Torrey Pines of La Jolla cliff death raises safety concerns

A visitor on April 24, jumps over a fence installed by the City of San Diego to keep citizens off dangerous cliffs at the Torrey Pines Gliderport.
(María José Durán)

The night of April 19, two young adults ventured onto the cliffs near the Torrey Pines Gliderport in La Jolla. Only one of them made it out.

Near midnight, one of the victims called 911 to report that they had fallen off the cliff. Firefighters, lifeguards, police and a helicopter were sent to the location, 2800 Torrey Pines Scenic Drive. A female, who had fallen 50 to 75 feet below the cliff to the area lifeguards call “Hully Gully,” was rescued, and a male was found 50 feet further down the cliff and pronounced dead at the scene.

San Diego City Fire-Rescue Department public information officer Mónica Muñoz confirmed the incident took place at the Torrey Pines Gliderport. Seven years ago, in February 2010, La Jolla Light reported the death of an 18-year-old San Diego State University student found at “Hully Gully,” who appeared to have fallen off the cliff. At the time, an investigation was opened, and the autopsy determined she died of blunt-force injuries.

Muñoz said lifeguards performed 85 cliff rescues in 2016, but the breakdown of how many took place at the Torrey Pines area wasn’t available as of the Light’s press deadline.

Lifeguard Sgt. and Teamsters Union 911 steward Ed Harris calculates that 70 percent of citywide cliff rescues, happen at the La Jolla location. In his words, “We have made 300 rescues in the past 6 years, and most of them have been at the Black’s Beach area (Torrey Pines Gliderport), and there has been no improvement to the signage there. One of these areas is the ‘border field,’ where we go back there again and again because it has the illusion of being a trail (when it’s not). So, you have to ask, why isn’t the City adding warning signs?”

“Danger” signs don’t stop beach-goer from walking down the bluffs at Torrey Pines Gliderport April 24.
(María José Durán)

City communications officer Tim Graham said there are nine signs in the area with “varying degrees of warning from ‘Stay Away’ to ‘No Public Access.’ ” The Light visited the area April 24 and on the bluff top adjacent to the Gliderport to the south (before the access trail to Black’s Beach) found visitors largely ignoring the “Danger; sheer unstable cliffs; stay back” signs and roped-off areas.

Two of the trespassers, who wished to remain anonymous, answered the question, “Why did you ignore the sign?” responding, “To get closer to the edge ... some people don’t know their limits and then they lose their balance.” His partner said, “I saw other people doing it.”

Daniel Keshyap, visiting the Gliderport from Germany, said decided to stay within the designated zone. When asked about the trespassers, he replied, “How do you stop them? Putting up barricades higher than (what’s already there) would ruin it.”

Angie Preisendorfer, president of La Jolla Shores Business Association and a lifelong La Jollan offered her opinion on the dangerous situation. “Everybody ignores the signs down there because they want to get down to Black’s Beach. There are several trails and a road, but people want to take a shortcut, so at the Ho Chi Minh Trail they take a wrong turn and need to be rescued. It’s beautiful and dangerous,” she said.

Harris added that most cliff rescues in the area happen between Indian Canyon Trail (half mile north of the Gliderport) and Box Canyon (half mile south of the Gliderport). The Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, approximately 4 miles north of the Gliderport, features a similar network of cliffs and trails, but less rescues take place in that area.

Nine Torrey Pines visitors ignore City signage and shoot pictures at roped-off bluffs on April 24.
(María José Durán)

Peter Jensen, president of the non-profit Torrey Pines Association that raises funds for the Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, noted that the state park is a “tighter ship. That’s one of the reasons why people don’t fall there. It closes at sunset, it’s a long walk to get up top in the middle of the night compared to the traditional ‘Let’s get wild!’ atmosphere at the Gliderport with some of the activities that happen over there.”

For Jensen, education may be a way to address the issue. “I don’t know if the university (UC San Diego) can do more to make these 18-year-olds understand that cliffs are dangerous and the ocean is dangerous,” he opined.

Ingo Renner, president of the Torrey Pines Docent Society, is part of the volunteer group trying to make sure people stay on the designated trails at the state park. “People used to ignore the signage, but we put in these rods with rope, and ever since, people are really staying on the trails; it’s done a tremendous job,” he said, adding that there are many regulations at the Reserve because “it’s the last remaining Southern California natural chaparral habitat.”