By Jon King
Exclusive to the Town Crier
Editor’s note: Idyllwild resident mountaineer Jon King was involved with the rescue of two climbers this past Saturday and provided the following account.
On Saturday June 24, at 6.30 p.m., I received a call from the U.S. Forest Service asking if I could assist with a rescue near Tahquitz Rock. A climber was showing significant heat-related illness and could no longer continue his descent. His climbing partner had been able to make multiple phone calls with USFS personnel, and had provided an accurate GPS location.
After picking up my rescue pack from home, I responded immediately to Humber Park, along with U.S. Forest Service personnel and the Cal Fire crew from Pine Cove station. As I knew the terrain very well, we determined that I should guide two Cal Fire medics to the location of the climbers. My participation was as a “Good Samaritan” member of the public, not officially representing any rescue team.
The two climbers were from San Diego. Justin and Ryan were just coming off Tahquitz Rock via the North Gully descent. They had spent all morning on a climb called White Maidens Walkway, one of the easier multi-pitch climbs on Tahquitz.
Consider that the overnight low temperature at dawn that day was the highest of the year to date (71 degrees) and it reached a maximum of 98 degrees in Fern Valley that afternoon. Those are shade temperatures, and the climbers were out on exposed rock for several hours. They had apparently been carrying three liters of water each, and had drunk it all during their climb. They were both in excellent physical condition at the start of the day, and were well prepared for normal conditions, but not for the exceptional weather on that day.
At the start of their hike down, just feet from the Rock, Justin rapidly fell seriously ill. He showed classic symptoms of heat exhaustion: vomiting, dizziness, tiredness, feeling hot (to the point of stripping off almost all his clothing) and then severe chills. He started to show some evidence of an altered mental state, indicative of the much more serious condition of heat stroke.
By the time I reached him with the Cal Fire medics, at about 7:30 p.m., he had been resting for a couple of hours and was somewhat improved. Even after advanced first aid, it was determined that given his condition, and the rapidly fading light, it would be too dangerous to try to hike him down the steep, boulder-strewn slope. We arranged for a hoist removal with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department Aviation Unit helicopter dispatched from Hemet-Ryan that had already been called into the area.
The helicopter lowered in a member of the Riverside Mountain Rescue Unit to assist with the hoist. Justin was taken to Keenwild Forest Service Station and transferred from there by ambulance to the hospital in Banning for further evaluation. The helicopter then returned to extract the RMRU member.
I then descended the mountain with Ryan (Justin’s climbing partner), their equipment and the two Cal Fire medics. We reached Humber Park at about 9 p.m. This was where the two climbers had started their day, more than 12 hours earlier, never imagining it would end the way that it did.
In discussions with Ryan, it became clear that the type of climbing on Tahquitz and Suicide rocks — known as trad (i.e. outdoor, multi-pitch) climbing — was completely new to him, and somewhat new to Justin, too. As a result, I suspect they took far longer (and were, therefore, far more exposed to the elements) on the climb than might be typical.
This was also the very first time they had climbed on Tahquitz, so basic navigation probably took longer, too. These factors, combined with exceptional weather for June, led to one of them suffering quite serious heat-related illness, serious enough to require helicopter evacuation and hospitalization.