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.