This article originally appeared in the Feb. 8, 2017 issue of The Daily Bulletin. View clip online.
With a broken leg, five broken ribs and a punctured lung, Warren Muldoon sat on a ledge above a 40-foot waterfall in a remote canyon on Mount Baldy. It was about noon Feb. 1, and he’d already fallen down four smaller waterfalls in an attempt to reach safety after getting lost while hiking down from the summit.
He looked up to his dog Dakota, who looked down at him from a shelf about 30 feet above. She’d fallen twice with him and was too scared to go any farther.
Muldoon was freezing. No one knew where he was — there was no cell coverage. His phone was broken and water-logged anyhow.
“That’s it, Lord, I think I’m going to die,” the 62-year-old Christian man from Whittier recalled thinking.
Suddenly, he looked to the valley below. A group of people were looking up at him. He yelled and waved, and one man ran closer. He was still far away, and they couldn’t hear one another over the sound of falling water, so the man signed a question with his hands: Do you need a helicopter? Muldoon nodded yes.
That exchange set in motion Muldoon’s hoist rescue by a San Bernardino County sheriff’s helicopter shortly before 1:45 p.m. “My dog’s down there,” he said he told his rescuers, but they said they had to worry about him, because he was hypothermic — Muldoon’s body temperature was 88 degrees — and they could lose him.
Dakota watched them fly away toward Loma Linda University Medical Center.
“I could see Dakota just standing there looking at me,” Muldoon said. “It just broke my heart to leave her.”
When Muldoon left home about 6 a.m. Wednesday, he told his wife, Connie, of his plan to hike the Ski Hut Trail to Mount Baldy summit, so she would know where he’d be and when to expect him home.
“Usually, when he goes to the top, he’s gone for quite a few hours,” she said.
About 4:50 p.m. Connie Muldoon was thinking her husband and Dakota should be home soon when a social worker at Loma Linda University Medical Center called and said Warren Muldoon was there being treated for injuries.
Connie Muldoon rushed to the hospital, not knowing the full story. After she arrived at her husband’s bedside, she learned about his rescue — and that Dakota had been left behind.
Dakota, a 3-year-old German shepherd mix, had belonged to their son James since she was 3 months old. He named her after North Dakota, where years before James Muldoon was stationed in the Air Force.
“(Dakota) was the one thing that he absolutely loved,” Connie Muldoon said. “He would have laid his life down for that dog.”
Last Aug. 9, while riding his motorcycle in Whittier, James Muldoon, 32, was struck by a car that ran a red light. He was placed in critical care, his brain severely injured and many bones broken. His condition was grim, and soon deteriorated.
Sometime before the collision, James Muldoon asked his parents if they could care for Dakota should anything happen to him.
“We said, yes, absolutely,” Connie Muldoon recalled.
On Aug. 17, James Muldoon died, and the Muldoons took over Dakota’s parenting.
Connie Muldoon broke down by her husband’s bedside after hearing that Dakota was alone and lost on the mountain.
“She’s the last piece that I have of my son,” Connie Muldoon said. “I wasn’t ready to say goodbye.”
Warren Muldoon and Dakota go everywhere together, he said, often running or hiking. Side by side, they’ve summited Mount Baldy many times, but Wednesday was the first time they had done so in the snow.
They reached the top with no problem, Muldoon said. But on the descent, the wind kicked up, covering the trail and the tracks they made on the ascent. He took a wrong turn, and it got worse from there.
The spikes he wore on his hiking boots didn’t stop him from tumbling. Dakota stumbled too, as she followed him. Muldoon knew they were in trouble, and decided to follow the sound of running water in hopes of finding a way down.
They reached a little stream, which turned into a big stream, which turned into waterfalls. Man and dog fell down the first waterfall and then the second. Muldoon fell down the third waterfall, breaking his ribs. Dakota was too scared to follow.
“Dakota, you gotta come with me,” Muldoon recalled saying. “I can’t leave you here.” The rocks were too slippery for him to go back to her.
After pleading with Dakota for about 15 minutes, Muldoon felt he had to press on without her. Scared, cold and resigned, he moved forward and soon came upon another waterfall.
“I said (to myself), this is bad, this is real bad, but I couldn’t go (back) up,” he recalled. “So I got on my butt, and I just went down so fast and my foot hit the rock in the water and I heard (my leg) snap.”
Muldoon crawled over to the ledge where he thought he would die.
That Wednesday night, Connie Muldoon posted to Facebook about Dakota’s plight. Please watch for her, she wrote. The post went locally viral, shared among various group pages and even Craigslist.
The following morning, Meg Moran of Yorba Linda was on Facebook, catching up on community news, when she learned about the lost dog. “(My husband Patrick) spends every weekend hiking and I spend every weekend doing dog rescue,” Meg Moran said. “I knew we were the perfect people to jump into action.”
Patrick Moran browsed the Angeles National Forest website, where he found the log entry for Warren Muldoon’s rescue. Something didn’t look right to him, he said — the GPS coordinates didn’t match the location description.
“Having been on the mountain over a hundred times myself, I know it like the back of my hand,” he said.
Moran wanted to help find the dog but didn’t want to be hasty.
“I want to know all the details before I start putting out (on social media) where something is, because you could wander around in that snow forever and not find her,” he said.
Moran asked his wife to find someone via Facebook he could speak with and get a better idea of where Dakota might be. Within a few hours, she found Connie Muldoon’s phone number and learned that Warren Muldoon was at Loma Linda University Medical Center.
Moran couldn’t reach Connie Muldoon, but he soon had her husband on the phone from his hospital bed and pressed him for details. It turned out he knew exactly where Warren Muldoon and Dakota had fallen — San Antonio Canyon — because he had rappelled there before.
“It’s a technical area,” he said. “You better know your stuff.”
He told Muldoon that his wrong turn was a common error hikers make in whiteout conditions, leading to a drainage with no safe trail, and that Dakota was likely still trapped there.
Moran hung up and logged into Facebook. He cut and pasted a post to numerous hiking groups and pages: Dakota was probably between the second and third waterfalls in San Antonio Canyon. He also posted photos Connie Muldoon provided of Dakota hiking with her husband and standing next to her son.
Chris Simpson, an experienced mountaineer, soon sent Moran a message saying he would go look for Dakota.
Simpson recapped what happened next in a Facebook post.
“I headed up Ski Hut Trail at around 4:30 p.m. and called out for the dog,” he wrote. “With no luck, I called it quits after 2 hrs or so.”
On his descent he saw a familiar face on the other side of the waterfalls. It was Ricardo Soria Jr. of Glendora, another experienced hiker who not only was also looking for Dakota but had just seen her.
“I made it past the second tier (of the falls) where I peered over a ledge and let out a few whistles,” Soria recounted in a post to Instagram. “Within moments, a set of eyes popped up.”
Problem was, there was “a pretty technical rock section in between him and the dog,” Simpson wrote.
Simpson continued: “I reached the falls area where I met a San Bernardino Search and Rescue volunteer (John Bishop) who was shining his light on the second tier of the falls when it picked up a reflection of 2 eyes. (Ricardo) confirmed it was Dakota.”
Simpson and Bishop hatched a plan to reach Dakota — Soria “headed back for the car knowing that they had it under control” — and after gearing up they climbed up toward her.
“I was the first to reach her and offered up a fresh package of salami which she downed in one bite,” Simpson wrote.
Dakota was too scared to jump the short distance from the snow slope where she stood, so Simpson lured her closer with the empty salami package until he “was able to bear hug her and set her on flat ground,” he wrote.
The two men tied a safety rope to Dakota and escorted her off the mountainside.
Connie Muldoon was visiting her husband at the hospital the evening of Feb. 2 when she learned Dakota was safe and being fed and watered at Mt. Baldy Lodge.
“She broke down when she heard they found Dakota,” Warren Muldoon said.
Connie Muldoon’s friend Melissa Vosberg of Long Beach offered to retrieve Dakota and take her to a veterinarian. The vet hydrated the dog intravenously and stapled a cut on a hind paw. Dakota was bruised, but her blood work checked out and no bones were broken.
Vosberg brought Dakota home about 1:15 a.m. Friday.
“Oh my goodness, she was a sight for sore eyes,” Connie Muldoon said. “She was a little skittish, but she was really happy to be home and just loved on.”
Health complications delayed Warren Muldoon and Dakota’s reunion. At first, he expected to go home Saturday or Sunday, but bleeding in his chest kept him in the hospital. After seeing Dakota acting restless at home, confused about her companion’s absence, Connie Muldoon got the OK to bring in Dakota for a visit at Warren Muldoon’s hospital wing Wednesday.
“You won’t ever go hiking with me ever again” will you, Warren Muldoon asked a tail-wagging, body-wriggling Dakota shortly after noon. “ ‘I ain’t getting out of the car,’ ” he responded on her behalf. Quietly, he said, “That was a bad day.”
Dakota bounced back and forth between her humans. She licked at the compression bandage that wrapped the cast on Warren Muldoon’s lower left leg, and happily ate crackers that nurses brought as snacks.
“This is the famous dog we’ve been hearing about,” they said.
Two days after his rescue, Warren Muldoon readily accepted responsibility for his and Dakota’s ordeal.
“I was just way over my element,” he admitted. “I ended up in a spot I shouldn’t have been.”
On Wednesday he was thankful for the people who risked their own safety to save both of them, and happy they both were alive.
“I truly don’t know how I’d live the rest of my life if she died up there,” he said.