California, Yosemite National Park
On 27 October Warren Harding (44) and Galen Rowell (28) began an ascent on the unclimbed South Face of Half Dome. It was late in the year, but the weather looked good for the future and they both had equipment in the experimental stages, namely a single suspension bivouac hammock and shelter which would feasibly protect them from the weather in case a storm did break. They also had a small C B transceiver and were making periodic calls to their support party led by Glen Denny.
The weather held good for about six days and then a storm rolled in. It rained 0.09 inches on Friday, November 1st and 1.68 inches on Saturday, November 2nd. The snow line dropped to 7,000 feet while they were at the 8,000 feet level or about 2/3 of the way up the climb. Glen Denny received a radio transmission that afternoon that was broken and he only understood them to say that one of Rowell’s feet was in bad shape and it was too dangerous for them to rappel down. Lloyd Price, one of the support party, called the Ranger’s Office that afternoon and requested a Park Service Radio, head-lamps, and a hailer because the Half Dome party was possibly in trouble. Denny, Sylvester, and Price were going to Little Yosemite Valley where they would be able to get better radio reception with the climbers, see them and their situation, and find out for sure whether they were in trouble and if they needed any assistance. The Park Service loaned them the equipment and they were on their way the next morning at 7:00 a.m.
At 11:00 a.m. the same morning the Park Service received a call on the radio from Price. He stated that the climbers were in trouble and did need a rescue. Their new equipment had failed to keep them dry and they were soaked to the bone. They tried to rappel off the route but the ropes were frozen and it was too dangerous.
Rowell tried to rappel off the route but on his first rappel he descended about 80 feet and when he tried to traverse into a bolt ladder on the route, he could get no traction because of ice on the wall. When he would pendulum over, trying to get to the bolts, his feet would slip some distance short of the bolts. He made no progress and finally gave up. The party had taken only Jumar ascenders and when he tried to Jumar back up the rope he found that it was frozen. It took him two and one half hours to Jumar back up the 80 feet.
They both had started to become frostbitten and didn’t think they could spend another night on the wall without freezing to death. More technical information was received from Price and it was decided that a rescue effort be started. This was effected from the top by Yosemite Park Rescue Group. Royal Robbins was involved in belay to the climbers who were jumared to the top followed by Robbins.
Source: Robert Pederson, Yosemite National Park.
The primary factor leading to the accident is that Harding and Rowell were not sufficiently prepared for bad weather. It seemed likely, being on a Yosemite wall for 11 days, in November, that they would get a spell of bad weather. They didn’t have sufficient extra clothing, Heibler ascenders, nor back up equipment in the event of their new equipment failing. When one designs and constructs his own equipment he tends to be overly optimistic about its results. They seemed to have put complete reliance on their single suspension bivouac hammocks for almost all foul weather comfort and safety. This now seems a very unwise decision. The testing of new foul weather equipment is best not done 2,000 feet off the ground on a new route that takes 11 days on a Yosem- ite wall in November. Single suspension bivouac hammocks, designed and made by party, leaked where ever the hammock and tent combination touched the wall and trapped the water in the bottom of the hammock to a point where the climbers had to puncture the bottom to let the water run out.