How it occurred is controversial

Many locals know it as Lily Rock, but climbers prefer to call it Tahquitz Rock. It’s one of the more famous climbing sites in California and is where the Yosemite Decimal System for rating the degree of difficulty of rock climbs reportedly was first developed back in the 1950s.

Tahquitz Rock has provided fine memories for many aficionados of this sometimes-dangerous sport, but now and again it claims a victim.

As we reported in last week’s paper, an experienced climber, George Wu, 51, of Newport Beach, lost his life in an apparent climbing fall on Saturday, July 8, his body reportedly recovered from near the Ernie Maxwell Trail.

Wu had been climbing alone, and apparently, there were no witnesses to his fall. Consequently, attempts to learn how it came about have resulted in disagreement, even among experienced climbers.

On the Riverside Mountain Rescue Unit website, Pete Carlson, who responded with RMRU that Saturday, concluded from the items found above Wu (first-aid kit, knife, food, hat and a shoe) that he had fallen at least 150 to 250 feet. He reported on the website that their “guess” was that he had been “free soloing” a climb known as the Trough, a fifth-class climb, above where his body was discovered.

“Free soloing” is a specific term used by the climbing community. It is not the same as “free climbing.” Both involve climbing without a partner, but free climbing means that, although ropes and hardware are used for safety, the climber never weights the rope during the climb. In other words, in free climbing, the equipment is used for safety only — not to assist in the climb.

Free soloing, however, means making the climb with no ropes or hardware at all. Free soloing can be very dangerous, depending, of course, upon the severity of the climbing route itself.

Jon King, another very experienced climber, but who was not present on the mountain that day, consulted with other experienced climbers who know Tahquitz Rock well and came to a different conclusion from Carlson. King states that it is not clear that Wu ever began to free climb the Trough that day. He believes it more likely that Wu experienced a mishap resulting in a short fall, perhaps only 20 to 50 feet, from a third-class slab on the approach to the Trough, before he actually got on that route itself. One reason King gives for that conclusion is that Wu was still wearing his helmet when his body was found, and it was undamaged, even though he had sustained head injuries. That pretty much rules out a 150- to 250-foot fall, King opines.

Larry Cote, also an experienced Tahquitz climber who has climbed the Trough many times, was on the rock in a different location on the morning of Wu’s fall. He did not see the incident, but observed the subsequent recovery during his climb. He asserts that where Wu’s body was found was not consistent with a fall from the Trough. Cote also believes Wu most likely fell from a slab on the approach to the Trough.

Other experienced Tahquitz climbers commenting on the website expressed their skepticism that Wu had fallen from the Trough, citing various reasons.

Jim Dover, another climber experienced in the area, states that from the photographs taken by rescuers, it is clear that Wu’s body was recovered from “a gully to the left of the Trough,” but it is not clear from where he fell to end up there. Dover thinks Wu could have fallen while scrambling at a place called From Bad Traverse, but cannot be sure. He also could not rule out either a fall from the approach to the Trough or even from the Trough itself as being impossible.

Dover pointed out that each theory as to from where Wu fell makes sense to a point, but each theory also has an objection to it. Dover points out that the equipment Wu was carrying was not consistent with soloing, although Wu could have intended to leave the pack somewhere before he began soloing — and another climber commented that Wu was known for taking an unusually large amount of equipment with him when he soloed.

But Dover agrees that Wu appears to have fallen a relatively short distance, and he asserts that definitely Wu’s body was not found on or near the Ernie Maxwell Trail, as the area was described.

All the climbers who contributed to this story were in full agreement that knowing as much as possible about how any climber’s fall took place is important to the climbing community. They describe each other as “brother climbers,” and want to learn from each climbing mishap so as to minimize the chances of such an event occurring in the future.