When you start?” “How many time you climb Baldy?” Every time, he’d smile and proudly exclaim, “I climb Baldy 100 time last year.” And every time, I’d look at his infectious smile and think, “damn, this old guy is awesome.” I’m also Korean, so it was easy to imagine him as my badass old grandfather.
I took a group of newbie hiking friends up Baldy last year and told them about him. How he’d climbed this mountain 400+ times. And that I’d see him every other time I was out here. How he was a fixture of the hiking community here in LA. We’d run into trail regulars and they’d tell me how he saw him yesterday, or last week, or earlier today. And we’d turn a corner and there he’d be, slowly walking with his big hat and trekking poles up the mountain. Climbing it for the 487th time or whatever.
I’d yell, “Hey Sam! How many times now?” And he’d smile and tell me. He was almost at 1000.
Yesterday, I came home and found out that he was missing on the mountain. He never came back to his car on Friday night. Search and Rescue was deployed and looking for him. I called the sheriffs department to see if they wanted volunteers. I wanted to help. I almost grabbed my gear and started driving out there. But, they told me that they didn’t need me.
I already knew something horrible had happened. He’s not some rookie on Mt. Baldy for the first time. This is Sam. Sam knows this mountain like nobody else. The newspapers say he lived in Culver City. That’s not correct. He lived on Mt. Baldy. And if he was missing, something was very, very wrong. As a wilderness first responder, I know that finding a missing hiker after 48 hours was more likely a body recover than a rescue. It was already day 4. But still. Not Sam!
Around 2 PM today, they found him. I don’t know the details, but he didn’t survive. My only guess is that he took a tumble down the north side that killed him. I don’t know. I wasn’t there. The entire hiking community is shocked and saddened by his death.
I want to say this. And I imagine it might be insensitive to his mourning family, maybe it’s too soon. I apologize in advance. But, this is how I feel about Sam.
I want to be like Sam.
I want to be seventy something and hiking. I want to spend my final days in the fresh air and sunshine of southern California. I want to climb 10,000 foot mountains in my old age. I want to turn the corner of time and smile into the face of everyone who is younger than me. I want to walk, step and step and step up switchbacks and scree and over to that tiny spring at the base of the Bowl to refill my Nalgene and watch as the snows of winter melt from week to week. Pass that same green Sierra Club ski hut over and over again. Left across the base of the bowl and up the tree-line and to the ridge. Make that final last miles over rugged ravines and up to that rusted iron sign. Mt. Baldy, 10,064 ft. Hold my proud hands up over my head and log another ascent. 543. 544. 545. Almost to 1000.
I want to be such a fixture of the outdoors community that hiking bloggers, random REI employees, and total strangers talk about me. That from here till eternity, anybody hiking to the top of the highest peak in LA county will hear the legend of Sam, the greatest Baldy hiker who ever lived. And that how, in the end, Sam died on that mountain that he will forever be remembered with.
He died at 78. That’s a respectable number of years. But more importantly, he lived 78 years and died on a mountain he loved, surrounded by the clear blue Southern California skies, and remembered by the outdoor community that he inspired.
Sam, you were and are an amazing inspiration. I am glad to have known you. You live on in the collective memory of the entire Southern California hiking community. You are a legend.
I want to be like you.
I’m starting #belikesam for posts about him or climbing Baldy. I’m gone this weekend, but I’ll be hiking Baldy on 4/22. Please feel free to join me. Manker Flats to the Summit via Ski Hut. Meet at 7 AM.
Sam Kim Selfie Gallery
Do you have a selfie with Sam? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org and we will add it to the gallery.