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Climbers save two of their own on Suicide Rock

Rescuers rush to the site after a man falls and his partner slams into the side of the cliff near Idyllwild.

September 05, 2008|Christian Berthelsen | Times Staff Writer

Suicide Rock, a famous destination for rock climbers in the Inland Empire near Idyllwild, almost proved deadly for two Orange County adventurists last weekend, when one fell as much as 100 feet and the other was smashed into the side of the cliff and knocked out.

But thanks to the efforts of fellow climbers and authorities -- who rescued the pair in the face of marble-sized hail and pounding rain from a storm that blew in out of nowhere to blanket a clear blue sky -- both are expected to survive.

Trevor Mathews, 21, of Irvine suffered significant head trauma and remains in intensive care. His friend and climbing partner, Claire McKay, 22, of Costa Mesa was treated and released but will undergo facial reconstruction surgery to treat a fractured cheekbone. She also broke her arm and has severe bruising, some caused by being pelted with hail as she lay unconscious on a ledge.

In accounts now emerging days after the accident, relatives, rescue workers and fellow climbers say Mathews and McKay began their climb Saturday under near-perfect conditions and clear skies. They took the Captain Hook route up the cliff, which, despite its name, is regarded as a relatively safe and easy climb. Both are said to be experienced climbers who train at an indoor facility. Both were wearing helmets.

They were on the second phase of their climb when Mathews, who was about 40 feet above McKay, slipped while trying to set a wedging device for his rope, said McKay's father, Michael, in an interview Thursday.

A second device securing the rope to the rock pulled loose and Mathews fell. McKay was on the same rope and was slammed into the face of the rock and knocked unconscious when the rope pulled taut as Mathews plummeted.

"Accidents, when they happen, everything goes bad," Michael McKay said. Mathews' family could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Mathews fell to the ground. Fellow climbers saw the accident and called for help.

"I heard the sound of gear clanking down, and I thought, 'That kind of stinks, they dropped some gear,' " said Phil Sanchez, 31, an elementary school teacher in the Palm Springs Unified School District who was climbing near the pair and later helped in their rescue.

"Then I look and see Trevor falling in a fetal position, and I kept wondering, 'When is his gear going to catch?' " Sanchez said. "As soon as he hit the ground I thought, 'Oh my God.' It took me two or three seconds to really register what happened."

Sanchez, his climbing partner, Richard Magner, and other climbers scrambled to help. They called 911 and secured Mathews in a stretcher that was on-site, with Magner taking off his shirt and using it to pad Mathews' head. They were carrying him out to the road when Idyllwild and Riverside County firefighters arrived. He was taken by helicopter to Riverside County Regional Medical Center.

As rescuers turned their attention to McKay, the sky began to darken. Sanchez and Magner decided they would climb the cliff face to get to her. As they made their ascent, the rain and hail began -- first the size of BBs but soon growing to the size of grapes. Magner, who remained shirtless, was being cut by the hail, Sanchez said.

Rescue workers planned to use a helicopter to lift McKay off the cliff but had to abort the mission when the storm blew in, Idyllwild Fire Department Capt. Alan Lott said.

"We were notified by the pilot of the helicopter that he could no longer see the nose of his ship," Lott said.

Sanchez and Magner climbed to an anchor point about 25 feet above McKay, set their rope and then rappelled down to her. By that point she was conscious and responsive. Sanchez then rappelled to the bottom and secured the rope so that McKay, despite her injuries, could rappel herself down, with Magner following.

"I was capable and fully confident to help her out, so I was going to do it," Sanchez said. "It wasn't even a question of what the weather was like. It was, 'Someone's in trouble and I'm going to do everything in my power to help this person out.' "

Getting to McKay took about half an hour, in Sanchez's estimation, and getting her down took about 45 minutes. Once she reached the bottom, rescue workers put her in a stretcher, splinted her injuries and carried her out to the road so she could eventually be taken by helicopter to the hospital.

"The weather was so bad you couldn't even look up to see if they were rappelling with her because of the ice coming down and the rocks and debris coming down," said Capt. Tim Bingham of the Riverside County Fire Department. "It was amazing."

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christian.berthelsen@latimes.com

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