Routine, an El Cap Rescue story
©1990 by Russ Walling
The call was heard in El Cap meadow by a tourist whose dreary autumn trip had just become a riveting lifelong memory. He would take home with him the standard snap shots of the stunning views Yosemite Valley has to offer, but also something else--the audible memory of stranded climbers yelling for help, too far away to be seen, high up on El Capitan. The tourist responded in the usual and effective way, by flagging down a park ranger on his rounds, then let him listen to the muffled shouts raining down from the granite face. It had been raining all night long and the temperature hovered just below freezing though it was now nearing 9:00 o'clock in the morning. The immense rock face was hidden from view by swirling clouds and blowing snow, yet occasional glimpses showed more than anybody wanted to see. It appeared that at least two separate teams of climbers were stuck high on the massive face. Their muffled voices were crying out for help, hoping it would arrive before yet another storm scoured the face again that coming night. More park rangers were notified of the situation and quickly moved toward forming a rescue party. As was standard in this type of operation, the rangers provided the needed organizational skills and obtained helicopters and the mountains of gear needed to outfit such an undertaking. A highly skilled group of local climbers are kept on call year round for just such emergencies. Their knowledge of the cliff and fearless attitude is unequalled in matters of this nature. The call went out to the climbers to get ready for a big one on "El Cap". The climbers prepared themselves for this high angle, probably night time, freezing episode with an assortment of rock climbing tools and specialized gear. The procurement of a naval helicopter would be top priority by the rangers. They put out the call to the local naval base in Lemore, CA. and were told to expect a ship within the next two hours. With the threat of more storms arriving that evening, speed was essential. Climbers, other rescue personnel, and 600 lbs of gear was ferried down to the base of the 3500' monolith. All would wait for the arrival of the naval helicopter that would pick-up and then deposit the rescue team on the bald, snow covered, summit. The helicopter was announced by the rhythmic thumping of its blades cutting into the heavy, water laden air. After a labored landing, key personnel were flown up for a closer look at the cliff. During this flyby they would survey the logistics needed to extract the trapped climbing teams from the frozen face. A close flyby of the face revealed two parties in need of a rescue, on separate routes, some distance apart on the wide granite face. A visual check on each party revealed that they were still alive, but not in any condition to sit out another night on this cold, vertical nightmare. A plan of action was put into play that called for two separate rescue operations going on simultaneously from the summit. The teams were formed and loaded into the helicopter for what would be a harrowing ride to the snow capped summit. The flight to the summit seemed to sap all the power out of the aging engines of the naval ship. The combination of personnel, gear, thin mountain air, and stormy conditions made the flight longer than the usual 5 minutes it might take on a warm summer afternoon. Altitude was gained slowly in large spiraling arcs that every few minutes gave us look at the face we were about to descend with our rescue effort. During a last pass of the wall before the summit, it appeared that another party was on the cliff, poised to climb onto the summit in a mere 50 feet or so. A closer look revealed something nobody had expected. These climbers were not going to top out on this or any other day--the foot long icicles hanging from one climbers fingers confirmed this chilling fact. Our findings were radioed down to the command center. It was decided that this third "rescue" would take place after we had extracted and stabilized the other parties on the schedule. After all, there was nothing we could do for these guys now. The ship sunk down into the three feet of fresh snow on the summit and we hurriedly exited the craft. We shouldered our packs for the hike down to the rim of this great cliff, where we would set up to descend the vertical face. At the rim we made radio contact with the meadow far below, and a spotter with a telescope aligned us with the stranded climbers. Our party of climbers were hanging some 1000' directly below our position on the rim. The other rescue team had established the location of their climbers in need, and were being directed to the exact point above them just as we were. Ropes were attached to numerous anchor points on the rim of the wall and one of the local climbers would be chosen to be lowered into the swirling clouds. Safety was of prime concern. All ropes were doubled and every point in the system was checked and rechecked. The next check was on me, to see if i were ready for the descent. I was. I tied into the dual ropes and then stepped back onto the actual rim of this monolith, the void mere inches to my rear. I leaned back and the ropes were payed out slowly and evenly by the expert climbers on the rim. Now I had nothing to do, except sit and wait, as I slowly spiraled into the clouds. the farther I was lowered the greater the distance between myself and the wall became. This is a reality of being lowered off a cliff that is overhanging, that is, more than vertical in angle. After a few minutes the wall was more than 20 feet away, then 40 feet, soon the wall was no longer visible through the clouds between the wall and myself. The sensation of isolation 2500 feet above the ground surrounded on all sides with swirling clouds, with no clue as to orientation, was overwhelming. The long quiet of the descent was broken with the sound of the other rescue party across the wall barking directions to each other. A clearing in the clouds showed the other team in a similar position, their chosen rescuer dangling and spinning slowly some 500 feet below the rim of the bleak wall. All at once I was upon the party needing the rescue. I called to the rim on my radio, telling them to stop the descent. Slowly I came to a halt, level with the party, yet still some distance from the wall to which they were lashed. I called to the party and made a quick assessment of their condition before I attempted to reach them. Cold, fear, and stress can do strange things to a man. I wanted to be sure that when I did swing into their roost, I was not going to be in any extra danger. The last thing I needed was some poor crazed devil leaping at me and possibly killing us both. As it turned out, they were quite sane and I had even met them both on the Valley floor, some five days earlier. I pulled a small coil of rope from my equipment bag and tossed it toward their anchored position. After they attached this rope to the wall, I reeled myself in and tied into the main anchors that were in place on the wall. We were pressing for time and I gave each climber instructions on exactly how we were going to get them, and me, out before dark. I tethered the two climbers together at their harnesses, for safety reasons. If one of the two ropes they were about to ascend broke, they would still be tied together on the remaining rope. Although no climbing rope has ever broken during normal use, I figured this was something other than normal, and no time to push our luck. I checked over their gear for ascending, then locked their equipment onto the ropes that shot straight up for some 1000 feet to the rim. After a few more brief instructions, I sent the two scurrying up the ropes. I remained at the anchor and sorted out the wet and frozen gear they were forced to leave behind. A sharp knife I brought along made short work of the frozen and knotted rope secured into their anchors of the previous night. After clearing the mess of knots at the anchor, I too started the long journey to the rim. Quickly I caught up to the weary climbers now laboring on the cords. The pace was reduced to a crawl and many "short" rests seemed to drag the night even closer than it already was. I tried to press the urgency of topping out before dark, as, just because we were "on top", didn't mean that we were "on top". The summit camp was still a long hike through knee to waist deep snow. Wthout some daylight, it would be nearly impossible to follow the makeshift trail we made on the way down to the rim. The swirling clouds had now returned and the radio I was carrying came to life with news of the other rescue party. They had their victim on the ropes, 50 feet below the rim, and would be starting the trek to the summit camp with him in a few minutes. All was going well and their victim was moving under his own, albeit depleted, power. The radio also brought news of a summit camp "team" that had been flown in during our rescue operation. They were putting up tents and preparing hot food at this very moment for the victims and rescue teams alike. Definitely very timely news. By this time, the last rays of the sun were shooting across the mottled face of Middle Cathedral rock, located on the other side of the Valley. The late afternoon clouds hovering around us were rapidly changing to a dark orange color. I knew then, a night time hike, in knee deep snow, was certain for this already weary team. I was called on the radio from my team above, and informed that all the extra personnel at this rim site was being moved to the summit camp. There was no need for everyone to battle toward the summit in the dark. Three expert rope and system handlers remained at the rim to assist with the victims, the ropes, and guide us all to the warm shelters at the summit camp. We continued ascending our 1/2 inch wide nylon elevator, pace reduced to sluggish labor. Moving toward the rim, shimmying the ropes a foot at a time, the two victims were having problems with hand cramps from gripping the mechanical rope ascenders. Controlling the 1200 feet of twisting, swooping, wind driven ropes dangling from my waist was turning into a major chore. The weight of these ropes alone was enough to stagger a man standing on flat ground. Never mind some fool, free hanging, spinning and toiling, 2500 feet above the hard deck--at night. Finally, I could hear the team on the rim calling to us and shining their lights down the wall. Only a few more feet until the next hurdle would be crossed. The first of the two victims grappled his way onto the rim and was closely followed by his leashed companion. They were given warm clothes and sent on the next part of this journey, aided by two members of the rim team. I clawed onto the summit with the help of a remaining team member. We pulled up the ropes still hanging over the brink, and hastily stuffed them into large waiting packs. We shouldered this load of nearly 100 pounds and headed off toward the summit camp under a full stagger. We all rolled into the summit camp around midnight, just in time to catch the tail end of a late supper. After dinner we were informed that they were a "little short" on sleeping bags. Victims first I guess. It seemed that more than just sleeping bags were missing--closed cell foam insulating pads were also scarce. At this point I thought by morning it might be me they would be rescuing--from my bed, no less. Finding room under a tarp strung by the summit team, I plopped down on the permafrost and hoped for the best. My partner, being quite a bit hardier than I, dug a shallow pit in the snow and quietly disappeared into it, face first. Morning, as usual in conditions like these, comes early--very early. It was an exceedingly clear and cold morning, with no hint that the previous nights were stormy and filled with terror for those on the wall. I was figuring out how to put my frozen boots onto some very cold feet when the call came for my partner and myself. We were to prepare for the "low priority" case. This was of course the two climbers just mere feet over the side that we had seen on our approach flight to the summit the previous day. I located my partner, still quaking from the cold in his shallow pit. To no ones surprise, I had little trouble waking him. We managed to get a cup of warmish coffee down our necks, and moseyed over to the briefing area. It was decided that the naval helicopter would fly in and lower a cable that could be hooked into both the victims harnesses. The victims would be liberated from the wall, and then flown to the summit camp area. Once there, they would be "prepared" for the flight down to the Valley floor. We gathered our gear, alerted the helicopter, and headed down to the rim again. My partner and I arranged the ropes on the rim above the two victims and then lowered two park rangers into position to await the arrival of the helicopter. Once the ship arrived the rest was fast and easy. A wire-rope cable was lowered from the ship and attached to the harnesses of the victims by the rangers. Once attached, the ship lifted slightly, and the ropes connecting the two expired climbers to the wall were severed. Up they came, flying over us in a ghastly, surreal, ballet, complete with foot long icicles. The ship hovered above us for a moment, then deposited the grim cargo at our feet. The rangers had decided that it would be more appropriate if my partner and I "bagged them up" here at the rim. Definitely a better plan than flying them up to the unsuspecting summit camp filled with people eating breakfast, or worse, into the meadow far below now teeming with tourists. Standard issue green vinyl body bags were deployed from the ship above, and as quickly and discretely as possible the two cadaverous fellows were zipped into eternity. The rangers ascended the ropes back to the rim, then sent us down to retrieve the equipment that the frozen team had left 150 feet below their high point. During the recovery of the gear it struck us that the desperate run to the summit tried by the climbers would not have done them any good. They had abandoned the large bag hauled behind them, filled with warm and dry clothes and tried in vain to reach the storm ravaged summit. Had they retreated, only 100 feet, the overhanging wall would have kept them dry--and most likely alive. After recovering the abandoned gear and hauling it to the rim, we trekked back to the summit camp and boarded the naval ship for a flight to the Valley floor. During the flight the pilot did a flyby for us of the face where we had just spent the last 24 hours. After scanning the wall, he asked my partner and i if it was "hairy" hanging out there on the wall, with the stiffs and such, during the rescue effort. I fingered the rim of my cowboy hat, pulled it down a little in front, then said, "nah, just routine," knowing full well this sort of task was routine for no-one.