My Last Rock Climb

The Frightful Variation of the Trough, Tahquitz Rock, Idllywild, California

The Frightful Variation of the Trough, Tahquitz Rock, Idllywild, California. Can you spot the climber?

The Call to the Sheriff

Saturday midnight, summer 1979, Dolores called the Riverside Sheriff substation servicing Idyllwild, California and reported her husband, Jerrold Foutz, and son, David Foutz, missing. They left San Diego early Saturday morning for a technical rock climb of Tahquitz Rock in Idyllwild and were expected home for dinner. It was supposed to be an easy climb, The Trough. Both were experienced climbers. Dolores gave a description of the climbers, Jerrold 47 years old, David 16 years old, and the license number and description of their car, a 1973 green Renault LeCar.

The dispatcher said they would send a deputy to check the parking lot used by the climbers and call back with what they found.

About an hour later the deputy called back and said they found the car in the parking lot but no sign of the climbers. There was no need to call search and rescue before daylight because there was little they could do in the dark. He would keep checking the parking lot and let her know if they showed up.

The Climbers

At the same time as the call to the sheriff, the missing climbers were at at the top of The Frightful Variation of the Trough and father and son took a moment to absorb the incredible nighttime view, hard won by hours of climbing.

The setting moon bathed the vertical granite slabs in light as bright as day, except the shadows were pitch black, gathering no light from stars in the black sky. In daylight, the shadows would be filled with light reflected from the bright blue sky. The opaque night-time shadows gave a somber mood to a beautiful, but serious situation.

A serious situation because:

  • We had left our Ten Essentials, which included flashlights and extra clothes, back in the car.
  • Our family would be worried because we were six hour overdue and probably would not be home until dawn.
  • The moon, our only light source, was setting and we had several rappels to make before we got off technical rock.
  • It was getting chilly and we were not dressed for a cold night.

How did we get in this situation?

We left San Diego about eight in the morning and arrived at the parking lot and hiked over to Lunch Rock, the starting point for The Trough climb, arriving about 10:30am. It was then we realized we had left our ten essentials, which contained flashlights and extra clothing among other things in the car. We debated whether or not we should hike down to the parking lot and get them but decided we could complete the climb and get back to the car in little more time than it would take to go get them. There were three groups of climbers ahead of us and if we went back, we would lose our place in line. Assuming about 30 minutes between starts we would be on the rock in an hour and a half, finish the climb in about an hour and half and be back at the car by 2pm.

The thing we didn’t consider is that The Trough is usually the first climb for beginners at Tahquitz, and every group ahead of us were beginners, who were taking a lot of time to clear the route. About 5pm with the route still jammed, we decided we better try the The Frightful Variation of the Trough if we were to get a climb in before dark. The variation is both longer and more challenging than The Trough.

We took the trail around to the the chimney leading to Litter Ledge, the starting point for the Frightful Variation of the Trough and several other climbs. We roped up.

David set the belay, and I started the lead up the the chimney to Litter Ledge, named because a Stokes Litter is stored there for climbing accidents. The chimney keeps it safe from casual hikers, but a skilled climber should have no problem quickly reaching it. Chimneys are easy for me and I like to climb them. I had been up this chimney several times and expected to be up it in couple of minutes. It had been a while since I had climbed, and something wasn’t working for me. After struggling for several minutes with no progress and no idea what I was doing wrong, I let David take the lead. He wedged his way up in a couple of minutes and set an upper belay for me to follow.

But following was no easier than leading. What I figured out later is that I was placing my back on one wall and both feet on the opposite wall and trying to squirm up. That’s not how you do it. You need one foot on each wall. I made it to the top using bad technique, but not without a price. My heart was pounding at its maximum rate and I thought it would burst before I got to the ledge. When I did reach it, sweat had soaked my cotton T shirt and cotton climbing shirt. This was not my day for climbing and in retrospect would have been a good time to call off the climb. But we had come to climb and the thought of quitting did not enter our minds. After I had recovered somewhat, I decided to let David take the leads after briefing him on each pitch.

Things went well, but slowly. This was the first multi-pitch climb David had led and I was taking my time following him — cleaning the route of the protection he placed.

The most spectacular pitch, because of its vertical exposure, is shown at the beginning of this article. I briefed David that if he stayed to his left, the exposure would be greater, but the climb easier since the holds were almost ladder-like. On the right, the exposure is less, but the holds more difficult. When I climbed it, I elected the increased exposure and easier holds. David had no problems with exposure, so he elected the same route.

All went well to the top but the sun had set and we only had the moon to light our way in setting up several rappels to get off the technical rock. The rappels also went well, but on the last rappel we crossed the two rope strands and we could not pull the rope down. As we tried vainly to free the rope the moon set and we had to abandon the rope on the rappel.

It became pitch black. We couldn’t even see where our feet met the ground. The stars let us see the white granite somewhat, but the ground, trees, and forest at the base of the climb were pure black. If the moon light had lasted a half hour more, we could have easily followed the trail, crossed Strawberry Creek, and gotten to our car in the parking lot.

That was not to be.

The rappel off The Frightful Variation of the Trough ended in a faint trail and wound back to Lunch Rock and then down to the parking lot. The forested trail was easy to follow in daylight, but not so easy by starlight. Also, it was not without its own problems. If you strayed off the path on the down hill side, you found it sloped to a steep drop off. Going over the edge might not be fatal, but would probably result in injury.

To prevent going over the drop-off, we lined up on trees blocking starlight and slid down the slope feet first. Straddling the the tree before going over the edge might be painful, but much preferred to going over the edge.

Eventually we heard the sound of Strawberry Creek and also the voice of the deputy sheriff trying to locate us. He offered to shine his spotlight up the hill to light our way, but we declined, afraid that it would ruin our night vision if it didn’t help.

We got down to Stawberry Creek and started to cross it. I fell and found myself sitting with my feet dangling over a drop off. Strawberry Creek has some small water falls up to about six feet high. Being pitch black I could not see what the drop was and stayed sitting in the snow-melt cold of the creek while David went up to the parking lot and borrowed the deputy sheriff’s flashlight. With the light, I found my feet dangling about six inches above the water and I dropped down and climbed up to the parking lot, with my feet and the lower half of my body soaking wet with cold water.

The deputy sheriff called Dolores about 3:30am saying we were back at the car and on our way home. I changed into dry clothes at the car and we started the drive back to San Diego, turning the car heater to its maximum temperature.

At the first open cafe we stopped and David called home. He had a morning paper route and he talked to our daughter’s boy friend and future husband, Tim, who was staying at our house. David told him where his route book was and asked Tim if he could do his paper route. Tim did. We both got the largest hot chocolate to-go the cafe had and started home.

That’s when my teeth started to chatter and the uncontrolled shivering started. Hypothermia had set in. The car heater kept the car at sauna temperature, about a 100F, and I sipped my hot chocolate and shivered. When we got home I crawled into bed with two heating pads and slept until it was time to go to work Monday morning. David got a lot of sleep in until he had to get up at 4am Monday to deliver newspapers.

All though I never climbed again, David did, climbing with some like-minded friends.

Epilogue

I never bought a replacement rope, figuring that the next time I went climbing I would make the investment. Since I never climbed again, this investment was never made. At the time I climbed, the rope was the most expensive piece of equipment. All my old climbing gear is in a rucksack in the garage without a climbing rope. Most of the equipment I now have is obsolete. Most people use harnesses today to attach the climbing rope instead of wrapping one inch webbing around their waist and tying into this. They use Jumars to ascend a rope instead of hand made prussic loops. Pitons are frowned upon because they damage the rock, and climbers now use stoppers (nuts) and cams to place protection. Climbing is much more expensive now than when I did it. In the photographs, I’m wearing a watch cap on my head, latter I bought a helmet. Probably the only useful gear I could salvage from the rucksack now are my helmet, carabiners, and ice ax. The rucksack is still in good condition.

I have no photographs of our night-time climb, but years before I had taken pictures of my first climb of The Frightful Variation of the Trough. My climbing partner was Emory Yount, who liked to lead, which was fine with me, because I preferred to belay. The following pictures show the progress of the climb, always with Emory leading. By passing the camera to him, he got of few of me coming up behind him.

The Climb

Chimney leading to Litter Ledge at the start of several climbs including the Frightful Variation of the Trough.

Chimney leading to Litter Ledge at the start of several climbs including the Frightful Variation of the Trough.

Jerrold Foutz on Litter Ledge, the start of several climbs where a Stokes litter is kept. The chimney to reach it keeps it off limits to the casual hiker, but a climber can easily reach it. If used, the user is honor bound to make sure it is replaced.

Jerrold Foutz on Litter Ledge, the start of several climbs where a Stokes litter is kept. The chimney to reach it keeps it off limits to the casual hiker, but a climber can easily reach it. If used, the user is honor bound to make sure it is replaced.

Jerrold Foutz follows on the Frightful Variation of the Trough.

Jerrold Foutz follows on the Frightful Variation of the Trough.

Jerrold Foutz continues up the Frightful Variation of the Trough

Jerrold Foutz continues up the Frightful Variation of the Trough

Emory Yount leads the Frightful Variation of the Trough

Emory Yount leads the Frightful Variation of the Trough

Emory Yount continues to lead the Frightful Variation of the Trough

Emory Yount continues to lead the Frightful Variation of the Trough

The Climbers

Emory Yount resting on the Frightful Variation of the Trough

Emory Yount resting on the Frightful Variation of the Trough

Jerrold Foutz checking next pitch on the Frightful Variation of the Trough

Jerrold Foutz checking next pitch on the Frightful Variation of the Trough

David Foutz works a climbing problem at Yosemite Mountaineering School class, Tuolumne Meadows, Yosemite National Park

David Foutz works a climbing problem at Yosemite Mountaineering School class, Tuolumne Meadows, Yosemite National Park