Death Valley Days
© Russ Walling
Yosemite Valley has been the hub of American climbing since the first piton sounded its ringing retort while violating pristine 5.6 granite. The Valley was the place to be if you had any aspirations of ever becoming a hard man--one that could nail 5.8 and boldly free-out on 5.5--or heaven forbid, scale a big one, like El Capitan, the Sentinel, or Half Dome. For some people the transition from soft-man to hard-man was not as simple as toughing it out for a night in your slings--sometimes things went wrong. Seems that the soft-man often reared his head at the most inopportune times, like half way up El Cap, and convinced the untempered hard-man to start squealing for help. Humans, being the caring and sensitive animals we are decided it would be real bad form to just let parties turn to dust up there on the cliffs--besides, stiffs hanging all over the place is bad for the tourist trade. The task of retrieving these parties was put to the Park Rangers. Since they were more familiar with nuts and berries and the like, they in turn invented the "Rescue Site". The Rescue Site plan was one where they would give a group of full time Valley climbers a plot of dirt in the middle of Camp 4 to stay on all summer--for free. A good deal for the Rangers considering that the climbers were going to stay in Camp 4 anyway, all summer, and for free--but stay hidden from the Rangers. In return for this generosity, the climbers would have to offer themselves as technical experts, location specialists, and manpower, whenever and wherever the Rangers needed them--basically they were meat. If a climbing party started yelling for help or a tourist fell off a mule on their way to Half Dome, the call would be routed to the Rangers. They would contact the boys on the Rescue Site (read: plot of dirt) and get them into the field, somewhat organized, and on the clock. Our duties also included rescues so ghastly and graphically horrific, no Hollywood "Latex and Catsup" movie could duplicate the sheer horror of the experience. Since being subjected to this kind of imagery could leave us damaged mentally for life we would need to be adequately compensated monetarily every time we went out into the field. The Park Service figured around $7.00 an hour would chase away our demons--and it did. The following tales recount a few days out of the many I spent on the Rescue Site. YOSEMITE VALLEY, SPRING, 1986 I'm 25 years old and I have these dreams. I dream my body is at peak strength, my fingers are unyielding to the extreme forces bouldering puts on them, and money is abundant and free flowing. I live like a Pharaoh in a private house smack in the middle of Yosemite Valley. The house is mere minutes from the boulders, of which most are exceedingly difficult to scale, yet I can do them all without much effort--on sight. Polishing off yet another exceedingly hard problem I hear the applause of the thirty or so girls gathered at the base of my latest victim. After the downclimb, the girls crowd around and are anxiously asking exactly how I did it. I don't mind telling them. More than half the ladies--lets call it nineteen--ask me out for dinner, drinks, and the elusive, more. Just as I was collecting the reams of rendezvous information, mixed in with a few generous gropes, a startlingly manly voice blared into my wet ear, "Hey Philo, lets roll it! We've got a carry-out to do pronto--top of the Falls, could be two victims. Get the rest of the team up and get over to the Cache." The voice belonged to a night-shift Ranger we called Moke. Reality time. Although I was living in Yosemite Valley, right in the middle, I was no Pharaoh, there was no money, and there were certainly no girls. I was however, suddenly very awake and in my tent in the Rescue Site. "Fer christ sakes," I mumbled, "Top of the Falls." This event was going to suck. Middle of the night, a big hump up the steep trail, load the cattle and ship it back to the valley floor. Total time involved--6 hours--total pay, about $38 bucks. I continued to grumble about this jaunt awaiting me while I got dressed and made ready a pack. I made the rounds of the Rescue Site and woke up all those who weren't faking they were either drunk or not home. We gathered out in the parking lot and a final tally showed eight freight handlers, ready, unwilling, and overly able. A five minute drive put us on the porch of the Rescue Cache, where the Rangers were already in full swing. They handed us a briefing sheet describing the Op, and were passing out some ultra heavy packs. I looked at the Op sheet with a fixed and seemingly interested stare, hoping to get passed over when they chose the "Blitz" team. This was the team that had to "run" up the trail with some extra heavy packs and administer first aid or whatever when they got there. My keen interest in the Op sheet fooled nobody and I was put in charge of the Blitz team. Oh joy. The Blitz team was made up of seven tired looking people. Dennis, Dave, Erik, and myself, were from the Site. One guy was at best guess a busboy from the local restaurant, and the other two guys were a total mystery--and would I hope, stay that way. We were driven to the trail-head by Ranger Moke and given some additional instructions before departing. I assembled my team and walked briskly up the trail for a good 100 yards. Not being much of a hiker and all, I had never even been on this--or any--trail to the Falls. "O.K. fellahs, hold it up a second," I said with my new authority. I fiddled with my head lamp and after giving it a couple of thumps, turned it off. "My lights acting up boys--someone else has to take the lead for a spell." I scanned my group and picked the fattest guy--the busboy-- to take point, hoping he also would be the slowest. Luckily for me, he was. The next three hours were uneventful except for the constant fear of having a stroke I entertained. At last we hear the victims calling to us over the roar of the Falls. Rather than us rushing to them, they rushed to us. The victims were two "men" to use the term loosely, about 30 years old and dressed for a Luau. Being team leader and all I greeted them with a big "What Gives?" "Boy are we glad to see you guys," one victim gushed. "We thought we might have to walk down the trail without any lights!" "Hey Bub," I say, "If you don't show us some carnage, I might have some trouble holding back these six pissed off rescuers." Grumbles of encouragement rippled through our group. "Well, were not injured in any way--but--we could have been hurt trying to negotiate the trail with no light," the other victim said in a mealy voice. Dennis, a Valley fixture and Rescue veteran quickly voiced, "Negotiate the trail! It's as wide as the New Jersey Turnpike fer crying out loud--and has fewer potholes!" A disgusted Dennis, turned, put out his head-lamp, and started walking back down the trail, muttering things about "poo-butts, lily livers, and pansies." Our focused head lamps shone on the two "victims" like a Nazi interrogation lamp. They were visibly fretting by now and waited for us to "save" them or ruff them up. Being consummate professionals, we saved them. A radio call was made to the Cache. We told them to "stand down" and send the other rescuers back to bed. The Blitz team was bringing the victims down the trail at a steady pace and everything was Kosher. The Cache said they would have a car waiting for us at the bottom of the hill. I personally gave one fool my now "fixed" head lamp, and the entire group started back down the trail at a slow, obviously on the government clock, pace. The bottom of the trail landed right in Camp 4, our dusty home. The Site members filtered back toward their tents, the victims were whisked away by Ranger Moke for questioning, and the mystery fellahs went off on their mysterious ways. I went over to the vending machines to try and replace some depleted calories and line my stomach before facing the morning coffee ritual. Today Richard and I staked out Employee Dorm K for less than honorable reasons--a suspected flasher of the female variety. Sightings of this kind are pretty rare so we figured we should give our eyes a treat. We took our positions outside the Dorms laundry facility and waited not so quietly. Rats! We've been here over twenty minutes and still no flasher. Discouraged we headed back to camp, and bumped into Ron who was returning from a bouldering run behind Camp 4. He said he just talked to the flasher not more than five minutes ago. He went on to describe how she had just lost her job with the Curry Co. for flashing a tourist over by Recycling, then was hounded by the Rangers for the obvious crime. She was now going to lay low for a while and needed a place to stay. Ron said he suggested my tent in the Rescue Site, and gave her directions. All this sounded fine except the last detail--she was hitting the scales at around 265 pounds and wasn't exactly a looker. Yikes. Ron laughed and assured me she would never show up, which was as good for him as it was for me, being that we shared the same family size cabin tent back in camp. I didn't give it another thought and headed off to do some relaxing over at the Deli. That night after closing the bar for the fiftieth night in a row I pedaled my bike into camp and headed toward my tent. I was stopped by Charles before I could get to my tent and he took me aside and told me some wacky stuff had been going on only moments before I arrived. Something about a 300 pound woman in the Site, yelling that she "needed a man", a "place to stay" and then a bold face lie, that she was "pretty damn good looking". Charles then said she staggered toward my tent and disappeared. He gave me his headlamp and wished me good luck as I crept up the hill to my tent. Ron and I always had the big double doors on our tent unzipped... unless there was some kind of crimes against humanity going on inside. Tonight the doors were zipped. This scene was too horrible to belive. A union this ugly was something that just had to be seen, and casting modesty aside, I slowly unzipped the tent door--then flicked on the headlight and pointed it inside. "Identify yourself!!!" yelped Ron, his eyes bugging out in horror, as he squatted in the middle of the floor with his sleeping bag held tight up around his neck. "It's me, Philo", I half whispered. Ron grabbed me by the shirt and pulled me inside the tent. Quickly he told me the same story as Charles about the flasher being in the Site. I hastily zipped up the door and locked the zipper pulls with a small luggage padlock. Ron went on and told me more details about this flasher creeping around the tent and saying crazy stuff to anyone that would listen. My lid was crawling and I was spooked. I pulled my sleeping bag down off the bed and moved to the center of the tent where Ron was and just listened. Our idea was that if we were in the center of the tent she couldn't stab through the wall of the tent and kill us. Good thinking. Then we heard the scratching at one side of the tent. A little giggle came from outside the tent, then more scratching, now radiating toward the front of the tent. Ron and I were paralyzed with terror. A 300 pound psycho woman was going to kill us any second now and we couldn't even move. Another girlish giggle accompanied another scratch or two, then a slight tug at our locked zipper, and then some more scratching on the door itself. That was all Ron and I could take. I yelled out, "Aarghh, the psycho woman is trying to get us", and started scurrying around the tent like a madman. That's when the girlish giggle turned into a manly guffaw followed by lots of hysterical laughing and the sound of someone running away. I ripped the door open just in time to see Charles sprinting back to his tent in nothing more than his huggers, doubled over from the effects of his pantomime. Thanks Buddy. Tonight we were blessed with a dubious event that rates as "all-time low form" by rescue team members--the day we have to go and get two of our own. Here's how it went down. Yesterday morning a team of two Site members, Richard and Derek, decided to do a wall route on El Capitan. Gear was gathered, water bottles were filled, and minds were put on overload. True to modern technique, the team fixed the first few pitches--like six-- and then rapped off to go to the Mt. Room bar to quaff some courage. Due to the left leaning nature the initial cracks followed, the rappel to the ground goes over some very bleak terrain, holdless one might say, for some 600 feet. This direct-line rappel is linked up by bolt stations every 164 feet. Get the picture? Okay, back to the fellahs. It seems that back at the bar tempers were getting hot between the two climbers. The terms "coward" and "jug monkey" were thrown about a little too freely and offence was taken. As is the way with all climbers, pride and ego are easily bruised. With neither climber offering a retraction, the bond was broken and the wall was officially off. Fair enough, for this had happened before--over one thousand times. Fast forward to the next day. A sure cure for a bruised ego is going to Mirror Lake and successfully picking up a date for the evening. Some guys will actually wear a rack and rope to the very shores of the lake and then point out climbers up on Half Dome to any young ladies. The ladies ask, pointing at the Dome, "Have you ever climbed up that?," and modestly you say, "Yes, dozens of times." That line alone is worth at least two drinks later. Well, that's what Richard did, and it worked. While Richard was "fishing" at Mirror Lake, Derek was retrieving his gear off the route, and then blowing down to Fresno to take in a movie. Derek jugged the lines, gathered his hardware, and swapped the five fixed ropes around as to remove his cord from the lineup. Trouble was, his was the top rope. This meant that he would have to bring Richards' gear down from the upper station and leave it hanging at the next station. No real hassle, so he swapped the ropes, racked Richards' gear, and poured out the water. Derek was on the ground and headed for Fresno within the hour. Somehow Richard had sweet talked the Mirror Lake date into going up with him to get his gear off the "Mighty El Cap". Richard outfitted her with everything she would need and assured her that "bikini bottoms" would be fine for apparel. Fully psyched, they headed up the trail, with Richard spouting intimate details about El Cap he will never know. At the base of the route Richard showed his date how to Jumar and put the ascenders on the rope for her. The girl was a real gamer, and shot up the line with authority. As instructed, she waited at the station for Richard to arrive and then he'd do the change over and she would start up the next line. Richard and his date stopped at the 300 foot level to admire the crimson and violet sunset, declared it satisfactory, then pushed onward up the lines. On the way up, Richard had been racking any spare gear, removing the fixed lines from the stations, then dropping the lines to the ground. His date was now at the top of the last rope waiting for Richard to arrive--trouble was, this last rope should have been the "next-to-the-last rope" if Derek hadn't already been up there, switching the ropes around. Richard rolls into the station and feels the weight of a cannon ball in his stomach--Er... uh... oopsie... where is the top cord? It doesn't take a genius to figure out that with only one cord left, and 164' between stations, Richard was in some piece of trouble. His date was incredulous. Right around dark the yelling was heard by some tourists in El Cap meadow, which was then reported to the Rangers. They called us, and we began a nighttime nail-up of those leaning corners to get nearer to our "victims". Once we were at the same level, albeit still quite far away, a rope gun was used to fire a bung over to the stranded fools. The trail line on this bung was used to pull over another rope so they could begin the 164' rappels back to the ground. Victims and rescuers returned safely back to camp and snuck into bed just before the sun came up. I don't think Richard ever got a second date out of this one. Most days began just like this one. I would get up out of bed, perhaps a little bit hung, and head over the local no-star restaurant--The Four Seasons. Without fail my cohorts would have a seat reserved for me, and coffee waiting. Standard procedure was to eat no food, cast my ulcer to the wind, and down double digits in coffee loads. This ritual is what makes Valley life worth living. I started to tell yet another whopper of a climbing tale to my buddies, when the Rescue Pager went off with an annoying, high toned, beeeeep. This usually meant our breakfast was over. We paid our bill and, hoping for future favors, over-tipped the waitress. Being keeper of the pager for that day, I had to call the Cache to see what mission we might have this time. The ranger on duty told me there was a search being started and everybody was to get overnight gear and meet at the Cache--pronto. "Overnight gear," I groaned. "The fellas are gonna' love this." A stern cough from the ranger on the other end put our call into a serious note, "Just tell the guys and get over here. I'll send a car over to the Camp 4 lot in 15 minutes. Make sure you find as many Site guys as you can--especially the ones who have taken the tracking class." "You got it, Chief," I said in my most serious voice. The tracking class he spoke of had a new low in attendance from all us Site members. We're climbers damn it, not bloodhounds was the common thought about tracking class. It might have been a total boycott except for a token suck-up or two. I hung up the phone and walked over to the fellas to give them the news. A universal groan leaked out of the crew the instant I told them what the scoop was. We all shuffled away from the restaurant and headed back to camp to pack our stuff. Overnight gear seems to vary wildly from person to person. Some of the guys were packing humongous loads into state-of-the-art internal frame packs and truly looking prepared. Billy was on the other end of this scale, taking only what he would really need; a six pack of Malt Liquor, two cans of Copenhagen, a fresh Hawaiian shirt, a golf sweater, and a dilapidated bivy sack. All this was hastily put into a small pack that looked as if it was first carried my Moses across the desert. I chose the middle ground and took the same as Billy, but added a sleeping bag and an umbrella--just in case. Off we go to meet with our chauffer in the parking lot. The big Rescue wagon in the Camp 4 lot had the usual gawkers standing around it, because the lights on top were blazing for no reason. I wondered what goofball was throwing gas on the publics flames by having the lights going--I should have known--It was Ranger Moke. As we approached, Billy yelled out, "Hey Mokie baby, how's it hanging?" This comment caused a dozen eyes out of the crowd to look at Billy, and then like watching a tennis rally, they returned to Moke and waited for his reply. Moke had none, save for the very dirty look he discretely flashed. We loaded our gear into the wagon and waited for the rest of the guys to load up. I grabbed shotgun and turned off those asinine lights. Two minutes later Moke was taking us to the Cache to begin our busy day. We assembled on the porch of the Cache for a briefing. The rangers told us that some guy was out on a day hike--with two buddies, missed a dinner appointment with his fiance, and when he still wasn't around for breakfast, she called the rangers. We were given maps to the area, and an outline of where he was supposed to go. Box lunches were handed out, teams were set, and transportation was arranged to the High Country near Tuolumne Meadows. Our team would be the first one out to the LZ (landing zone) and would be flown up to the search area. The flight to Tuolumne was as spectacular as you can get. Snow was still covering anything even remotely high and the spring runoff was gushing at full volume in all the minor streams. The view was so inspiring to Billy, that he toasted the entire High Country, and took a mouthful of hard-stuff from his hip flask. He offered me some, and well, the view was pretty damn good, even if it was only 10 A.M. I dropped the flask volume an amber inch, then shuddered from the power. Handing back the flask, I looked a Billy and he flashed me a one-five-one on his fingers, then took another mighty jolt. Billy is an animal. At the Toulumne LZ we were picked up by another wagon and hauled over to the trailhead to Dog Lake. We were supposed to hike to the lake, looking under bushes and stuff along the way, and then report in on what we found. In a silly kind of way it almost seemed reasonable, and after all, the lake was only two miles away. We started down the trail and at the first bend I stopped for a sandwich out of my box lunch. I reminded the team that we were climbers, not hikers, and should pace ourselves. All agreed. Halfway through the sandwich the radio crackled to life with the news that the missing parties had been found. All teams were to return to the LZ and await further instructions. Billy decided we should drink to that--so we did. When we got back to the LZ the rangers explained the woeful tale the victims related to them. It seems the engaged guys buddies thought hitchhiking to Mammoth for a "practice" bachelor party was better than hiking to some dumb lake. The engaged guy agreed and they all set out for Mammoth. In Mammoth, a bar was found and many drinks were consumed--especially by the engaged guy. After the smoke cleared and it was time to go home, it seemed that rides were a little slim at three in the morning. So--as guys will do--they just happened to find some girl in the bar who would let them stay at her house, and then she then would bring them back to Tuolumne in the morning. At three A.M. it all made perfect sense. Of course in the morning, the girl decided she wasn't going up the hill after all and besides that, the engaged guy was puking and might mess up her car. So, the fellas hitched back here, sat the engaged guy down in front of the store puking, and went to call his fiance for him. She called us again--told us the story--and then we went over to the store and "found" the victim. Case closed, with a total expense to the government of probably $20,000. The helicopter arrived just as I finished my box lunch and took us all back to the Valley in time for the complimentary Rescue lunch at the cafeteria. Not a bad deal. WRAP UP Even in paradise things can turn ugly. Recount the tale of Adam And Eve--things do go bad, and such was the way of the Rescue Site. Paradise Lost... Spare the rod and spoil the child... Too much of a good thing... Boys will be boys... The Devil finds work for idle hands--The list goes on, with each applicable to the Site in its own way. My beginning of the end was when a Playboy Magazine article hinted about the sickest thing they had ever seen or heard. It was shown to them in the Camp 4 parking lot by a third party, ex Rock God, who shall remain blond and nameless. Seems the author of the Playboy piece thought he saw some photos of a very graphic rescue, including some very expired humans. He claimed that the photos were the property of some guy "with an animal nickname" on Rescue Site. He went as far as to say Rescue Site members were having too good a time doing the Park Services' dirty work, and he found that behavior disgusting. Then he called us, get this... "ghouls". (Thanks for the plug, pal.) The Rangers, pervs that they are, were perusing said magazine (reading it for the articles no doubt) when said essay leapt off the page at them. Seems that any photos of rescues are Government property and outside ownership is heavily frowned upon by upper management. The hunt was on for the photos and the guy with the animal nickname--and they didn't have far to look. Having no pictures for evidence, and a full denial as the defence, the guy with the animal nickname was free to go, but would from this day on, be on notice. One slip-up and it was banishment from paradise--forever. As sure as the Nose on El Cap, that slip up came in a hurry. Seems that the "animal nickname" guy was put in charge of ten men to go and search for a hiker lost deep in the Sierras. This search just happened to include, at least by the judgement of the animal guy, doing four new routes. All the routes were five pitches long on flawless granite, hovering around the 5.10 plus range, on a major backcountry peak-- all done with the radio off. Say good-bye to the animal guy. Another major player on the Site was expelled for getting a bad olive in his drink at the bar. Seems the fellah was poisoned while drinking a martini, due to improper packing of some imported olives. At least that's what he claims and I tend to belive him. The ambulance that reeled into Camp 4 and the Rescue Site that night to take him away caused quite a hubbub. Multiple restraints were used and the sick guy was hauled off to the hospital completely trussed up. Keeping this quiet was going to be impossible due to the fifty-three witnesses standing around in their huggers watching this 2 A.M. debacle. The Rangers arrived within moments and started to quiz us Site members on just what was going on. We told a woeful, yet sincere, tale of bad olives and too much cheap booze. For some crazy reason the Rangers had never heard of the "bad olive defence" and decided an overdose of some illicit chemical was the true culprit. You guessed it, off-the-Site--forever. More bad light was thrown of the Site when during a major rescue of some frozen fellahs. These guys were like wax museum pieces when we finally got them to the summit of El Cap. They looked so ghastly laying there in the cargo net, that we were compelled to take some photos. Fair enough, except for the fact that a Site member laid down to pose with this expired payload, in mock frozen form. Belive me when I say he was very convincing in his portrayal. For when the roll of film was developed by another site members mother, she looked through the slides to see how her sons climbing was going, and made quite a discovery. She saw a dead guy wearing a very bright helmet with some x-rated slogans written on it. Later, in the same roll of film, a live Site member was wearing this very same helmet while flying home in the helicopter. Moms quizzed Sonny-boy the next time he called home. She flatly accused this guy in the helmet of stealing from the dead--a crime punishable by untold aeons in hell--and even worse, getting kicked off the Site. Well, Sonny-boy fessed up and told his mom that the guy in the helmet wasn't really stealing from the dead. He was just pretending to be dead, for the photo and all--understandably, Moms flipped. Somehow these photos also got around Camp and next thing you know, paradise lost for yet another Site member. Every era of the Rescue Site has had tales such as these to tell--including the humorous and the horrific. When I rolled into the Valley in 1978, I heard stories about the Rescue Site before the bus driver could unload my spanking new haul bag. In those days the stories of life on the Site were told by the big guns of that era--Long, Bridwell, Braun, Kauk. Each could recount events that would make your skin crawl or tell tales of circumstances and happenings guaranteed to get you rolling on the ground with laughter. The rich experience offered by the unique arrangement between the Park Service and the climbers naturally lends itself to fabulous tales. With the 70's team securely tucked away in real society, and the nucleus of the 80's Rescue Team mired in exile, Valley life as we knew it just sort of fizzled out. With no home base to retreat to after last call at the Mountain Room, and night-vision goggles being all the rage for busting illegal campers, we pulled the plug. Our tour of duty was finished and it was time for a new squad to take over and have the time of their lives. Nearly 15 years have past since the day I staggered into the site with sixty-two dollars, 50 pounds of canned goods in a haul bag, and a summer to waste. Sure, the Site has changed some, and the cast of characters has certainly changed, but the stories will always be there--with more to come.