American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

California, East Central Portion of Yosemite National Park

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1959

California, East Central portion of Yosemite National Park—On March 22nd, Bart Hooley, Max Allen, Bill Pope, Mike Roberts, Margaret Mayer, and Lenore Lamb (all 21), departed from June Lake on a ski tour over the Sierra crest and down into Yosemite Valley, via Gem Lake, the saddle between Mts. Lyell and Rodgers, the Lyell Fork of the Merced, and the Little Yosemite Valley. Depending upon weather conditions to be encountered enroute, the trip was estimated to take ten to fourteen days. An amount of food sufficient for ten days on minimum rations was carried with the party, with the anticipation of a successful air drop of food at about the midpoint of the trip. Equipment included three two man mountain tents, two climbing ropes, two ice axes, normal ski touring gear, and an extensive first aid kit containing bandages, splints, emperin-codeine, percaden, and acromycin. Pope was a first year student in Stanford Medical School and took charge of first aid planning. All of the party had had earlier downhill and touring experience, and varying degrees of technical mountaineering experience. Hooley and Allen had spent two previous summers working in Yosemite and were familiar with the terrain to be encountered. The trip proceeded uneventfully for the first five days, with clear but windy weather conditions. Progress was slowed somewhat by soft snow from a fall the previous week, but avalanche danger was considered to be only moderate, and no slides were observed, except for several cracks that opened up below the party while on a traverse, forcing them to return to a nearby ridge. The air drop was received on the fourth day in the vicinity of Upper Marie Lake, altitude 11,600 feet. At this time Pope had a minor cough, but it was not considered unusual, since the rest of the party was suffering from mild effects of altitude. On the fifth day, Hooley and Allen completed the first winter ascent of Rodgers Peak, 13,066 feet, while the rest of the group remained in camp on Upper Marie Lake to act as support and to prepare for crossing the Rodgers-Lyell saddle, 12,300 feet, later the same day. Roberts and Lamb arrived at the saddle about 2 p.m., and because of the steepness of the western slope, decided to continue immediately down. A rope belay was used for the first sixty feet. Pope and Meyer were about thirty minutes behind, with Hooley and Allen bringing up the rear. It was during the ascent to the saddle that Pope showed the first signs of illness, becoming rapidly weaker, and finally having to be relieved of his pack and helped by Hooley and Allen. These four made a lengthy descent to the surface of a small lake at about 11,300 feet that had been selected by Roberts and Lamb as camp for the night. Pope arrived in very poor condition, with a serious cough and showing signs of respiratory congestion. However, he was able to get into his sleeping bag unassisted and ate dinner that evening. Although recognizing the seriousness of his condition, the party attributed the major portion of it to altitude and decided the best remedy would be to continue on the next day as the next three or four miles would bring a descent of several thousand feet. All members of the party were suffering from altitude sickness in some measure, and felt that the descent would help them too. Roberts had a stomach ailment that was later attributed to possible contamination of food in the air drop by white gas. The weather on the sixth day dawned threatening, and rapidly deteriorated. By the time a start was made, visibility was limited to fifty feet, and progress was possible only because of the clearly defined route of the bottom of the canyon. Pope was able to keep up for about an hour, but it was finally obvious that he could continue no farther, and a conference was held to decide a course of action. It was agreed that Hooley and Allen, knowing the terrain, had the best chance of success in an effort to make the valley on a forced march basis. Pope, although warm and continuing to take nourishment, failed to improve, despite administration of the antibiotics carried with the party. Most of the sixth and seventh days he was delirious and unable to help himself. On the morning of the eighth day, the weather cleared and shortly before noon a small plane, piloted by Robert Symons, a rescue veteran from Bishop, flew over the campsite. His presence indicated to the four that Hooley and Allen had been successful, as indeed they had, covering 28 miles in a day and a half over extremely difficult terrain and dangerous snow conditions. The rescue effort that was immediately launched was directed by the rangers in Yosemite and the military sea and air rescue command at Hamilton AFB, San Francisco. A Sierra Club party gathering in Yosemite for a trans-Sierra trip of their own from west to east started out to act as ground support, since the weather still made aircraft operation uncertain. Symons made four or five trips from Yosemite to the camp on Saturday, the seventh day, dropping supplies and instructions. Fortunately, it was also on this day that Pope showed signs of recovery, regaining full consciousness and a measure of strength. An effort to move him down the canyon farther failed, however, due to deep snow. An effort to get a single place helicopter into the site also failed due to weather conditions. The following day, Sunday, a storm closed the area completely, and operations were suspended. Knowing that the first clear hour would bring on a maximum effort to get Bill out, the other three made preparations for a rapid departure. Monday dawned clear, and Symons was overhead as soon as it was light enough to see. Within an hour, a twin-rotor helicopter from Fort Ord was able to land on a small knoll close to the campsite. Pope was well enough to put on skis and be helped up the slope to the waiting craft. A rapid descent to Yosemite Valley was made, with clouds already closing in again. The Sierra Club group, hampered by soft snow and avalanche danger, returned to Yosemite.

Source: Michael Roberts.

Analysis: There are two points of importance to be covered in respect to this rescue. Perhaps the most important is that even for the strong and experienced party, high mountain winter touring is a rigorous and uncertain business. The weather cannot be considered in terms of “normality,” and even the strongest-seeming member of a party may fall ill. In this particular case, it turned out that Bill Pope had contracted viral-myocarditis, a relatively rare inflammation of the heart lining, which resulted in congestive heart failure. A strong constitution, the prompt administration of antibiotics, and a rapid rescue were probably responsible for the saving of his life. A second point is that mountaineers can be thankful for the rapid, well-coordinated rescue system that is available in a crisis. A few years ago, nothing of its kind existed anywhere in the country. As a side issue it is clear that more than one member of such a party should possess some medical or first aid knowledge since there is no guarantee that the party’s doctor will not himself become sick or injured as in this case.

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