The second climber to die in Joshua Tree National Park this year has been identified by a witness as an experienced climber named Tina Fiori.
Fiori died Saturday afternoon following an 80-foot-fall while rock climbing. Riverside County sheriffs deputies reported responding to reports of an accidental death near the Sheep Pass Campground in Joshua Tree National Park Saturday at about 4 p.m. Sheriffs department representatives said they found no signs of foul play and that all witness accounts were consistent, although they declined to provide additional information Monday evening. Joshua Tree park Superintendent David Smith previously told The Desert Sun the victim was 50 years old, but did not provide a name.
Matt Himmelstein, a 55-year-old engineer from Orange, said Fiori was a regular climber and was a victim of failed equipment. Himmelstein said he was not well acquainted with Fiori, but was part of Fiori’s three-person climbing team Saturday and witnessed her death.
Himmelstein said he and Fiori were part of a group camping at Sheep Pass in celebration of a mutual friend’s birthday and 2,000th climb in Joshua Tree National Park. After breakfast, members of the group went into the canyon area behind group campsite one to climb for the day, according to Himmelstein.
They spent most of the day climbing in the area, Himmelstein said, and were on a climbing route called “Turkey Terror” when the deadly incident took place.
“We were the last people to climb on this particular wall,” Himmelstein said. “There were three of us, myself Tina and another individual.”
Himmelstein said the group was “top roping,” a method of climbing that involves stringing a rope through a permanent anchor system at the top of the climb. The rope acts as a safety mechanism that supports a climber’s weight if they fall. A second person assists gathering slack at the bottom of the climb and serving as a counterweight.
“We had gear that was placed by a member of the group that we climbed off of,” Himmelstein said. “At the end of the day, somebody needs to go up and remove all that gear and get back to the bottom and there’s a couple different ways to do it. One of the ways is to thread the rope through something that’s been left up there.”
Himmelstein explained that climbing equipment, such as a type of nylon rope known as webbing, is often left attached to the permanent anchors at the top of a climb.
“(Fiori) just ended up being the last person in the day to climb up there,” he said. “She got to the top and told us that she had secured herself, so the person down at the bottom was no longer doing that safety work.”
Himmelstein said Fiori ran her safety rope through nylon webbing that had been left by someone who had previously climbed the route.
“The desert is not is not kind to nylon, so I can’t tell you how old it was,” he said, “but it doesn’t take a whole lot. It doesn’t take a whole lot of time sitting in the sun baking and also getting rained on being frozen and all that stuff.”
“Whether it was six months old (or) two years old I can’t tell you, but it was old enough that it was compromised,” he said. “And that’s what failed.”
When Fiori leaned back to repel down the rocks, the weathered webbing gave way and the she fell to her death.
Himmelstein said the use of used webbing and other leftover equipment is “not uncommon” at any climbing location, but that it is done less frequently in Joshua Tree than in many other places.
He said he hopes people will learn from the tragic incident not to use “tat,” a climbing slang term for old webbing left over at sites.
Fiori’s death is the second reported climbing death in Joshua Tree National Park this year, which is known for its iconic rock formations and climbing trails.
San Diego schoolteacher Michael Spitz, 35, died while free-solo climbing on Jan. 16. His body was found at the base of the Sentinel Wall near the Hidden Valley Nature Trail the next morning. Spitz had been climbing the Illusion Dweller route, which was a favorite of his and one he had climbed many times both with and without a rope.
Previous reporting from journalists Janet Wilson and Paul Albani-Burgio was included in this article.
James B. Cutchin covers business in the Coachella Valley. Reach him at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on Palm Springs Desert Sun: Witness recounts tragic accident that led to Joshua Tree climber’s death