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Broken Sling Caused Tahquitz Double Fatality

The climbers were taking rappel cautions but clipped to a single old sling as their rappel anchor.

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According to an accident analysis by Riverside Mountain Rescue, an old, degraded fixed sling around a tree broke as Gavin Escobar was on rappel, causing he and Chelsea Walsh to fall several hundred feet to the base of Tahquitz Rock on September 28. The report was based on an examination of the climbing gear used by Escobar and Walsh, pull tests on the broken sling, and an on-sight survey of the route. Riverside Mountain Rescue (RMRU) is an all-volunteer force with some 30 members operating in the Riverside, California, area. A broken rappel-anchor sling was also to blame for the March 26 death of Tina Fiori, 50, at Joshua Tree National Park.

RMRU, along with Riverside Sheriff’s department responded to a 911 call last Wednesday from Tahquitz Rock, a popular and historic granite crag several hours east of Los Angeles when they found Escobar and Walsh deceased near the start of The Trough (5.4), a three-pitch route and Tahquitz’s first technical rock climb, established by Jim Smith, Bob Brinton, and Z. Jasitas in 1936. On July 4 of this year RMRU responded to a fatal soloing accident when Scott Miller, 27, of Redlands, California, fell while soloing near The Trough.

double climbing fatality cause
Overview of the West Face of Tahquitz Rock noting locations where evidence was found. (Photo: James Eckhardt/RMRU)

According to the RMRU report, Escobar and Walsh passed a party of four climbers just below Lunch Rock on the final section of the approach trail. Escobar and Walsh said they would climb Dave’s Deviation, a three-pitch 5.9 first climbed by Tom Frost and Royal Robbins in 1960. The weather appeared good with few clouds. At 10:30 a team on nearby Super Pooper (5.10b) saw Escobar and Walsh leading above Pine Tree Ledge, the finish of the third pitch. About an hour later it began raining and the team on Super Pooper talked about bail options. By noon the storm intensified with heavy rain and hail. Another team on Left Ski Track (5.6) huddled under the shelter of a rock near the top of The Trough. They reported hearing chatter and laughter from another nearby party. By this point water was running down the rock and their climbing gear was soaked. They were soon joined by a second team that had also climbed Left Ski Track. 

About the same time, the Super Pooper team began bailing and heard a noise to their right. Looking up they saw falling climbers and a large rock about 3.5′ by 3.5′ by 1.5′ feet falling with them. The climbers sheltering under the rock also heard the falling climbers.

The Super Pooper climbers called 911, activating the Sheriff’s department, which dispatched a Star-9 helicopter, RMRU, and the Idyllwild Fire department. RMRU and the fire crew hiked about 45 minutes on a climber’s trail to the base of The Trough where they found Walsh and Escobar.

Both climbers, the report noted, were wearing helmets and both had climbing gear clipped to their harnesses. Escobar was clipped to the rappel rope with an ATC style rappel/belay device. Two opposed carabiners were clipped to the loop of rope about a body length above Escobar’s ATC. Walsh had a PAS girth hitched to her harness with a locking carabiner clipped to the next to last loop. According to video shot by Walsh and recovered by RMRU, she had used her PAS to anchor to a fixed sling around a tree while Escobar rappelled with the rope clipped to the same fixed sling. Both ends of the rope were knotted. The rope had a damaged sheath, possibly caused by the falling rock.

A) Example showing how gear was found on Walsh’s harness. B) Example showing how gear was found on Escobar’s harness. C) Climbing rope showing figure 8 knots tied into the rope ends. D) Damaged sheath below Escobar’s ATC. (Photo: James Eckhardt/RMRU)

Following the accident, RMRU surveyed the accident location and discovered a broken sling tied around a tree near the top, close to the start of Upper Royal’s Arch (5.8), a common finish to Piton Pooper. RMRU surmised that Walsh and Escobar had climbed Daves Deviation, continued upward on either Gallwas’ Gallop or Piton Pooper, and then, upon reaching the tree, decided to bail in the wet conditions. Walsh anchored to the tree sling using her PAS while Escobar rappelled. The area around the two was sloping and wet, conditions that would have caused Walsh to at least partly hang from the tree sling.  The sling broke almost immediately as Escobar began his rappel, based on the short distance from Escobar’s ATC to the carabiners clipping the rope to the tree sling.

The tree with the broken sling. (Photo: James Eckhardt/RMRU)

RMRU also found an alpine-style quickdraw between the first and second pitches of The Trough and impact scars from the falling rock. It was determined that the rock, which various websites had reported as the possible cause of the accident, was likely dislodged by the falling climbers or looped and dragged off by their rope, and wasn’t the cause of the accident.

RMRU recovered the sling. Pull tests showed it breaking at 2.54kN (559 pounds), 3.56kN (783 pounds) and 3.2kN (640 pounds). According to RMRU member James Eckhardt, the sling had originally been fluorescent green, but had faded to a grayish white. The sling felt old and stiff when dry, but when wet as it would have been when Walsh and Escobar clipped it, it felt significantly better and looked less faded. Only close inspection of the knot revealed that the sling was originally green.

Full length of webbing retrieved with break. (Photo: James Eckhardt/RMRU)

The sling was made of tubular webbing style that when new would have rated to around 18kN (4,000 pounds). Tests conducted by Kolin Powick of Black Diamond on sun-faded 9/16-inch Supertape webbing that had been fixed around a tree showed it breaking at 14.4kN (3,226 pounds) and 13.8kN (3,099 pounds), about 1,000 pounds lower than the sling’s strength when new. That the sling used by Walsh and Escobar was significantly weaker points to it having been tied around the tree and exposed to UV degradation for quite some time, although for approximately how long is unknown, and there are no reports as of yet of other parties recently having used the sling as a rappel station. In dry conditions most teams top out the crag and go down the standard Friction Descent, a route with third-class scrambling on slabs that would lose its appeal when wet.

Accident Summary

Walsh and Escobar took various standard rappel precautions. They knotted the ends of their rope and were both using slings to anchor themselves to the rappel station. They also used two carabiners with gates opposed to clip the rappel rope to the tree. Rappelling from a single-sling anchor is never advisable, but isn’t infrequent especially on older, less travelled routes.

“Any climber who has climbed a decent amount of time has clipped bad webbing, and that’s the sobering thing,” says Eckhardt.

Climbers might rappel from a single fixed sling because they don’t want to back it up with a sling on their rack, or because they don’t have a second sling. Walsh and Escobar did have an alpine draw that might have reached around the tree, and that it was found some distance below the tree could indicate that they were in the process of backing up the sling around the tree when it failed. Alternatively, the alpine draw could have come off of one of their harnesses during the fall.

Only a careful inspection of the webbing shows that the sling had been green and had faded to grey. (Photo: James Eckhardt/RMRU)

“This is the second death this year in SoCal due to a sling breaking,” says Eckhardt. “Climbers need to be aware that a single sling is very different from a bolted anchor, it’s not redundant. A singe piece of webbing isn’t redundant. We should be careful inspecting fixed slings and always backing them up.”