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10 Things You Didn't Know about YOSAR

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YOSAR performs a rescue on Camp 4 on the Nose in August 2010 after a climber dislodged a block and broke his femur. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service

Yosemite Search and Rescue is one of the most well-oiled SAR machines in the world. Along with world-class technical rescues—many existing helicopter rescue techniques were developed in Yosemite—YOSAR boasts top-notch swift-water rescue capability and even has a canine search team. Here, a few more things you may not know about Yosemite’s elite rescue squad.

1 The National Park Service began recruiting the best climbers in Yosemite for rescues in the 1960s, when big-wall climbing exploded in popularity. At that time, they were hired on an emergency-hire basis—there was no application process. In 1971, rescue site guidelines were drafted. Rangers offered free camping to climbers in exchange for being on call for rescues. These Camp 4 locals became known as “SAR-siters.”

2 Today, climbers who want to be YOSAR members are formally vetted. Rescuers must be in excellent physical condition and have solid climbing and/or swift-water skills. Possessing EMS qualifi cations—most SAR-siters are EMTs—or basic firefighting skills is a bonus. They are on call 24 hours a day and must fulfi ll 24 hours of work activity, including being on call or standby, every two weeks. The rest of the time they can go climbing, but they must carry a pager.

3 SAR-siters receive “privilege cards,” which provide a 10 percent discount on food and a waived park fee. The Valley’s 14-day camping limit is also waived, and rescuers don’t pay rent to stay in one of the nine SAR tent cabins in Camp 4, with wood floors, canvas walls, wood-burning stoves, and insulated walls. Only current SAR-siters—and a guest—can occupy the tent cabins.

4 Unlike many other SAR groups, which have full-time, salaried employees, YOSAR members are only paid during missions; the range is approximately $23 to $34 per hour.

5 At least 90 percent of Yosemite’s big-wall rescues require a helicopter. YOSAR currently uses a Bell 205++ helicopter, a high-altitude chopper that has a higher-output engine than most in order to perform rescue operations. The Yosemite Helitack fi refi ghting team, stationed at Crane Flat Lookout Base, mans the chopper. This team, funded by the park’s Fire and Aviation Management Program, trains with YOSAR when not occupied with fire duties.

6 To reach stranded or injured climbers, YOSAR often first lowers a “bean bag,” a 4-inch by 5-inch weighted bag tied to a line, from the chopper to the climbers’ stance. Rescuers can use this line to send down communication devices, food, water, or equipment to the victim.

7 The longest-standing SAR-siters are Werner Braun and John Dill, who have been working for YOSAR since 1971 and 1974, respectively. Braun is 61, and Dill is 70.

8 Climbers require fewer rescues, per capita, than any other group in Yosemite National Park. YOSAR performed an average of 236 rescues per year between 2005 and 2009, with only about 10 percent of those climbing-related. Despite the relatively small number of annual climber rescues, YOSAR performs more rescues on big walls than any other organization in the country. At most, YOSAR has had to perform eight simultaneous rescue missions park-wide.

9 The longest rope used by YOSAR is 1,200 feet long and weighs 80 pounds.

10 There have been four YOSAR helicopter crashes over the years. One occurred during the summer of 1974, when the hydraulic system in a U.S. Naval Air Station helicopter failed during a body recovery on El Capitan. Another was in 2005 during a rescue on Braille Book on Higher Cathedral Rock. With the chopper carrying a medic and the victim in the basket below, unusual down drafts began blowing. The ship couldn’t simultaneously handle the extra weight of this load and fight off the drafts, and the victim was fatally dragged through the trees; the medic was also significantly injured.