Two local Riverside Mountain Rescue Unit volunteers successfully completed a dangerous rescue of an injured climber on Tahquitz Rock. Both RMRU veterans Lee Arnson and Les Walker called the Saturday, April 27 mission one of the most dangerous they had been involved with. Each acknowledged that if one thing had gone wrong, the consequences could have proved devastating. “The potential for complete catastrophe was there,” said Walker, an experienced climber and lead on the rescue.
The location of the incident proved particularly dangerous both for the climber and the rescuers. An experienced climber, while being belayed up the rock face by his wife, lost his footing and fell 20 to 30 feet back onto the narrow rock ledge from which his wife had been assisting his climb. He sustained serious injuries in the fall requiring helicopter evacuation. The narrow ledge, around 300 feet from the bottom of the rock, had a scrub pine growing on it that proved instrumental in the successful rescue.
According to Walker, who was lowered to the ledge from the aviation unit, the climber could only be extricated by helicopter due to the extent of his injuries. While lowering the rescue team to the ledge, the chopper‘s blades frequently came within 15 to 20 feet of the rock face. Any significant wind shift that pushed the blades into the rock could have proved fatal for the team, the chopper crew and all those below.
As Walker was being lowered about 180 feet, one of the longest hoists the chopper crew has performed, he had to swing himself into the tree, catch it, fall about five feet onto the ledge and secure himself before releasing the hoist. As his partner Arnson was being lowered, the wind did shift, causing the chopper to have to peel off with Arnson dangling below. While Walker watched, the crew hoisted Arnson back into the copter and checked with him about whether to try to lower him again. “Yes, let’s go back,” Arnson said, and 10 minutes later he began his second descent. Walker had to lean out to catch Arnson, clip him into the safety devices and then release the cable so that the copter could escape the rock face.
Walker and Arnson then stabilized the patient, secured him to the litter and prepared for the hoist to the chopper. The problem became, as Walker recounted, that every time they lowered the patient’s feet, he passed out. “That led me to believe he had internal injuries,” Walker said. Arnson and Walker had to carefully hold the litter in position, attach the cable and keep the litter in a horizontal position while they swung it out over the cliff face. The hoist of the climber was successful.
He was transported to Keenwild, transferred to a Mercy Air helicopter and flown to Riverside County Regional Medical Center. The RSO copter returned for Arnson, Walker and the climber’s wife.
“It was textbook,” Arnson said, “but everything had to fall into place. The partnership with CDF was awesome and Les was as good as they come. He is the best on rock.”
The operation began around 2 p.m. and ended about 7 p.m.