San Francisco preschool teacher, 58-year-old Nancy Blum, died Saturday. A section of seashore bluff at Arch Rock collapsed beneath her and her companion. Her companion survived the fall without life-threatening injuries. Bystanders told emergency personnel the ground gave way all at once with a terrifying and thunderous crash Saturday, hurling the San Francisco woman and her companion toward the beach 75 feet below amid tons of broken sandstone that had been part of the Point Reyes National Seashore’s Arch Rock.
Rescue personnel, including Sonoma County’s Henry 1 helicopter and crew, credited bystanders with helping to free the injured man’s trapped foot and lower leg from the rubble. In the meantime, the incoming tide was rising around him and the fog was closing in.
Earlier that day many hikers paused at Arch Rock to examine the reported fissures.
Rangers discovered the fissure on the cliff’s edge last Wednesday and posted signs warning hikers that “hazardous conditions exist on Arch Rock. Fissures along the top of Arch Rock may have weakened the cliff.”
The sign at the Bear Valley trailhead warned bluffs along the California coast are inherently unstable. They are prone to crumbling and sliding. It is very dangerous to climb or walk along the edge of cliffs. Be aware of falling rocks if walking near the base of a rock face. The warning did not specifically tell hikers to stay off of Arch Rock. The sign on the trail at Bear Valley parking lot included a photo of the fissure. Another photo, also by the Park service, posted on the PRNS website, showed a much wider fissure.
The day before the collapse, the Point Reyes National Seashore had posted a photo on Facebook of the fissure in the rock structure — with a warning to use caution.
“Visitors using Bear Valley Trail to Arch Rock — watch out! At the very end of the trail, the cliff is breaking away — seen here in a photo taken Wednesday,” the government organization said.
The Bear Valley trail is very popular on the weekends, with the parking lot nearly full by late morning. Scores of hikers headed up the Bear Valley trail, many with Arch Rock as their destination.
John Dell’Osso from the Point Reyes National Seashore told CNN and other news outlets that it had posted warnings after being notified last Thursday that a crack had formed in the arch.
“We posted all kinds of notices up and down that particular trail (Bear Valley), which is how probably 99% of the people who would hike that far would (go), and all around our visitors’ center in Trail Heads, just to warn people of the hazard that was out there,” Dell’Osso said.
“We didn’t know what could happen and what unfortunately did happen is on Saturday afternoon a large portion of that overlook actually collapsed down onto the beach and partly onto the ocean,” he said. “The tragedy is that there were two people that were standing out there who fell with all of that rubble.”
After emergency personnel reached Blum and her hiking companion, she was flown to Bear Valley Ranger Station, where she was pronounced dead.
The Park Service was aware of the dangerous nature of the bluff, with the recent fissure widening. Such a condition needed stronger measures than passive signs at such a popular and well used trail.
There are many photographs being posted on social media showing groups of hikers standing on Arch Rock that Saturday, and even jumping over the crack.
I do not know if this type of cliff fissure is common at Pt Reyes, or if they occur often and do not presage a major collapse. But a few questions come to mind: why was the warning not more specific? Why were there no rangers at the site during the day, when it would have been apparent that hikers were not heeding the warning? There seem to be enough staff on duty most weekends to snag dog owners with dogs off-leash on Limantour Beach, or even on a rainy New Years Eve in the Giacomini Wetlands, which happened to me. The Bear Valley trail is very popular on the weekends, with the parking lot nearly full by late morning and scores of hikers heading up Bear Valley road, many with Arch Rock as their destination. The hikers I spoke with on Sunday morning were studying the sign, photographing it, and when told that the cliff had collapsed the previous day, discussed how they could hike close to observe the slide. It appears that the sign drew people to the site to see the fissure for themselves. It seems that it would have been prudent to close off the trail immediately and post some rangers in the area after it became apparent that it was widening rapidly. Trails have been closed for much more benign reasons in the past. Linda Petersen