American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Stranded—Off Route, Weather, Inadequate Clothing and Equipment, Exceeding Abilities, California, Tuolumne Meadows, Fairview Dome

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 2004


California, Tuolumne Meadows, Fairview Dome

On July 27, Randy Popkin (46) and his son, Cameron (16), climbed the Regular Route on Fairview Dome. They got to the base at 7:00 a.m. to allow plenty of time for the route, but a party of four was already there. Waiting for the larger party to clear the second pitch cost the Popkins 45 minutes, and then another hour on the third. The party of four ultimately pulled ahead, but the Popkins then lost more time allowing a faster party to pass. Randy and Cameron were having no problems with the technical difficulty of the climb, but they were getting a lesson in the realities of a long and popular route.

Finally, high on the face, where the route traverses to the right to the final fourth-class pitches, they missed the turn and continued straight up. By the time they realized their error and had rappelled back to their previous belay, another 45 minutes had gone by. By now it was nearing dusk, and Randy knew they would not get off. They reached the fourth-class section and ran up it as fast as they could, but they had no lights, and darkness stopped them 100 feet from the top.

The forecast had been good—no storms in sight—and the day had been excellent, but clouds began to build up in the late afternoon. At dusk it began to rain and hail, with lightning in the distance. Randy was somewhat protected with light nylon pants and a fleece-lined Goretex jacket, but Cameron had only shorts and a cotton long-sleeve sweatshirt. Luckily the precipitation never became heavy, and they found a decent ledge with an overhang that allowed partial shelter.

Their water and food had lasted all day, but now it was gone. They did, however, have a Family Band radio, and Randy’s wife—who had already notified the NPS that they were overdue—was able to contact them from the road at about midnight. Randy initially figured they would sit it out, but he changed his mind when he realized that Cameron was getting cold.

The Park Service was also concerned that a second thunderstorm was forming, so they sent two members of the rescue team to the top of Fairview. They were able to rappel to the Popkins and belay them to the summit. Everyone walked out to the road a little before 6:00 a.m., just as the sun was coming up.


Both had been climbing indoors and outdoors for the last two years and consistently followed 5.10. Cameron was not yet leading, but Randy had led a dozen or so single-pitch climbs at the 5.9 level. Neither had done a multi-pitch route without a guide, but a guide familiar with Randy’s progress had suggested that he was ready to lead Fairview. The guide felt Randy was ready to lead the route, and he was right, as the climbing was never an issue. But a new leader and a non-leader make a pretty weak team if anything serious happens, and the guide probably assumed that Randy would include an experienced climber in the party.

Here’s a short list of common practices: Don’t trust the weather forecast, especially in the high country. Depending on the route, your skill level, and your style, take headlamps, warm clothes (including hats), and lightweight rain gear. Also consider a spare, lightweight rope so that you can make full- pitch rappels without leaving your entire rack behind. A cell phone or FRS radio (and someone on the other end) is also a good idea. But it’s no substitute for preparation and ability. Expect delays—almost everyone we rescue because of darkness or storm blames heavy traffic or the lack of street signs. Check your progress and be realistic. Adverse conditions are no big deal if you’re equipped to sit the situation out. Otherwise you should retreat while you’re able. (Source: John Dill, NPS Ranger, Yosemite National Park)

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