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Darkness at Noon

Kelly Tufo and Dave Kellogg were making the final moves up a four-pitch route at Tahquitz, California, when things suddenly went awry. Seconds later, both lay dying at the base of the cliff, still roped together, one with an equalized belay sling at his waist. What could have gone so wrong?  

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Dave Kellogg spent Saturday, October 18 in prized company—with his 2-year-old son, Nicolas. The next day he was off for a last route before winter hit Tahquitz Rock, above Idyllwild, California.

The plan was unusual only in that Nicolas’ mother, Florabel Victa, whom Kellogg lived with and always called “my wife,” and Nicolas weren’t coming. Usually the three spent weekends together, in Joshua Tree or Red Rocks, Nevada.

Victa was a constant companion on such trips, not a climber but an ardent camper and participant. “I love to watch him climb,” she says. “I just love it.” The couple once went on a three-month climbing trip to Asia, and took the year 2000 off from work and spent most of it in Joshua Tree, returning home to San Diego once a week to check mail, then driving back out the same night.

Kellogg, 32, had been climbing 13 years, and formerly climbed every weekend (in college he’d drive 12 hours to do so). After Nicolas was born, Kellogg would only go out for the day on multi-pitch routes, the only time the family stayed home.

This Saturday, Victa had plans with a friend; so Dave and Nicolas hung out: played disc golf, got cheeseburgers at McDonald’s, rode elevators. “Nicolas”—Victa laughs, the deep laugh that is her second nature—“is into elevators.” Dave and Nicolas rode the parking-lot elevators at the Fashion Valley Mall, and went inside and rode the glass elevators, too.

Kellogg ate dinner at home that evening, and left at 9:25 p.m. for the two-hour drive to his friend Kelly Tufo’s house in Anza, half an hour from Idyllwild. The two intended to reattempt The Step (5.10a), a 500-foot trad route at Tahquitz. They had backed down from the crux second pitch the previous Sunday.

Victa, 44, walked Kellogg out to the garage, and recalls him saying, “I’m a little nervous.”

“Don’t worry, you’ll send it,” she said.

“I know. I’ll call you on my way home.”

He did not come home. Two weeks later, Victa would run an errand in Fashion Valley, with Nicolas in the car. As soon as she turned into the lot, he shouted, “Papa! Elevator!”

***

Eight weeks before, Kelly Tufo, 41, had complained to his onetime housemate Barnett English that he would never “in a million years” find a girlfriend in tiny, rural Anza. The very next day Tufo met Karissa McQuaid, 28. She lived right down the road.

The relationship took off, and the two were together every day the week before Tufo’s second attempt on The Step. Tufo, she says, was wonderful with her two young sons. McQuaid joined in Tufo’s plans to sell his house and move to Joshua Tree; she, too, put her house on the market.

Of that last Saturday, she says, “Oh, my gosh, that day was so good.” They went to a swap meet, where she bought veggies for homemade salsa and he found a screaming deal on a power tool. They finished a job painting a friend’s house, then came back to Tufo’s, where he served tortellini by candlelight.

Kellogg arrived later, and the next morning when he entered the kitchen Tufo said, “Karissa’s giving us some good energy to get to the top.”

The trio watched part of a climbing video Kellogg had brought; it was still playing when the men left.

“They were all stoked,” says McQuaid, “running to the truck all smiles. I can still see their faces.”

Tufo sat in the passenger seat of Kellogg’s GMC truck, unusual for him. He normally preferred to drive his own vehicle rather than ride. “He had this thing about falling,” recalls McQuaid. “Even riding in a passenger seat of a car, he could get a falling sensation. One of the few people he trusted to drive him around was Dave.”

They pulled out at 9 a.m.

***

Tahquitz and Suicide  Rocks are imposing granite cliffs on the hillsides above the artsy resort town of Idyllwild, about 100 miles east of Los Angeles in the San Bernardino Mountains. Tahquitz is the higher peak at about 8,000 feet, with routes up to 800 feet and a steep 45-minute approach. One of the first technical climbing areas developed in North America, it offers classic routes up to seven pitches on cracks, friction slabs and flakes. Art Johnson and Bob Brinton originally climbed the 500-foot Trough (5.3) in 1936, and the decimal rating system was developed here for a 1956 guide book.

Tahquitz is a traditional crag and a serious one. Established routes tend to be clean, but the crag is also subject to periodic rockfall. Rock quality deteriorates on the mid to upper pitches of the wall, and belays can be elusive. Many a leader has passed a decent stance only to come to the end of the rope in the middle of nothing.

“It’s nebulous ground, up there, criss-crossing ramps,” says John Long, who put up Le Toit (5.12a) next to The Step. “These are nothing like Yosemite routes, it’s not a nut-friendly crag. The cracks don’t tend to be deep, and other than that you get flakes and blocks, although you need to wonder about the blocks.” Plenty of people have gotten lost and benighted up top.

***

The road through Idyllwild ends in the Humber Park trailhead, where at 9:30 Tufo and Kellogg saw their friends Jeff Engel and Karen Biggs. Kellogg and Tufo said they were off to The Step, one of Engel’s favorites. The first pitch is easy, the second the crux, with a burly layback and mantel onto a ledge. Engel cautioned them about the third pitch, which, although only 5.7, is funky climbing and hard to protect. The final pitch takes a slippery 5.7 slab. Engel also warned them of reports of rockfall on the route, and confirmed a plan to climb in Las Vegas with Kellogg the next weekend.

Engel asked his friends to join him and Biggs later at a Mexican restaurant. “Dave said no,” says Engel, “he would probably head straight home to help put Nicolas to bed.”

Kellogg and Tufo set off on the trail to Lunch Rock, where climbers stash their packs, and scrambled to the base of their route.

As the stronger climber, Kellogg was to lead the crux, with Tufo capable of following the route and leading less difficult pitches. The two put on their helmets, and started up The Step at about 11 a.m.