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Close call on Angels Landing still haunts California cop
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Two years later, Dave Bavencoff still cannot talk about what happened on a precipice at Angels Landing in Zion National Park without getting sweaty palms and seeing nightmarish visions of what might have happened.

What if he and the father of a girl, known to him only as Anna, had not reacted so quickly when she slipped and nearly slid over a knife-edge cliff? What if he had lost his grip on her leg? What if her father had? What if his own hold on an anchor rock had weakened?

"In 20 years of law enforcement and three tours in Iraq with the reserves, that day scared me," said Bavencoff, a police sergeant with the National City Police Department in southern California. "I think her dad was just as responsible for stopping her as I was. I think there's the possibility that two people may have ended up going over the edge if we both hadn't acted."

There is no doubt that Anna is lucky to be alive. And while there may be other perspectives than detailed in the story that led the Department of the Interior to award its prestigious Citizen's Award for Bravery to Bavencoff, all accounts are heart-stopping.

On March 30, 2010, David Bavencoff, then a detective, his wife and teenage daughter were making their way up to the landing via a steep footpath that the park's chief ranger compares to a "class 5 climb" — a technical climb level that involves use of safety hardware such as ropes to prevent a fatal fall — in some parts of the 2.5-mile hike.

"That means you're using hands and feet to scramble up," said Cindy Purcell, who is in her second stint as a ranger at the park. "One must pay attention to every footfall along that route."

A chain anchored to steel poles offers hikers hand-holds during the last, most narrow section of the 1,488-foot climb, which follows the cliff's spine and has sheer drop-offs on either side. In the past eight years, six people have plunged to their deaths after losing their footing on the Angels Landing Trail — a tally noted in warning signs installed at the trailhead last spring.

"We are trying to impress on folks this is not for everybody," Purcell said. "It is technically a climbing route and there are chains but that is to direct you along the route. The exposure is extreme and the [outcome] if you fall is fatal."

Bavencoff had hiked to Angels Landing more than a decade earlier and, in a perception perhaps shielded by his youth, didn't recall feeling uncomfortable as he made his way to the top. This time, as a father, he was nervous.

As Bavencoff and his 18-year-old daughter worked their way to the top, another California family happened to be making its way down from the summit. He called to his daughter, who was several feet behind him, to stop where she was. Bavencoff also stopped to allow the family — a mother, son, teenage daughter and father — to pass. He was at the widest spot on the path and figured it best to stay put.

The mother and son each passed Bavencoff by keeping one hand on the chain and reaching the other around him to grab hold of the next section. But the girl let go of the chain and stepped to her left. Bavencoff isn't quite sure what happened next — whether the dirt crumbled beneath her foot or she just slipped.

But in a mere instant, the girl was on her side and back, sliding headfirst toward the cliff edge as her father yelled her name, which Bavencoff later said sounded like "Anna."

Instinct kicked in. The girl's father dropped very quickly and grabbed his daughter's leg. Bavencoff did the same.

"I remember when I first tried to grab her above her left knee, she kept sliding and I couldn't get a grip on her leg," he said in a telephone interview. "I remember thinking we weren't going to be able to stop her and that she was going to go over."

Bavencoff regained his grasp just under the girl's left knee. With the help of the girl's father, Bavencoff pulled the girl to safety.

The girl's father recounts the near tragedy in a March 30, 2010, post on his blog, Fleeting Notions. The writer, identified only as Oren, said his daughter Anna slipped and fell headfirst on a cliffside segment of Angels Landing. Anna managed to stop her slide inches before reaching the edge, according to the post, even as her father and "a guy coming up the other way" both grabbed for her leg. The father said the other man "may have been partly responsible for her slip, by refusing to give way on the chain."

"I don't fault the dad at all for feeling that way," Bavencoff said when told about the post. "I think it's a natural 'If that guy hadn't been there this wouldn't have happened' father-like emotion. I don't believe that's what happened, though."

However it occurred, the event traumatized all involved.

"The good news is that I still have a daughter," Oren wrote. "The bad news is that I'll have that image stuck in my head forever."

Once back on the path, the girl initially laughed and then broke into tears.

"She was still standing in a bad spot so I took her hand and placed it on the chain because I think she was in a little bit of shock and I didn't want her falling again," Bavencoff said.

In that bad spot, there wasn't time for any conversation or pleasantries, he said. The father and mother, who was also crying, thanked him and the families went their separate ways.

Bavencoff said he walked a few steps and, shaken and in shock himself, had to sit down for a while.

"For the rest of the walk, I was thinking I was the worst father in the world for bringing my daughter there," he said. "People have a false sense of security. They treat it like an amusement park."

He couldn't sleep for two days.

No one reported the event to park rangers, who first heard about it nearly a month later after being contacted by Detective Derek Aydelotte, then Bavencoff's supervisor, who heard and wrote up the dramatic account after asking Bavencoff whether he'd visited Angels Landing and seeing his face turn white.

"Even in an off-duty capacity and on a family vacation, Detective Bavencoff showed his dedication to the law enforcement profession by risking his own life to save the life of another," Aydelotte wrote in an April 2010 letter nominating the officer for an award.

It took two years, but last month the Department of the Interior awarded Bavencoff its Citizen's Award for Bravery, given to individuals for heroic acts or unusual bravery in the face of danger on property it manages. Bavencoff wasn't able to attend the ceremony in Washington and hasn't yet received the citation.

"I am very glad it worked out and the young girl didn't fall off," he said. "But I'm not sure it was worthy of an award. This was an instinctive act that happened. And it would have worked out differently if her father wasn't there."

Bavencoff said he really likes Zion, but "I will never go on Angels Landing again."

As for Angels Landing, Purcell said the park has so far resisted setting any limits about who can traverse the last section leading to the summit but it continues to urge "awareness and self-respect" among would-be trekkers. That point is broadcast to visitors who ride shuttle buses to trailheads in the park and repeated, in dramatic fashion, in the new warning signs.

"If you're scared and starting to get that 'sewing machine' leg, sit down and go back," Purcell said. "It is not something that is a 'have-to-do.' We're trying to remove Angels Landing as a [travel] destination. It is not necessary to go out there to see how beautiful the canyon is."

brooke@sltrib.com

Deaths along Angels Landing Trail, Zion National Park

The hike along the final, narrow ridge to the summit has proved fatal for some visitors, who have plunged more than 1,000 feet to their deaths after losing their footing. Among them:

Kristoffer Jones • 14, Long Beach, Calif., June 2004

Bernadette Vander Meer • 29, Las Vegas, August 2006

Barry Goldstein • 53, St. Louis, June 2007

Nancy Maltez • 55, Glendora, Calif., August 2009

Tammy Grunig • 50, Pocatello, Idaho, November 2009

Regine Milobedzki • 63, Upland, Calif., April 2010

Award • Department of the Interior gives him Citizen's Bravery Award.
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