Stranded — Benighted, Exposure — Inadequate Clothing and Equipment, Late Start
California, Yosemite Valley, Lost Arrow Spire
On April 13, Steve (45), Will (23), and Brent (22) set out to climb the classic Lost Arrow Spire (two pitches, 5.8/5.10 A2). Steve had climbed at least 15 big walls in the park over 30 years, as well as five previous trips up the Spire. Will and Brent were good free climbers, mostly on short routes, but they were new to the park and eager to try aid climbing for the first time, so Steve decided the Spire would be a good introduction, as the climbing is straight forward, the is exposure huge and immediate, and the exit by Tyrolean is a lot of fan. He first spent a day teaching them the basics of jumaring and climbing with étriérs on short Valley problems, which they handled competently and safely.
The forecast on the morning of the 12th looked good, so the next day they started up the Yosemite Falls Trail at dawn carrying big packs. They took their time, broke for lunch at the top of the Falls, and arrived at the climb sometime around noon, though no one had a watch or cellphone, so they were estimating the hour.
The climb starts with a 250-300-foot rappel from the Valley rim into the bottom of the notch separating the main wall from the Spire. Parties typically tie two ropes together, anchor one end on the rim, and pass the knot on rappel. From the notch, two pitches of free and aid climbing wind up and left around the Spire to its tip, leaving the climbers separated from the Valley rim by a 140-foot gap. The pitches are led on a third rope while someone in the party drags the lower end of the rappel ropes along. Once on the Arrow Tip the rappel ropes, still anchored to the rim, can be rigged for a Tyrolean traverse from the Tip back to the rim.
From past experiences, Steve figured the climb would take four to five hours rim-to-rim. Dusk was about 2000, leaving them a three-hour cushion. At the worst they might have to hike back to the Valley in the dark.
As predicted, the weather was warm and sunny, so with no worries about time, they decided to leave most of their food and water, two of their three headlamps, and their warm jackets and long-underwear on the rim. For the climb they had two quarts of water, one Power Bar to split three ways, one headlamp, cotton long-sleeve-shirts or T-shirts, and light, un-insulated jackets. They had intended to bring a pair of ascenders for each person, but Will and Brent had to borrow all their aid gear on short notice and they somehow wound up one pair short. By the time Steve realized this, they were halfway up the trail, but he figured they could share ascenders since one person would always be leading.
They rappelled into the notch on two 200-foot ropes, passing the knot. By now it was early to mid-afternoon. The climb was Brent’s and Will’s to lead, so Brent took the first pitch, leading on their third rope, and had no problems. When he reached a small ledge 30 feet below the regular belay at Salathé Ledge, he asked if he should stop there. Thinking Brent was at Salathe Ledge, Steve said that would be fine.
Will led the next pitch, about 140 feet to the Arrow Tip. As he took off, Steve advised him that the pitch was notorious for rope-drag and that he could stop at an intermediate belay halfway up the pitch if drag became a problem. (The topo says, “Belay here if free climbing or too much rope drag.”) Will completed the 30 feet up to Salathé Ledge and traversed left on aid. He found himself short of gear in places, which forced him to back- clean, i.e., to pull protection behind him for use ahead. When he reached the optional belay, the drag was manageable so Steve suggested he continue. But the drag soon became so bad that Will had to squat in his étriérs every five feet to pull the rope up. It was too late to stop then so he fought the drag all the way to the top. Communications were terrible from the noise of Yosemite Falls and from being around the corner from each other.
With all the back-cleaning and friction, the pitch took roughly three hours. This was much longer than Steve had planned and it put them far behind schedule. Will anchored the lead rope and the rappel rope (which he had dragged along) to bolts on the summit and Steve cleaned the pitch. When he joined Will, he could still easily see details at the anchor on the rim, but the sun had set and the light was fading fast. He was concerned that Will and Brent would be trying the Tyrolean crossing for the first time, as they hadn’t practiced in the Valley. He didn’t want them having a problem halfway across in the dark, so he decided that the safest option would be to rappel into the notch and jumar back up to the rim.
Steve rappelled on the fixed lead rope then Brent jumared up to Will to get his chance to stand on the Tip. He and Will joined the lead and rappel ropes so that they could rappel on both and retrieve them. Then Will rappelled, but they had misjudged the distance, and because the rappel rope hung in an arc between the Arrow Tip and the anchor on the rim, he found himself suspended by his ATC at the bottom of the arc. After several minutes of struggle, he managed to free the rappel rope from his ATC and descend only on the lead line. During this time he faced a 30-foot fall if the knot joining the ropes pulled through the anchor above.
Brent rappelled next and avoided Will’s problem by stopping at Salathe Ledge, 30 feet above his partners. They had not sufficiently tested the rappel before he descended and when they tried to pull the ropes, they barely moved. Being closest to the summit, Brent had to jumar up again to see what was wrong. This time they managed to secure the rappel line so that Brent could ascend the lead line safely without depending on the joining knot above. By now it was completely dark. Brent had been searching his pockets for their lone headlamp, but had come up empty, so everything they did from here on was by feel and memory.
After Brent re-rigged the ropes on the Tip and rappelled again, he was able to pull the ropes down, but only by putting all his weight into it and screaming at the rope, pissed at all the little things going wrong. Then he rappelled again, just 30 feet on the lead line, from Salathe Ledge to Steve and Will. When they pulled the rope this time, it somehow looped over a flake above them in the dark. Without a light, they decided it was too risky to climb up to Salathe Ledge to free the rope, so Steve elected to pull one end and hope for the best. He retrieved about 90 feet before it became solidly jammed, but that was enough to tie it off, let everyone rappel into the notch, abandon the rope, and crawl over to a safe spot in the dark. They had long ago run out of water and it was getting cold, but finally, they thought, their problems were over. They would jumar up their fixed lines, be on the rim by 0200 or so, and walk down to the Valley.
Steve decided he would go up first and then lower their pack with his ascenders, food and water, headlamps, and warm clothes so that Will and Brent would have a safer and more comfortable ascent. If they hadn’t lost the lead rope, Will and Brent could have used it to control the pack as Steve lowered it, but that was not an option now so they would have to risk the pack getting snagged.
Instead of the expected 20 minutes, it took Steve an hour or two to reach the rim. He had to be extremely careful with his rigging in the dark, double-checking his locking biners and safety slings. At one point he discovered he was attached to only one ascender. By the time he topped out, he was exhausted, his calves were cramping, and he was vomiting, probably from lack of food and water. He pulled up the ropes and tied on the pack so that it would reach the notch. He tried to lower it but it hung up, so he pulled it up and threw it out as far as he could. It snagged again. He knew he should descend to free it but he was exhausted, so he decided to bivy. In the morning he tried again, with the same result, but this time the rope was stuck in some way that prevented him from pulling it up at all. So tight, in fact, that he couldn’t even attach his rappel device.
Meanwhile, Will and Brent had huddled together in the rocks. They wrapped their one flannel jacket around both of them and shivered and tried to sleep while they waited. Finally they heard what they figured was the pack come down and stop above them in the dark. It was too dangerous to try to retrieve it and they realized that even though they still had one pair of ascenders and could have initially sent a second person up to help Steve, they were completely dependant on him now. Sometime during the night, Brent discovered that his headlamp had been in his pocket the whole time, hidden under his leg loop. It was a bit late to be useful by that time.
At dawn Will and Brent could see the pack and loops of rope snagged 100 feet above them. The rope end was within their reach but with all the slack above liable to come loose, there was no safe way to ascend to the pack. They were screaming and yelling, “Rappel down the rope,” hoping Steve would come down and free the pack. He could hear but not understand them and he was too exhausted to help any more. He slowly hiked out for help and eventually ran into someone on the trail with a cellphone.
The sun came out for a while and Will and Brent began to warm up, but they had no idea what was happening on their behalf, so they began yelling for help. The park switchboard lit up simultaneously with Steve’s call and local residents reporting screams from the Arrow. Around 0900, Will and Brent heard a loudspeaker in the Valley letting them know a rescue team was on the way. Then it clouded up again, turned cold, and sprinkled and snowed on them just enough to get them damp. When the team reached the rim three hours later, all the rescuers were bundled up. Will said later, “It was a good warning. If you’re more than one pitch off the ground, you’ve got to have rain gear.” A rescuer reached them at 13 30 and after some food and water, they were able to jumar to the rim under their own power. It wasn’t easy. Brent’s hands were cramping from the cold and Will was so exhausted from shivering all night he had to urged himself upward, “OK, I need to make it up to that next ledge...” It took Steve 48 hours of food, water, and rest to feel decent. Regarding the turn in the weather, Brent said, later, “We would have died there the next night. 100%.”
Steve may have been complacent because he’d climbed the Arrow five times before with no hassles, though he’d never rappelled from the tip. The big lesson should be obvious: Take your kit with you, including lots of food and water, a headlamp for each climber, and at least minimum warm clothes for a cold night. Without headlamps, they were at great risk for an accident as they tried to escape in the dark. A slight turn in the weather might have finished them off as well. In the end, everything depended on Steve and he was too exhausted to go down and free the pack. (Source: Steve, Will, Brent, and John Dill, NPS Ranger, Yosemite National Park)
(Editor’s Note: In October 1984, a party of two reached the top of the Arrow at dark. Being inexperienced, they decided they should wait for morning to cross their Tyrolean. They weren’t prepared for the breeze and mist from the falls and by dawn, one was dead of hypothermia. Read the details in ANAM 1985.)