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Exposure, Hypothermia, Bad Weather, Inadequate Equipment, California, Yosemite Valley


California, Yosemite Valley

On March 28, 1980, David T. Kays (23) signed out in the Visitor Center to solo climb The Nose (5.9 A-3, Grade VI, Y.D.S.) on El Capitan in Yosemite Valley. Kays listed himself as a 5.10 climber who had previously done two big Yosemite walls and who had nine to ten years climbing experience. Kays was to start climbing on March 29 and finish his climb on April 5.

Kays was fairly well equipped for a climb at this time of year, although he carried very little extra equipment in case he got into trouble. Kays carried a CB radio with him on the climb with which he was to talk to his wife every evening and let her know his progress. Kays’ wife had contacted Search and Rescue Technician John Dill on several occasions during the time that Kays was on the climb. Kays always appeared to be in control of his climb and seemed to be progressing, although slowly. On April 4, Kays talked to his wife via cb radio and reported that he was ok and would finish the climb the next day. At this point, he was approximately 250 feet below the finish of the climb. Kays’ wife was unable to contact him after that.

On April 6 Debbie Kays again contacted Dill. Rangers Dill and Butch Wilson went to El Capitan Meadow to observe Kays who appeared to be waiting out the storm. On April 6, Ranger Fitzmaurice was contacted by Debbie Kays. A rescue was started but, when Ranger Patterson arrived at Kays location, he found no signs of life. Kays’ body was brought to the top of El Capitan around 1 p.m. and was removed by helicopter. The autopsy revealed that Kays died from hypothermia. However, there is a possibility that he died from strangulation after losing consciousness due to hypothermia. (Source: John Dill, SAR Ranger, Yosemite National Park)


It is believed that the following factors led to Kays’ death. First, Kays dropped some fairly crucial equipment, including rain gear, food, and a hardware rack. Second, the climbing conditions were severe, including icefall from above, water running down the route, icing conditions on equipment and route, and wind and wet from the storm. As Kays was known to be single-minded, the extended time on the wall in harsh conditions with inadequate equipment may have clouded his judgment in considering either retreat or calling for help on his cb radio. (Source: John Dill, SAR Ranger, Yosemite National Park)