Tuesday, September 30, 2008


Photo courtesy of Capt. Tim Bingham, CalFire-Riverside County.

IDYLLWILD - It was one month ago today - on Saturday Aug. 30 - when two Orange County climbers were severely injured after a 100-foot leader fall at Suicide Rock.

Both are expected to fully recover, thanks to the teamwork of other climbers already at Suicide and firefighter-paramedics from Idyllwild and Pine Cove.

In the photo above, a climber works with firefighters to stabilize one of the injured on a trail at the base of Suicide Rock.

Reports on the accident and rescues are here and here.


Friday, September 26, 2008

canyon perspective

Mill Creek Canyon and Forest Falls from Galena Peak, Aug. 26 2008.

By Guy McCarthy

FOREST FALLS - If anyone in this mountain town had heard of a federal study showing many residents in the San Bernardino National Forest experience stress from living in such a fire-prone region, they weren't letting on to it Friday.

At Forest Falls Fire Station 128, two county firefighters politely referred questions to Capt. Tom McIntosh.

In his office at Gillmore Real Estate, McIntosh said he hadn't heard of the study, and he was too busy with other work to consider it at the moment.

Across the street at the Elkhorn General Store, co-owner Gail Forgues said she hadn't heard of the study either. During busy weekends and the occasional town emergency, her store often serves as information central.

Forgues expressed confidence in federal management of the San Bernardino National Forest, but admitted she was not sure what to expect from the next presidential administration as far as forest maintenance.

She said she wasn't expecting many people to watch the Obama-McCain debate tonight on the store's flat-screen television.

"I'm not sure what I'd ask them about," Forgues said, given an opportunity to form a question for the two candidates. "I'd have to think about it."

The semi-rustic Elkhorn General Store stands at roughly 6,000 feet elevation, next to the popular El Mexicano eatery in the center of Forest Falls. The town is about 80 miles east of Los Angeles in Mill Creek Canyon, which lies below the San Gorgonio Wilderness.

Bulletin board at Elkhorn General Store.

In recent years, federal grants helped pay for expensive helicopter removal of hundreds of dead trees on slopes above Forest Falls. Helicopter logging is dangerous and can cost up to $100 per tree.

McIntosh and others in the community are experienced in firefighting, alpine rescue, swift-water rescue, house-to-house search-and-rescue, and debris removal. Long-time Forest Falls residents reflect their rugged surroundings, and many are self-reliant and competent in emergencies.

In the past century, Forest Falls residents have experienced earthquakes, floods, rock avalanches and debris flows - but no serious fires. Other parts of the forest have burned repeatedly in the past 100 years. But not upper Mill Creek Canyon.

New residents are aware of the history, though they don't dwell on it.

"We know about what they say," said Roger Derda, a former community development and planning director in Banning who moved to Forest Falls recently. He was painting the side of his home Friday afternoon, further up-stream from the Elkhorn, El Mexicano and Gillmore.

"They say it's a box canyon and all that," Derda said. "We're not concerned."

Yucaipa Ridge and Mill Creek Canyon from Galena Peak, Aug 26 2008.

The San Bernardino National Forest covers more than 1,000 square miles in San Bernardino and Riverside counties.


fire-prone stress

Running Springs, early Oct. 23 2007. Photo by Guy McCarthy.

RIVERSIDE - A federal study released Wednesday evening shows that many residents in fire-prone communities surrounded by the San Bernardino National Forest - one of the most flammable in the United States - have stress and anxiety related to living in high-hazard areas.

Focus groups for the study were held in Angelus Oaks, Forest Falls, Lake Arrowhead, Crestline, Big Bear, Wrightwood and Idyllwild in March and April 2007 - before the destructive fires of October 2007.

Psychological impacts can linger for years after a fire, according to "The Experience of Community Residents in a Fire-Prone Ecosystem: A Case Study on the San Bernardino National Forest."

The study was completed this summer by Patricia Winter, a U.S. Forest Service research social scientist at the Forest Fire Laboratory in Riverside, and George Cvetkovich, a psychology professor at the Western Washington University Center for Cross-Cultural Research.

Winter and Cvetkovich conducted the study in the San Bernardino National Forest because it is one of the most fire-prone in the country, according to the Forest Service.

It is also the nation's most urbanized mountain forest, with more than 100,000 residents from Wrightwood to Idyllwild.

Recent destructive fires in the San Bernardino National Forest include the Old Fire of October 2003, the Esperanza Fire of October 2006, and the Slide and Grass Valley fires of October 2007. Hundreds of homes have been lost in the past five years, and the death toll includes the five-man crew of U.S. Forest Service Engine 57, who died Oct. 26 2006 as they tried to protect a vacant home in the San Jacinto Mountains.

Howling Santa Ana winds - an annual feature of Southern California weather - helped create firestorm conditions at times during each of these incidents.

"The communities included in this study are adjacent to the national forest and other federal lands and have been listed by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection as Hazard Level Code 3, indicating the highest fire threat level," Winter and Cvetkovich wrote in their introduction.

Most residents in fire-prone communities surrounded by the San Bernardino National Forest have taken steps to protect their homes from wildland fires, according to Winter and Cvetkovich.

About 94 percent of homeowners who participated in surveys and focus group discussions in 2007 had taken defensible-space steps, according to the study. About 75 percent reduced flammable vegetation because it was required.

But inadequate financial resources, physical limitations, and a desire to leave the landscape unchanged were commonly cited as reasons for not taking action to protect homes from wildland fires, according to Winter and Cvetkovich.

The study can be found at this address:

Early Oct. 23 2007 in Running Springs. Photo by Guy McCarthy.

For a report from Running Springs during the Slide Fire, click here.


Tuesday, September 23, 2008

coastal watershed

By Guy McCarthy

DEL MAR - A federal hearing on a controversial proposal to extend a toll road into a state park that provides access to a world-class surf break drew more than 1,000 people to a beachtown fairgrounds auditorium on Monday.

As the first speakers addressed Jane Luxton, general counsel for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the crowd appeared evenly divided.

Supporters of the toll road cited jobs, economic benefits and public safety as reasons to move forward with the project. Opponents warned of irreparable harm to a dwindling natural resource, and countered the private road plans are strictly for profit - not security.

As the day wore on, many supporters of the toll road left - including scores of union workers in orange T-shirts. By late afternoon, opponents of the proposed California 241 extension outnumbered supporters by at least two-to-one.

More than 650 people had requested to speak at the hearing, but NOAA estimated there would be time for less than a fourth of them to have their say. The lions' share of speaking opportunities were given to elected officials and organization representatives.

The first speaker was Tustin Mayor Jerry Amante, pictured here on the right, shortly after his remarks. Amante is also chairman of the Foothill/Eastern Transportation Corridor Agency (TCA) that wants to build the toll road extension.

Amante cited historic population growth in Southern California among the reasons to go forward with the toll road.

"The uncontestable fact is that since the Great Depression, the population of Southern California has consistently increased - through good economic times and bad," Amante said.

"There are 24 million people in Southern California today. The state projects the population will increase another 11.3 million by 2050 . . . We cannot bury our heads in the sand and wish the problem away."

The fifth speaker was Bobby Shriver, a Santa Monica councilman and brother-in-law to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Schwarzenegger dropped Shriver and actor-director Clint Eastwood from the state parks commission in March after their vocal opposition to the toll road.

"The people oppose this," Shriver said after he addressed Luxton and the audience. "The people who live around here oppose this. Anyone who says otherwise is making things up."

The California Coastal Commission had voted 8-2 against the toll road extension a month before Schwarzenegger dropped Shriver and Eastwood.

"We opposed the road and won," Shriver said. "That's the irritating thing."

Rules were posted outside the cavernous auditorium where the hearing took place. There was still cheering, hissing and booing at times.

Outside, some attendees spoke with broadcast reporters, including union representative Armando Esparza of the AFL-CIO. Esparza and his followers support the toll road extension.

"This is a unique and special coastal watershed," said Jayme Timberlake, of Solana Beach. "The last in Southern California that has not been impacted."

Disaster preparedness was a recurring theme among several who spoke in support of the toll toad extension. In February, Orange County Fire Authority Chief Chip Prather appeared in uniform to recount how vital access roads were during the October 2007 wildfires.

Shriver dismissed claims that the 241 extension was a calculated answer to public safety and national security concerns.

"The fires are a problem, but fire chiefs always want a bigger road," Shriver said. "Osama bin Laden's not going to be landing on the beach, you know what I mean?"

Nothing was decided at Monday's hearing. NOAA officials said they were there strictly to hear testimony. NOAA is a branch of the federal Department of Commerce, which could overturn the state coastal commission's ruling.


Union workers

Thumbs up

Thumbs down

Formal dress

Empty seats


Body art

Taking turns

All ages

Monday, September 15, 2008

brush fire

By Guy McCarthy

Redlands firefighters responded to a brush fire today that scorched a field of long, dry grass on San Bernardino Avenue next to Highway 30. Initial estimates had five to 10 acres burned.

No structures were threatened. Emergency dispatchers began receiving calls about the burning field at 12:24 p.m., according to the California Highway Patrol.

Firefighters set grass ablaze themselves to consume fuel before the active fire reached San Bernardino Avenue. Winds were light but flames leaped 10 to 15 feet at times and generated plenty of radiant heat.

The National Weather Service had issued a red flag warning for critical fire weather conditions in inland valleys and the San Bernardino National Forest earlier today. Temperatures hovered just over 100 degrees in the Redlands area while the fire burned.

Authorities later said the land owner had hired a contractor to do brush abatement. A disc-bladed cutter apparently struck a rock and ignited the blaze in dry conditions.


Thursday, September 4, 2008

cowboys on k2

K2 in August 1978

By Guy McCarthy

The weekend of Sept. 6-7 2008 marks the 30th anniversary of the first American ascent of K2, the world's second-highest mountain and widely considered its most dangerous.

Underscoring that reputation, just five weeks before in early August, 11 climbers were killed high on K2 in one of the deadliest episodes in mountaineering history. Nicholas Rice, 23, of Hermosa Beach, survived the ordeal and intends to return to the Karakoram Range in northern Pakistan, perhaps as soon as next year.

In a recent interview, another Southern California climber with K2 survival experience reflected on the past but steered clear of passing judgment on the present.

Rick Ridgeway of Ojai, now 59, was a member of that first successful American K2 expedition. He summited the Savage Mountain without oxygen 30 years ago this Sunday.

"Back in '78 we knew the climbing was going to be hard," Ridgeway said, speaking by phone from his home in Ventura County. "But none of us knew it would come to be known as the hardest mountain in the world.

"Standing at the bottom, we didn't know if we'd be coming back," Ridgeway said. "It had only been climbed twice at that point."

Led by Everest veteran Jim Whittaker, the 1978 team included Lou Reichardt, Jim Wickwire, John Roskelley and Ridgeway.

Before them, the only ascents of K2 had been achieved by an Italian team in 1954, and by a siege-style Japanese expedition with 1,500 porters and more than 50 climbers in 1977 - both via the same route, the Abruzzi Spur.

The Americans in 1978 intended to try to finish a new route to the summit, the long Northeast Ridge, which features a half-mile traverse of knife-edged, corniced pinnacles.

Whether they wanted to or not, the Americans carried a bit of history with them. Previous American attempts on K2 in 1938, 1939 and 1953 were already legendary in mountaineering lore for epic accounts of rescue attempts, deaths, and survival - but not success. Just three years before, Whittaker had led an attempt with Wickwire on the Northwest Ridge that also met with failure.

The only other attempt on K2 in 1978 had already ended in tragedy. A British expedition led by Chris Bonington abandoned their attempt on a new route on the West Face when a windslab avalanche killed team member Nick Estcourt and nearly killed Doug Scott.

"At that time, the Pakistani government was concerned about having too many people on the mountain," Ridgeway said.

A Polish team had nearly completed the Northeast Ridge in 1976, but the upper reaches were unknown territory for the Americans. It had taken a strong team of Poles 10 days to climb the knife-edge traverse.

In spite of team bickering and technical difficulties, in late July and early August 1978 the Americans climbed and fixed ropes for the whole traverse in just four days, Ridgeway wrote in his 1980 account of the expedition, The Last Step.

But storms and other difficulties slowed their fast start. It was early September before they had any real chance at the summit. Then the weather cleared.

"We tried to finish direct," Ridgeway said recently. "But it was too dangerous below the summit. The snow was deep and loose. You had to wade through it.

"So we traversed over to the Abruzzi finish," Ridgeway said. "Below the Bottleneck. It wasn't named at that point, of course. Nobody called it the Bottleneck then."

The steep, narrow gully Ridgeway referred to passes under a towering wall of unstable ice and snow at roughly 27,000 feet elevation. It was the stage for tragedy last month, when parts of the serac calved off, killed several climbers and swept away fixed lines. Others were stranded above and perished in the cold or fell to their deaths trying to descend.

The wall of ice and snow is a wind-sculpted feature that was just as intimidating in 1978, Ridgeway said.

"It was an active serac, a few hundred vertical feet high," Ridgeway said. "It was active. A serac is like a mini-glacier. It breaks off from time to time. It was very steep where the serac had recently broken."

Reichardt and Wickwire had summited the day before, Sept. 6. Ridgeway and Roskelley, who had taken an extra day trying the direct finish, were approaching the Bottleneck in darkness about 4:30 a.m. Sept. 7.

"It was black and moonless," Ridgeway wrote in The Last Step, "but in the rarified atmosphere starlight was sufficient to see above us the major features of the upper mountain: the enormous ice cliffs like ramparts guarding the summit fortress, and below the cliffs, the constricting couloir through the rock band."

Ridgeway and Roskelley didn't have fixed lines or any other rope to rely on, Ridgeway said recently.

"We'd abandoned our ropes before the traverse," Ridgeway said. "We were exhausted and we didn't want to carry them. But I remember it clearly, what they call the Bottleneck now. It was steep . . .

"I just remember focusing intently on each move, with the serac above," Ridgeway said. "In a situation like that, it's like you throw yourself on a roulette wheel and hope your number doesn't come up."

Their luck held that day, and so did the serac. Just above the couloir about 7:30 a.m., they encountered Wickwire, who had spent a frozen night in the "death zone" just below the summit. He was stiff and spent, with ice in his beard, but still moving adequately on his own. Ridgeway and Roskelley continued to the summit.

"Even more difficult was the traverse above the Bottleneck," Ridgeway said recently. "You could look down and see all the way to the glacier at the base of the mountain, 12,000 feet below."

Eight hours later at 28,250 feet elevation, Roskelley balked at approaching the very highest point of K2, fearing a cornice would give way. Ridgeway thought to himself, it may be corniced, but we've come too far not to go to the very top.

"I volunteered to belly-crawl up to the highest point," Ridgeway wrote in The Last Step. "John stood back holding my ankles. I eased up to the edge and peered over.

"There was solid snow under me, and the south face dropped down so steeply . . . I had a euphoric sense of flying. John crawled up behind me, and together we sat on top, holding each other, too exhausted to speak."

Ridgeway told himself to try to remember everything about the moment, but he found he could not appreciate it.

"I was only thankful at the moment to rest, to breathe and lessen the dizziness, and if I felt anything akin to elation, it was from the realization I no longer had to go up," Ridgeway wrote. "This was it; there was no higher place to climb."

Ten years ago, Ridgeway and other members of his team attended a 20th anniversary gathering hosted by a mountaineering club in Portland, Oregon. Charles Houston and Bob Bates of the American 1938 and 1953 attempts on K2 attended.

But there is no gathering planned this year to celebrate the 30th anniversary of American success on K2, Ridgeway said.

"We decided that was that,"Ridgeway said. "No plans this time."

Addressing the recent deaths on K2, Ridgeway steered away from passing judgment on decisions or tactics that may have contributed to the 11 fatalities last month.

"I don't feel like I'm in position to offer any wisdom," Ridgeway said. "It would be presumptuous of me to be critical in any way. Each person makes their own decisions about risk."

The title of this post - "Cowboys on K2" - is the nickname Charles Houston gave his account of the 1938 American expedition, Five Miles High. Houston is reportedly still alive and well at age 95, living in Burlington, Vermont.

Seventy years after his first attempt on K2, and 55 years after his second, it would be interesting to hear what he thinks about recent events on the Savage Mountain.


The 1978 photo of K2 was taken by a trekker and the view is looking north from Concordia, at the junction of the Baltoro and Godwin-Austen glaciers. Courtesy of SonomaPicMan.

On Monday Sept. 8, this piece was published by Climbing.com, the online platform for Climbing Magazine, a leader in climbing journalism since 1970.

suicide rescues

The Orange County Register and the Los Angeles Times sites have stories today about last weekend's drama at Suicide Rock.

The Register got hold of Claire McKay's father, and the Times got photos of the rescue from Riverside County Fire Capt. Tim Bingham.

Perhaps the most interesting account published today comes from the Idyllwild Town Crier. News editor J.P. Crumrine spoke with veteran climbing guide Clark Jacobs, the first to reach Trevor Mathews at the base of the cliffs.

From the Crier:

Jacobs, a 55-year-old climbing instructor and guide, has lived in Idyllwild for 25 years and has been climbing for nearly 40 years. He has also narrowly escaped death recently. But Jacobs’ dark encounter was not on local granite.

In 2005, he was diagnosed with a rare blood cancer, kidney failure and type 2 diabetes. He spent 43 days in Eisenhower Medical Center at the end of the year. Two years later, as 2007 was ending, his doctor told him the cancer appeared to be in remission.

Regaining his strength has taken time. Saturday he planned to rest. A sudden urge for a short solo climb sent him to Suicide Rock. He does not encourage anyone else to duplicate his feats. After completing the climb, he hiked back to the base for his pack and phone.

While talking to other hikers, they heard a rockslide. Looking up, Jacobs realized that a person was sliding down Suicide. Trevor landed in the “Buttress of Cracks” area. Jacobs sprinted to the body.

He found a man on his head, helmet smashed, neck bent and turning blue. His first priority was to ensure the individual could breathe. He got him on his back, which opened his airways almost immediately.

Other climbers began to come and offer assistance. “We did what we could,” Jacobs said. “Climbers stand together.”

Jacobs also called the sudden storm that lashed rescuers and injured alike the worst he'd seen in 25 years.

Go here for the rest of the Crier's story.


Wednesday, September 3, 2008

suicide 100-footer

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.