Stranded—Unable to Locate Rappel Anchor, California, Yosemite Valley, El Capitan

Publication Year: 1995.


California, Yosemite Valley, El Capitan

On August 25, 1994, at 1300, Rangers Keith Lober and Rick Foulks were contacted at El Capitan by a visitor who reported climbers calling for help from the cliff. I was assigned by shift supervisor Jim Tucker to assist Lober with the telescope and PA.

The party in trouble was about fifty feet left of the normal rappel route on the Nose, about three rappels below Camp 4 (about level with El Cap Tower). They indicated that they were not injured, had plenty of water, and could spend the night. Their only problem was that they were not able to locate a rappel anchor below them.

With the telescope, we could see that they were west of the regular Nose descent route. The correct anchor at their level was fifty feet or more to the east and out of their sight. Since they had pulled their ropes from the previous rappel, they were unable to pendulum to it. We looked for anchors below them, where there should have been some, but could not see any. The park helicopter, H51, arrived to assess the possibility of delivering additional gear to the climbers.

Eventually the light changed enough that we could see a set of anchors a pitch below them, around a corner and significantly to the east. Reaching them required a pendulum and tension traverse, but the climbers were able to make it. They continued descending the regular rappel route on their own and reached the ground a couple of hours later.


Rick Foulks and I interviewed Brian Nadel (27) and Krzysztof Belczynski (23) in the evening of August 25 at the SAR cache.

Belczynski has been climbing for four years, and climbs frequently. He leads 5.9 A2 comfortably and has done 5.12 sport climbs. He has climbed the Northwest Face of Half Dome, leading all the pitches. Nadel has been climbing for two years, and climbs frequently. He leads 5.9 A3. This attempt on the Nose was his first wall and his first experience retreating on a multi-pitch route. He and Belczynski have climbed several routes together.

It’s not unusual to get off route on a rappel. To minimize your chances of becoming stranded, keep these tips in mind:

Before you pull your ropes from the anchor above, look for one below. If no anchor is visible you may be off route, but you can still explore sideways using the previous anchor as the pendulum point. If necessary, leave one rope fixed to the previous anchor and explore below with the other rope. If you’ve already pulled your ropes, explore below on a single line as far as you can go—two ropes will get you 320 ft. or more.

Search aggressively. Several stranded rappellers were able to reach anchors after we pointed them out. They were inexperienced and lacked the confidence to find the anchors themselves. This is especially true on big walls where the exposure can be scary.

Carry a bolt kit and hammer in case you get irreversibly off route or run into a damaged anchor.

Don’t abandon equipment that may be valuable. One party left their third rope and a sleeping bag behind after we’d gotten them back on route. We made them go back up their ropes and get the gear before they committed to the descent. In their haste to get out of there they wanted to travel light, but that rope might have come in handy had they run into trouble again. Besides, abandoned gear is a trash problem and the source of “stranded climber” reports from well-meaning tourists. (Source: John Dill, NPS Ranger)