Hiker Dies of Heat Stroke

The Ventura County Medical Examiner’s Office has released the name of a hiker who was found dead near a trailhead at Circle X Ranch in the Santa Monica Mountains on August 6.

Pamela Vigil, 72, of Oxnard, was hiking on Grotto Trail but became separated from her group. 

Although her cause of death had not been officially determined, sheriff’s detectives who investigated the incident indicated that there was no sign of foul play and the cause of death appeared to be heat-related.

Authorities were first contacted at 2:35 p.m., when three other hikers in the group realized Vigil was missing. Park officials indicated that another hiker encountered Vigil at the bottom of the deep canyon trail, and that she appeared “disoriented and groggy.”

A search was launched. Vigil’s body was found two hours later, near the Canyon View Trailhead, some distance from the main Grotto trailhead. Paramedics responded and CPR was performed but Virgil was pronounced dead at 3:52 p.m.   

Virgil’s companions told officials that she was new to their hiking group. The hike took place during a heatwave, when temperatures on the inland side of the Santa Monica Mountains were over 100 degrees during the hottest part of the day.

Grotto trail winds down to the bottom of a deep, boulder-filled ravine. The area was burned during the Woolsey Fire and has less shade than in previous summers. The climb back up to the trailhead is steep and can be punishing on a hot day. Virgil may have missed the route back and ended up on the Canyon View Trail. Her body was spotted by a passerby at the Canyon View Trailhead on Yerba Buena Road, almost a mile from the Grotto trail parking lot. 

A statement from the National Park Service (NPS) confirms that Virgil’s body was found by a passerby two hours after she was reported missing.

“Visitors to the park are strongly urged to carry plenty of water on a hike, especially on hot summer days,” NPS spokesperson Ana Cholo wrote. “Hiking in extreme heat can lead to serious health risks including heat exhaustion, heat stroke, hyponatremia (low sodium blood levels), hyperthermia (overheating), and death.”

A victim of heat exhaustion may have cool and moist skin, but if untreated, heat exhaustion may progress to heat stroke, a more serious, life-threatening medical condition that requires immediate medical attention.

Body temperature in excess of 104 degrees is the most dangerous symptom of heat stroke. It can damage the brain or other vital organs, and in severe cases, cause organ system failure and death.

It can be difficult to adequately treat heat illness in the field without paramedic aid because there is no way to adequately cool the victim down without access to water, ice, and in severe cases, IV fluids. The window for treatment before permanent damage or death occurs is short—just 30 minutes from onset of heat stroke. 

 

YES, YOU CAN DIE

An average of 658 people die from heat stroke each year, according to Center for Disease Control (CDC) data. More than 9,000 heat stroke deaths occurred between 1979 and 2013. The actual number of heat-related fatalities is probably higher because the symptoms can be misclassified or unrecognized. 

Children, the elderly, and individuals with chronic medical conditions—especially heart disease—can be at higher risk for heat stroke, but athletes are also at high risk. No one is immune. A 32-year-old former NFL athlete died from heat stroke in July, after working outside during a heatwave in Arkansas.

Some medications can also increase the risk of heat stroke, including many antihistamines and heart medications like beta-blockers and blood-pressure medications.

Almost all heat-related deaths occurred during May–September, with Arizona, Texas and California accounting for 43 percent of all heat-related deaths, according to the CDC.

The NPS recommends hiking in the morning or in the late afternoon when the temperatures are cooling down. 

“If you see signs of a heat-related illness, stop, seek shade, and try to cool down,” Cholo recommends. “Do not ignore the signs, which include nausea, disorientation, dizziness, and hallucinations.”

Many of the most popular trails in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area are steep and have a substantial elevation loss or gain. Following the Woolsey Fire there is less shade in many areas, and cell reception is limited throughout the area. Hikers should make sure they know what they are getting into in advance and are prepared with adequate water, appropriate clothing, basic first aid knowledge, and an emergency plan in case something goes wrong. 

Cholo’s advice? “Know your own limits.”

 

Suzanne Guldimann
Suzanne Guldimann

Suzanne Guldimann is an author, artist, and musician who lives in Malibu and loves the Santa Monica Mountains. She has worked as a journalist reporting on local news and issues for more than a decade, and is the author of nine books of music for the harp. Suzanne's newest book, "Life in Malibu", explores local history and nature. She can be reached at suzanne@messengermountainnews.com

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