WEATHER, HYPOTHERMIA, INADEQUATE EQUIPMENT
California, Yosemite Valley, El Capitan, The Nose
On April 9, two parties of climbers started up the Nose (Grade VI) on El Capitan. One group included John Montecucco (30) and Shawn Kelley (28) and the other Aaron Silverman (27) and Matt Francis (25). All four had several years of experience and climbed at a high standard. All but Shawn had climbed Grade Vs, and, for all, the Nose was their first Grade VI.
Each climber carried several layers of polypro, fleece, and Goretex, both top and bottom, as well as insulated socks, hats, and gloves. They had three 20-25 F synthetic bags and a 0° F down bag, three Goretex bivy sacks, and a plastic tarp. For shelter each team had brought the fly from a new A5 double portaledge, recently seam-sealed.
They fixed pitches on Sunday after checking the forecast: fair, with no storms through Thursday. On Wednesday night, the 12th, Aaron and Matt biwied one pitch below Camp 6, while John and Shawn stopped at Camp 5. Both groups hoped to top out the next day.
Early Thursday morning it was hazy, gray, and breezy. Aaron and Matt could see it snowing across the Valley so they put on their storm clothes, then Aaron led the pitch off Camp 6 and hauled the bags. The whole way up the pitch and while waiting at the belay he was getting wet from the normal spring runoff in the corner. Matt was half-way up the pitch, cleaning, when they were hit by heavy rain and snow They retreated to Camp 6, leaving their ropes in place, and set up their shelter.
That morning, on Camp 5, the wind had caught Johns sleeping bag and had blown it away. He and Shawn nevertheless decided to continue and climbed the next pitch. The two groups decided to join forces and use all of their ropes to fix to the top, so Aaron and Matt tossed John and Shawn a line. By the time they were all together the rain was very heavy, and water was pouring down the wall and beginning to freeze. It was obvious they weren’t going anywhere, so John and Shawn also set up their shelter. It was now about 1030.
Condensation built up as soon as they got under their flies. The flies were clipped to fairly high anchors but, without ledge frames to stretch them out, it was difficult to keep them off their bags and clothes so they constantly got wet. When a blast of wind and rain hit them, it knocked more condensation onto them.
John and Shawn felt that the rain and runoff was being blown straight through the fabric of their fly and that it dripped through where it pooled in low spots, but not at the seams. Water also seemed to enter via the anchor sling in the apex of the fly, soaking their daisy chains, and it ran under the fly, along the rock where their backup anchor rope lay.
They dealt with the water as best they could by arranging their pads, tarp, and clothing to shunt most of it away; John remained comfortable but Shawn had trouble keeping water out of his bivy sack, and he became soaked and hypothermic as the day progressed. It was very difficult, if not impossible, to stay dry with the gear they had and with the constantly dripping condensation and leakage. Furthermore, the rock ledge sloped a bit so they frequently had to reposition themselves with respect to the fly.
Matt and Aaron had similar problems with condensation but none with leakage. However, while Matt stayed warm and dry, Aaron, already wet from leading the pitch above, got even wetter and was soon shivering.
By late afternoon Shawn and Aaron had deteriorated further. It was obvious that going up or down on their own was out of the question. The temperature was dropping and more ice was building up on the wall and beginning to coat the inside of the flies. Shawn and Aaron felt that, for them, rescue was the only option, and their partners agreed.
At 1900 they began flashing lights at the cars below. Eventually the NPS called back with a loudspeaker and learned their situation. Flying rescuers to the Summit was not possible because it was so late in the day and the cliff was socked in, so the rangers told them not to expect help until the next morning.
John and Matt spent most of the night trying to keep their partners awake and moving, to stay warm. At 2300 John and Shawn brought out their one sleeping bag, which they’d held in reserve, and put it over both of them. In John’s opinion, it slowed Shawn’s deterioration significantly.
Twenty rescuers tried to get to the summit that night by taking snowcats up the Tioga and Tamarack Flat roads, then hiking the remaining eight miles. They never even made it to the trailhead—visibility was zero and the machines bogged down in one of the deepest winter snowpacks in recent memory.
Fortunately, the storm broke by midnight, allowing the team to fly the next morning and lower rescuers 600 feet to Camp 6. By 1400 all four climbers had managed to jumar to the rim. Their ascent was very difficult because of their condition and because the ropes were icing rapidly from water dripping in freezing temperatures. Just as the last rescuers were flown from the summit the clouds closed in again. For the next several days, conditions on the cliff remained windy and often below freezing, yet with water running everywhere.
Climbing in cold, wet conditions played a key role in this and many previous cases. Once you are wet you can’t dry out unless you have a complete change of clothes. Aaron said, “I would have been 100% better off had I not led the pitch out of Camp 6.”
Plenty of parties successfully rely on tarps, bivy sacks, and portaledge flies, but these are much riskier than a complete portaledge because you can’t depend on being in the right place to set up, and water will find many ways inside.
Opinions remain divided on the security of portaledge flies. Several climbers have claimed new, seamsealed flies have leaked. A5 thinks it is actually due to condensation and/or poor seamsealing, but Fish Products states that the fabric used in most flies is not completely waterproof. Fish recommends applying NikWax Watershed for additional protection. Seam Grip is currently recommended for seams. Whatever your solutions, test your gear before the climb.
All four sleeping bags were inadequate for El Cap conditions. Down is well known to be useless when it’s wet. If Shawn’s bag stayed dry it’s because they didn’t use it at all until after he got cold enough to need a rescue. Synthetics retain more loft but if you and the bag are wet you will need a much warmer model. Keep critical items like these clipped in. John did OK without his sleeping bag, but losing it cut their margin of safety, and that bag would have made a difference for Shawn.
Aaron and Matt had only one foam pad; they left it in the haul bag because “it was a pain to constantly take it out.” Pads are critical items—take them, use them, and clip them in. (Source: John Dill, NPS Ranger)