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Stranded, Inadequate Equipment, Late Start, Creating a Hazardous Condition, California, Yosemite Valley, Sentinel Falls



California, Yosemite Valley, Sentinel Falls

Gene St. Denis (33) journeyed to Yosemite by skiing from Lake Tahoe to Sonora Pass, and then hitchhiking to Yosemite Valley. He left Tahoe about one month before, and arrived in Yosemite February 10, 1987. He spent several weeks rock climbing, many routes solo.

On the morning of February 18, he decided to free-solo an ice climb. After discussing routes with other climbers, he announced his intention to climb the drainage immediately west of Sentinel Creek. He was advised the area had seen very few ascents, and the only known successful descent route was accomplished by rappelling Lower Sentinel Creek Fall using ice screws as anchors, reported as being extremely hazardous.

He borrowed crampons, ice axes, one rope, and ten meters of sling rope from various climbers. He packed his rain jacket, one pair of wool gloves, three cans of sardines, a few packets of honey, and a bottle of juice. He dressed in pile pants and shirt, pile jacket, plastic double boots, and sheepskin hat. St. Denis obtained a ride to the trailhead and arrived at the base of Lower Sentinel Creek Fall at 1200.

Before starting the climb, he scanned the area for a descent route. Since he was carrying no protection except the rope and slings, the only possible descent was to rappel the rock ridge just right of the falls, using scattered trees as anchors. The area between the top of the climb and the ridge was hidden from view, so he could not be sure of a connection. He figured there would be a way, however, so he started up.

St. Denis safely ascended the 200-meter vertical falls, arriving at the top about 1400. As he climbed the cascades above the falls, one of his feet broke through the ice, revealing a two meter space to the stream. He became concerned that he could fall through the ice and become injured. He then decided he would rock climb the 70- meter west wall of the canyon to reach the descent ridge. He picked a route up the canyon wall that appeared to be moderately difficult (5.7–5.8), well within his abilities. As he climbed, he discovered ledges and handholds were covered with ice and snow, and difficulty of some moves to be 5.9. About halfway up the cliff the route became more difficult. By this time his hands were very cold. After two hours of unsuccessfully attempting to ascend a difficult move, his feet slipped and he nearly fell. He managed to downclimb to a ledge. He then attempted to use a flake of rock as an anchor from which to rappel, but it cracked while he was cleaning dirt from around it. By 1800, St. Denis realized he could neither ascend nor descend. He was stranded.

About 2200 Clark Jacobs and other SAR site residents contacted Ranger Dan Horner to report St. Denis was overdue. Horner organized a three person search party and assigned them to hike to the base of the falls in the vicinity of Sentinel Creek. Rangers with PA systems and searchlight were positioned in the valley across from the falls.

The three-person team followed footprints to the base of Lower Sentinel Creek Fall, and observed nicks in the ice indicating someone had ascended the falls. They also heard “hoots” in response to PA broadcasts. The hoots were not intelligible, and the tone of voice did not indicate urgency. The cliffs were scanned by searchlight with negative results.

At 0800 on March 1, Rangers Phil Hibbs and John Dill set up a telescope in the valley across from Sentinel Falls and searched the walls. Possible footprints were located leading up the canyon from the top of Lower Sentinel Creek Fall, and then angling right. The prints disappeared behind cliffs several meters above the fall. Other possible footprints (later determined to be marks caused by falling rocks) were observed higher. No other clues were detected.

At 1100 I was assigned as investigator and incident commander. After interviewing friends and determining St. Denis was inadequately equipped and clothed, I requested a California Highway Patrol helicopter to conduct an aerial search of the canyon. CHP helicopter H42 had arrived and began a search at 1305. They located St. Denis on the ledge at 1317. St. Denis appeared uninjured and was waving his arms.

I then flew the area in H42 and determined a hoist evacuation was the preferred rescue technique. The other available option was rescue by ground team. This second option would require placing a ground team on the Glacier Point Road (the nearest acceptable landing zone). The team would have to travel through deep snow for two kilometers and descend 500 meters of snow and ice covered cliffs to St. Denis’ location. They would then have to evacuate him over additional hazardous terrain. This ground operation could take 24 hours to accomplish, during which time St. Denis might die of hypothermia.

Lemoore was requested for the hoist evacuation, and Lemoore Angel 1 landed in the valley at 1614. After a briefing, Angel 1 flew to St. Denis’location and extricated him by hoist. St. Denis was aboard the helicopter six minutes after it went into a hover and initiated the operation. He was flown to the Valley. He denied injury and refused medical treatment. He was then driven to Valley District where he was interviewed by Rangers Hibbs, Dill and myself. (Source: Hugh Dougher, Ranger, Yosemite National Park)


In addition to information provided for the above narrative, St. Denis stated that he did not carry nuts, pitons, bolts or ice screws because he wanted to climb pure solo, and he did not want to be accused of cheating or “hangdogging.” (Some climbers apparently preach the extreme ethic that simply carrying protection negates any claim of solo ascent.) Also, there is a lot of peer pressure against placing bolts (though you would never know from the looks of this place in general). He was very aware of the nonexistence of an established rappel route. He stated it would have been suicidal for a party of two to climb the falls, as the ice was too thin in spots to support two persons, and there were poor protection placements available. He also felt it would have been suicidal for him to attempt to rappel the fall, as chunks of ice were regularly falling off it. He agreed he should have started earlier in the day, to allow for more daylight, and take advantage of colder temperatures (and stronger ice).

He heard both the ground PA and helicopter H42’s PA, but could only understand a few phrases from H42. The ground PA was completely garbled. From his location he could not see, nor be seen from the valley. He was ecstatic when he saw the helicopter. As a past member of a mountain rescue team, he was aware of the dangers involved in helicopter operations, especially hover hoists, and was concerned for the safety of helicopter personnel. He felt he would not have survived another night. He agreed he may have been irresponsible.

I cited St. Denis for 36 CFR 2.34a4, “creating a hazardous condition,” because by his irresponsibility he placed other persons (helicopter teams) in jeopardy. He was clearly negligent in not being prepared to retreat, self-rescue, or have friends prepared to rescue him. He knew no easy descent route existed, and that in the past climbers in the area have had to use ice screws as rappel anchors, which they reported as being dangerous and insufficient. Yet he neglected to carry ice screws or any other type of protection. As a past member of an active and respected mountain rescue team and experienced climber, he was well aware of the dangers both to himself and to the rescuers.

He showed further negligence by delaying the start of his climb to midday, a time when hazards are greatest due to melting ice. Even though he began a major climb late in the day, he neglected to carry a flashlight. (Note: He pleaded guilty and paid a fine.) (Source: Hugh Dougher and John Dill, Rangers, Yosemite National Park)