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Esalen retreat in Big Sur evacuated with help from Paso Robles helicopter company

Cracks and buckling concrete have damaged Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge south of Big Sur beyond repair. The structure has been closed to all vehicle and pedestrian traffic.
Cracks and buckling concrete have damaged Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge south of Big Sur beyond repair. The structure has been closed to all vehicle and pedestrian traffic.

A private helicopter company from Paso Robles helped evacuate more than 70 people from the remote Esalen Institute in Big Sur after a bridge on the verge of collapse to the north and road closures to the south stranded clients, students and staff at the historic retreat center.

On Friday, staff from Sinton Helicopters shuttled people from Esalen with the help of another helicopter leased from a Southern California company, a Sinton employee said Friday morning.

The employee said the Sinton pilot and crew were in the air about 10 a.m., but the employee was not available to provide further information.

Gordon Wheeler, the president and spokesman for Esalen Institute, was at the main campus Friday morning and unavailable for comment. However, a representative for the institute said the operation had been in planning for a few weeks and that there was no danger to people or property.

About 50 people were being shuttled via helicopter to the El Sur Ranch, near the Point Sur Lighthouse, about 20 miles north in Monterey County. And about 20 more people were being taken by shuttle van south via local access roads with the assistance of Caltrans, the representative said.

Highway 1 remains closed from Ragged Point on the southern end to Palo Colorado in Monterey County, about 10 miles south of Carmel, Caltrans spokesman Jim Shivers said.

He said the Esalen caravan planned to drive south to Ragged Point, passing Paul’s Slide about 20 miles north of the San Luis Obispo County line, where the vehicles would have to pass one car at a time in a single lane because of dirt and mud on the roadway.

The evacuation was expected to last through Friday.

The nonprofit institute, founded in 1962, provides humanistic alternative education workshops and has attracted historic figures such as Aldous Huxley, Ken Kesey, Joan Baez and Ansel Adams.

Access through Big Sur has been hampered in recent weeks by the closures of a section of Highway 1 and several local roads because of heavy rain and mudslides.

The Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge, about 13 miles north of Esalen and 45 miles north of the Monterey County line, has been closed for several weeks because of mudslides in the area surrounding it. On Tuesday, Caltrans said the bridge would permanently close because of unrepairable fractures.

Matt Fountain: 805-781-7909, @MattFountain1

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