On a cold, starry night, a banker, a fireman and a county office worker, all equipped with guns, ropes and hand-held radios, had just disappeared down the face of a remote dam in Malibu Creek State Park when their mock exercise turned into the real thing.
"Looks like we've got a real rescue," said Chuck Pode, a Ventura County official who spends much of his free time climbing up and down the Santa Monica Mountains looking for lost hikers and injured motorists whose cars have run into ravines.
Abandoning the rock-filled backpacks that were to be the mock victims in their practice session, Pode and fellow volunteers Carmel Davis, a Bank of America officer, and Tom Murphy, an off-duty Culver City fireman, hustled back to the dirt road where a park ranger's truck was waiting for them.
They Are Paid $1 a Year
The three are reserve deputies with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department's Malibu Mountain Rescue Team, trained in law enforcement and mountaineering and available for emergency duty day or night, all for $1 a year--before taxes.
When the emergency call came in just after 8 p.m. on a Thursday in December, six members of the volunteer group had just finished the first leg of a training mission designed to test their skills in finding a lost or injured hiker in darkness.
Now the test was real, one of nearly 70 rescue operations the 18-member group carried out in 1985.
Tossing their equipment into the open bed of the pickup truck, they sped off at twice the legal speed limit, yellow light flashing and siren screaming, along Mulholland Highway to Kanan-Dume Road.
There, John Karagavoorian, a young man in a T-shirt, said he had left four fellow Pepperdine University seniors somewhere in the hills after their four-wheel-drive vehicle ran into a ditch.
Fasting for Three Days
One of them, a 21-year-old woman who had been fasting for three days, began passing out, so Karagavoorian ran ahead to look for help. All he knew was that he had left the group where a narrow dirt fire road crossed a small stream, and that it had taken him 45 minutes of running and walking to reach the highway.
As he told his story to Highway Patrol Officer Lorin Clark, a county Fire Department helicopter began flying circles overhead, its searchlight probing the dark hillsides.
With Fire Department Capt. Stan Cleveringa in command of the operation, Chuck Poppenger, a Simi Valley electrician and captain of the volunteer squad, coordinated the search on the ground.
He sent two teams in jeeps and one on foot, split up so the less experienced were paired with veteran trackers. Members of the group range in age from 23 to 57, and in experience from one to nine years.
They found the abandoned vehicle about 10 p.m. Trackers later said that leaving the car was the group's major mistake; had they stayed with the vehicle, they would have been found hours sooner.
Radioing back to the makeshift command post on the highway, the searchers asked what the treads of Karagavoorian's boots looked like.
Using that description, they located his tracks and followed them to where he had parted company with his friends.
Then they followed the footsteps--not an easy job because the dirt was hard-packed and tracks showed up only occasionally--until they reached the point where the group made its second mistake: leaving the road.
The footsteps led down a small trail toward distant lights in the Point Dume area, but the hikers had no idea that seven-foot-high brush, thick stands of poison oak and at least four steep ravines blocked their way in the darkness.
Finally, after six hours of following a stream bed and walking in the wrong direction, the hikers had come to yet another stand of chaparral. They did not know it, but farther down there were several 20-foot sheer drops.
This time they were too tired to fight their way through and they stopped.
"They got smart," said rescue team member Kevin Ryan, a Santa Monica radio store technician and salesman. "We try to train people to stop so we can catch up to them."
It was near the stream, with the temperature hovering around freezing, that the searchers found the missing party at 3:30 a.m., cold and sore but not seriously hurt. They all walked out before dawn.
"Cutting our way down through those bushes probably wasn't the best possible move," recalled Eric Galpine, one of the four, who twisted an ankle and picked up a severe rash. "It was quite a nightmare for us."
The operation, though longer than most, was typical of the rescue squad's duties, using techniques that range from those of mountain men and Indian scouts to the latest in radio technology.
They pinpointed the hikers' location with a "big ear" like those used by the TV networks to listen in on signals during football games.