To say Kirk Engnath is lucky to be alive is a little like saying Michael Jordan can dunk, or Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf loves a parade.
Three months ago, the 21-year-old stage technician from Glendale slipped from the steep cliff he was climbing at the top of Switzer Falls in the Angeles National Forest and tumbled 90 feet down a rocky slope.
It was the kind of accident for which Switzer has become notorious: "Don't try to climb the falls; several have been injured in the attempt," cautions the guidebook "Trails of the Angeles." In fact, several hikers, the most recent in February, 1990, have died attempting to make the climb.
Engnath, whose skull was fractured and kneecap shattered, almost joined their ranks. At Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena, a blood clot formed in the lining of his brain and he spent two weeks in a coma.
But last week, his thin frame supported by a cane, Engnath marked his recovery by paying homage to the Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies who saved his life. At his request, they gathered at a Pasadena heliport; Engnath shook each of their hands, then decided that a hug was more appropriate.
"I feel I owe you guys just a little bit," he said, his understatement inspiring a few chuckles.
"Hey, you look a lot better standing up than laying down, buddy," quipped Sgt. Harry Jones, who headed the Barley Flats rescue team that airlifted Engnath to safety.
Then, the deputies presented Engnath and his father, Bob Engnath, with official Sheriff's Department Aero Bureau caps. His mother, Stephanie Engnath, began to cry.
"I guess God was sitting on his shoulder when he went down," she said. "He was very lucky. We've been told that so many times."
Kirk Engnath isn't a full-time thrill seeker. At Glendale High School, from which he graduated in 1988, he was active in drama. Later, he worked as a deliveryman for a flower shop before landing a job as a sound-and-light technician for performances at Magic Mountain.
But he also enjoyed hiking and, whenever he could, spent time outdoors. "Any sport out in nature is all right with me--testing your personal strength against the elements," he said.
Engnath got the test of a lifetime on March 11, when he and two friends began the steep climb up the rocky face of Switzer Falls, about six miles north of Pasadena. Engnath had no rock climbing experience and no safety equipment except a small first-aid kit.
His friends, John Jung and Sean Duffer, had already made it to the top, but Engnath's feet gave way about three feet before he reached them. He tumbled down the cliff, free-falling about 20 to 30 feet at a time, before landing crumpled at the bottom.
Jung quickly descended the rocks to aid him, while Duffer went for help. Within 20 minutes, a team from the sheriff's Emergency Services Detail was hovering overhead in a helicopter. Deputies George Preston and Tom Hitchcock rappelled down a 150-foot rope and helped Engnath into a stainless steel basket. Pilot David Martin flew him to safety.
"You really should have some experience and equipment if you're going to make that climb," said Jones, a 24-year Sheriff's Department veteran who estimates that he has made at least 40 rescues from Switzer Falls. "But they're young kids, and you're not going to stop young kids from doing exciting, adventurous things."
After six weeks in the hospital, Engnath was transferred to a neurological care facility, where he had to relearn most of his bodily functions, including walking and talking. Last week, he was released from the facility but will continue receiving therapy as an outpatient.
"I don't really have any regrets," said Engnath, who is expected to make a full recovery eventually. "If you dwell on it too long, you start looking for someone to blame . . . and I only have myself to blame. That's not going to do me any good."