Stuck Climbers

May 08, 2022
Tahquitz Rock, Idyllwild

Written by: Donny Goetz

Around 8:45 pm, the second call of the night came through. Three climbers were stranded 550’ up the side of Tahquitz rock on a popular, yet challenging route known as Whodunnit. Most of the team was already involved in what became an exceptionally long and physical rescue of an injured hiker near the summit of Mt. San Jacinto. I had not responded to that call as my wife and I were out for our anniversary dinner, and we had a huge response from the rest of the team. Now, we were faced with another challenging mission with limited team resources. We left dinner and headed home to pack my gear.

The Sheriff’s aviation unit attempted to fly but high winds forced them to stand down for the duration of both missions. I was given the cell number for one of the subjects and called to get more information on their position and condition. Thankfully, all three were together at one location, anchored safely and uninjured. However, they were out of food, water and only had one light sweatshirt between the three of them. Additionally, they informed me they had purposely climbed off route to the west but we’re unsure how far off they were. Temperatures were expected to drop into the low 40’s that night and the wind chill would likely bring it into the upper 30’s. I assured the young men we were on our way but tried to be realistic about the timeline, so they knew to expect a long night out.

I arrived at the Forest Service station in Idyllwild to meet 5 other team members. Our typical trainings for technical missions involve 12-20 people carrying a truckload of gear. We wouldn’t have that luxury here. We began gathering gear and assessing exactly what we needed vs. how much we would be able to carry. With our packs set, we caravanned to Humber Park and set off on the Lunch Rock climber’s trail around 11 pm.

We worked our way to the western toe of Tahquitz rock and headed around to the south side where we picked up the Friction Descent route as our means of ascent to the top of the crag. Our subjects called me a couple times along the way to voice their concern about hypothermia. I gave them some tips on staying warm with the limited resources they had and updated them on our timeline. Around this time, we were informed two additional team members had been pulled from the rescue of the injured San Jacinto hiker and routed to rendezvous with the 5 of us.

We arrived on top around 12:45 am and began trying to assess our position relative to the subjects. I knew where their intended route topped out on the crag but wasn’t sure how far west they had diverted. I picked an area where a route called the Long Climb finishes and built a quick anchor to safely get near the edge of the wall. Coby, our teammate who was running base operations, was stationed at Humber Park and I contacted him on the radio. He could see the subject’s headlamps and I began flashing mine on the summit edge so he could determine how far off we were. It was clear to him we had to go further east so I climbed up toward the summit blocks of the crag.

Around this time, our other teammates, Tyler and James, arrived at Humber Park. Tyler could see my light, told me to head further east and that, despite the subjects being off route, beginning down the upper portion of Whodunnit was the best approach. I returned to the first anchor, repacked, and led our group to the true summit of the crag where Whodunnit finished. We quickly set anchors, repacked my pack with gear for our subjects including several jackets, food, water, and some hot cocoa my wife had brewed for them while I packed.

Planning and Checking Anochors on top at night.
Donny firt Rescuer over the side with lots of rope and gear.

I discussed the general plan with our team, asked Kase to run operations on the summit and began rappelling off the top. In addition to the gear for our subjects, I carried two ropes pre-flaked for rapid deployment, a full set of cams and nuts to use for various anchors and extra webbing. I placed two directional anchors to prevent my rope from contacting loose rocks and a sharp edge as I worked down into the darkness. Soon, I was at the end of my first 200’ rope and still could not see or hear the stranded climbers. I built an anchor of 4 cams equalized with webbing, tied off my first rope and connected my next rope. I continued rappelling past another bulge and finally had visual contact with the subjects. I could see they were approximately 50’ to the right of the route. I set another directional cam to keep my rope from contacting a loose block the size of a large refrigerator and continued down to their elevation. Once even with them, I traversed to their location, inspected their anchor, and connected to them. It was now close to 2 am.

The 3 Subjects with Donny, getting ready to head up.

I began assessing their condition and handing out jackets and the hot cocoa. They were cold but not hypothermic so I knew they would be in good spirits once warmed up a bit. I requested Rob, our strong medical professional, to join me. Rob, who had been up for over 33 hours from his last shift in the ER, realized he was too tired to safely execute the technical maneuvers and the summit team discussed options. Kase asked if Josh was willing to go over the side and he happily geared up. Josh joined me soon after and we began working out the details of getting our subjects out.

Members on top restingon top till members over the side need help again.

They seemed warm enough to climb the remaining 350’ to the summit with protection from ropes anchored above. I examined their ropes, took one and climbed back to my intermediate anchor. The plan was that I would belay the first climber to my location, on their lead rope, transfer him to a belay from the summit team and begin belaying the second climber while the first climber went on to the top. Our rappel lines would remain fixed in place which the climbers could pull on if they needed This way, two of the three were moving at the same time on separate belays

Tyler and Donny enjoying being 200 feet down Tahquitz Rock.

We began the process. By now, Tyler and James had rendezvoused with our summit team. I requested to have one more rope brought down to my location. Tyler obliged and brought our last rope which would be used to belay the first climber up the final pitch to the summit. He climbed back up and helped the summit team prepare for the belay. Our first climber made it up to me, I tied him to the belay line running to the summit, confirmed via radio that the summit team was ready and set him off on the last pitch while trailing his lead rope. Josh connected the second climber to the lead line and their second rope which would trail down to the third climber. Our second subject began his ascent to my location but struggled a bit more than the first. Though they were on separate belays, they were still connected by their own ropes. The first climber ran out of slack to move so our summit team had to hold his weight while our second worked through a difficult section.

The second made it to my location while the first topped out. I transferred the second to our summit team, pulled slack to the third and belayed him up. The third managed the pitch without falls and was soon at the anchor with me. Our second had topped out and the summit team soon had our third on belay. As he began climbing the final pitch, I noticed the twilight creeping over the ridge to our east. I had a quick bite to eat and took in the ever-brightening view as Josh broke down the lower anchor and ascended to mine. I was getting cold, and Josh offered to let me climb the next pitch first since he had warmed up a bit climbing to my anchor. I took the second rope from him and ascended our fixed line.

On top in the early morning light. (Kase, Caleb, Tyler, and Donny)

I topped out and Josh followed quickly behind me. The views were great. A dense layer of clouds settling into Idyllwild 1700’ below us but we were basking in the early morning sunlight. James and Rob had already begun the descent with our subjects, so we were simply left to break down our anchors, pack up and head down at a relaxed pace.

Josh, last man up, mission almost over.

The descent from the summit is not particularly difficult but we took our time as we were plenty tired and there are a few spots where falling is not an option. We made it safely back to the trail and continued to Humber Park. We arrived around 8:30 am making it 10.5 hours from when we began the hike. We returned some of the gear that belonged to our subjects and headed to town for a meal at the Red Kettle.

RMRU Members Involved: (Coby Drown, Kase Chong, James Eckhardt, Donny Goetz, Josh Gould, Caleb Milner, Rob Newton, and Tyler Shumway)