Sam was a mountain man.
Not some Grizzly Adams type, living in a backwoods cabin. Sam was a retired convenience store owner who lived in Culver City.
But just about every morning, he got up and drove east past Claremont to hike up Mount Baldy. He summited the 10,064-foot mountain nearly 800 times, including 100 days in a row at one stretch. His goal was to reach 1,000 ascents by the end of this year.
But a few days ago, Sam died on that mountain. He apparently slipped and fell near the summit.
It was way too soon to lose this incredible 78-year-old, who was so vigorous that hikers a half-century his junior struggled to keep up with him on the trail.
Despite their sorrow, fellow hikers understand that there was no more fitting place for their beloved Sam to meet his ancestors. Sam had been quoted as saying that being on Mount Baldy was like being in church, that he felt God’s embrace on the mountain.
Sam was also a people man.
I remember Sam, whose real name was Seuk Doo Kim, not just for his vigor or his love of hiking, but because he was the friendliest, most outgoing person I’ve ever met — on a trail or anywhere else.
I ran into Sam just twice, more than a decade ago, and we talked for maybe half an hour altogether. Yet I’ll never forget him or those encounters, because Sam was so vivaciously charming and engaging. He loved life and he loved hiking. For him, I think they were almost the same thing.
And he left my wife and me with one of those silly little stories that you laugh about years later.
We met Sam and his wife one day when they were heading up the trail to Cucamonga Peak as we were coming back down. Sam immediately chatted us up, saying that he had only recently discovered that there were trails, like the one we were on, that led beyond Icehouse Saddle.
“For years I went up to the saddle and back, up to the saddle and back,” he laughed. “Now I know there are other places to go.”
Then he proudly told us it was his and his wife’s wedding anniversary — their 40th or 45th, I don’t recall which. We couldn’t help but notice that she looked considerably less pleased than Sam did about celebrating the milestone with a 12-mile hike.
With the talk of their anniversary, and Sam’s ability to draw people out in conversation, we told them how we’d been married years earlier on the summit of Baldy, by a clergyman who shared our enthusiasm for hiking.
About a year later, we ran into Sam again on the Icehouse Canyon trail. His wife hadn’t come along that day. He told us how delighted he was to see us again, which was mutual, and dug into his backpack and pulled out a church bulletin to show us. The bulletin, printed in Korean, carried an item Sam had contributed in which he recounted meeting us on the trail the year before. He read us the blurb, translating into English, as saying he had “met Kitty and Mike, who had made love on top of Mount Baldy.”
Er … that’s not exactly what we said — and in a church bulletin yet. But we laughed about it, and we still do.
Sometime after that, Sam “discovered” Mount Baldy, and eventually took to hiking up the Ski Hut trail to the top time after time. Unfortunately, we never bumped into him on our intermittent weekend hikes, which take us to Baldy’s summit just once or twice a summer.
But we’ll not forget the gregarious hiker who never met a stranger he didn’t want to turn into a new friend.
Next time we get to the top of Baldy, we’ll say a little prayer for Sam. We’ll lift a cup of something or other in his memory. And we’ll laugh out loud about love of, and love on, the mountain.
Mike Brossart is deputy opinion editor. email@example.com.