STRANDED, WEATHER, INADEQUATE EQUIPMENT, HYPOTHERMIA
California, Yosemite Valley
About 1130 on March 9, 1986, Tracy Dorton reported to the Valley Visitor Center that three friends of his were climbing on Half Dome and that he was concerned about them due to recent bad weather. Search and Rescue Officer Mike Murray was notified and Dorton was sent to meet with Murray at the Fire Management Office where the Incident Command System was already in effect due to the storm.
Murray briefly took Dorton’s report that Steve Bosque (31), Mike Corbett (32), and John Middendorf (26) had been climbing the South Face route on Half Dome since March 4. Dorton was concerned about their welfare because he thought they might be high enough on the climb when the storm hit on March 7 that they could not retreat. Rescue site member Grant Hiskes confirmed that Bosque, Corbett, and Middendorf were on the climb and also expressed concern about the weather considering their probable location on the wall.
Murray assigned Search and Rescue Ranger John Dill to more thoroughly interview Dorton and to initiate a size-up of the climbers’ situation. Dill assigned rescue team member Dan McDevitt and reporting party Dorton to hike up to the base of the South Face of Half Dome in Little Yosemite Valley with size-up equipment to determine the status of the climbers. At 1720 McDevitt reported by radio that he had attempted to contact the climbers with a loudspeaker and that they had yelled that they needed to be rescued. McDevitt reported that the climbers were bivouacked on two porta-ledges one pitch above the “Tri-Clops” at a spot known as “The Ledge.” McDevitt reported blizzard conditions in Little Yosemite Valley with heavy snowfall and strong winds. Because of the weather conditions, McDevitt was not able to communicate further with the climbers to find out what their exact problem was.
Incident Commander Jim Loach appointed SAR Officer Murray to be Plans Chief for the rescue and Murray assigned John Dill to be operations leader. Because the weather forecast for Sunday morning was not necessarily good, a two option rescue plan was developed and initiated. Murray contacted NAS Lemoore and arranged for their rescue helicopter to arrive in Yosemite Valley at 0730 on March 9 if the weather permitted. Dill and Murray also planned a ground rescue effort that involved three teams hiking to the east shoulder of Half Dome, then putting a small rescue party on top to effect a rope rescue of the climbers as early as possible on Sunday. The ground rescue effort would require about 30 people to carry heavy loads of rescue and winter survival equipment from Yosemite Valley to the shoulder of Half Dome, a distance of 13 kilometers under harsh winter conditions. The rescue personnel and equipment were assembled at the Valley rescue cache.
Team # 1, lead by Ranger Hugh Dougher, left the rescue cache at 2110 on the night of
March 10 and arrived at the shoulder a little after 0300 on March 11. Team #1 was composed of nine people and their objective was to establish a bivy site on the shoulder and to climb and fix the route up the cables to the top of Half Dome.
Team #2, led by John Dill, left the SAR cache at 2245 and arrived at the bivy site at 0407. Team #2 was composed of nine people, and their objective was to carry enough technical gear to the top of Half Dome to effect the rescue.
Team #3, led by Laurel Munson, left the SAR cache at 0020 and arrived at the shoulder of Half Dome about 0600. This team was composed of nine people, and their objective was to supply winter camping and emergency medical equipment to the technical rescue personnel in the other teams.
In addition to the above efforts, Murray also requested assistance from San Mateo Explorer Search and Rescue (ESAR) and from Bay Area Mountain Rescue Unit (BAMRU). The teams were to provide winter-equipped personnel who could provide logistical support or serve as a carry-out team on Sunday morning depending on how the rescue was accomplished.
EMS Coordinator J. R. Tomasovic developed an EMS plan for the rescue that included having Park Medics with advanced life support equipment and two air ambulance helicopters (Modesto Medi-Flight and Cal-Star) standing by at Ahwahnee Meadow on Sunday morning in the event that the three climbers were significantly hypothermic and needed immediate treatment in a major hospital. (Note: Medi-Flight and Cal-Star agreed to stand-by for no fee and would be paid only if they transported a patient.)
At 0130, Team #1 reported that the sky was clearing over Little Yosemite Valley. The Fresno NWS forecast and current weather conditions reported by Mariposa and San Francisco indicated that there would be good flying weather for at least Sunday morning. However, a storm front was predicted to reach the Yosemite area by 1400 on Sunday.
Team #1 arrived at the east shoulder of Half Dome at 0300 and reported treacherous conditions on the slabs leading up to the cables. Shortly after daylight, all three teams were assembled on the shoulder of Half Dome. Because of the hazardous nature of the route above the shoulder and because with the existing good weather a Lemoore helicopter rescue was more likely, the three ground teams were held at the shoulder to rest, get their gear organized, and await further instructions.
Lemoore Angel 1 arrived in Ahwahnee Meadow about 0730. Simultaneous with Angel l’s arrival, a spotting team led by Dan McDevitt reported from Little Yosemite Valley that the stranded climbers were moving around in their bivouac on the South Face of Half Dome. Angel 1 left the meadow about 0830 and flew to the scene where a crewman was lowered on the hoist to the climbers. The crewman would place each climber in a horse collar (with a safety strap) then hoist them one at a time accompanied by the crewman into the helicopter.
Corbett was the first climber rescued by Angel 1 since he seemed to be the coldest. Because Angel 1 was still somewhat heavy with fuel and because of Corbett’s condition, Angel 1 flew him back to the meadow before rescuing the other two climbers. When Corbett arrived at Ahwahnee Meadow at 0850, he appeared to be significantly impaired by hypothermia. He was not able to walk unassisted and had somewhat decreased mental status. Corbett was transported by ambulance to the Yosemite Clinic where he was treated for hypothermia and later released.
Angel 1 returned to the South Face of Half Dome and rescued the remaining two climbers. When Bosque and Middendorf arrived at Ahwahnee Meadow, they were
extremely cold and wet, but were able to walk unassisted and could discuss their rescue.
After the successful rescues by Angel 1, a helicopter from Rogers Helicopters began a demobilization of the 27 rescue personnel from the east shoulder of Half Dome. Because of the forecasted severe weather by 1400 that afternoon, a request was made (and granted) for Angel 1 to assist with the evacuation of rescue personnel. The Rogers helicopter flew about 12 loads of personnel or equipment and Angel 1 flew two loads of personnel from a landing zone on the shoulder back to Ahwahnee Meadow. The demobilization of personnel was completed when the three-person spotting team hiked back down from Little Yosemite Valley at noon. (Source: Michael Murray, SAR Officer, Yosemite National Park)
Mike, John and I are grateful to be alive. Our sincere thanks goes out to all those involved in the effort—the National Park Service, the climbers on the rescue team, and to the guys from Lemoore Naval Air Station.
For the benefit of those who plan to do big wall climbs in winter conditions, I’ll outline what I feel are the main lessons I learned from our fiasco:
To avoid low-angle routes like the South Face of Half Dome. It got plastered with ice, and snow avalanched continuously when the storm finally abated.
To have a reliable porta-ledge and storm-fly. Mike and I had second-rate affairs which nearly proved to be our undoing.
To get while the gettin’s good. If there is a chance to retreat early on in the storm, take advantage of it. Get down before the place is plastered with ice and your ropes are rendered useless. (Source: “Winter Blunderland,” an article by Steve Bosque in Summit, September-October, 1986)