Nobody expects to be loaded onto a litter and evacuated off his first big wall. Or stuck in a snow cave, out of food and fuel, hypothermic, and praying that a storm will quit and someone will find him. Yet it happens, every year, and not just to newbies. Climbers make mistakes, or get unlucky, and rescue rangers drop from the sky and save our asses.
Though search and rescue is a rewarding job, the missions are dangerous and all too often caused by poor decision-making. With that in mind, we asked veteran rangers from some of America’s busiest climbing parks to describe the most common rescue scenarios in their areas—and what we climbers can do to prevent them. What are the traps? What decisions might have turned the tables?
What follows is the result of many hours of conversation with rangers from Yosemite, Grand Teton, and Mt. Rainier national parks, representing three distinct styles of high-adventure climbing: big walls, alpine rock, and glacier mountaineering. Their hard-earned wisdom, a distillation of decades of combined experience, could keep you from turning into a statistic. So pull your chair up next to the fire and read what rescue rangers want to say to climbers. Better now than on the side of an icy cliff.
Case study: Yosemite National Park, California
After a spell of perfect fall weather, a cold front moved into Yosemite Valley. Arriving just before midnight on October 16, 2004, it brought heavy rain, then snow to the Valley. Four teams near the top of El Capitan were stranded by what became a four-day winter storm: a soloist on Tempest, pairs on Never Never Land and the Salathé Wall, and a Japanese team on the Nose. As the summit slabs of El Capitan became ice- and snow-covered, Yosemite Search and Rescue (YOSAR) set up a megaphone in El Cap Meadow. Efforts to hail the Nose party failed, despite the use of a Japanese translator.
For the next three days, small weather windows teased most of the parties into trying to fix a pitch or two. Even though most teams were equipped with excellent storm gear, all were soon very wet and cold. El Cap had become a death trap: Ice on the summit slabs rendered the exits of the climbing routes nearly impassible, and by mid-afternoon on the October 19, it was clear that at least some of the parties would need help. With the weather still too stormy for helicopters, an advanced YOSAR party began snowshoeing the 11 miles toward the summit, beginning what would become a massive rescue effort.
All the climbers on El Capitan were by now mildly or seriously hypothermic. In the end, three teams endured long enough to be rescued, but the Nose climbers died from exposure, wrapped in a tent fly at a makeshift hanging bivy, partway up pitch 28.
THE RANGER: We consulted several YOSAR rescuers for this story, including the 73-year-old rescue guru John Dill, a one-time Camp 4 resident climber who has been with YOSAR since its inception in 1974. The spokesperson was Yosemite National Park’s climbing manager, Jesse McGahey, with YOSAR since 2005. With Yosemite climbing ranger Ben Doyle, they convened a special meeting to deliver the most accurate information for this story; if you climb walls, or ever plan to, click here for the full text of their answers. Every word is worth reading.
THE TERRAIN: El Capitan is the archetypal big wall in the world, the site of countless historical advances and innovations, and climbing it is still the ultimate dream of many rock climbers. It’s also the archetype for bigwall epics, and the hazards found here can be encountered in any wall-climbing venue: prolonged exposure to the elements, too little food or water, rappelling and ascending fi xed lines, and leader falls while aid or free climbing.
SCENARIOS AND SOLUTIONS: Besides frigid storms, heat also has immobilized climbers on Yosemite walls, and indirectly has contributed to countless “pilot error” incidents. The YOSAR rangers we contacted also noted a new factor that increasingly contributes to incidents: haste. The Nose in a day, Zodiac in a push—many of today’s wall climbers are involved in some sort of speed-dependent ascent, a scenario that now rivals storms for getting climbers in trouble. The YOSAR team analyzed 42 big-wall accidents from the last 11 years. Most involved leader falls when free climbing or after a piece pulled while using direct aid. Yet most falls had other contributing factors that exacerbate the consequences.
Problem: Haste. “Eight of the accidents involved climbers attempting to climb quickly,” says climbing ranger Jesse McGahey. “These include big walls in a push, summit fever, or trying to make up lost time to stay on schedule.”
Solutions: Speed up by improving efficiency, not by rushing or cutting corners. Fatigue causes carelessness, so be strict with safety protocol at the end of long pushes. Top speed climbers acknowledge that they take big risks for their record-breaking ascents; “elite” tactics may not be appropriate for your goals.
Problem: Jugging without adequate backup. McGahey summed it up succinctly: “Why ascenders come off the rope is often a mystery, but that’s not the point. It happens, so tie in short or use a self-belay device.”
Solutions: For straight-up, clean jugging along a fixed rope, a backup every 30 feet or so is reasonable. In addition, tie a backup before any traverse maneuver, above obstacles, or when taking an ascender off the rope for any reason. Grigri-style belay devices have become increasingly popular for continual backup, supplemented by knots. Unlike conventional tie-ins, these devices can be used on a fixed line that is anchored on both ends.
Problem: Back-cleaning. “In six of our rescues, climbers took much larger falls than they should have because they had back-cleaned potentially good protection below pieces that failed,” McGahey says. “Some of these falls resulted in very serious injury and required a huge level of risk to rescuers to get these patients off the wall alive.”
Solutions: Carry enough gear in the sizes needed. If you don’t have enough—say, for a long, wide crack—consider moving three pieces as you climb, so that you are always protected by two as you move the third.
Problem: Pendulum falls. These incidents involved climbers following pitches. “Instead of lowering themselves out sufficiently, they made deliberate decisions that a swing was OK,” said McGahey. The results? “One ankle fracture, one fractured fibula, one compound wrist fracture, concussions—the last one broke his femur, rib, and arm.”
Solutions: Many experienced climbers have misjudged a swing, with serious consequences. Is it worth the risk? Understand the proper way to lower out in control, and be conservative. If speed is the issue, recognize that nothing slows an ascent like a broken bone.
Problem: The elements. “In the last 11 years, we’ve had three big-wall hypothermia fatalities and three other big-wall rescues after winter storms, and two big-wall rescues due to dehydration, for a total of eight sure saves,” says McGahey. “Climbers often underestimate the supplies they need to weather storms or hot weather.”
Solutions: Get a good weather forecast. Carry all-synthetic insulation—no down. Even if a route has adequate ledges, know that a portaledge provides much more protection from storms than any tarp or bivy sack. Have at least an extra day of food and water beyond your most conservative ascent-time estimate, in case you are delayed by weather.
DAMAGE CONTROL: Accidents happen and weather can strand even the bestprepared climbers, as the scenario at left showed. So what can you do to maximize your survival chances?
- Have a reliable buddy on the ground keeping an eye on your progress and providing weather updates if necessary.
- Have a communication device and plan. On El Capitan, cell phones can connect you with 911, but service can be spotty in sheltered dihedrals. “Family band” (FRS) radios are more reliable for contacting a designated ground person, but YOSAR does not regularly monitor that frequency.
- Take a Wilderness First Responder course. Even in Yosemite Valley, rescue is never assured, and is usually many hours— often days—away. The immediate care you render may decide your injured partner’s fate.
- Get organized for rescue. If you’ll be air-lifted or winched from the wall, be harnessed and fully dressed for the ride. Pack away scattered gear, secure sleeping pads, and coil ropes. Make sure nothing is free that could become airborne and catch a helicopter rotor.
Case study: Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
On July 21, 2010, a clear dawn gave way to rapidly forming clouds over the Tetons, and by about 10:30 a.m., the fi rst in a series of severe storm cells struck the crest of the range. The violence caught three teams—17 climbers total—high on the Owen-Spalding and Exum routes on the Grand Teton.
As the storm continued, the Owen-Spalding climbers— one party of five and one of eight—began moving down. Four climbers 100 vertical feet from the top of the Exum Ridge hunkered down in an alcove. In the hours that followed, most of these climbers were hit by severe jolts from lightning. At least three were knocked unconscious; one went into respiratory arrest, but was revived by a teammate. There were numerous electrical burns, some serious. One climber was thrown from a ledge and killed, the only fatality that day.
Though the electrical storm was perilous anywhere on the mountain, the chimneys and alcoves sought by the climbing teams, either as descent routes or protection from the elements, greatly increased their exposure to ground currents from the repeated lightning strikes.
The massive rescue effort that ensued was the largest in the Jenny Lake ranger team’s storied history. Over the course of nine hours, 16 climbers were flown out from the Grand, with numerous intermediate short-haul shuttles from the Upper to Lower Saddles. In total, over 90 emergency workers eventually were involved.
THE RANGER: One of the most experienced rescue specialists on the planet, Renny Jackson started as a climbing ranger in Grand Teton National Park in 1976, went north for two years to work at Denali, then came back to the Tetons until he retired in 2010. He managed the park’s helicopter short-haul rescue program for the last 10 years of that time. His rescues number well into the hundreds.
THE TERRAIN: Grand Teton National Park is one of the most iconic and accessible places in the country for technical peak climbing. Known primarily for long routes on made-to-climb alpine gneiss, the Tetons offer the complete alpine rock climbing package, with all the associated hazards: long routes, exposure to storms, loose rock, route-fi nding challenges, and the perils of steep snowfi elds with rocky, runout zones.
SCENARIOS AND SOLUTIONS: “For several generations, the Tetons have been a place to learn the craft of mountaineering,” says rescue specialist Renny Jackson. “You see a much higher accident rate here than, say, the neighboring Wind River Range.” That said, even experienced climbers get into trouble in the Tetons. Jackson listed the errors climbers most frequently make.
Problem: Failing to understand local weather.
Solutions: Study local weather patterns and obtain a highquality forecast before committing to an objective. Jackson recommends Jim Woodmency’s mountainweather.com, which has Teton weather cams and is the source the rangers use for spot forecasts during rescues. “The prevailing direction for incoming weather is from the southwest, so on a number of the moderate routes [including the Owen-Spalding and Exum, involved in the aforementioned scenario], the climber is in a good position to see weather coming,” says Jackson. Know the warning signs, such as early or rapid cloud build-up. Start especially early and be vigilant if your route choice prevents you from seeing approaching storms (typically a problem with routes on the east or north sides of the peaks). Finally, retreat quickly if weather does threaten.
Problem: Late starts and slow climbing. Afternoon weather is volatile in the mountains; the old adage “be down by noon” is golden. But a pre-dawn start alone isn’t necessarily enough.
Solutions: Alpine starts, always. “There is a reason that the guides get the clients going at 3 a.m.,” says Jackson. Scout thoroughly before your climb, so you’ll know the approach well enough to be able to do it in the dark. Be comfortable moving together on easier terrain. “You can’t belay 20 pitches on the upper Exum Ridge,” says Jackson, “or if you do, you better be quick about it.”
Problem: Panicky retreats. One cause of serious accidents is anchor failure, usually associated with retreat in the face of a quick-moving storm. “I have come across some of the scariest-looking anchors in the Tetons over the years, mostly slings over all manner of loose-looking blocks,” says Jackson. “Some people get away with it, and some do not.”
Solutions: If you decide to retreat, be as quick as you can without breaking basic rules such as double-checking knots and rappel set-ups. Build solid anchors.
Problem: Weakness in mountaineering fundamentals. Even in the rocky Tetons, many accidents involve slips on snow and failure to self-arrest (see “Slip-Sliding Away”).
Solutions: Learn the basics at lower elevations. “Rope work, belaying, anchoring, placing protection—be well practiced with these arts before you even get here,” says Jackson. Inquire at the Jenny Lake Ranger Station about snow levels and other conditions to make sure you’re carrying appropriate equipment.
SLIP-SLIDING AWAY: Slips on snow are a frequent cause of accidents in the Tetons, which is surprising to those who consider it primarily a rock climbing area. Says Jackson: “I think that, in general, the Tetons were a snowier range back in the day. More recently, with droughtlike conditions prevailing, the range has acquired an alpine rock climbing reputation. People have gotten used to doing the approaches to most climbs in approach shoes. But in the last few years, this has changed. With a couple of heavy winters, the snow in the Tetons has stuck around longer, and it has taken a few folks by surprise.” Bottom line: Check the latest snow conditions, and come prepared with the appropriate skills and gear.
GLACIER AND SNOW CLIMBING
Case study: Mt. Rainier National Park, Washington
Late May in 2002: Pinned down by a whiteout after summiting Liberty Ridge, with darkness approaching, four climbers—two men and two women—attempted to dig in. The wind had made it impossible to erect the tents; their efforts to dig a snow cave were thwarted by an impenetrable ice layer three feet down.
They prepared to shelter in two shallow snow dugouts, covered by tent fabric, but as one team member was digging, he slipped and fell out of sight down a 50-degree ice slope. As his partner rushed over to the other pair to report the incident, she collapsed the precarious shelter housing them. Another climber, unable to locate a boot shell after the collapse, also slipped while trying to resurrect the shelter. He slid several hundred feet down the ice slope, landing near the first fallen climber, whom he found dead from the fall.
Though he was unhurt, without his boot shell the second fallen climber was unable to re-ascend to the other two team members, who, in the end, would die of exposure at their shallow snow trench. The climber found a bit of natural shelter and a sleeping bag that had fallen from above, survived the night, and the next day made his way down the Winthrop Glacier, eventually alerting rangers.
THE RANGER: Glenn Kessler has been a climbing ranger on Rainier since 2000, after eight years on Mt. Hood. He is also owner and director of MountainSavvy, providing avalanche safety instruction during Rainier’s off-season, and has been involved in more than 100 Pacific Northwest searches and rescues.
THE TERRAIN: Mt. Rainier has the largest base-to-summit relief of any peak in the Lower 48 (over 13,000 feet), and is also the most glaciated, with two dozen named glaciers covering more than 36 square miles. A stunningly beautiful mountain, it is also a dangerous one, with long snow and ice climbs that expose climbers to Alaska-scale crevasse hazards and staggering temperature variations over the course of an ascent, even in normal conditions. The multi-day nature of most climbs also exposes many mountaineers to the full fury of alpine storms.
SCENARIOS AND SOLUTIONS: What causes climbers to get into trouble on the mountain? “Underestimating Mt. Rainier,” says ranger Glenn Kessler. “Get conditioned for your climb by climbing other easier peaks at elevation.”
Problem: Failing to study a weather forecast. “The weather is the single-most important game changer on Mt. Rainier,” Kessler says.
Solutions: Get a detailed forecast specifi cally for the mountain, such as the seven-day Mt. Rainier Recreational Forecast, which also gives current wind and temperature readings from various elevations, including Paradise (5,420’), Camp Muir (10,188’), and the summit (14,411’). atmos.washington.edu/ data/rainier_report
Problem: Underestimating required skills. “By choosing to climb Mt. Rainier, one chooses big-glacier travel,” says Kessler. The rope work associated with crevassed terrain can be some of the most complicated in climbing.
Solutions: “Climbers must be able to read a glacier, have the appropriate gear, and, most important, have the knowledge and skill to use that gear,” Kessler explains. This means hands-on experience with self-arrest, crevasse extraction, and navigating in zero-visibility conditions.
Problem: Underestimating the effects of altitude. From trailhead to summit, climbing Rainier requires 4,000 feet more elevation gain than climbing the Grand Teton or Longs Peak. If you are making a quick trip from a sea-level city, the effects are even greater. “Everything becomes more diffi cult at altitude,” says Kessler, “including walking, drinking, and eating. The brain simply does not work as well, and poor decisions may be made as a result.”
Solutions: Adjust your time estimates relative to lower and smaller peaks. Plan time to acclimatize; force yourself to eat and drink adequately; and watch each other for the physical or mental effects of altitude. “Stop, drink, and eat often,” says Kessler. “Better decisions are made during a rest break than when on the move.”
Problem: Choosing inexperienced partners. The standard route up Rainier appears to require little more than steep snow hiking, making it a tempting excursion on which to bring along inexperienced friends. Yet if someone falls into a crevasse or becomes ill, or stormy weather moves in, the climb may suddenly turn very serious.
Solutions: “While it is popular to take novices up Mt. Rainier,” says Kessler, “it is critical to have a good ratio of skilled mountaineers to novices if this is to be done safely.” Guide services often draw the line at two clients per guide; for private parties, one experienced mountaineer for every novice is more like it, with two experienced mountaineers minimum.
Problem: Summit fever. “Attempting to summit when weather conditions, route condition, or a team members’ physical or mental status indicate it is time to turn around often has bad results,” says Kessler.
Solutions: “Have a plan specifying turn-around time, trigger points for weather, and whether the team may split,” Kessler says. “Communicate it to others, agree on it, and follow it.”
Problem: Poor communication. It’s not always easy to know what’s going on at the other end of the rope, especially when visibility is low. “Loss of communication somewhere between the leader and last climber leaves the team vulnerable,” Kessler explains.
Solutions: Check in frequently with all team members. Take breaks that bring the team back into close contact, and assess everyone’s mental and physical states.
DAMAGE CONTROL: What can you do to maximize your survival chances and help rescuers do their job if you do get in trouble?
- Give someone at home your exact climbing plans so they can relay this information should you get into trouble. That person’s contact info should be included on your climb card when registering with rangers (see below).
- Have several team members bring fully charged cell phones. All phones should be turned off when carried, and used sparingly, so you’ll have plenty of power should a problem arise.
- Carry self-evacuation equipment (e.g., a super-lightweight fabric sled) and practice using it.
- Register your Rainier climb by completing the required “climb card,” which allows rangers to quickly identify who might be in trouble, what equipment you have, and your travel plan. See nps.gov/mora/planyourvisit/climbing.htm.
Call 911 only when you really need help, Kessler says. Before you call, collect the following information. Cell phone service is notoriously bad on big peaks, and you may get cut off at any time, so give this information right away: We are on the mountain at [Mount Rainier National Park] at __________ feet of elevation on the _____________ climbing route. We need help. We have a climber(s) with ____________________ (injuries and/or medical conditions). My name is ___________________, and this cell phone number is ___________________. The weather conditions are ___________________ (temperature, precip, winds, visibility). Our plan is to ______________________________. Here is what I think we are going to need: ______ ______________________________. Our GPS coordinates are __________ by __________. If a medical condition is an issue, keep track of vitals and symptoms. If a helicopter is expected, search for a good landing zone or pick-off point, and secure any loose items. See flightforlifecolorado.org/selectingalandingzone.