Wednesday, September 3, 2008
By Guy McCarthy
IDYLLWILD - Two Orange County climbers who survived a horrific fall on Suicide Rock when the leader crashed into his female partner and plunged more than 100 feet down the cliffs are both expected to fully recover, a friend of the injured pair said today.
Trevor Mathews, 21, of Irvine, suffered critical head injuries and a broken neck but has emerged from a coma, while Claire McKay, 22, of Costa Mesa, has fractures to her face, arm and wrist, said Donny Goetz, 24, also of Irvine.
Mathews is not paralyzed, but he has been fitted with a head-and-shoulders halo brace he will have to wear for three months, Goetz said.
Goetz has kept abreast of his friends' conditions since the accident, which was reported about 12:30 p.m. Saturday.
Meanwhile, Goetz said today he and the families of Mathews and McKay are especially grateful to rescuers who braved pounding rain, marble-sized hail and flash flooding to save the pair when they were both stranded unconscious on the cliffs.
"Obviously, their families and I are so thankful there were several people there and willing to help," Goetz said, referring to other climbers already on the cliffs at Suicide and firefighters who arrived later.
Goetz has spoken with McKay and learned details that add to accounts from rescuers, including Firefighter Henry Negrete of the Idyllwild Fire Department, who has been doing cliff rescues in the area for 20 years.
Mathews and McKay had both already climbed about 85 feet on a route called "Captain Hook'' before Mathews fell, Goetz said. Mathews continued about 30 feet up the route when he lost his grip and plunged, crashing into McKay and knocking her out, Goetz said.
Mathews then bounced off McKay and fell 85 more feet, nearly all the way to the base of the cliffs, Goetz said. The pair were roped together, but since McKay was knocked out and prone on a ledge, she was unable to brake or stop Mathews' fall, Goetz said. The rope slid unencumbered through McKay's safety gear.
That may have been just as well, because the force of trying to stop such a horrendous leader fall likely would have pulled McKay off the ledge where she lay unconscious, Goetz said.
The force of the impact when Mathews hit McKay had already pulled her backup gear out of a crack in the cliff.
The first climber to reach Mathews found him wedged upside down between the cliff and a tree, Negrete said.
"He was already blue in the face, wasn't breathing,'' Negrete said earlier. "The other climber thought he broke his neck and he was dead."
The other climber "moved him a little, and he spontaneously started breathing,'' Negrete said.
Goetz said today he'd learned the first climber to reach Mathews was a local guide and cliff-rescue veteran named Clark Jacobs.
Climbers also had to go back up the route to help McKay. Threatening clouds had loomed earlier. The weather turned nasty as climbers worked to get the injured pair down from the steeps.
Meanwhile, a dozen Idyllwild and CalFire firefighters walked in from Humber Park. In addition, a CalFire helicopter lowered a crew member and gear but backed off when the suddenly violent storm began pounding the injured and the rescuers, Negrete said.
"It was a tremendous storm with marble-sized hail,'' Negrete said. "It was a flash flood, basically, with rocks and logs, water one to two feet deep at the base of the cliff. No lightning strikes, though. We eventually carried both patients out."
Mathews was combative at times and appeared to be having seizures due to his injuries, but he never regained full consciousness, Negrete said. McKay did regain consciousness.
The two climbers were taken to a landing zone at a camp closer to central Idyllwild, and flown to hospitals, Negrete said. Due to the cliffs and heavy weather, it took rescuers several long hours to get both Mathews and McKay airborne, Negrete said.
With his friends recovering today from what initially appeared to be life-threatening injuries, Goetz expressed a measure of relief. Other local and visiting climbers with experience at Suicide have expressed a mix of gratitude and elation in online forums such as summitpost.org.
The general consensus among climbers is that any time a leader survives a 100-foot fall it is something of a miracle.
"It was extremely lucky the first guy to reach Trevor was a local . . . Clark Jacobs," Goetz said. Jacobs, in his 50s, is a climbing guide and former search-and-rescue volunteer at Joshua Tree National Park, Goetz and others said.
"They expedited the rescue and if they hadn't got to him, Trevor likely would have died," Goetz said. "Trevor wasn't breathing."
Mathews was wearing a helmet, which likely contributed to saving his life, Goetz said.
Earlier accounts that Mathews had climbed without protection were not true, Goetz said. Mathews and McKay had placed an anchor when they reached a perch about 85 feet up on "Captain Hook," Goetz said.
In addition, Mathews had placed another protective device into a crack in the cliff before he fell, Goetz said. But that device failed, and McKay's anchor failed as well when Mathews crashed into her, Goetz said.
Mathews has been climbing about nine months, and he had led two climbs rated more difficult than "Captain Hook" at Suicide Rock before Saturday, Goetz said.
McKay has been climbing many years, though not usually as a leader, Goetz said. Goetz said he has climbed with Mathews at Suicide, and with Mathews and McKay at a local climbing gym, Rockreation Sport Climbing Center in Costa Mesa.
Mathews remains hospitalized while McKay is recovering at home, Goetz said. Mathews may be released this weekend or next week, another minor miracle considering his injuries, Goetz said.
"Yesterday they put him a halo brace," Goetz said, describing a neck-mobilization frame that often involves tightening screws into the outer skull. "He was in a lot of pain, and they had to sedate him."
Mathews may also be experiencing problems with his vocal chords because rescuers had to ventilate his throat to ensure his breathing on Saturday, Goetz said.
McKay faces possible reconstructive surgery to repair fractured cheek bones, Goetz said.
"She's definitely beat up, but she's doing okay considering," Goetz said. "She has cheek bone fractures in two places and a fractured left arm and left wrist."
Rick Agnelli, a manager at the Rockreation gym in Costa Mesa, said he's glad to hear Mathews and McKay are expected to recover.
"They're definitely lucky in a way, but unlucky in another," Agnelli said. "We wish them well."
Mathews, originally, from Glendora, is a senior at Concordia University in Irvine, Goetz said.
"Captain Hook" at Suicide is rated 5.7 on a subjective scale, meaning beginners would likely find it difficult and experienced climbers may find it easy and fun, according to the Web site rockclimbing.com. At least one guide book rates "Captain Hook" slightly harder at 5.8.
Suicide Rock is renowned among many climbers for its quality routes. The cliffs are named for a legendary Indian princess who jumped off the rock with her lover rather than being separated as the tribal chief had ordered, according to the Web site Idyllwild.com.
Note: In the photo above, "Captain Hook" is a two-pitch climb that begins in the Buttress of Cracks, visible at the right-center base of the cliffs. The view is looking west from below Tahquitz Rock and the Humber Park trailheads. Click on the image for detail.
Click here for a photo of Tahquitz.