STRANDED – DID NOT CHECK FIXED ROPES, DEHYDRATION, FATIGUE, WEATHER
California, Yosemite Valley, Lost Arrow Spire
Late fall in the Sierra Nevada had been mild, so in mid-December, Art (23), Robert (28), and Eric (22), all Yosemite locals, decided to climb the Direct Route on Lost Arrow Spire (13 pitches, VI 5.11 A3). They would finish in the notch between the Arrow and the main wall, roughly 300 feet below the rim. There is no enjoyable way to climb out, so it’s customary to fix ropes from the rim into the notch as an escape. Art had been down to the notch before, when climbing the Arrow Spire, so he knew where to set up; on December 13, he and Eric hiked up the Yosemite Falls Trail with the gear. Art anchored one rope, tied another onto its free end, and threw them over the edge. Then he looked from a viewpoint on the rim to confirm that the rope reached all the way down to the notch.
On the 15th, the party of three fixed two pitches and slept at the base of the wall. The next day they climbed their lines and completed four more pitches, then dropped down to bivouac on the First Error, a ledge at the top of pitch 4.
They’d planned on two days for the climb and had brought along 8–12 liters of water—they’re not sure how much. But they’d used some of it fixing pitches and found themselves working hard in hot, sunny weather, drinking more than they’d intended. That night they realized they were low on water. They briefly considered retreating, but figured they could stretch their supplies to the notch, then climb their fixed line to a water cache they’d left on top.
The next day was as they’d expected—long hours and hard work in the heat. They climbed the last two pitches in the dark, then looked around for the fixed line. When they couldn’t find it, they realized that their only course of action was to bivouac again and locate the rope in the daylight.
They’d been rationing water all day and finished it on the last pitch; Robert was particularly dehydrated—his arms were cramping and he felt sick. It was a dry, unpleasant bivouac and so windy in the notch that night that they got little sleep.
The next morning they spotted their rope peeking over a ledge 150 feet or more above them. There was no way they could retrieve it, and they knew that their easy exit was gone. They could see a possible climbing route out of the notch, but they’d heard it was difficult and poorly protected. Good free climbers under normal conditions, they were so physically and psychologically drained that no one felt it was worth the risk.
The next option was to go down. A bolted rappel route descends steep slabs just east of the Direct Route. However, they had not brought an emergency bolt kit, so there would be no escape if just one anchor turned out to be damaged. The logical choice was to rappel the route they’d climbed, but they felt too exhausted to spend at least one more day in the sun, without water, reversing all 13 pitches.
Their perch gave them a clear view of Yosemite Village, 2500 feet directly below, and when they recognized the vehicle of a friend pulling up to the NPS SAR Office, it was an easy decision to start yelling and waving their portaledge fly. With the help of a loudspeaker and telescope, the NPS figured out the problem and sent a team to hike to the rim, rappel partway, and throw the hung up rope down to the stranded party.
When one of the rescuers rappelled to free the fixed line, he found it neatly piled on a ledge 100 feet below its anchor, out of view of the rim because of the rounded nature of the face. Either a hiker had come along and pulled up the rope out of curiosity (or maliciousness?), or it had piled up there when Art first threw it over. He hadn’t brought a harness that day, so he couldn’t rappel to check the placement directly. From his viewpoint, he had been pretty sure he’d seen the end of the rope at the bottom, but now he’ll never know for sure. Furthermore, he now realizes the importance of anchoring the bottom of the line as well as the top.
Here are two more reasons to go down the entire line: First, to locate any sharp edges and protect the rope against them. Second, to anchor the rope in one or more intermediate spots. This minimizes the amount of time the rope is abrading on an edge as a climber ascends, and allows more than one person to ascend simultaneously.
Art, Robert, and Eric agreed that if they’d brought more water they would have been willing to rappel, or even to tackle the climb out. Based on a minimum requirement of two liters per day, plus a day or more of reserve, they were short before they started. They pointed out, themselves, that they didn’t carefully do the math, but just looked at the pile of bottles and figured it was enough. In other words, pay as much attention to your water as you do to your rack.
Finally, being able to yell to your friends is a classic benefit of Valley climbing. In a more remote part of the park, such as Mt. Watkins, Art, Robert, and Eric may have been forced to solve the problem on their own. (Source: John Dill, NPS Ranger, Yosemite National Park)
(Editor’s Note: Other reports from California included a description of a fall on hard snow in the Sierra Nevada in October and twelve incident summaries from Joshua Tree National Park.
The fall on North Palisades was serious, involving multiple fractures and lacerations, and a difficult evacuation. John Miksits, who sent forward the details, pointed out many lessons learned, mostly from the resulting long evacuation and remoteness of the accident scene. These included having adequate clothing and a stove, knowing first aid, having the phone numbers and addresses of everyone in your party, and having spare batteries for headlamps.
Of the twelve Joshua Tree incidents reported, eight were considered to be non-climbing, involving hikers who were boulder hopping, scrambling, and being overdue. Of the three climbing incidents, one was a fatality and the other two were solo climbers who took serious falls. The reports received focused on the rescues. There were very few details on the accidents themselves.)