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Stranded, Rappel Failure, Failure to Follow Route, Inexperience, California, Yosemite Valley

STRANDED, RAPPEL FAILURE, FAILURE TO FOLLOW ROUTE, INEXPERIENCE

California, Yosemite Valley

On April 3, 1980, at 1 p.m., Rangers Rohrbach, Dill, Cowan and Patterson were dispatched to Rixon’s Pinnacle to investigate cries for help. We met with Fred Prahl who told us that two of his friends, Vernon Squire (27) and Mike Caryl (32) were stranded on the cliff below Michael’s Ledge. Squire had rappelled over an overhang, reached the end of his rope and could not go up or down. Caryl was independently anchored at the rappel point and was unable to help. Ben Santer, a friend of the other three, was on the talus slope at the base of the wall below the climbers trying to help.

With the aid of a portable PA system, Patterson established good voice contact with Squire and Caryl from a position on the talus slope below Santer. After talking with them, the following was determined: (1) Squire’s rappel anchor was a “very weak flake”; (2) neither one had a light; (3) Squire had neither the knowledge nor the equipment to prusik up his rope. The decision, to wait until the following morning to rescue them, was based on the following factors: (1) neither climber was injured, although Squire said he felt some numbness from hanging in his seat harness (this caused some concern to the rescue team but we determined that he would be OK); (2) both climbers were relatively secure; (3) it would have been a very lengthy job to rescue them at night; (4) it would have been hazardous. This decision was made clear to Caryl and Squire who agreed to wait. Both of them had some warm clothing and food, and they prepared to spend the night as comfortably as possible. We told them the temperature would be about 30° on the valley floor but would probably be warmer on the wall.

Prior to leaving, Patterson suggested to Squire that he could fashion a chest harness or foot slings to make himself more comfortable. At 9 p.m. the initial team left the scene. We gave a PA, a spotlight, and a National Park Service (NPS) radio to Prahl and Santer who planned to spend the night below Squire and Caryl. They had instructions to check in with NPS dispatch every hour, which they did. During the night, with advice from Prahl, his NPS dispatch (Wilts) and Ranger Dill, Squire fashioned a chest harness with slings and also used a pack as foot stirrups.

On April 4 at 5:30 a.m., Patterson and Dill were able to spot Squire and Caryl through the Questar scope. Prahl said that both climbers had beefed up their anchors and were awaiting rescue. Dill and Patterson determined that a ground team could rescue them rather than a helicoper.

At 7 a.m. Petterson and two Sunnyside climbers, Mark Chapman and Bob Williams, started up Michael’s Ledge with rescue gear. Ranger Cowan was positioned at Swinging Bridge with the Questar and got them to a point directly above Squire and Caryl. Once they reached a position about Caryl and Squire, they rappelled to them and belayed them safely to the ground at 12 noon. (Source: John Rohrbach, SAR Ranger, Yosemite National Park)

Analysis

Many individuals who started climbing about the same time that modern, ready-made equipment, such as harnesses and ascending devices, was developed have not learned some of the basic techniques, nor do some of them seem to have the knack for improvising. (There was a time when alpine cord used for a boot lace was considered as potential sling material for a rappel, for example.) Another observation is that some climbers have come to rely on guidebooks; when they somehow stray from the planned route, they tend to be unable to cope with the “new” territory—mostly because they have not brought additional equipment, including flashlights, clothing, and food. Some guidebooks suggest what kind of hardware will be needed for a given route which may result in climbers taking only that hardware, thus reducing their chances of dealing with contingencies. Today’s climbers might find themselves in a situation where they would be thankful for the knowledge of such antiquated but basic techniques as the body rappel, which would enhance the possibilities of the more elusive art of improvisation. But you can’t improvise if you don’t have the skills and equipment. The prusik knot, lest we forget, was named after Karl von Prusik, an Austrian, who made a variation on a knot used by sailors so that he could extricate himself from a crevasse. (Source: J. Williamson)