American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Stranded - Weather, Inadequate Equipment, Hypothermia — California, Yosemite Valley, Half Dome

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 2000

STRANDED – WEATHER, INADEQUATE EQUIPMENT, HYPOTHERMIA

California, Yosemite Valley, Half Dome

English climbers Justin (28) and Luke (about 25) arrived in the Valley in May, intent on climbing the regular Northwest Face of Half Dome (24 pitches, VI 5.9 A2). On May 31 they hiked up the slab approach and climbed six pitches. By the next evening, they had reached Big Sandy Ledge (top of pitch 17). They were right on schedule, seven pitches from the summit, and expecting to top out the next day. The weather had been good and the rock dry to that point, but as they arrived at Big Sandy they were hit by a heavy, 45-minute rain shower.

They left Big Sandy the next morning at 6:00 a.m., aiming to reach the top by mid-afternoon. It had started to snow lightly, but they decided it would be easier to push on than to descend the route. However, they were slowed by worsening snow conditions, and when they arrived at the bottom of the last pitch—a 5.7 slab—they found it unclimbable because of a covering of verglas and snow. They spent some time looking for a way to aid around the impasse, but all the possibilities they could see eventually rejoined the slab—and the ice—before reaching the summit. It was getting dark, so they decided it would be safer to bivouac than to attempt to continue.

They found a spot out of the wind and shared their single bivy sack. They had deliberately left their sleeping bags at home in order to go light, but had brought storm jackets and pants, and plenty of warm clothes, including mittens and hats. This gear had kept them comfortable so far.

There was little or no water running on the rock at their bivy that night, but the temperature was just below freezing, and their own body heat melted the snow that fell on them. Their bivy sack was made completely of a waterproof, breathable material, without a coated nylon bottom. The snow melt leaked through the sack into their clothes and even ran down their necks.

They spent a miserable night, and by the morning of June 3, they were wet, cold, and completely covered by snow. They considered rappelling, but the route had wandered so much that it would be difficult to reverse and would expose them further to the weather. They decided to wait for the sun to melt the ice off the slab, figuring they’d be able to summit by mid-afternoon. But it stayed cloudy and cold, reducing them to blowing a whistle in hopes of attracting hikers on the summit; whether no one was there or the sound didn’t carry, they got no response. Another bivouac was likely, whether they tried to descend or wait out the weather. They would survive another night, but thought they would not be able to function on their own the next day.

At about 7 a.m. on the 3rd, Mark, an acquaintance who had been a day ahead of them on the route, notified the NPS that Justin and Luke were overdue. He thought that they would have been down already if they had retreated because of the storm.

The overdue party was not visible from the Valley floor, but the clouds were breaking up, and the NPS helicopter quickly found them. By the time the rescue team was able to land on the summit and lower a rescuer, both climbers were hypothermic, with frost nip on their hands and feet. Despite their condition, they managed to climb the rescue team's ropes to the summit.

Analysis

Justin and Luke had experience in stormy alpine weather and knew that storms were common in Yosemite, but they had not expected to encounter ice on the summit slabs. ("Staying Alive," the safety chapter in the Yosemite climbing guide, which they had read, states, "Temperatures may drop, freezing solid the next pitch....") May and June bring plenty of serious storms in the park, and any face climbing pitch may become impassable due to water or ice. Half Dome is particularly prone to winter conditions. At 8842 feet, its summit rises almost a mile above the Valley floor. The weather is equivalent to that in the high country, with occasional blizzards, ice-and rescues-even in August.

Claims of waterproof breathable fabric (Goretex and other brands) leaking, whether true or not, are common among wall climbers. Even with coated nylon bottoms, bivy sacks are notoriously poor shelters in wet conditions. There are just too many ways for water to find its way inside. The closest thing to a fool-proof shelter is a well designed portaledge in good condition, with properly sealed seams.

Two factors aided their survival. First, and most important, friends knew where they were. Second, the clouds broke enough for the NPS to fly. A ground approach-an eight-mile uphill hike in the snow-would have taken the rescue team several more hours, leaving Justin and Luke on the wall into the next night. (Source: John Dill, NPS Ranger, Yosemite National Park)

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