American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Stranded, Inadequate Clothing and Equipment, Weather, California, Yosemite Valley, El Capitan

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1997

STRANDED, INADEQUATE CLOTHING AND EQUIPMENT, WEATHER

California, Yosemite Valley, El Capitan

On May 16, 1996, the National Park Service rescued Austrian climbers Christian Zenz (22) and Christian Wassertheurer (27) from The Shield on El Capitan, after the pair had been exposed to a storm without a fly for their portaledge.

The pair got advice about the route from friends and from Yosemite Climbs. Zenz had also read the guide book chapter entitled “Staying Alive,” which describes Yosemite storms and tactics for surviving them.

On Sunday morning, May 12, they checked the weather forecast, which called for sunny skies with a slight cooling trend, and started climbing. By Tuesday night they had completed one pitch above the Shield Roof. Tuesday was windy and cloudy but, in their opinion, not indicative of a storm. This was the first hanging bivouac they had encountered on the climb, and the first time they had needed their borrowed portaledge. When they set it up, they discovered that there was no rain fly. It rained that night, but they stayed fairly dry by using plastic tube tents over their sleeping bags.

The rain stopped Wednesday morning, allowing them to dry their clothes and sleeping bags in the breeze. They had 11 pitches to go, it was still cloudy, and without the fly they were completely exposed to further bad weather. Retreat was an option. The 25- foot roof would be difficult to down climb, but it was fixed and they had a cheater stick. However they thought the weather might improve, so they decided to continue up.

About 1400, before they could begin climbing, the rain began again. This time it was heavy, with a strong wind that blew their portaledge around. The wind and rain, mixed with sleet, continued through the night, and the temperature dipped below freezing with ice coating the wall. They were now soaking wet and very cold, in the “hardest” bivvy of their careers.

Wassertheurer was using a down sleeping bag. It was rated to well below freezing but it became useless as it got wet. They wore Gore-tex storm jackets and pants but claimed that the wind blew water through the fabric. Although they now realized they should rappel, their hands had become too cold to operate carabiners and they would certainly deteriorate further if they tried to descend. Thursday morning, knowing they were trapped, they called for a rescue.

The rain stopped by midday. After attempts to deliver a portaledge and bivvy gear by helicopter were thwarted by strong downdrafts, the rescue team was flown to the summit and one rescuer lowered to them. Zenz and Wassertheurer were able to jumar about 1000 feet to the rim without difficulty.

Analysis

Zenz and Wassertheurer each had eight years of climbing experience and climbed 5.13. They had climbed in many parts of the world, on multi-day routes, in rain, snow, wind, and cold temperatures. They had climbed the Nose on El Capitan just prior to attempting the Shield.

They stated later that they had borrowed the portaledge in Austria and had assumed the fly was in the same sack as the ledge; when they packed for the climb they did not attempt to check its condition, let alone that it was there in the first place. They agreed that they would have borrowed a rain fly before starting the climb, had they known theirs was missing.

Down is well known to lose almost all insulative value when wet. Wassertheurer relied on the shell material because it was supposed to be “highly water-resistant.” He had apparently never tested it in truly wet conditions. Neither climber had bivvy sacks. We recommend (but do not guarantee) them as a second line of defense against condensation or leaks inside a portaledge.

Zenz and Wassertheurer were cited by the NPS for “creating a hazardous condition” by unnecessarily putting rescuers at risk, under 36 CFR 2.34 (a) (4). They pled guilty and were placed on one year’s probation on the condition that they pay rescue costs totaling $13,325. (Source: Keith Lober, John Dill, NPS Rangers, Yosemite National Park)

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