Hypothermic Climbers

October 22, 2022
Tahquitz Rock, Idyllwild

Written by: James Eckhardt

On Saturday evening I was relaxing at home after hiking with Tyler to the chockstone on the North Face of San Jacinto earlier in the day. While descending Tyler and I had watched clouds start to blow over Fuller Ridge and discussed that the chances of a rescue would be high later in the day due to the storm. At 9:30PM the call came out that there were two climbers stuck on Tahquitz. I immediately knew the climbers were in a dire situation due to the storm, so I grabbed my technical gear and lots of warm layers and headed to Humber Park. When I arrived with Vinay close behind in our rescue truck, Donny and Caleb were already packed. It was raining, foggy, windy, and cold. We were able to communicate with the climbers via radio as they had taken handheld radios climbing. Donny advised them to rappel as it would take a long time for us to reach them from the top of Tahquitz. I quickly packed and Donny, Caleb and I headed for the base of the route they were climbing, North East Face West. While our initial plan was to meet the climbers at the bottom of the route, Donny, Caleb, and I had packed 600 feet of rope with all other technical gear necessary to rappel to the climbers. Matt and Vinay would hike up behind us with extra warm clothing and shelter.

As we continued up the climber’s trail, we could see the climbers’ lights. Due to the fog, it was impossible to tell where they were on the rock face. The climbers then advised us that they could no longer continue to rappel due to cold. When we heard this, we headed for the North Gully descent route. Our plan was to scramble to the top of the route and rappel down to the climbers. We discussed the very likely possibility that the subjects would become moderately to severely hypothermic and immobile by the time we reached them. In this case we would need more rope, litters and manpower and we only had six RMRU members responding. As such we quickly called for mutual aid from a number of other Mountain Rescue teams in Southern California.

James view on Repel in Rain at Night.

We ascended the North Gully and Donny quickly set anchors while I prepared to rappel to the subjects with warm dry clothing, hot chocolate, and food. When I reached the end of my first 200-foot rope, I could hear the climbers. I built an anchor, fixed my second 200-rope, and rappelled to the end. I could now see the glow of the climbers’ lights but was surprised that I had not reached them even after close to 400 feet of rappelling. I fixed my third and final rope and rappelled the full length of this rope at which point I could see the first climber about 100 feet below me. The second climber had rappelled, so was below the upper climber. I could not get closer to the climbers until I had a fourth rope, so I verbally assessed the condition of the climbers as best I could. They were mildly to moderately hypothermic.

We needed to get to the climbers, however pulling the uppermost fixed line was risky given the conditions and the possibility of the rope getting stuck. Without the line, I would have no access to the rescuers at the top. As soon as we confirmed that a team from CAL FIRE was heading up with a fourth rope, Caleb rappelled made the first rappel and successfully pulled the rope. As soon as he rappelled to me, I fixed the rope and rappelled to the first climber. I built an anchor, secured the climber, and then gave her hot chocolate and a belay parka. Caleb rappelled to me, and then continued to rappel to the second climber using the climbers’ ropes. He set an anchor and secured the lower climber and himself. I then lowered the higher climber and rappelled. We were now within a rope length of the ground, so I lowered the climbers one at a time (Caleb rappelled with the first to stabilize him). I also requested a wheeled litter and a helicopter since at least one of the climbers was not ambulatory.

Air-5 starting Hoist of 1 Subject.

Three members of CAL FIRE received the climbers on the ground, and we put them in sleeping bags and began to rewarm them. Donny, Vinay, and Matt along with more members of CAL FIRE soon arrived with more insulation and we tried to warm the climbers with hot water bottles. Members of search and rescue teams from San Bernadino County and San Diego County began hiking up with a litter and wheel. Seirra Madre Search and Rescue arrived and coordinated with Los Angeles Sheriff’s helicopter Air Rescue 5 to hoist both climbers. Air Rescue 5 hoisted the second climber at 9:40AM and flew both directly to the hospital.

Air-5 crew member with 1 Subject.

RMRU Members Involved: (James Eckhardt, Matt Frenken, Donny Goetz, Eric Holden, Caleb Milner, and Vinay Rao)

Other Agencies Involved: (San Bernardino Cave and Technical Rescue Team, Wrightwood/Phelan Search and Rescue, San Diego Search and Rescue, CAL FIRE, Idyllwild FIRE, SERT, LASD Air Rescue 5, SB Sheriff Aviation, Riverside County Sheriff’s Aviation Unit)