Injured Climber Rescue

October 15, 2023
Long Climb, Tahquitz Rock, Idyllwild

Written by: James Eckhardt

I had just pulled into the Hemet Sheriff Station in our coms van from a search (2023-38) in Garner Valley when a rescue tech from aviation called. He let me know a climber had fallen on Tahquitz, had hit his head, and potentially had altered mental status. I couldn’t have been in a better place when the call came out, so I drove to the hanger immediately.

Our plan was to fly to Tahquitz, assess the climbers and the best way to access them and then act on our plan. We flew to Tahquitz and spent a long time trying to find the two climbers. They were wearing gray clothing and were in the shade which made them difficult to see. Once we found them, we could see the leader had taken a significant fall (~40 feet) and was still on belay on a sloping ledge (a few feet below the top of pitch 2). We could see the follower was at the pitch 2 belay, and we flew close to his position to assess his anchor. He had built an anchor off two bolts and was standing on a good-sized ledge. Once we had determined he was safe, our plan was to lower the rescue tech to his position on a two up. Without disconnecting from the helicopter, the rescue tech would connect the climber to the two up and then cut the lead rope to release the climber from his system. While it brings a level of risk to temporarily connect the helicopter to the rock via the climber, his injuries necessitated a rapid extraction.

The helicopter crew worked with an immense amount of skill to execute the plan, and soon the injured climber was safely in the helicopter. Of note, we needed 295 feet of our 300-foot hoist cable to reach the climber. I started an assessment with the help of the two rescue techs. He was alert but not fully alert and oriented. He complained of neck, elbow, wrist, and rib pain as well as loss of consciousness after the fall. We immobilized his neck and requested Mercy Air pick the climber up from the Lake Hemet Station due to the severity of his injuries. Once we landed, we transferred him into the care of Cal Fire and AMR who would wait with him until Mercy Air arrived. We were low on fuel, so we flew back to Hemet, refueled, and headed back up to Tahquitz to pick up the uninjured belayer. This time our plan was to send me down to his anchor on the Petzl Lezard, allowing for a safer pick off. Again, the flight crew did an excellent job at maneuvering the helicopter close to the rock face so I could access the belayer. The pickoff went smoothly, and we were soon back at the Lake Hemet Station to drop off the climber and then back to hanger.

Since this was a climbing accident, I want to make a few notes. The climbers had left Humber Park around 1:00PM with plans to ascend the Long Climb. The leader had climbed it multiple times, however this was the belayer’s first multipitch trad route. They carried all necessary gear with them on the route including water, food, and headlamps. They started climbing at around 1:40PM but lost some time on the first pitch due to a stuck cam. Prior to the climb the leader had mentioned that he planned to be safe and not run it out, so as to make sure the follower would not have to catch any big falls. They had also discussed the lateness of the start but felt comfortable and calm during the climb. Additionally, they had discussed linking pitches, but only higher on the route.

The follower stated that the leader struggled slightly with the lower section of pitch two but then climbed the remainder of the pitch efficiently. The only communication on the pitch was a quick note on the rope being at the halfway mark and, shortly before the fall, the leader mentioned the piece he had placed could be bad.

The belayer said he heard two significant thuds and then the rope went tight. This was around 3:00PM. The belayer saw no rockfall. After some discussion with the leader who was drifting in and out of alertness, the belayer called 911 at 3:14PM. We hoisted the injured climber at 4:55PM.

Due to the loss of conciseness after the fall, I can’t be sure what caused the fall. I also do not know whether the leader had protected the route and had a piece pull resulting in a longer fall. While these are unknowns, there are a few takeaways. The injuries to the leader were significant (TBI, broken vertebrae and broken wrist). The climbers were both wearing helmets, and this undoubtedly lessened the extent of the injuries. Tahquitz is a major alpine objective. Any climbers should have knowledge of small party rescue techniques and how to bail from multipitch routes. Due to the nature of the injuries, the follower did the correct thing in calling 911. Even so, since Tahquitz is an alpine objective, rescues are complicated and time consuming. This should be factored into the way routes are climbed and protected.

I want to give a special thanks to our aviation unit. They are extremely skilled, and it showed in this scenario. Collaborating closely with them allows for a rapid response time even in high angle environments. I and all my teammates want to wish the injured climber a speedy recovery.

RMRU Members Involved: (James Eckhardt, Josh Gould, Blake Rankin, Steve Rider, Tyler Shumway, Richard Yocum)

Other Agencies Involved: Riverside Sheriff Aviation, Cal Fire