INADEQUATE WATER, FATIGUE, LOSS OF GEAR, UNABLE TO CONTINUE CLIMBING
California, Yosemite Valley, El Capitan
On July 3, Japanese climber Hideki Inaba (33) began a solo climb of Cosmos (VI 5.9 A4). He had chosen it because he thought it was a beautiful line, a bit harder than he’d climbed to date, and he wanted to climb alone with little chance of meeting another party. (Cosmos gets few ascents.)
The climb is 28 pitches long via the direct finish; an easier but longer option traverses left on Thanksgiving Ledge from the top of pitch 22 to the West Buttress route. Inaba had not decided which way he would go, but he figured he would average 2.5-3 pitches per day. That totaled nine days, not counting four pitches he had fixed. He packed a typical assortment of wall food and 20 liters of water, allowing him two liters per day with two liters extra.
On the 3rd, Inaba climbed his fixed lines and managed one more pitch. On the 4th, he climbed pitch 6 and was fixing the first half of pitch 7 when he saw his portaledge, which had been blowing around in high winds, break loose from its fly and sail into the woods. The twistlock carabiner anchoring the ledge had apparently unclipped itself. He bivouacked back at pitch 5, in slings.
On the 5th he made it through half of pitch 8 (the pendulum was difficult and time- consuming) and slept at pitch 7. On the 6th he bivouacked at the top of pitch 10. This was the first day he had managed over two pitches.
He had hoped fixed gear would speed him along, but he found very little; also the route was brushy (not surprising, given the low traffic), and more awkward than he had expected. Furthermore he was drinking 2.5 liters per day, 25% more than he’d allowed for, so he decided to limit himself to one liter per day. He would climb from 0600 to noon, when the sun first struck the route, and hide in the shade of his fly during the afternoon. Uncomfortable in slings, he was sleeping only an hour each night.
On the 7th, he reached the top of pitch 12 and bivouacked there without fixing. That day he lost his only topo. This worried him because he didn’t have the route memorized. He managed two pitches per day on the 8th, 9th, and 10th, taking him to the top of pitch 18. He’d been on the wall eight of his planned nine days and was far behind schedule. Thanksgiving Ledge, where he might be able to ditch some of his gear and take the easier finish, was still four pitches away. Although he had considered rappelling and felt he could do so at any point, he decided to keep going because reversing the traverse and pendulum on pitches 7 and 8 would be difficult and he was uneasy about such a long descent.
On the 11th, he started up pitch 19. The first five meters went free, followed by 10 meters of aid in twin cracks. At that point he placed a small camming unit in the left crack and a knife blade in the right. When he weighted them they both pulled, and so did several lower pieces as he fell. He was stopped about five meters above the belay but had fallen upside down and took a blow to the head. He didn’t lose consciousness but received a long gash behind his right ear that soaked his helmet with blood. He downclimbed to the belay ledge and stopped for the day.
The pitch had been confusing—especially without his topo—with many ways to go. He seemed physically OK, but being low on water (3-4 liters left), in a hurry to reach Thanksgiving Ledge, and certainly dehydrated, he felt he had not been concentrating well.
Later that day, while adjusting his tent fly, he accidentally knocked his remaining water off the ledge. He had known to clip everything in, especially something as precious as water, and he worried that he might be growing confused. For the first time, he felt despair and thought of rescue. Still, he thought he could continue and did not call for help.
He had also forgotten to clip in his helmet, and that night it, too, fell off the ledge. Whether or not this tipped the balance, he knew he couldn’t climb or retreat without more water. At 0600 the next morning, the 12th, he briefly called for help, then sat there for a few hours thinking about his predicament.
Also that morning, Toshiaki Kitajima, an acquaintance of Inaba’s, walked the base of the wall hoping to check on him and discovered the bloody helmet. He recognized it immediately and went straight to the NPS with the story. Needless to say, it got our attention!
We soon located Inaba, sitting on the ledge under his fly. With Kitajima translating our questions through a loudspeaker, we were able to determine his situation. By 1130 that morning we were organizing the rescue, but helicopter problems delayed getting our team in place and it was not until 1930 that evening that we were able to raise Inaba to the summit. He spent the night on top with the team and was flown down to the clinic the next morning. He was released after his laceration was cleaned and stitched; deafness in his right ear from the blow to his head was expected to be temporary.
Inaba had been climbing for ten years and led 5.9 and A3+. He had climbed K2, Gasherbrum I, and both the Cassin Ridge and West Buttress routes on Denali, as well as the Direct on Half Dome and the South Face of Washington Column. Cosmos was his first solo and first El Cap route.
Inaba found out the hard way that logistics and climbing can be equal challenges on El Cap just as they are on K2. I admire his determination, but, by not accepting that he’d planned inadequately, he put himself in a potentially fatal situation. (Source: John Dill, NPS Ranger, Yosemite National Park)