Mt. Baldy is the highest peak in the San Gabriel Mountains, looming 10,064 feet above Los Angeles. If you hiked Baldy over the past few years, chances are you probably ran into Seuk Doo “Sam” Kim.
The 78-year-old summited the peak over 700 times, and was on track to break 1,000 ascents later this year. At one point, he climbed Baldy every day for over 100 days in a row. He became a cult figure for those who frequented the trail, as he insisted on talking to passers-by, giving them some of his food, and posing for pictures. Many hikers have stories of Kim showing up in the middle of the night and sharing a meal or a story with them. Baldy isn’t an imposing or difficult mountain to hike up, but summiting any peak 100 days in a row is a notable feat for a septuagenarian.
Tragically, Kim died on the mountain this week. Kim was reported missing by his family after he left to hike up the mountain on Friday, and authorities found his body about 2,000 feet below the summit yesterday afternoon.
Kim immigrated to the U.S. from South Korea in 1981 and took up hiking after he retired. He wrote a Korean-language hiking guidebook, and he and his wife recently became the oldest couple to complete the 600-mile South Korean length of the Baekdu-daegan trail. He doesn’t hold any records for speed or volume of ascents of Mt. Baldy, but nobody was as dedicated to the mountain as he was. His family speaks about it like a religious devotion:
“My mother can’t understand why he goes to the same mountain every single day. She says, ‘Who cares if you hike this 1,000 times?’ But it means a lot to him,” David Kim said. “It’s a spiritual journey for him. He feels invigorated and finds peace of mind when he is up in the mountains.”
There are tons of stories of Kim popping up at the right time to assuage wayward hikers over the years, like this hiker who backpacked to the summit of Baldy and panicked after he realized how underprepared he was:
After a couple of hours, I heard something I didn’t think I would hear in the lonely night... a human voice. Mr. Kim had ascended the mountain and reached the peak in the middle of the night. I could not believe my eyes when I opened up my tent and saw him standing out there.
I don’t quite remember all the details of our conversation in my tent that night, but I will never forget the inspiration he instilled in me. Here I was, scared I was going to freeze to death or be blown down the mountain, to my death, in my tent. There he was, climbing up and down the mountain for the 252nd time this year.
I made him some lasagna with meat sauce and passed my bottle full of hot water to warm his hands, thinking we would be surviving the night in my tent, together. He gave me the most delicious fruit bar I’ve ever had, and a can of sardines that I will likely keep as a memento of that night.
Then he headed back out, in the freezing cold and wind, despite the darkness of the night, to descend the mountain. As I sit here in front of my computer, I still find myself asking if that all really happened.