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2 Rock Climbers Killed In Fall At Famed Tahquitz Rock Are IDed. Veteran Climbers Share Experience And Cautions

A large rock rises above a tree line.
The west side of Tahquitz Rock, famous among climbers as a pioneering site for the development rock climbing techniques. Two climbers were killed this week in a fall at the site.
(David McNew
/
Getty Images)
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The deaths of two rock climbers in a remote area of Tahquitz Rock, a popular rock climbing spot near Idyllwild, are once again highlighting the dangers of the sport.

In the latest incident, the Riverside Sheriff’s department was alerted by phone to two rock climbers in distress about noon on Wednesday. Cal Fire officials sent a mountain rescue team that had to hike a remote area to locate the climbers, who were then pronounced dead at the scene.

Names Released

The Riverside County Coroner's Bureau released the names of those killed late Thursday: Gavin Escobar, 31, and Chelsea Walsh, 33, both of Huntington Beach. The coroner's website lists their location of death as "a rockface."

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Escobar is a former NFL player with the Dallas Cowboys, where he played tight end. Earlier this year he joined the Long Beach Fire Dept. Officials said he is survived by his wife and two children.

"As a father, husband, and dear friend to so many, Gavin always had the unique ability to impact all that surrounded him," according to a GoFundMe page set up to help his family. "Whenever Gavin was around you were guaranteed to have a smile on your face."

Walsh was a filmmaker and experienced climber, according to a GoFundMe page set up by friends.

"Chelsea was an experienced climber, a perfectionist who took the art of climbing seriously, and a relentless storyteller and adventurer who dedicated herself fully to the things she loved," the page says, describing Escobar as her "good friend and climbing partner."

History of Tahquitz Rock

This area, located on the San Jacinto Mountain Range in Riverside county, has been the site of other deaths over the years. Most recently, a hiker near Tahquitz Peak fell to his death in January when conditions there were icy.

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Tahquitz Rock has long been a destination for rock climbers, a sport that has an avid following and well-documented risks. The American Alpine Club, which tracks rock climbing accidents in North America, documented more than 100 in 2021.

Some notable deaths at Tahquitz Rock in recent years:

  • In 2017, a man climbing with his brother was killed in a rockfallthat also seriously injured the brother.
  • In 2013, a 21-year-old man died when he fell 300 feet while climbing an area known as the "Bat Crack." The man's climbing partner said he believed a rockfall during the rappel was the cause.
  • In 2003, two experienced hikers fell at the top of a multipitch route. They were known for “quadruple checking” all of their gear and putting safety first, according to Climbing Magazine. The Riverside Mountain Rescue Unit, a volunteer organization, inspected the area and released a report stating the climbers might have slipped near an area known as "White Maiden’s Walkway."

On Thursday, Outside magazine's Climbing.com noted that "Tahquitz is known to have an abundance of loose rock. A brief but heavy rain with hail was reported in the area around the time of the accident."

Tahquitz Rock is historically significant for the sport. It was one of the first places for “trad” or traditional rock climbing, a climbing technique that involves carrying and placing your own protection instead of clipping onto pre-existing holds and finding your own route.

In the 1930s, the rock climbing section of the Angeles Chapter of theSierra Club used Tahquitz Rock to set the standard of the Sierra Club Decimal Rating System that determines the difficulty of rock climbing.

An Insiders View And Known Dangers

After word of the fatalities spread in climbing circles, Rick MacKay took to a Facebook group called SoCal Climbing to share his testimonial of riding out a storm while climbing at Tahquitz Rock with his wife last Sunday. He said he was moved to post his account to focus on the “decision making process while under duress”.

MacKay wrote that while they checked the weather beforehand, a cloud came out of nowhere and heavy rainfall came quickly during their climb. He and his wife climbed to a more sheltered position, huddling together in the cold. He had two options to consider, stay put or risk two of their rappels to lower themselves down, even though they were in no condition to continue moving. He decided to stay put.

“The moral of my story is whatever happened to those two people you cannot call it a stupid mistake or put blame on them,” wrote MacKay. “...until you try to set up a retreat in that kind of condition, you do not know how you will react.”

Other experts share that it’s important to know the terrain of Tahquitz. Dan Richter, famously known for his role as the Moonwatcher in 2001: A Space Odyssey, serves as a director for the Angeles chapter of the Sierra Club and has been climbing for 32 years. He says that when climbers go off-route on Tahquitz, they are more than likely to find loose rock, which is a hazard and why he always recommends wearing helmets.

Richter says because trad climbing is a sport that has been passed on from experienced climbers to more novice climbers, keeping that tradition is important. To keep the sport safe, always find a guide or an experienced climber, he says.

Kelly Fields is the founder of Athena Rock Climbing, a professional guiding service designated to teach more women about traditional climbing. She says that climbers at Tahquitz Rock should always prepare for the worst, especially since rockfall is something they can’t control.

“You need your plan for what if things don’t go right. You need to have your first aid kit with the appropriate stuff for being in that terrain,” said Fields. She adds it's important to know what emergency services are available when out climbing and if an area lacks cell service, bring an Inreach or any satellite device.

More Tips From Climbers

Below, more climbers of Tahquitz Rock shared lessons they learned and tips to offer novice climbers when we reached out on Facebook.

  • "Always wear a helmet there. I’ve seen lots of climbers without. Rock fall is common. Even a golf ball size rock hitting you from above can seriously harm/kill you. You can’t rely on the fact that you will get to the top before dark. Know the descent route as it’s a bit tricky to find there. Learn and practice rope self rescue skills." — Rick MacKay
  • "Newer outdoor climbers should hire a guide to learn things correctly, and anyone getting into trad should follow lots of pitches with more knowledgeable mentors and partners to build up the necessary mileage. Climbers know that things can occur at any time, but accidents like this never stop being tragic. The entire climbing community has been feeling for Gavin and Chelsea and their families." — Wali Kamal
  • "I will only climb with people who are consistently better climbers and more prepared than me and I make them aware of that before we touch the rock. Tahquitz is so appealing to so many because of its constant challenge, like a puzzle that varies slightly every time you climb a different route, and can mix up variety with multiple routes, multiple sides and angles of one rock. The freeze-thaw cycle with Socal being so hot for so much of the year and then getting pummeled with these short storms plays a significant role at Tahquitz." — Alicia
  • "It's a serious alpine environment. Thoroughly research the route(s) you plan to climb, using guidebooks and online resources like Mountain Project. Check to make sure you have a good weather window. Know not only how to get up, but also escape routes in case of bad weather, accident, etc. You should not climb up until you know how to get down. At Tahquitz, there are two main descent routes, and you must know how to find them. It may be worthwhile to climb with someone who already knows the descent routes, because finding them the first time is not trivial." — Robert Chow
  • "I’ve climbed just four routes at Tahquitz, the last being Whodunit on Friday. The rock is great quality, but like any rock structure, over time it flakes away. You can prepare, demonstrate all the safest practices, but you cannot control rockfall from above or Mother Nature. This is part of the risk that is accepted in the climbing community." — Jaime Correia

    Hiker Safety

    The fatal falls this week took place while people were rock climbing, which requires special skill. Many more people in the region hike regularly and should be prepared to run into issues, even if using popular trails.

Be prepared!
  • Always plan for the worst and hope for the best. Carrying a few extra items can save your life. At a minimum, always carry the "10 Essentials":

      1. Extra food and water (more than you think you'll need)
      2. Extra clothing (more than you think you'll need)
      3. Map and compass (know how to use them)
      4. Flashlight or headlamp (plus extra batteries)
      5. First-aid kit
      6. Fire-starting kit
      7. Pocket-knife or multi-tool
      8. Signaling device (mirror or whistle)
      9. Sunscreen and sunglasses
      10. Emergency shelter (emergency blanket or bivy sack)
    1. MORE TIPS

      • Before you leave home, always tell a friend or family member where you plan on going and when you plan to return. Leave them with instructions on what to do if you don't return on time.
      • In case of an unexpected problem or emergency, always have a back-up plan for escaping the area safely. Also provide this back-up plan with your friends or family before you leave.
      • Although it's sometimes nice to be alone in the outdoors, it's always safest to go with at least one or two partners, especially if you're a novice or unfamiliar with the area.
      • Have the appropriate level of knowledge and experience for the adventure you plan to have. If you are a novice, please rely on a professional guide or at least a highly knowledgable and experienced partner.
      • As much as possible, study and become familiar with the area you plan on exploring. Gain a thorough understanding of the terrain and its potential hazards.
      • Review the local weather forecast in the area you plan on going and take the appropriate clothing and equipment. During winter-like conditions in mountainous terrain, check the current avalanche report in the area.
      • Be healthy, safe, and smart. Know your limits, don't over-extend them, and don't take unnecessary risks. It's advisable not to go hiking with an existing injury, as it could become unpredictably worse during activity.
      • While in the backcountry with young children, always keep them within sight. If your dog is with you, be courteous and keep it leashed in areas that require it. Doing so will keep you, your dog, other people, and the wildlife more safe.
      • Be aware of your surroundings at all times. There are many objective hazards in the wilderness, and they aren't always obvious. Keep a keen eye out for deteriorating weather, dangerous trail conditions, avalanche risks, and wildlife.
    What questions do you have about Southern California?

    Updated October 2, 2022 at 3:55 PM PDT
    This article was updated with additional information about Escobar and Walsh, including their GoFundMe pages.
    Updated September 30, 2022 at 6:21 PM PDT
    This story updated with insider tips from veteran rock climbers