STRANDED, WEATHER, HYPOTHERMIA, INADEQUATE EQUIPMENT
California, Yosemite Valley, El Capitan
On September 27, 1991, four climbers were rescued from two different routes on El Capitan.
On September 15, the first winter storm of the season moved into the Central Sierra, dropping 4.5 inches of rain at lower elevations with snow level reaching 4,000 feet. On the evening of the 26th the NPS received reports of cries for help on El Capitan. Initial size-up indicated that two climbers, Simon Peck and David Megerle, were approximately 2,000 feet up the Sea of Dreams route and stranded in their hanging bivy under a waterfall that had been created by the runoff from the storm. Both indicated that they were unhurt but becoming hypothermic and unable to move because of the storm. High winds had blown the rain flies from their porta ledges and both had become completely wet.
Because of the poor weather conditions, a parallel rescue effort was begun using both ground and air. During the early morning hours of the 27th, a 17-member ground team made a nine mile (five hour) summit approach from Tamarack Flat Campground to El Capitan and arrived at 0800. The park received assistance from the Army National Guard and used a CH-47 to move a second twelve-member air team to the top of El Capitan during a window in the storm.
Park rescue teams made a 700 foot lowering to the stranded climbers and after rewarming they were able to ascend a fixed line to the summit.
While the first team was climbing out another climbing party of two began to yell for help from the Tangerine Trip route. The second party of climbers, Russ Walling (35) and Erik Eriksson (36) indicated that one of the climbers was suffering from frostbite and they were unable to finish the climb. The rescue team divided the work and moved to their location and made a 400-foot lowering to Walling and Eriksson. Both were able to ascend fixed lines.
After completion of the rescue, all four of the rescued climbers were flown to Yosemite Valley. The rescue team continued to demobilize the top and 17 of the rescuers were flown off the evening of the 27th. Four rescuers walked off using the Old Big Oak Flat road and the remaining six bivied on top and were flown off on the morning of the 28th. (Source: Mike Mayer, SAR Ranger, Yosemite National Park)
At the time of their rescue, Walling and Eriksson were at the top of the last pitch of Native Son, at the base of the last pitch of Tangerine Trip. They said that they had started on May 19th or 20th, but were unsure of the exact date, and that they were on schedule and had had no problems up to that point. Walling and Eriksson also described the wind as their main problem when the storm of the 25th moved in on them. They said that from the time they stopped climbing around 1630 on the 25th until about noon on the 26th, they stayed bivouacked, and that both had gotten extremely wet. Eriksson said that his sleeping bag was down-filled, and that when it got wet it was rendered ineffective.
Eriksson said that on the night of the 25th, his fly was blown completely off of his ledge, and his already wet sleeping bag and gear was then completely soaked. At this point both he and Walling decided that he should jumar up to Walling’s ledge, which was about ten vertical feet above his. Eriksson said that in doing this he got even wetter and colder. The two spent the night of the 25th in Walling’s ledge, Eriksson with his feet continually in Walling’s armpits to try to warm them. Eriksson was leaning with his back against the wall all night, and Walling felt that he had probably lost a great deal of heat that way.
Walling told me that he had noticed that Eriksson had been slow in preparing to climb and in actual climbing on the morning of the 25th and acted sluggish on the 26th, and that his overall demeanor was “a little spaced-out.” Because of Eriksson’s slim build and wet gear, and what Walling described as a lack of food, Walling felt that Eriksson was becoming hypothermic. Walling said that his partner had eaten only a “power bar,” a can of fruit, and a can of tuna, and had drunk very little water, on the 26th and 27th.
On the morning of the 27th, the two started to climb in a break in the weather, although Eriksson was apparently able to do very little because of his hands being so cold. Walling said that their ropes were frozen and tangled on Eriksson’s ledge, and that Walling spent a lot of time that morning preparing to climb. He told me that he did start the next pitch (last pitch of Tangerine Trip), and that by that time they were aware of the rescue effort underway on Sea of Dreams. Walling said that he had already fixed most of that pitch, and that Eriksson spent the morning shivering in Walling’s sleeping bag. Walling said that he was self-belaying by that point, as Eriksson was unable to belay him due to his hands.
By this time, the climbers had decided to make a quick ascent, and subsequently dropped their wet gear, including Eriksson’s sleeping bag, in an all-or-nothing move to finish the climb. When Eriksson then began to climb the next pitch (last pitch of Tangerine Trip), Walling apparently told him to leave the gear and just climb. Walling told me that he was “clubbing pieces,” unable to remove them as he climbed, and was “totally spent” and “spacy.” Walling said that they then returned to the bivouac at the base of that pitch, and that Eriksson’s hands were grey with very slow capillary refill. At this point, they estimated that it would take them four to five hours to finish the climb, even just by doing it completely on aid, and that from their experience with rescue, it would take two hours to be rescued. They said that they then decided to call to the rescuer on the edge at Sea of Dreams and ask for rescue. Eriksson also said that he had felt he would not be able to descend the east ledges walk-off on his own power.
Both Walling and Eriksson said that they probably would not have asked for rescue had the rescue parties not already been there.
Walling and Eriksson are both very experienced climbers, and have each completed several El Capitan and other big wall routes. Neither could estimate their total years climbing or number of routes, but are known as very good climbers. Eriksson did tell me that he had “blown it” by bringing a down bag on the climb, a portaledge fly that was inadequate in that it could not be cinched under the ledge, and no gloves. (Source: R. Christiansen, SAR Ranger, Yosemite National Park)