This article was originally published under the title Slaying Giants, by Rock and Ice magazine.
I was an 18-year old wannabe hardman in 1972 and had lived in Camp 4 less than a week. An hour before found me storming up 300-foot Arch Rock and sweating in a T-shirt. Now, I sat dead still with my arms wrapped around my torso as bleak shadows stole over the valley. I was more than merely cold. The towering walls had lost their sunny grandeur and seemed to sneer at me with hostile intentions.
I glanced down valley at Half Dome, veiled in ancient shade, then panned right to Sentinel, soaring off the terraced approach slabs like a prodigious black tombstone. I shuddered. Would I ever get up those walls? Did I really want to? Everything inside and outside of me felt huge and overwhelming. For months I’d thought about little more than finally getting right here, in the presence of the giants. But in all the books I’d read about Yosemite, no one had ever come clean about how this paradise could scare the living shit right out of you.
I’d bolted for Yosemite the second school let out, and naturally, I’d run my mouth off about all my big plans. Now I could actually see where those plans would take me. For a long while I sat on top of Columbia Boulder in Camp 4, in an edgy daze, wondering which option I might survive: slinking out of the Valley some lonely night and living with shattered aspirations, or packing the haul bag, jumping onto the vertical unknown and fighting the beast of my own doubts. I could have gone either way, when a “Hey, John,” startled me back to the present. It was Roger Rudolph, then the head backcountry ranger, and allied with the budding Search and Rescue Team.
I scrambled down and Roger gushed out a mouthful: an accident on the East Buttress of Middle Cathedral, two pitches below the summit; a leader fall and a head injury. A helicopter was en route to ferry the Valley czars Jim Bridwell and Mark Klemons to the top of Middle to conduct a rescue. In case that plan did not work, the Park Service needed another team to trudge to the top of Middle, schlepping a huge green backpack now occupying several acres around Roger’s feet. If the Bridwell/Klemons team hadn’t set down by the time we gained the top, I’d rap to the victim and … well, we’d flesh out the plan from there. “You handle that?” Roger asked.
Roger was a solid outdoors athlete but out of his league on a 1,600 foot face, was about 15 years older than me and a mentor who had skied 100 miles across Tioga Pass in winter, carted injured hikers out of the backcountry on his back, and ran a government department with 40 people. By coincidence, he was also my first cousin. I was mostly clueless, but if Roger thought I was worthy, I’d go with it.
“Meet me back here in five,” Roger said.
I dashed for Camp 4’s rescue site, ranging table to table trying to find someone experienced who could help with the job. Luckily I found the Englishman Ben Campbell-Kelly lounging around camp, recovering from an early ascent of the North American Wall (then one of the hardest big rock climbs on earth) with his countryman Bryan Wyvill, aka, The Blob. I explained the situation, that I didn’t know what I was doing and needed him along. Ben got to his feet and said, “Let’s go, man.”
Roger, Ben and I manhandled the pack into Roger’s cruiser and a few minutes later he dropped us at the turnout below Middle Cathedral.
“Only got about three hours of daylight so you’ll have to bust ass,” said Roger. “You know where you’re going?”
“Pretty much,” I said.
I’d climbed the East Buttress the summer before, but it had taken all day and we hacked down the descent gulley at night. I didn’t remember a thing about it.
I shouldered the pack and we trudged up through the pines toward the gully left of Middle. I couldn’t have had a better man alongside me than Ben Campbell-Kelly, a proven veteran of these walls, solid as Solomon.
Shortly we entered a steep labyrinth of dead-end trails, teetering minarets and low-angled choss corridors. We hadn’t a clue about a proper path and never found one.
For two hours we flailed and cursed our way up that gully, sometimes hand-carrying the pack and shoving it through a pinch when we couldn’t wiggle through with it on our backs. We could more easily have dragged a moped up that gulley than that pack. About halfway up we heard a copter circling above, and Ben and I wondered if we weren’t killing ourselves for nothing.
When we finally broke out onto the shoulder beneath Middle’s shapeless summit, Ben said he’d burned more gas and lost more hide grappling up that gully than he had climbing El Capitan. I shouldered the pig, and with Ben shoving from behind, we angled up grainy slabs toward the top. Only the crown of El Capitan glowed in light. We had maybe an hour before night fell like an iron gate.
A few minutes later we met a team who’d just topped out on the East Buttress. Both were in their late 20s, wore colorful, long-sleeved rugby shirts and thin, white navy pants, formal livery of the 70s Yosemite climber. I wondered about these guys’ lives, and their jobs that allowed them to have fixed — for our convenience — two costly new ropes above the injured climber, before dashing back to San Francisco for work and family. They’d fetch their ropes later, or never.
The two men said gusting winds kept the copter from landing on the summit, scrubbing the Bridwell/Klemens rescue effort. I confirmed as much with Roger, over the walkie-talkie. We thanked the two San Fran climbers and moved over to the fixed lines. I clipped in and started down, battling not to get pulled over backward by the pack.
Ben shouldered the pig for the last rap and we touched down on a terraced recess by a big pine tree growing directly from the rock. The injured climber — I never learned his name — lay curled on a sloping ledge scarcely bigger than his body.
His partner, Peter Barton, sitting dejectedly on a shelf 10 feet below, had tied the victim taut to a cluster of anchors. Ben and I rigged a line off the victim’s anchor and moved to a tapering ledge 10 feet lower. According to Peter, the victim had taken a tumbling fall and banged the back of his head. Though partially responsive at first, he hadn’t moved in two or three hours.
I asked Ben what he knew about first aid and he said, “Nothing.” Since I was the son of a doctor, Ben reckoned I’d absorbed essential medical know-how by osmosis, and suggested I climb up the rope to the victim and play medic.
The victim’s breathing seemed smooth, though hurried. He mumbled incoherently and couldn’t answer any questions. A patch of hair was raked off his scalp on the back of his head. No blood or troubling dent, but this guy was in trouble. Whenever a life hangs in the balance the stakes suck you into a hyper-real space where you see and remember the gurgling sounds, the acrid smell of fear, the sharp cut of shadows on the wall — details you’d normally notice in passing all stand out in urgent detail. And yet how the victim looked, or even his age, I cannot say. Had he glanced at me, or said something instead of burbling and lying inert, I might remember his eyes, or his face. But now it’s all a blank.
I reported the victim’s condition to Roger and he said to pack the guy into a sleeping bag — there was one inside the giant pack — and to keep his airway clear. It took all three of us to wheedle the victim into the bag. I felt useless, knowing this guy needed assistance we couldn’t hope to provide. Roger said there wasn’t much more to do. Settle in for the night and hope for the best. Back at park headquarters, Bridwell and two rescue rangers were devising a strategy for tomorrow. Pray the victim somehow holds on. Over and out.
Ben and I returned to the lower ledge and sat back. The slab dropped below for 20 or so feet, then the wall steepened and plunged out of sight. Peering off that perch, I hunkered down for my first bivouac on a rock wall.
We dug into the pack and found a headlamp, several gallons of water, a 12-pack of lemonade mix, a wall rack, a lead rope, a great mass of pulleys and bewildering rescue tackle, a frightening 12-inch knife, two balaclavas, a second radio, several packs of batteries, a first-aid kit that folded out like an accordion, a shovel, a compass, two Ensolite pads, and a bunch of other stuff I can’t remember — but not so much as a breadstick to eat.
“We’re fucked,” said Ben.
Thankfully we had a couple packs of smokes between us and we lit up, gazing into the gloom. Far below, the earth seemed to open up, then night crawled out and swallowed the wall and the world.
Ben, 30, had a rowdy head of red hair and an elegant sideburn-goatee constellation befitting the British academic he was in the public world. His calm, rational manner was a balm to my willies, which after an hour in pitch darkness were once more rearing up. To divert myself I pried Ben about his many adventures on big walls in Norway, the Alps and of course most recently the great El Capitan. His comments were so understated I came to believe that sitting there on that tiny ledge in my flimsy white navy pants and a T-shirt was no big deal after all. I admired myself for throwing in with the Yosemite hardmen and, around midnight, figured I was nearly one myself. Then it got very cold, and the victim started wailing in tongues. Peter asked what the hell we were going to do, and things went south from there.
Ben and I took turns making sure the man didn’t swallow his tongue or do something worse. The guy bit our fingers down to the wood, and sometimes his arms flailed and his legs churned inside the bag. We couldn’t have been less helpful.
Around dawn, the victim quieted, and might have died for all we knew. The notion frightened me so I hand-walked up the slab and found him still alive, but apparently in a coma. We couldn’t do a thing. I returned to the ledge and shimmied my legs into the big pack for warmth. I never knew a person could feel so wasted. Then Roger cut in over the radio. A copter was blading in from Livermore Air Force base to attempt an “extraction.” This was long before cliff rescue techniques had been standardized and neither Ben nor I knew what they were talking about. Roger explained.
Bridwell had reckoned that at our present location, the wall was sufficiently low-angled to allow a copter to hover some hundreds of feet above, and lower a litter down on a cable winch.
“That should be good theater…” said Ben.
And we’d be seeing it momentarily, as the percussive thumping of copter blades echoed up the Valley.
“Will you look at that bugger!” Ben yelled.
Whatever copter I had envisioned, it wasn’t the monstrosity heaving to several hundred feet above. It looked like something out of Star Wars, and was big as a Greyhound bus. Two enormous blades produced a pulsing thunder that rattled our bones and shot down a shaft of prop wash that swirled every pine needle and bit of turf into a choking tornado. I thrust my head into the big pack and when I pulled it back out, the surroundings looked as if they’d been scrubbed with a wire brush.
A soldier stepped from the open cargo bay door of the copter and lowered down on a cable, like a dummy on a string. He sat on a “Chaparral Leveler,” a bullet-shaped cylinder the size of a fire hydrant with two fold-down metal flaps on the bottom. (A Vietnam vet later told me they used to swoop the Leveler through “hot zones” and pluck out of the fire anyone who could mount the Leveler at speed.)
The giant Sikorsky “Hercules” stayed glued in the sky and the soldier slowly descended perhaps 150 feet until finally touching down on the slab a short ways below our ledge. Whoever piloted the ship was a deadeye who basically delivered the soldier to our laps. With his huge helmet and smoky visor, plus the dashing Air Force jumpsuit, the soldier looked like Flash Gordon.
The moment Flash stepped off the chaparral Leveler he was unroped, 1,200 feet off the deck. His mountaineering boots skedaddled on the slab as his hands pawed for a hold, and we knew right off Flash Gordon was no climber.
Ben quickly anchored off a loop of rope, handwalked down and clipped in Flash, who pulled up his smoky visor, exposing the face of a young boy, which he compensated for by screaming out his orders. The plan sounded basic and, surprisingly, went off without a hitch.
The copter lowered down a litter and we loaded up and lashed down the victim, who was winched straight into the hovering ship.
“OK,” said Flash, staring at the ship still hanging directly overhead. “Who’s going with me?”
“How’s that?” Ben asked.
We’d figured Flash would ascend the fixed lines with Ben, Peter and me.
“I’m going out on the Leveler,” said Flash. “And it gets squirrelly with one man. I need another guy to balance the load.”
“I’ll go,” I said without thinking.
“Good man,” Ben replied.
Ben would climb El Cap in a snowstorm but he wasn’t daft enough to volunteer to get winched off a Yosemite wall on a guitar string. I wasn’t courageous, I’d just opened up my mouth and blurted.
Just before sitting on the Leveler, Flash said not to worry and to simply hold on tight. We sat, face-to-face, on two metal flaps barely larger than my hand. This set us up like two guys bear-hugging with a flagpole between them. There were no straps or tie-ins at all.
The cable twanged taut and my stomach fell into my boots as we were pulled off the wall and into mid-air. After 10 feet we started yawing side to side and the copter motored out away from the wall, initiating a harrowing pendulum. The pilot swept even farther out into open space, away from the wall, which set us swinging in wild horizontal arcs. Only vaguely could I feel the winch pulling us up as we sliced through the air like trapeze artists hitched to the moon. I remember flashing on the saucy French tourist girl I’d met in the cafeteria, and how she’d probably have to spend the rest of her life without me now. The stuff that goes through your head in the thick of it … I enjoyed the view as best I could.
About 15 feet from the cargo door, right when we stopped swinging, we began spinning, faster and faster. In 30 seconds I felt so dizzy I could barely hang on. Then they shut off the winch and we dropped a few horrible inches and wrenched to a stop. I glanced up and saw a flurry of airmen fiddling around the winch, which started back up with a lurch and then stopped again, with Flash and me dangling about waist-level with the open cargo bay door. Flash was nearest the ship, and one of the airmen reached down and yanked him on board. This instantly rocked the Leveler out of balance and I nearly fell off. For a moment the airmen, with blank looks on their faces, stared down at me dangling in space. Then Bridwell appeared from somewhere, grabbed a strut on the door and reached down his hand. We locked arms; the Bird yanked and I shot off the flap and belly flopped into the bay. The Bird, who’d been spotting for the pilot, gave a thumbs up and the big ship banked and headed for El Cap Meadow.
Several medics huddled over the victim. His vital signs checked out and they figured his chances were good, which amazed and relieved me. (I later learned he did survive, following several operations to relieve pressure on his brainpan.) Several minutes later the big ship touched down. In a 50-yard radius the tall grass in Yosemite Meadow was pummeled flush as the pitch on a putting green. Bridwell and I jumped out and the ship thumped off for the trauma unit in Fresno.
Roger rushed up and smacking my arm. I’d expected an official reception, or at any rate a swelling tourist mob. But it was barely seven in the morning and the three of us found ourselves alone in the middle of the meadow. In a few short minutes, everything went still and quiet, as if nothing had ever happened.
A few days later I drove back to Southern California to pick back up as a second year lit student at college. But with one foot still in the dirt, I felt like Frankenstein, fashioned from disparate halves. I grew up dreaming of tomahawks flashing and canoes gliding stealthily across lakes impossibly virgin and people climbing mountains for … I wasn’t certain why. I never was, exactly, though to most of my profs and fellow students, whose aesthetics and technique I admired, climbing rocks, in literary jargon, was so much escapist trash. And at some level it probably was, but I’d return to that world for the next 30 years.
The summer after the rescue I fell in with Peter Barton, the partner of the victim on the Middle Cathedral rescue, and we teamed up for several big climbs, including the first ascent of Stoner’s Highway, also on Middle. A year later, while ferrying loads up to the West Face of El Capitan, Peter lost his footing on a steep bit and died in a tumbling fall. A helicopter flew in from Livermore to recover Peter’s body. Over the steep moraine below the West Face, the copter experienced mechanical problems and ditched in the boulders. The crew barely escaped when the ship burst into flames. Peter’s mother released his ashes over Washington Column.
I haven’t seen Ben since the rescue on Middle. I trust he’s doing well.
Several years later, Roger went to the Grand Tetons and worked for the Park Service until he retired after 40 years of service.