STRANDED–BENIGHTED, EXPOSURE–INADEQUATE CLOTHING AND EQUIPMENT, WEATHER, LATE START
California, Yosemite National Park, Royal Arches
My son Sascha (21) and I (54) climbed the Royal Arches (5.7) route in Yosemite Valley on April 10. The weather forecast was sunny and clear for that Tuesday and a chance of rain on Wednesday. We carried a rucksack, 70-meter rope, a large rack of cams, slings, carabiners, etc., helmets, walkie- talkies, three liters of water, some food, a couple of rain parkas, some minimal survival gear, one pair of light gloves, a headlamp, and flashlight. We started the climb at about 8:30 a.m. During most of the morning and early afternoon, I felt confident we could pull this off. We used the walkie-talkies to communicate over the background chatter on the family band frequency. I did all the leading. Around 3 or 4:00 p.m., I became concerned that we weren’t moving fast enough to make the North Dome Gully descent in daylight. We completed the final pitch, an exposed, poorly protected 5.4 ramp that was variably wet and covered with pine needles, as the sun was setting. We quickly and sloppily coiled the rope and prepared to hike to the NDG when we noticed that there was quite a bit of water on the granite slab leading into the forest. I didn’t want to take any chances, so I decided to rope up for the exposed traverse. Unfortunately, the hastily coiled rope became a rat’s nest as I tried to flake it out. This set us back at least a half hour and it was completely unnecessary, since we could have safely done the traverse unroped. We spent the next few hours hiking toward Washington Column to look for the descent route in the moonless dark of night with a headlamp and a flashlight. The satisfaction of completing the climb was quickly replaced with frustration and increasing concern over not finding any resemblance of a trail or a cairn to follow as we headed along the valley rim toward Washington Column. For short distances, never more than a few hundred feet, we were clearly on what looked like a typical climbers’ trail heading in the right direction with occasional cairns. It felt like playing “Pin the Tail on the Donkey,” only the donkey was several thousand feet away on the other side of a ridge. If you walk in the wrong direction, there is a 2,000-foot drop.
We clumsily made our way up the gently sloping granite slabs over the ridge north of Washington Column. As we descended on the east side of the ridge, we ended up bushwhacking through acres of manzanita. This was exhausting and demoralizing. I grew increasingly concerned that we were depleting our remaining internal resources engaged in a futile exercise. Even if we could find the descent, it would be insane to attempt it on an overcast, moonless night, especially given our level of fatigue. Around 11:00 p.m. we found meager shelter under a nearby boulder for a bivouac. Unbeknownst to us, my wife Ingrid was calling the National Park Service in Yosemite to notify them that we had not reported back from the climb. As we prepared for our bivouac, I was horrified to realize that we had managed to lose Sascha’s rain parka. I struggled to maintain my composure knowing the magnitude of our predicament. We broke open and activated the hand-warmer packages and pretended to sleep. Although I doubt either of us got much sleep, we survived the night reasonably well huddled together to stay warm covered with garbage bags and a space blanket. Cloud cover kept the nighttime low temperature above freezing.
We got up at first light around 6:00 a.m. on Wednesday morning to 80 percent cloud cover and a storm brewing to the east. The visibility was not much better now, but I could see that we were east of Washington Column and a bit too high on the ridge. Apparently we had been following a trail marked with sparse cairns that led somewhere else. I estimated that it would begin snowing within one or two hours, rendering the descent much too dangerous to consider. With less than adequate gear to survive another day of exposure, especially at below freezing temperatures, I began broadcasting using our walkie-talkies. I broadcast for about an hour before someone named Jimmy somewhere in Yosemite Valley responded. I asked Jimmy to contact a ranger and tell him that we were on the rim near Washington Column and didn’t think we could survive the impending storm. Less than an hour later I was in radio communication with John Dill of Yosemite Search and Rescue.
Around 8:00 a.m. John Dill went over to Happy Isles to see if he could spot us with his binoculars. At first he couldn’t see us, so I waved the space blanket. Over the radio Dill reported that the blanket had appeared in the center of his field-of-view. Now that he had located us, Dill dispatched a three-person team consisting of Keith Lober and two climbing rangers, Rob and Matt, to meet up with us. They began their ascent of the Gully probably around 8:30 a.m. carrying climbing equipment, first aid, fluids, food, and warm clothes.
It began snowing sometime between 7:30 and 8:00 a.m. Initially the snow was light and came at us from the north. We sheltered on the lee side of the wind under pine trees that protected us reasonably well from the snow. This changed about an hour later when the storm increased in intensity and the wind shifted 180 degrees. Cold, wet snow came at us horizontally like we were being sprayed with a fire hose. I sheltered Sascha with the space blanket and garbage bags as best I could as the snow accumulated around us. At one point, Sascha pulled down the space blanket to look at the conditions and he was shocked at what he saw. We were suddenly in winter. Sascha quickly pulled the space blanket back over his head. I radioed YOSAR to inquire about progress. They informed that they were hampered by the storm, but that they would continue to meet with us.
Around 10:00 a.m., Keith Lober reported over the radio that they were near us and that he was sending up flares to see if we could see them. He sent up a total of four flares of which I saw only one as it descended several 100 feet to the east. Keith instructed us to rendezvous with them where Washington Column meets the ridge, the start of the gully descent. Sascha and I started in that direction as the storm raged on. I was becoming increasingly concerned that Sascha’s inner core temperature was beginning to drop into hypothermia. Shortly after bushwhacking through acres of manzanita the night before, we passed an ideal bivouac location under a large granite boulder where we could have stayed dry and built a fire. Because I hadn’t given up hope of descending at that time, we had passed on this opportunity. In retrospect, that was a mistake.
We scrambled over the snow-covered brush and talus toward the rendezvous location slipping, sliding, and falling like a couple of drunken sailors. As we approached the rendezvous, we came across a boulder that provided enough cover to shelter Sascha. I started calling out to see if they could hear me, while they were using a whistle to try to contact us.
A few minutes later, the storm paused long enough for me to see them about 100 feet away. After making eye contact, I quickly brought Sascha over to them. They immediately assessed Sascha’s condition and attended to him. They administered glucose-rich fluids, and provided hot packs and a parka. They also fixed a meal ready to eat (MRE) for him. While the two Rangers attended to Sascha, Keith Lober described how we were to descend. We roped together, with Keith leading and periodically placing pro consisting mainly of slings on trees with an occasional cam device in a crack. I was tied in about 40 to 50 feet behind Keith, then Sascha with Ranger Rob tied in next to him about 50 feet behind me and ranger Matt tied in at the end of the rope. As we descended and Sascha’s core temperature recovered, the pain in his extremities was intense and he began screaming. We descended to the valley floor roped together without incident as the storm subsided. We were back down on the valley floor by 2:00 p.m.
Do shorter climbs with son to gain experience to prepare for longer routes. Use shorter rope (e.g., 50 meters). Start earlier on long routes. Recognize predicament and find adequate bivy location. Bring survival equipment to build fire and survive snowstorm. Better preparations for descent.
My son and I continue to climb together on shorter routes with relatively straightforward descents. (Source: Victor Madrid)
(Editor’s Note: John Dill further advises that one should be careful about relying on cairns, as they do not indicate an official trail in Yosemite. He also suggests seeking advice about tricky descents and bringing a detailed map—and even a photo of the descent route.)