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2 Rock Climbers Killed At Tahquitz Rock Fell Victim To Weather And Equipment According To Rescuers Report

A grid of six photos showing the webbing found as part of the climber's gear. The first photo in the grid shows a runner dangling from a tree. The next two photos show the webbing in the conditions that they were found. The last three photos show the broken webbing after being run through some tests.
Images from the RMRU mission report show the broken webbing used that caused Escobar and Walsh to fall from Tahquitz Rock. Photo A shows the webbing found wrapped around a pine tree where the climbers attempted to rappel themselves down. Photos B and C show the broken webbing. Photos D, E, and F show where the webbing broke after the RMRU conducted a series of test to determine the breaking strength.
(Courtesy Riverside Mountain Rescue Unit)
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The deaths of two rock climbers who fell at Tahquitz Rock late last month was tied to bad weather and faulty gear, according to a report from the rescue unit sent to help.

What Witnesses Said

Two parties climbing in the area witnessed what took place the day Gavin Escobar and Chelsea Walsh, both of Huntington Beach, were killed. The eyewitnesses told the Riverside Mountain Rescue Unit (RMRU) that the weather started out nice, then took a nasty turn. First it was just rain, then the weather “significantly deteriorated” into “thundering with heavy rain and small hail.” At one point one of the nearby parties could hear “chatter and laughter” from another nearby group.

A short time later they heard climbers fall to the left. At that time, it was still thundering but the rain was lighter and there was no hail. The first 911 call is at 12:17 p.m.

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Annotated Photo Of The Scene

An annotated photograph of showing the view of Tahquitz Rock where the fall took.
An annotated photograph of the West Face of Tahquitz Rock noting locations where evidence was found.
(Courtesy of Riverside Mountain Rescue Unit
Riverside Mountain Rescue Unit)

Conditions That Day

Rescuers determined that Walsh and Escobar were ascending Upper Royal’s Arch when they were suddenly caught in a storm. The climbers reached a pine tree and decided to rappel down from that point, likely because of the storm.

The climbers likely used their personal anchor systems to anchor into a singular webbing, wrapped around the pine tree to begin their descent. It was at this point that Walsh took a video of themselves near the pine tree before their descent which showed “both climbers were in good spirits and unhurried in their preparations to bail.”

Based on the pieced-together timeline, the RMRU hypothesized that Escobar began rappelling down and descended a few feet when the webbing broke. Because neither of them were supported by other webbing, they both fell.

What Went Wrong

Upon later inspection, RMRU found that the singular webbing Escobar and Walsh anchored on was not in good condition. The webbing, a strong woven fabric used in climbing to anchor climbers to the rock of fixed objects, appeared to be a faded white/gray but further inspection revealed that its original color was fluorescent green, before it was bleached from constant sun UV exposure. The webbing seemed stiff and old, but when wet, the webbing condition appears much better.

RMRU speculates that because of the weather conditions, it was difficult for Walsh and Escobar to determine the quality of the webbing before using it as an anchor system to rappel down.

Climbing experts say that in emergency situations, it is not uncommon for climbers to rely on a singular sling to rappel down, though it is very risky. Kenji Haroutunian, an experienced climbing guide, says that a rule of thumb is to practice redundancy, also known as using two or three pieces of webbing to secure yourself while you rappel down.

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Why It Matters

Pete Takeda, editor of Accidents in North American Climbing says that when there’s a pattern of accidents in the same area, as is the case for Tahquitz Rock, then it’s important to put out as much information possible to help guide other climbers who plan on making the same trips.

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