The Deadly Valley: An Analysis of Five Recent Yosemite Climbing Accidents

By Alexa Flower and Miranda Oakley ,

The emergency pager screams to life, shattering the nonchalant atmosphere of the Yosemite Search and Rescue (YOSAR) site behind Camp 4: “All available SAR-siters needed for a rescue down-canyon. Climber fall. Please report to the SAR cache; Victor 3 is your contact.”

It’s 1:15 p.m. in Yosemite Valley, May 2016, when the call comes. We YOSAR members cook lunch together at our site. Wood-framed canvas cabins line a mostly dry creekbed, in front of the fire pit and behind the community slacklines. During Yosemite’s busy season, May through October, the nine of us are responsible for all wilderness emergencies, on-call 24 hours per day.

Historically, rescues in Yosemite date back to the 1800s—as Butch Farabee writes in Big Walls, Swift Waters, the earliest “hint” of a SAR operation was in 1871, when Giacomo Campi, a restaurateur from San Francisco, died climbing a rickety ladder next to Vernal Fall. As the record details, “[Campi] stopped to offer assistance to a lady. She declined his hand. He stepped back to bow graciously but stepped into empty air and fell 35 feet to fracture his skull.” In October 1890, President Harrison signed the creation of Yosemite National Park into law; the first government entity to keep the peace and maintain safety in the park was the US Army, which arrived in spring 1891 and during its tenure assisted in many rescues. It was not until 1970, after big-wall climbing (and consequently, rescues) boomed in popularity, that the official SAR site was created. For climbers, being on SAR provides a great opportunity to live and climb in Yosemite full-time. The two-week camping limit is waived, you get paid per rescue, and the park service provides free housing in the heart of Yosemite Valley.

We scarf down lunch, turn off our camp stoves, grab our gear from our tent cabins, and hop on our bikes. By 1:23 p.m., we’re pedaling down North Side Drive en route to the Search and Rescue Cache, a building located behind Yosemite Village, weaving through the tourists goggling at Lower Yosemite Fall. At 1:33 p.m., we gather our technical gear at the cache. Here, a law enforcement ranger begins a briefing announcing relevant details: a general description, location, number of patients, mechanism of injury, and an overview of our rescue plan. Yosemite’s rescue helicopter, 551, is available if needed at the Crane Flat Helibase on the outer edge of the park. By 1:45 p.m., the hasty team—the first rescuers on scene, usually two or three people—takes off in the SAR van with limited supplies to further assess the situation and order more resources as necessary.

Other members (usually 6 to 10) follow 15 minutes behind in vehicles with necessary gear: IV kit, germa body splint, litter, wheel, litter accessory pack, scree evac pack, climbing ropes, and gear. Yosemite offers 750,000 acres of wilderness and thousands of climbing routes. Depending on the location of the accident—how deep in the woods, how high up a talus field, or how many pitches up a big wall—rescuers may arrive within 45 minutes or it may take several hours. If an incident occurs past dark and the climbers don’t have a life-threatening injury, we’ll often wait until morning, to prevent our team from incurring unnecessary risk.

In Yosemite, according to the nonprofit Friends of YOSAR, there are over 200 rescues each year. (Source: friendsofyosar.org.) These range from a hiker spraining his ankle on Half Dome, to climbers marooned at a stuck rope on Royal Arches, to a climber fall halfway up El Capitan. Although YOSAR is here for climbers who visit the Valley, and your local climbing area likely has a SAR team at the ready, you should never rely on us as your first line of defense. Each rescue requires time and resources, and can put SAR members’ lives at risk. Instead, avoid being in an accident in the first place. We should all be asking ourselves: Could many of these accidents have been prevented? What are their most common causes? And how can we learn from them to become safer, more competent climbers?

From what we’ve seen as a climbing guide for four years (Miranda), and two seasons on YOSAR partaking in over 75 rescues (Alexa), climbers can avoid most rescues. First, be prepared. (See “The 10 Multipitch Essentials,” below) Practice and know simple self-rescue techniques and safe climbing habits. Be honest about your abilities. And read accident reports to learn from others’ mistakes and to strengthen your ability to detect threatening patterns—Accidents in North American Mountaineering and your local SAR website are great resources.

In this article, we discuss five recent accidents in Yosemite, analyzing their causes to understand how they could have been prevented. 

Conclusion

In Yosemite, we are fortunate to have one of the most skilled and competent SAR teams in the world. However, the first and most important step is to avoid having an accident. We all need to work toward educating ourselves about climbs, accident prevention, and self-rescue techniques. It is much easier and less painful to do things right in the first place. Finally, and most importantly, do not underestimate the dangers of rock climbing. Accidents can happen to anyone, including the most skilled and seasoned climbers. Maintain a healthy respect for the rock and the adventure so that you can live to climb another day.

The 10 Multi-Pitch Essentials

Food and water are a given, but what other items are crucial on long routes?

  1. Headlamp: A climb may take longer than you anticipate, or you may choose to sleep on top and find the descent in the morning.
  2. Prusiks: To rappel with a hands-free backup, or to ascend the rope when necessary.
  3. Knife: If the ropes get stuck, to cut away old tat on a rap anchor, or to cut slings to create an anchor.
  4. Athletic tape: Helps to cleanly cut a damaged rope (wrap the core shot in tape then cut) and tend to various injuries.
  5. Extra batteries: For your headlamp.
  6. Cell phone: To call a friend or SAR for help.
  7. Matches/lighter: If a climb takes longer than expected, you may find yourself on top and decide to wait until morning to descend. You can make a small fire with matches or a lighter to stay warm.
  8. Extra cordelette: For building and replacing anchors.
  9. Extra layers: When the sun goes down, will you still be warm in a T-shirt and shorts? Prepare for all circumstances.
  10. Aspirin/ibuprofen: Helpful to help ease the pain of minor injuries.

Miranda Oakley has been climbing in Yosemite since 2006. 
Alexa Flower spends her summers on YOSAR and winters ski patrolling in Colorado.

Illustrations by Adam J. Temple.

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