American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Stranded, Weather, Inadequate Equipment, California, Yosemite Valley, Washington Column

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1989

STRANDED, WEATHER, INADEQUATE EQUIPMENT

California, Yosemite Valley, Washington Column

Two male climbers, both 27, were rescued from the Skull Queen climbing route on Washington Column on Friday, May 6, 1988, when they became 52 stranded in a storm. Pat Teague and I interviewed them, and the following is the essence of their statements:

Climber A has been climbing for ten years, frequently for the last seven. He is in good physical condition, leads 5.10a and A3, and has climbed alpine mountaineering routes. He has also climbed nine Grade V’s, the majority of these in Yosemite, and has experienced stormy bivouacs on at least one Yosemite wall. Prior to climbing Skull Queen, he had read the chapter entitled “Staying Alive,” in the 1987 edition of Yosemite Climbs, by Meyers and Reid, in which the dangers of storms and several precautionary measures for coping with them are described. He is a professional EMT-1.

Climber B has been climbing consistently for two and one-half years. He is in good physical condition and leads 5.9 and A2, but has little experience with aid (Skull Queen was to be his first Grade V). He has climbed alpine routes during which he experienced bad weather. He had read “Staying Alive” prior to this climb and is a professional EMT-1.

They have climbed together occasionally for the past year and consider themselves to be compatible partners. Decisions are generally reached jointly; however, “A,’’with his greater experience, might make the final choice.

Since this was to be “B’s” first long aid route, they chose Skull Queen (Grade V 5.8 A3) for its moderate length and difficulty. After monitoring the forecasts for several days, they drove to the park on May 2. They checked the forecast (the NPS weather tape) after their arrival. It called for scattered showers on Tuesday and Wednesday, with the snow level at 1950-2000 meters, and mostly fair on Thursday and Friday.

They figured the climb would take them three days, and given the forecast, they carried enough food and water for four or five days in case they were delayed by bad weather. For clothing “A” took aid-climbing boots, approach shoes, polypropylene socks, wool socks, extra socks, polypropylene shorts, wool pants, rain chaps, an expedition weight polypropylene pullover, a heavy pile jacket, a bunting jacket with a nylon wind shell (not waterproof), fingerless leather gloves, a polypropylene neck gaiter, a wool hat, and a wool balaclava. For bivouacs he had a Sierra Designs three- seasons synthetic-filled sleeping bag (rated as adequate down to -10 degrees C), an insulating pad, a bivouac sack (not waterproof), and a hammock with a rain fly. “B” took free-climbing shoes, approach shoes, wool socks, light polypropylene bottoms, heavy wool pants, a light polypropylene top, a heavy wool sweater, a heavy pile jacket, a waterproof rain coat (Patagonia), medium weight polypropylene fingerless gloves, and a polypropylene skull cap. For bivouacs he had a medium-weight North Face synthetic-filled sleeping bag, an insulating pad, a hammock without a rain fly, and two plastic garbage bags. They also carried a bolt kit, and one headlamp apiece.

On Monday evening they bivouacked at the base of the climb. On Tuesday they climbed to the end of pitch 4 of the South Face route (the point at which Skull Queen diverges from the South Face), and completed the first pitch of Skull Queen. They then descended to Dinner Ledge for the night. Their progress was slower than expected because the Kor Roof took “B” a long time to lead and because they let pass two parties who ultimately held them up for about three hours.

Wednesday was cloudy, windy, and cold and it snowed for about one hour. About 1600 a party on the South Face told them that a later forecast called for scattered showers with a front moving in on Thursday or Friday. They climbed to the end of pitch 4 of Skull Queen, wearing everything they had brought with them except for rain gear, and spent a cold night, in hammocks, at the beginning of pitch 5.

On Thursday “B” climbed pitch 5 with no problems. “A” was about a third of the way up pitch 6 when it began to snow, and when he had reached the halfway point the snow had become a whiteout. “B,” at the belay, was shivering despite wearing all his clothes. By the time he was leading pitch 7, the sun had come out, melting the snow, and “tons” of water were streaming down the face. Without raingear, “A” became soaked by a cascade at the belay. Pitch 7 was technically difficult for “B” and he was having trouble with rope drag. He didn’t realize it at the time, but once the sun had gone over the rim of the Valley, their wet ropes had begun to freeze, and “A” was having trouble feeding the lead rope through the belay plate.

Although the route description shows a pendulum to the left about halfway up the pitch, a friend who had climbed it previously had told them there was no pendulum, so “B” climbed straight up. Eventually this did not look right to him, so he dropped down a bit and pendulumed left. He found a left-facing corner but it, too, looked unlikely, so he returned to his original path and climbed higher, looking for a way to reach the belay. He found a piton crack, but it seemed to be off-route and provided poor protection.

The problems on this pitch had cost them a great deal of time. It was windy, cold, and snowing again, so “B” had “A” lower him to the beginning of the pitch. At this point, they realized that they were in danger of becoming seriously hypothermic. They placed another bolt at the belay to allow them to set up their hammocks. “A” was under a slight bulge, and “B” was slightly lower and to the right, pressed against him.

Being unused to hammock bivouacs, “B” had a difficult time getting into his sleeping bag. He finally gave up and left it pulled just up to his knees and wore his rain jacket and the garbage bags. Water collected in a puddle on his stomach and in the bottom of his hammock, but not much of it got under his clothes. His shoes were soaked and his feet cold, and he shivered, especially when the wind blew, but he was only damp, not soaked, and he remained “half-way comfortable.

“A” was in worse shape. The fly for his hammock was too short both water running off the bulge above him and snow being blown horizontally came in through the gaps. Water was also wicking down the sewn-through anchor strap in the apex of his fly and then dripping off the hammock support straps. The net result was a two-inch deep pool in his bag, and he stabbed holes in his bag, pad, and hammock in an attempt to drain it. He remained soaked and shivered continuously.

They spent the evening discussing what decisions had to be made, and when. Rappelling or jumarring on frozen ropes seemed out of the question their ropes were now three centimeters in diameter due to the ice. Although cold and wet, they felt that if the weather improved by morning and they were able to thaw their ropes, they would still have enough physical reserve to climb off without assistance. They realized, however, that serious hypothermia was almost a certainty if the storm continued. They were concerned about their pride and the risk to rescuers, but they knew that a rescue was available, and that if they waited too long to seek help it might be too late. They decided to contact the rangers and to base their decision on the weather forecast. They began calling for help about 0030 on Friday, and within 30 minutes they heard a ranger reply through a loudspeaker. The forecast was for continued stormy weather so they agreed to a rescue.

They ate the last of their food after contact was made with the rangers. During the rest of the night, “B’s” feet were numb and he suffered muscle cramps from intermittent bouts of violent shivering. “A” began to hallucinate—objects turned into vivid faces and geometric patterns. By the time a rescuer was lowered to them on Friday morning, they were still able to jumar to the summit. However, the rescuer had to help them rig their ascenders properly. Teague noticed that “A” seemed lethargic when he reached the top.

They declined to be examined by a physician. They discovered later that “A” had suffered possible mild frostbite on one toe and six fingertips and “B” on ten toes and six fingertips. They stated that they were improving and that they would see a physician if there was no further improvement. (Source: John Dill, Ranger, Yosemite National Park)

Analysis

John Dill’s usual thoroughness comes through in this report. A personal letter from one of the victims requested that names not be used, which we have done. It is apparent both from the report and the letter that these climbers did not wish to be a burden. They are also viewed by their rescuers to have been generally well prepared and almost adequately equipped. They most assuredly will rectify the latter deficiency on future climbs. The victim stated, “This has been about the worst experience of my life, and I really (intend) to learn my lesson and just put it behind me.” Many climbers have been in or very close to the situation described—and have similar feelings afterward! (Source: J. Williamson)

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