STRANDED—OUT OF FOOD, WEATHER
California, Yosemite Valley, Magic Mushroom
On April 24, 1994, Ken Bokelund's (28) wife reported to the NPS that he and Kevin Andrews (30) were one day overdue from climbing the Magic Mushroom route (VI 5.10 A4) on El Capitan and were probably out of food. Although the weather was stormy, the party was experienced and well equipped with storm gear.
Rangers monitored the party by telescope for the next couple of days. They remained in a portaledge at the top of pitch 22, nine pitches from the summit, not calling for help, and apparently in no trouble. However, their ropes, fixed on the next two pitches, appeared to be frozen.
By noon on April 26, the weather was still unstable, so the rangers contacted the party with a loudspeaker. Bokelund and Andrews signalled that they were dry but needed food and that their ropes were indeed frozen.
The cheapest and quickest solution was to deliver a haul bag of food by helicopter, so a rescue aircraft was requested from Naval Air Station Lemoore. As a backup, a ground team would fly or hike (8-10 miles) to the summit and reach the Bokelund party with ropes. Since the trail was still snowed in, and the team might have to hike in poor visibility, two members began hiking immediately, to flag the route. In addition, a front-end loader and fire crew headed to Tamarack Flat to begin clearing the road to the trailhead. The ground team stood by at El Cap Meadow in case they could fly. (In stormy weather it may be possible to fly next to the wall but not to the summit, or vice versa.)
When the helicopter, Rescue 6, arrived at El Cap Meadow at 1415, the cliff face was covered with cloud. Forty-five minutes later a window opened at the party’s location and Rescue 6 was able to lower a haul bag of food to the climbers. (The wall is so steep there that the helicopter can not simply lower gear to the climbers. Instead, it hovers next to them and the crew throws them a small sandbag with a fine line attached. The climbers use this line to pull over an 11 mm rope, and then the crew lowers the gear across, as if following a pendulum. While there is always some risk, the technique is fast, and the climbers are not in danger if the helicopter has to leave suddenly—e.g., the clouds close in.) After waiting out more bad weather, Bokelund and Andrews finished the climb on April 30.
In subsequent interviews with Bokelund and Andrews we learned the following:
Andrews had made one previous ascent of El Cap. Bokelund had made four ascents and several other attempts, and had experienced stormy bivouacs. They planned to take five or six days for the climb, so they took full rations for six days and a little extra that they could stretch over two more days.
They started climbing on April 19, with a forecast for clear and stable weather, and by April 22, they had reached the top of pitch 22. They had been climbing more slowly than expected and were now a day behind schedule.
The next morning it was obvious that nasty weather was on its way. They fixed pitch 23, then set up the fly on their portaledge. On the 24th they fixed the 24th pitch and went back to the bivvy, leaving two lines fixed and a third put away inside their shelter. Both days had been snowy but not very cold. Sunday was their sixth day on the route, the day they had planned to reach the summit.
The 25th was colder and still snowy. They had seven pitches to climb and were low on food. Although the route below was overhanging, they could retreat if they left some gear behind, however, their ropes were now frozen. Furthermore, they would risk serious hypothermia if they tried to rappel in all the water running on the cliff—they were already wet from condensation inside their fly and from fixing the pitches. The forecast on their AM/FM radio was for clearing weather. If true, they’d make the top in two days, losing a little weight along the way.
Tuesday the 26th was warmer and the forecast was OK, but more water was running down the face and the ropes remained frozen. Bokelund and Andrews were hungry, noticeably weak, and getting worried. Two cans of tuna and a couple of rolls remained.
At midday they heard the NPS calling, “Do you need a rescue?” “No!” “Are you wet?” They were wet and a bit cold but not shivering—no worse than usual when sitting out a storm—so they answered “No!” again, to avoid a rescue. Then the NPS called up that more bad weather was on the way. That did it. They accepted an offer of food, which was delivered by helicopter about three hours later.
They sat out wet, stormy weather the next day. By Thursday their ropes had thawed so they began climbing. Conditions remained wet, windy, and a bit above freezing until they reached the summit on Saturday the 30th. Their six day climb had stretched to twelve.
This is not the first time a stormbound party has run out of food on El Cap. Multiday storms and low temperatures are common here in April, May, and even June. Forecasts are not trustworthy and both ice and running water may prevent you from climbing or retreating for days after the storm. There are no vending machines up there, either, so take more than one day's spare rations. This rescue cost the NPS and the Navy $5500. It would have cost several times that and added to the risk, had the weather forced us to lower from the summit. (Source: John Dill, NPS Ranger)