DEHYDRATION–INADEQUATE WATER, WEATHER
California, Yosemite Valley, El Capitan
On September 22, Mark Gunlogson (41) and I, Micha Miller (41), started up New Dawn wall (VI 5.8 A3) on El Captain. The weather before our ascent had been unseasonably warm (low 90’s), with cooler temperatures forecast for the coming week. We considered waiting for the better conditions but were on a tight schedule and wanted to get started on the route. We planned on taking seven days. Knowing how critical water would be, we each had three quarts readily available for the first day, and five additional gallons per person, packed away in our two haul bags, for the next six days (3.3 quarts per person per day). In addition to what we figured was an ample supply of water, we were also prepared for fall storms, had a bolt kit, and, in short, were ready for any contingency—or so we thought.
Our goal for the 22nd was to climb three pitches and sleep at our high point, but it was very hot, and we moved more slowly than planned. We managed to finish our three pitches, but we left the haul bags at the top of pitch two and returned to the ground for more water. We slept at Curry Village, where we drank generous amounts of fruit juice and Gatorade to replenish what we had lost.
On the 23rd we left the ground with three more quarts each, giving us 3.8 quarts per person per day for the anticipated six days committed to the wall. It was slow going, with heavy bags and double hauls—the follower would have to wait until the first bag had been hauled, before he could release the second bag and start cleaning. Evening found us on Lay Lady Ledge (top of pitch seven, “Supertopo”) after another hot day. We were tired and dehydrated, and we had drunk a bit more than our 3.8-quart ration.
On the 24th we climbed to Texas Flake (top of pitch 11). The temperature remained high, with not even the slightest hint of a breeze. Today, only our second continuous day on the wall, Mark’s mouth became so parched—probably from breathing hard in the hot, dry air—that he gagged frequently, triggering dry heaves. He suffered this for the next four days.
On the 25th we completed the traverse to the top of pitch 13 of the Wall of Early Morning Light (pitch 14 of New Dawn). For more efficient hauling we had consolidated all of our stuff into one haul bag, but we could do nothing about the weather, which continued unchanged. This was Mark’s tenth ascent of El Cap and my seventh, and neither of us had seen such a long period of both high temperatures and breezeless conditions on the wall. We had pressed on because we “knew” from experience that, at the very least, daily thermal winds would kick in, and that temperatures would drop as we got higher. However, this was proving not to be the case, and by this point we were thirsty all of the time. It was time to ration our water. We ate very little at meal times because we had brought dry food (not as much moist canned food as usual), and our thirst inhibited our hunger.
On the 26th (our fourth continuous day on the wall) we climbed three more pitches to Wino Tower and fixed one pitch. At Wino Tower (complete with broken wine bottle) we reviewed our progress and the water remaining. Our thirst continued to increase and we had involuntarily reduced our food intake even more. Our allowable water ration at this point was inadequate for our needs, even though we were still drinking about 3.5 quarts a day per person. If we managed to subsist on this ration, and climbed at this pace, we would need a half day more on the route than we’d planned and be just out of water as we finished. But it didn’t work out that way.
On the 27th we pushed hard and reached the top of pitch 22, a hanging belay under a large roof. I was so dry now that my salivary glands had shut down, and I couldn’t swallow without first adding water to my mouth. It took me an hour to eat a Clif Bar. Mark’s dry heaves continued and his tongue got so physically stuck in his mouth that he had to push it around with his finger. We were feeling very weak and a little panicky, as conditions remained hot and windless. Even the nights had been hot; we slept with our sleeping bags barely covering ourselves. Mark went the day of the 27th without urinating, and I only urinated a small amount in the evening and early morning, none during the day.
The 28th was our sixth continuous day on the wall, and was to have been our summit day. We called a friend with our cell phone and asked him to meet us on top with water. We climbed pitch 23, the Dawn Roof, and stopped, completely exhausted, with four pitches to go and one quart per person left. The sun was relentless and the heat radiating off the rock felt like a sauna. We had found a little shady corner and I was thinking, “Should we go until we collapse?” Then I put my arm out in the sun and that did it! It was scorching. I thought, “I can’t go out and lead this pitch.”
We called the NPS rescue team at about noon and told them our situation. Water was all we needed and we didn’t want to be hauled up. The rangers told us they would fly a team to the summit, lower a medic to us with several gallons of water, and make the decision then. We drank our last quart, and waited.
Our savior arrived about three hours later. He checked us over, decided we could continue, and left us on the route with four gallons, plus more that he would leave on top. We slept 12 hours that night after drinking our fill and finally eating a large meal. The next day was a different world. We were tired, with aches that mysteriously appeared for the first time as we re-hydrated, but the cotton-mouth was gone and we felt stronger. We topped out that evening having drunk about two gallons each in the preceding 24-hour period.
Did we ask for a rescue because we had a cell phone and help was near? Maybe. But in our condition, either of us could have made a fatal mistake while climbing, or suffered heat stroke, with the same result. I’d been dry before and I thought I knew what dehydration was all about. We never doubted that we would be successful. It just had to get cooler, or maybe we would find water on a ledge higher up. But we were wrong, and we lost—we were truly cooked.
What to do as climbers? Accept that we run a razor’s edge on dehydration. We rarely take enough water for our needs on big walls. Every big wall climber can attest to dark urine, infrequent urination, and thirst. That is the reality of climbing in the sunny world of Yosemite, but you still can’t defeat the physiology, so take at least a conservative minimum. The average person loses about 2.5 quarts per day just sitting around, and the average athlete loses about one quart per hour during moderate exercise. So it’s not surprising that we probably needed about five quarts per person per day to do the climb—dehydrated but functioning—in the conditions we experienced. That totals 15 gallons (125 pounds) for the two of us, in the haul bag.
What else would we do differently next time? Do not base plans on a weather forecast—plan for the worst, hope for the best. Bring an emergency stash beyond the carefully calculated rations, to compensate for dropped water, unforeseen delays, and unexpected weather. Substitute moist canned food, e.g., canned fruit, for some of the water, to keep caloric intake high. Minimize overly sweet water (Gatorade, etc.) or dilute it to avoid “sticky mouth.” Keep the day’s rations easily available and remind each other to drink. Start early each day and/or climb at night if conditions warrant, to reduce water loss. Bring a cheater stick to assist difficult retreats. We did not and decided it would be easier to continue up than to attempt a risky descent. (Source: Micha Miller and Mark Gunlogson)
(Editor’s Note: It is always appreciated when those directly involved in an incident write such thorough reports. Oh, and for those of you who are not familiar with a “cheater stick, ” here’s the word from John Dill: It’s a short pole—3–4 feet long—with a carabiner (or other gadget) attached at the far end. You use it to clip protection that is out of your reach. If you ’re leading a hard aid pitch, you can “cheat” by reaching past a difficult placement. On an overhanging rappel, you can reach in to the wall, clip a bolt hanger or other fixed pro, and thereby stay close to the rock. Sticks used to be home-made (tent poles, etc.) but there is at least one commercial model now.)