Falling for the City — A Shaggy Dog Story

Robert Watson
12 min readFeb 12, 2021


Part 2 —Deadman’s Point Cliff Rescue (start with Part 1)

7:00 pm, June 14, 1987

The place where the hiker’s friend fell was a nasty piece of ship eating rock. It is blocked from the main trail by a low rope fence and a sign indicating “Cliff Area, Danger Keep Away!” Yet, that sign and fence seemed ineffective as there was a well-worn path over and past the fence to the cliff area. Clearly many people ignored the sign for the billion-dollar views on the other side. As I was running by and encountered a hiker in the middle of the trail at that spot, it became immediately obvious that is what he and a friend had done with disastrous consequences.

In that moment, I think we both believed his friend had just died in a fall. At least that is what I saw on the hikers face when I almost ran into him standing in the middle of the Lands End Trail. Slack-jawed with all color gone from his face and a blank stare in his eyes, clearly he was in shock. I was running that trail as part of a loop I was fond of which spanned the length of Golden Gate Park then out along Ocean Beach, past the Cliff House and back through the Presidio and finally to the Avenues where I lived. Depending on the exact route, it was about a 9-mile run. Most often I would run that in the early morning darkness but that Sunday I was running in the afternoon.

I had finished my studies for the day and was on my last long training run before competing in the San Francisco Marathon the following weekend. The entire loop is fantastic but the stretch past Cliff House up the Lands End Trail is extra gorgeous. Often the Cypress trees that line the route play peek-a-boo with shifting fog. The last stretch along the Legion of Honor Park headed East toward the Golden Gate Bridge is particularly breathtaking. Views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin Headlands there are some of the best in the Bay Area. Near the end of the path the trail goes by cliffs that must have wrecked many ships due to how they project jagged-faced into the mouth of the bay.

I was not sure of the mental state of the hiker in the middle of the trail I just encountered. He seemed lost, and not able to engage me directly. Ordinarily I would just run around someone in the way like this by going to the side of the trail. I had seen a lot of whacked-out people living in SF, but something about this felt different. The hiker could barely speak when I asked “is everything ok? Do you need help”? He responded by pointing to the trail past the fence that led to the cliff and in a shaky broken voice stated his friend had “just fallen from the cliff”.

Deadman’s Point- The Cliff of Doom

At that point I stepped over the fence and I ran the short distance down the trail to the cliff. Getting closer I realized the slope of the bluff and vegetation along the top made it impossible to see down to the bottom without getting dangerously close to the cliff. I was unwilling to take that risk. As such, I could not see his friend or get an idea of his condition, but it looked like a huge drop to the bay and rocks below that lay at the cliff’s base. My heart dropped. I jogged back to the hiker to confer. I knew we needed help immediately and to find a way to find and reach his friend. I instructed the hiker to go knock on doors and ask the first person that opens a door to call 911! This was in the days before cell phones and no pay phones seemed to be nearby. The closest houses were down the trail a few hundred yards and around a corner as well.

As he headed down the trail, I jogged back to the cliff area to search for a possible route down. The cliff to the West was too steep and rugged, straight ahead was the deadly looking cliff where the guy had just fallen. I then worked my way along the edge to the East toward the Golden Gate Bridge. A few hundred feet East the cliff was not as bad. However, as a life-long hiker along this coast with experience going up and down cliffs, I knew this one was risky. Not only was it steep with loose rock, the tide appeared high with surf and waves on the shore close to the bottom in most places. I would not go down it if I did not have to.

I did not hesitate as I expected to find this man dead but if alive within inches of his life. I was able to descend the sixty-foot cliff in minutes, I scrambled down facing the rock with mostly solid foot and hand holds but some of it was rough with loose vegetation and rocks. I was slipping in places. Near the bottom I misjudged the distance of the route I was going down. I lost my hold at that point and slid until a hard stop on a rock at the bottom. My right ankle took the full force of the fall and twisted in the process. It hurt, pain was shooting from my ankle. It was a few moments before I had a chance to recover from the shock to do an assessment. Good, my ankle did not seem broken. With some discomfort I was able to get up and make it to the point at the end of this shallow rocky shoreline that separated this stretch of coast from the tiny speck of sand beach that I hoped contained the hiker around the other side.

Going the 20 feet around the point was difficult. The water was at my feet running with a strong current straight out toward the Farallon Islands. My ankle was throbbing. I was freaked out at what I was doing but I knew I needed to stay calm. In the back of my mind though I am thinking “I have been working my ass off for months to prove something for myself in this marathon and now I don’t even know if I can run next week due to this injury”. Still, I pushed forward and shimmed my way around the cold rocky point. On the other side I could see the beach which was really no more than a dab of sand at the bottom of the cliff.

One on the other side I was relieved to see the hiker and that he was lucky enough to land almost completely on the tiny beach and not on the rocks or in the ocean. He was partially embedded in the cold wet sand. Semi-conscious laying down on his side holding his arms around his body loosely, he was not moving but I could see breathing. At first blush I observed no compound fractures or signs of broken bones, which I expected. A good sign but I assumed there must be some internal and or head injuries. He was very scraped with a good abrasion or two on his arms and face where skin was showing. The cliff had battered him. Gazing up the rock face from the bottom for the first time, I estimate he had fallen, and perhaps bounced off the side a few times as he fell, about 60 feet.

My main goal at that point after viewing no injuries that I could attempt first aid on was to comfort him and keep him from going into shock if possible. I gently held his hand and told him help was on the way (even though I was not entirely sure it was). I had a sweatshirt on which I took that off and draped it over him. I had been operating on adrenaline up until that point and it was the first time I stopped to breathe and take stock of the situation that started about 20 minutes before. I was cold, scrapped up, wet, waves were breaking in front of us with my back against a cold damp cliff and this man at my feet seemed like he could die at any moment. I started worrying about the waves and the tide. As time passed, no one seemed like they were coming to rescue us and I grew concerned.

I panicked and decided to go back around the point to see if anyone was coming. I was not looking forward to working my way around the rock face again, but darkness and the tide were closing in. I had to do something. Carefully I made it back around the point. Rounding the corner, I was relieved to see a fireman descending the cliff near where I had come down. Upon seeing him I realized why it had taken a while to get help. The fireman had some gear (a first aid box, radio and ropes) and he could not just drop down the cliff like I did with gear. He needed time to scout the route, gear-up and adjust his rigging so he could safely rappel down. When he was halfway down the line and close enough to hear me, I yelled to him that we were around the point and that I would go back to stay with the hiker until he got there.

One more time I made my way around the point to the small beach. I told the hiker the news that the fire department was on the way and we would get the help he needed to be ok (a lie?). A short time later I greeted the fireman as he slowly made his way around the rocky point with the gear strapped over his back. He arrived and immediately went to work on first aid. Checking vitals, he noted the hiker was stable but obviously immobile. The hiker needed a full medical evaluation and immediate evacuation. Anything but basic treatment, some wound care, was impossible against the cliff and in the encroaching darkness. The incoming tide did not seem to help either.

The fireman radioed in the situation. Chatter was they could not bring a boat because of the rocks and waves. Too risky. Going out the way we came in with the injured man was obviously impossible. We would never make it around the point with an immobile patient. We seemed stuck. After a painful minute to two of considering any other options with base, the idea was proposed and accepted to send a helicopter to attempt the rescue. About 20 cold, damp, miserable minutes later the chuff-chuff-chuff of rotors and roar of an engine could be heard coming off the water to the East. A few moments later, coming into sight as it rounded the point, the helicopter rose a few hundred feet above us.

The pilot then began to position the helicopter above us, and as he did we could see a body basket with a backboard on it being lowered on a cable to us. The basket took some time coming down the 150 feet or so of cable that separated us from freedom. It jumped around and the pilot seemed to be fighting to keep the helicopter stable enough to guide it down safely between the cliffs. Swinging to the side-to-side as it was lowered, clearly is was was buffeted wind from the rotors. I was very concerned the basket would collide with the cliffs above causing rocks to rain down. Luckily that did not happen and we were able to retrieve the basket and place it next to the injured hiker at our feet.

We worked quickly. Just as the darkness and tide seemed to swallow us and the beach completely, we had the hiker positioned onto the body board and loaded into the basket. From there we helped guide him on the cable up to just above our heads. With much relief and speed the helicopter then headed up, back out over the bay mouth, around the corner toward the Presidio.

It had been over an hour since my first trip around the point and the tide was up a good five inches making it extremely hard in the fading light to make it around the cliff this last time. I was scared. I wondered if the helicopter could come back and get me? No such luck. My only way out was around the point.

This last trip was the most precarious with exhaustion taking hold. I was so spent emotionally and physically that I could feel myself wanting to just end this and surrender to the slippery rocks and angry cold water lapping against my feet. However, a few moves in I regained my composure and doubled down, holding firm against the darkness. A few tense minutes later I had rounded the point safely for the last time. I realized then the ordeal was over. I wanted to cry. I did. Although still at the bottom of a cliff, I knew I could make it back up with some effort as I had come down this one. It would not be easy going but I was not overly concerned. At last, time to go home to a hot shower, warm meal and bed!

The fireman roped up and started to go back up the cliff on the right side, he told me to wait and he would help me up. That was nice but I desperately wanted to get home. I started up on the left side to be out of his way as I knew I would move quicker without the equipment he was carrying. About halfway up the cliff a hidden gate swung open at the bottom fence of the first house to the East after the cliffs. From a short distance away, I could see a man at the gate waving to us. He called that we should go up though his yard as there were stairs up to the street inside his yard. I was closer and found my way over and through the gate and waited there with the man until the fireman made his way over to join us. Walking up the stairs to the house, I was deeply relieved to be finally off the cliff.

As we approached the house the man introduced himself, although at that point I thought I recognized him. We were being greeted by a member of San Francisco Rock and Roll royalty, Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane & Starship. As we made our way up the stairs to the house Paul offered for us to come in to warm up with some tea. We gladly accepted the invitation.

We entered the house through the lower level into a great room with breathtaking picture window views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin Headlands. The room was rich in warm wood paneling, beautiful eastern art and tapestries, musical instruments and furniture that was modern and artful. Best of all it was warm inside!

Paul was a gracious host and very excited about the rescue. Apparently, he could see the helicopter and the basket being lowered behind the cliff from his window, but he could not see what was happening below that and asked. I filled him in on the details. After, he noted that the helicopter flying away toward the Presidio with the backdrop of the sunset and the Golden Gate Bridge with the man dangling below it in a basket on a cable was one of the most exciting and beautiful things he had ever seen. Paul loved that he witnessed the rescue and congratulated us on it.

By that point the tea had arrived and had been consumed. Although Paul seemed in no hurry to see us out, both the fireman and I were ready to call it a day. We thanked him for the tea and headed up the stairs to the top level. We said our goodbyes to Paul there at the door and went out into the street. On bidding farewell to the firemen at his engine he asked for my name and phone number. Interestingly we had not exchanged names or introductions to that point, it had all happened so fast. I do remember his name was Michael and he mentioned that he wanted my name and number as the city had a dinner every year for hero’s and he thought I should get an invitation.

As I turned from Michael and started to make my way home at a light jog, I was spent, cold, exhausted, hungry and sore. Most of all I was sad about my sprained ankle and that it might cause me to miss the race the following weekend.

At some point I expected an invitation to the hero’s dinner Michael mentioned, but that did not happen. I never heard from anyone. The dinner sounded nice but just living in the city and being part of everything that was happening was its own reward. There was a small notice buried in the Chronicle the next day about the cliff rescue and noting the hiker was taken to hospital with serious injuries, but the hikers and my name were not mentioned. I was concerned for the hiker and wanted to know more about his condition, but there was not enough information in the paper to follow-up.

Although over the years I would go on to run many exciting races and encounter an array of interesting people and situations around the city, nothing surpassed the events of this day. It had not been the day, week or race I expected and planned for. On reflection however, I was pretty sure this was why I decided to live here. And in the end, it was why I was falling for the City.

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