Stranded, Failure to Turn Back, Hypothermia, Dehydration, Inadequate, Clothing and Equipment, Weather
California, Yosemite Valley, El Capitan
Here are the events leading up to the rescue of the nine climbers, from three parties, from Camp 6 on the Nose. Quotations have been edited.
The American party consisted of Dean Freeman (34), Craig DeMartino (29), Tom Nonis (37), and Karen Bates (30). Freeman, DeMartino, and Nonis had big wall experience in Yosemite and/or elsewhere, while Bates was an experienced free climber on her first wall. After getting a good weather forecast on September 29, the four fixed Free Blast on the 30th and continued up the Triple Direct the next day. Although climbing as two groups of two, they planned to bivy together on a leisurely ascent. They carried pile and polypropylene clothing, coated nylon rain suits, synthetic sleeping bags, pads, Gore- Tex bivy sacks, and one large plastic tube tent.
The “Spanish” party consisted of Juan Romero (23), his brother Jesus (19) (both from Spain), and Pedro Moretti (22), of Venezuela. Juan had climbed for several years in Spain, and Jesus one year. Neither had climbed walls, but Moretti had participated in numerous expeditions in the Andes. They fixed to Sickle Ledge on the Nose on the 30th and started up on October 1, with Moretti leading all of the aid. The Romeros wore mainly cotton clothing. All had down sleeping bags, no bivy sacks, and they had one tarp.
The French party consisted of Jean Luc Bal (37), and Jerome Perett (25). Both indicated they were certified mountain guides in Chamonix, with ten years climbing experience each. They began the Nose route on October 1, behind the Spanish, bivvied with them at El Cap Tower on the 2nd, and passed them the next day. The French had adequate clothing, one synthetic and one down sleeping bag, one tarp of unknown type, but no bivy sacks.
On the 3rd, the Americans reached Camp 6 and set up a bivouac for the approaching storm. The French reached Camp 5, three pitches below. They were joined by the Spanish well after dark.
All parties were hit by wind and rain sometime before midnight. The Americans had cut their tube tent open and pitched it as a fly. With two of their party in Gore-Tex sacks on either side and the others under the fly, they stayed dry all night. A waterfall a few feet away did not affect them.
In the morning they decided not to try for the top in the rain; the storm had worsened, with high winds and heavy rain. If they opened their bivy sacks they would get soaked; to communicate they had to shout to each other through small openings in the zippers. Meanwhile, both the French and the Spanish had elected to continue climbing rather than rappel, despite having lost their tarps near Camp Five. The French, being more experienced, did all the leading and fixed ropes for the Spanish.
At about noon the French arrived at Camp 6 to find the Americans comfortably bivouacked. According to Freeman, the French were soaked and shaking uncontrollably, yet were not wearing their rain gear. Nonis offered to share his bivy sack but they refused and Perett, “very bold and impatient”, led on. Freeman was amazed at their lack of rain gear and at their will to continue up in such a dangerous situation—as Perett ascended he was so cold he had to struggle to clip his protection, yet he had six pitches to go and the temperatures above were much colder.
While Perett was climbing, the Romeros showed up, leaving Moretti a pitch or two below They were wearing cotton and no rain gear, and were incapacitated by the cold. Jesus, in particular, seemed “delirious” and “in agony.” (Both Romeros said later that they would not have made Camp 6 without the efforts of the French.) Nonis offered them gear from his haul bag and made several other suggestions; each time, the Romeros would begin to comply, and then their attention would wander.
The Americans were still dry at this point, but they felt the Romeros and possibly the French would die if they were not helped. However they also feared that the presence of the others on such a small ledge would destroy their bivy, thereby endangering their own lives.
After some discussion, the Americans convinced the Spanish that they needed to be rescued, and everyone pitched in to yell for help. This went on for some time, with the Americans having to prod the Spanish as they periodically lost their initiative. Finally, after an hour or so, the French belayer announced that he had a flare gun. That he had let valuable—perhaps life-saving—time go by without offering a flare dumbfounded the Americans.
At this point the French leader took a long fall. He hurt his face in the fall and no longer had the strength to climb. He returned to the ledge; the French put on their rain jackets and “just sat in the rain—no words, no complaints,” shivering violently.
The ledge was only big enough for three or four. As the French and Spanish settled in at the back, the Americans were forced to move down a bit, toward the edge. The Romeros finally got into their wet sleeping bags after being told to do so, pulled the Americans’ tarp over their legs, exposing Nonis and Bates to the weather, and slid under and even on top of the Americans for more protection. The French tried to help by partially covering the Spanish with their own bags, and the Americans donated what gear they could— including a down jacket—without dooming themselves.
In mid-afternoon they heard a faint bullhorn. The flares had been spotted and the NPS was trying to contact them. The wind and rain competed with the sound; the Europeans could not understand and the Americans were trapped in their bivy sacks by the weight of all the people on top of them, and unable to hear.
Freeman commented that, “As darkness fell, we realized that all hope for that night had been lost for these people. The Spaniards were crying, partly from physical agony, partly from their awareness and apprehension of the situation.”
With eight of the nine climbers now packed onto the ledge, the bivy disintegrated. Because of the limited room, no one could move without affecting the others, and because of the storm they couldn’t leave their sacks or bags. As a result, most had to urinate in their sleeping bags.
DeMartino said, “I actually had a Spanish guy sitting on my head for an hour and a half. I couldn’t get him to move—you know how lethargic cold people get? I got to the point where I couldn’t breathe anymore, so I finally got him to move by continuously pinching his leg.”
The rain turned to sleet, then back to rain, and the ledge offered no protection: “The water came from every angle and was whipped up and swirled around—probably like being in a washing machine.”
Slowly the Americans were pushed closer to the edge as the Europeans moved around to reduce the pain of being cold and crammed against the back wall. Eventually the Spanish became so “desperate and violent” that they were literally kicking the Americans in their heads, forcing them to abandon the ledge and to hang over the side in their sacks, suspended by their harnesses. As a result, the Americans were now getting soaked by water running down their tie-ins into the tops of their sacks. DeMartino managed to stay on the ledge but was pushed to the side, until the waterfall was running over his knees.
The Romeros were so delirious and/or panicked that they started unclipping and moving things in their efforts to survive. Bates claimed that someone unclipped one of her two attachments, causing her to fall the full length of her daisy chain. Freeman fared worse: “Suddenly I felt a strong tug on my daisy chain. I reached up to the ledge, through the hole in the top of my sack, groping in the dark. I managed to grab a piece of 5mm cord with an overhand knot in the end, although I didn’t know what it was at the time. Just as I started to pull myself up I was cut loose. Now I was hanging straight-armed by one hand on this knot, below the ledge, with nothing for my feet, completely unclipped, out over the frigging Nose!”
“I was screaming, Tom, Tom, they cut me loose!’ and he was shouting, ‘I can’t see you; I don’t have a light!’ Somehow I found mine and handed it to Tom through the top of my sack. He grabbed my daisy and clipped me in. My nerves were shot. I had to get back on the ledge—I didn’t have the stomach to hang there anymore.”
While trying to climb back onto the ledge, Freeman lost his bivy sack and shoes (others subsequently lost a sleeping bag and a down jacket). It was about 2000, and now Freeman was sitting in a puddle at the edge of the ledge, knees to his chest and hands wrapped around his bare feet. He wore light polypro top and bottoms and a rain jacket, and had his wet sleeping bag over him. He had no socks, gloves, or hat. “It was raining and snowing and blowing and pitch-black. I sat like that for the rest of the night, saying, ‘It’s not my day to die,’ and thinking of the Japanese that had died on the last pitch years before.” (Later he credited his synthetic sleeping bag with allowing him to survive the night.)
Moretti came up around midnight, making nine on the ledge. He was aware that the outlook was grim, but he was calm; he said that he couldn’t stay below by himself anymore because he didn’t want to die alone.
By morning everything was icy but the storm had broken. The Americans were wet and shaking like the others, though the Europeans, now somewhat protected by what remained of their sleeping bags, had stabilized a bit.
A helicopter looked them over that morning, but the Americans thought rescuers might not arrive until the next day, and it was clear that another night could finish them off. Furthermore, they felt it was up to them to get themselves out of trouble. So they made plans to climb, despite their weakened condition and lack of clothes, and despite the conditions on the wall above—which, they knew, now included snow and ice on the summit slabs. Freeman: “For me, it didn’t matter—we were going and that was that— you could die sitting or die trying.”
They were willing to fix lines for the others, but not willing to wait for them. Freeman: “We were going to stay alive and take care of ourselves. It was simple and focused.”
Just as they were starting up, a rescuer came out of the clouds on the end of a rope. He found the ledge being hit by strong gusts of wind, everyone soaked and cold, and the Romeros crying. Nevertheless all the climbers were able to Jumar the 600 feet to the rim. Freeman managed to fit into someone else's spare shoes for the ascent. He was unable to use his hands, so his ascenders were linked to Nonis's, who climbed a second line nearby; their ascent took two hours. Freeman’s hands took a few weeks to recover but no one suffered permanent damage.
It’s a good bet that many of the 13 climbers would not have survived another night on the wall. Frankly, we’re surprised that some lasted as long as they did. Here is a summary of some of the key lessons from this incident:
Storms in Yosemite are frequent, unpredictable, and can be life-threatening if you are not prepared. The safest strategy is to assume the worst: a) You will be hit by a storm; b) you won’t be able to climb off or retreat without endangering yourself; c) you won’t have a choice of bivouacs; and d) you will be hit by more cold water than you ever imagined.
The most significant problem for most of the parties was lack of adequate shelter. Without it the climbers’ insulation could not perform. Bivy sacks are fine for protecting sleeping bags from condensation and light rain, but inadequate as the primary shelter. A tarp may suffice on a rock ledge, but it must be of strong material, very large, and with sealed seams. Tarps have their limitations in that you may not find anchors in the right places, you may not reach a ledge, and it’s difficult to keep water from running underneath.
Few take portaledges on routes with natural ledges like the Salathe and the Nose, but in storm season that might be the wisest choice. They pitch anywhere quickly and keep you out of the water. As a compromise, consider hammocks with flys. Two hammocks are not much heavier than a tarp.
In our opinion, almost every climber in this incident had inadequate clothing. The reasons seemed to be lack of cash, no room in the haul bag, and simply not knowing or accepting the potential for a typical storm. Clothes and sleeping bags rated for 30° F dry air are worthless when soaked with 40° F water or even with condensation. Dress for sitting around, not exercising, in 0° weather. Do not let the size of your haul bag determine your gear.
Miscellaneous: a) All the items lost at Camp 6 could have been clipped in. Sew anchor loops on every item you want to keep, and use them. b) Dehydration hastens hypothermia. If you can’t drink plain, cold water, add a little sugar/energy powder and keep the bottles in your sleeping bag where they’ll stay relatively warm. c) Whether to climb or rappel depends on the route and your condition, and can be a very difficult decision. Retreating on the Nose is straightforward, however. Being so unprepared for rain, the Europeans should have gone down when they saw the bad weather approaching. d) If things don’t go right, try to deal with them, but don’t let pride take you past the point of no return. (Additional reading: “Staying Alive,” in Yosemite Climbs; Climbing, 2/90, p. 97; Climbing, 5/95, p. 114.) (Source: John Dill, SAR Ranger, Yosemite National Park)
Editor’s Note: First it should be noted that the above incident should not be construed as an international one. While climbers from different countries were involved, it should be apparent that even if they had all been from the same country, the problem would have been the same: urban crowding and the behaviors that go with it.
There were lengthy reports from the Sunkist party of two and the Salathe Wall party of two who also had to be rescued during this time that have not been included. The latter account describes the fight against hypothermia, the desire to self-rescue, and the ultimate decision to ask for help. It concludes with a fitting quote: “We were whipped, and we were fortunate that rescue was an option.”