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California and the West

Challenge and Risk on the 'Crown Jewel of Climbing'

Outdoors: Tahquitz Rock draws mountaineers from around the world. But a tragic accident in July shows how dangerous its cliffs can be.

October 02, 2000|DEBORAH SULLIVAN BRENNAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

IDYLLWILD, Calif. — Towering 1,000 feet above the alpine forests of this mountain town, the sheer granite cliffs of Tahquitz Rock send a beacon to climbers around the world. Sometimes, though, it's a siren call.

Less known to the general public than such celebrated sites as Joshua Tree and Yosemite, Tahquitz Rock is on every California climber's map, and beckons mountaineers from Europe, Asia and Australia.

With over 200 established routes, Tahquitz Rock, also known as Lily Rock, offers the longest climbs in Southern California.

"It's certainly the crown jewel of climbing in Southern California, and it's one of the gems of pure rock climbing anywhere in the world," said California climbing pioneer Royal Robbins, one of several luminaries who learned the sport on Tahquitz.

But while Tahquitz offers a proving ground for the bold, it can also punish the unprepared and the unlucky. In July, Kwan Kam and Kevin Dahn, two San Fernando Valley climbers, plunged 200 feet to their deaths as Kam tried to lower his injured partner to the ground. Both were seasoned mountaineers with decades of local and international ascents.

Other climbers have died in brutal falls or been fatally struck by tumbling rocks. Scores more have suffered broken bones or concussions, and many others have found themselves stuck--uninjured, but overwhelmed--and required the help of rescue crews to descend.

Yet the thousands of successful climbs far outnumber the tragedies, said Idyllwild climbing guide Clark Jacobs, 47, who has climbed the area for 30 years and helped on numerous alpine rescues. Tahquitz is generally safe if climbed with caution, he said. "You only hear about the accidents," he said. "A death is very rare."

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If there's an icon for Idyllwild, an image stamped onto visitors' memories, and onto postcards, mugs and artwork in the town's many gift shops, it's Tahquitz Rock, rising from Mt. San Jacinto State Park in a white arc against the deep blue sky.

Early mountaineers ascended Tahquitz Rock on hemp ropes in the 1930s, said Riverside Mountain Rescue co-founder Jim Fairchild, 74, of Riverside. A decade later local kids shimmied up with tennis shoes and nylon yachting lines.

Climbers from abroad include Tahquitz on tours of the American West, along with sites such as Yosemite and Joshua Tree national parks, said Bruce Watts, manager of Nomad Ventures, a climbing store in Idyllwild.

Dave Sorric, 39, of Palm Desert, escaped the heat of his hometown on a recent Sunday to climb the Edge, a spectacular route on the south face of Tahquitz Rock.

As Sorric ascended, he clung to an overhanging ledge, spider-walked up a crack and stretched across a flat face before mounting the Edge, a sharp corner silhouetted against the sky.

Pioneered in 1976, the Edge is a bold, dramatic route with widely spaced bolts for climbing ropes and sheer drop-offs, said Bob Gaines, 41, of Newport Beach, co-author of the Idyllwild climbing guide.

Succeeding on the route "shows a mastery . . . of both technique and mind control," he said.

"Starting in the 1980s, people have gone onto steeper lines, more radical parts, venturing onto blank faces to do more difficult stuff," said climbing guide Jacobs. "It's fun to do a route that's just beyond your capabilities that you didn't think you could do. The sport really isn't about danger; it's about control."

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In contrast to so-called sport climbing, which involves highly difficult routes with closely spaced bolts for ropes, Tahquitz offers challenges typical of traditional climbing, with bolts widely spaced, leaving climbers exposed to long falls if they slip, and dependent on their own wits and judgment.

Traditional climbers need experience placing protection equipment, handling ropes and finding routes. They need calm nerves in the face of long potential falls. And they must know self-rescue skills for mountain emergencies.

"People underestimate the skills needed, even though they may be doing a route that is technically not extreme," said climber Randy Vogel, 45, of Laguna Beach.

One such route, disarmingly titled White Maiden's Walkaway, is the second easiest route on Tahquitz, but one of the longest, said Walt Walker, 64, of San Jacinto, a co-founder of Riverside Mountain Search and Rescue. Beginners ascend confidently but freeze on a steep, exposed traverse 800 to 900 feet up the route.

"We've pulled over 30 people off there," he said.

No one can say for sure how many climbing deaths have occurred on Tahquitz Rock: Neither the U.S. Forest Service, which owns the land, nor the Riverside County Sheriff's Department or coroner's office keep a count.

Walker cites 18 recorded deaths the rescue team has handled since the 1980s. He estimates that 25 to 30 climbers may have died on the rock over the past 50 years.

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