Woman trapped on 500-foot sheer cliff saved in dramatic rescue in Topanga

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A 24-year-old woman was rescued shortly before nightfall Thursday while clinging to the side of a sheer 500-foot vertical cliff in Topanga, according to a press release from the Malibu/Lost Hills Sheriff’s Station. The woman was trapped for more than two hours in a sitting position on the cliff face with one hand grasping the sandstone rock. She had been led by a male hiking partner to attempt to descend down the rock face by rock climbing, but after descending 40 feet they soon realized the climb was more dangerous than they had anticipated.

The woman’s partner was able to climb back up to the top of the cliff and made a “weak makeshift safety line” for her to hold on to. The pair were unable to alert authorities due to a lack of cell phone reception, until the Malibu/Lost Hills Sheriff’s Station was notified nearly two hours later. She was rescued by a Sheriff’s Department helicopter soon after.

“We were about an hour from darkness,” Sergeant Phil Barth, Sheriff’s Air-5 Rescue Crew Chief said. “At night, we have to wear night vision goggles, which limits your field of vision to about a third and is ten times as difficult for us to make rescues.” 

As the pilot of the rescue helicopter neared the sheer cliff and lowered his partner, Sheriff’s Paramedic Deputy Mark Desmarteau, on a hoist cable, the cable began to spin.

“The wind and rotor wash against the rock face creates a vortex and we sometimes start spinning out of control as we leave the aircraft “ Deputy Desmarteau said. “I pointed to a place on the cliff face away from the woman, so the Crew Chief would know where to position me, and so I could stop the spin by grasping the cliff.”

Desmarteau added, “The Crew Chief has to position the hoist exactly right as he lowers the rescue paramedics into a place where we can make the rescue. If the Crew Chief misses, I could become an unwilling battering ram.” 

The Crew Chief, Sergeant Barth said, “We have to be spot-on, especially with someone hanging from a cliff like that. If not exactly right, we could accidentally knock her off the cliff.” 

After Desmarteau stopped spinning and reached the victim, she shouted over the noise of the helicopter, “Please don’t let go. Please don’t let go.” 

“She had a death grip on the ledge and I told her she had to let go, said Deputy Desmarteau. “I had to pry her fingers off of the rock.” 

“It’s understandable and common given the circumstances,” said Deputy Desmarteau. “There is no surviving that fall [500 feet to the canyon floor].” 

Deputy Desmarteau added that when people are in this type of dire position, they are often frozen in terror. “She did a great job helping save her own life by finding the only spot where she could get into a seated position, stayed there for over two hours getting sunburned in 96 degree heat, and found a spot where she could hold onto the cliff face with one hand. She was terrified, but remained in a calm state during the rescue.”