Yosemite's First Climbing Death and the World's Longest Lower

A look back at two historic Yosemite climbing accidents.
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A look back at two historic Yosemite climbing accidents.
Big_Walls

The following stories are excerpted from Charles R. “Butch” Farabee’s book Big Walls, Swift Waters (Yosemite Conservancy, July 2017).

Farabee, in his 34 years with the National Park Service, worked in 10 NPS areas, including Yosemite National Park, and rose from ranger to superintendent. He was the agency’s first emergency services coordinator and responded to some 900 search and rescue missions, with 800 of those mostly in the Valley. The first excerpt details the story of Yosemite’s first documented climbing fatality, while the second shows the great length rescuers have gone to, to get injured climbers down safely.

Yosemite’s First Climbing Death

Charles A. Bailey, June 5, 1905

According to an article titled “Fell from El Capitan” in the June 10, 1905, Gazette Mariposan, Charles A. Bailey was “dashed to death” on June 5, 1905, while trying to make a “record climb up a cliff west of El Capitan.” All quotes that follow are from this article. Bailey, 50, a real estate dealer from Oakland, was no stranger to the park, having spent 16 summers in the area, nor was he a novice outdoorsman. In fact, he’d just returned from a 14-month trip around the world during which he’d climbed the Matterhorn and other notable European peaks.

On that fateful summer day in 1905, Bailey and his 22-year-old climbing partner J. C. Staats started clambering up the “almost perpendicular face of the cliff where there is no trail and where man has never placed foot before.” In the midafternoon, the two stopped for a breather nearly halfway up the cliff’s 3,000 feet. “Bailey was sitting on a narrow shelf and Staats was clinging to the face of the rock below. Suddenly, Bailey began to slide. He shot downward a few feet to Staats’s left and fell headlong out of sight, striking his head several times before he disappeared.”

YOSAR Rock Climbing Rescue El Capitan Helicopter Litter

A “horror-stricken” Staats gingerly worked his way down to where he found a hat and blood-spattered rock. Unable to go farther and with “almost super human efforts,” he struggled up the ledge systems to the top of El Capitan and worked his way back to the village. “Staats was almost prostrated by the physical and mental strain.”

The article continues, “The party searching for the body of Baily [sic] located it at 11 o’clock to-day [June 6]. J. A. Snell of Calistoga and H. Spaulding and F. Curry of Palo Alto were lowered by rope 600 feet and by 1 o’clock had brought the corpse to a point where it could be taken by others. The body was badly mangled and most of the bones were broken.” Steve Roper has identified this climb as the El Cap Gully. On the very western edge of El Capitan, it’s rated Class 4, meaning it requires a rope for even basic assistance while ascending or descending.

The article does not mention ropes or other mountaineering or climbing equipment. This makes it pretty clear that this was not a “climb” as we use the term today, but rather a serious scramble. The men’s effort and sense of adventure should be admired, and indeed, for his time, Bailey seems to have been very experienced and capable. As we know all too well, life is full of risks and I think it is too easy and a little unfair to say, “They should not have tried this!” Since Staats made it, the climb was obviously doable, albeit with no small amount of physical and mental strain. This is not hyperbole on the part of reporters—the young man had just witnessed his partner’s ugly death, and no doubt feared suffering the same fate himself. There are a few things we can learn: 

YOSAR Rock Climbing Rescue El Capitan Helicopter

The Takeaway

Can Mr. Bailey’s accident be traced back to at least one definite, final mistake? The pair intentionally chose not to follow a trail, so I cannot speak to that. Weather was not a factor nor was time of day. He was with someone, which is often important although in this case didn’t save him. He was experienced, with years of hiking and scrambling in the park, so I will assume his preparations and familiarity with the quirks of the area were adequate.

  • Maybe, however, he was too complacent, too cavalier, too casual with his knowledge of what to expect. Overconfidence has spelled disaster for hundreds of others … and caused the occasional death. 
  • The pair may have been in too great a hurry, with Bailey just a little too comfortable with the success of their climb to that point. 
  • His footwear may have been the best money could buy, but it is highly likely that it contributed to his fall. Even today’s state-of-the-art footwear is no match for sloping, rocky ledges with even just a hint of gravel or twigs or leaves on them acting as ball bearings. There is no hiking footwear that will give you a 100 percent sure grip. 
  • It seems Bailey was in excellent physical condition—perhaps. The records are filled with men (but only a few women) who needed rescue—or even died—while hiking, due to medical causes, e.g., heart disease, many in their 40s and 50s and even a few in their late 30s. 
  • We will never know why Bailey began to slide. You can never be too cautious while hiking and playing in Yosemite or any place outdoors. The more you scramble and climb without adequate protection, the greater the chances of getting hurt.
YOSAR Rock Climbing Rescue El Capitan

The World’s Longest Lower?

This tale begins at sunrise on Saturday, September 23, 1972. Climber Neal Olsen was leading a difficult section on the twenty-fourth pitch of the Nose on El Capitan, just above Camp V—a set of ledges about 900 feet below the top of the cliff. In an unlucky accident, he pulled a 125-pound boulder down on himself. He tried to dodge it, but it still glanced off his head and back before striking his right leg and smashing it badly.

By 7:30 that morning, Yosemite SAR Officer Pete Thompson was organizing one of the most demanding rescues in the history of North American mountaineering. Pete had an A-Team of six local climbers in his office: Jim Bridwell, Bev Johnson, Tom Gerughty, Jim Breedlove, John Dill, and Loyd Price. Their mission: to develop an initial rescue plan, estimate equipment needs, and identify other technical climbers they wished to have with them. The idea was to lower a rescuer from the summit of El Cap 900 feet down to the stricken climber. Then Olsen and his rescuer would be lowered to medical staff on the Valley floor, 1,800 feet below. At the time, only one other long-lowering rescue even remotely similar to this one had been performed, in Grand Teton National Park in August of 1967. In total, 18 men and one woman—Bev Johnson—would be flown to the top of El Cap that day.

YOSAR Rock Climbing Rescue El Capitan Litter

The team’s task was made even harder as a result of a disastrous incident earlier that summer. Seven weeks before, just past midnight on August 1, 1972, a 17-year-old boy had torched the many tons of stacked hay in the government’s horse barn. The barn and stables were lost as were another seven older wooden structures. One of these terribly flammable Civilian Conservation Corps–era buildings held the Valley SAR cache. Ropes, webbing, pitons, bolts, carabiners, sleeping bags, rain gear, and related, vital equipment all went up in smoke. Thompson knew they were short on the right sorts of equipment to pull off a rescue of this size and complexity. He put Loyd Price, chief guide and an instructor with the Yosemite Mountaineering School, in charge of identifying what was needed.

To this day, a now-long-retired Pete Thompson is not exactly sure how the park ended up with some of what it got. The most interesting were the large rolls of one-half-inch rope. Tubbs Cordage, a yachting and sailing-line manufacturing company in the San Diego area, sent two 4,400-foot-long rolls and three 1,200-foot-long rolls of Goldlon, each tightly wound around a wooden spindle. Although plenty strong, the rope was not intended to take the kind of abuse it would be subjected to. Luckily, it worked out fine despite Thompson’s trepidation at using a terribly wrong tool for lowering rescuers nearly 3,000 feet. Neither of the 4,400-foot-long rolls were ever used by the park.

Local police departments drove the ropes to nearby El Toro Marine Air Station. They were then flown to El Cap Meadow in two large, twin-rotor CH-46 helicopters. Other retail outdoor companies in the Bay Area, such as The Ski Hut and The North Face, sent real climbing rope as well as a seemingly endless supply of colored nylon webbing, hundreds of carabiners, 150 bolts, dozens of pitons, piton hammers, water bottles, dried food, and other long accessory lines and cords. These purchases were all picked up by the Bay Area Mountain Rescue Unit and transported by the California Highway Patrol.

Before they returned to their home base at El Toro that evening, the Marine Corps flew more equipment and manpower to the staging scene on top of El Capitan. There was a pile of equipment on the peak that night that had to be sorted and then placed in the right spot for the next morning. During the height of the stretcher lowering later in the day, several hundred people stood along the road and in the meadow, at the base of El Cap, most with their binoculars pointed toward the cliff.

YOSAR Rock Climbing Rescue El Capitan Litter

Six of the Camp 4 SAR-site climbers, including Bev Johnson, rappelled down to Camp V that first afternoon. Up top, the operation was mostly engineered by Loyd Price, although all of the climbers knew what to do and pitched in. They knotted together enough yachting ropes to create two 3,000-foot lengths. One rope made a directional change at the victim’s tiny ledge far below; the other ran straight from the final lip of El Capitan to Olsen’s litter, attended by Camp 4 superstar Jim Bridwell. Although it took more than 36 hours to fully orchestrate, once underway it took only 90 minutes for the two to be lowered down the remaining 1,800 feet of sheer cliff. It went off without a hitch. The five still on the ledge, as well as Olsen’s partner, elected to come down that night, after dark. Al Garza, the park’s chief electrician, built a huge light bank and illuminated almost the entire 3,000-foot face of the great cliff. Neal’s leg healed, and he continued to climb for the next four decades.

This mission earned a Department of the Interior Unit Citation for the El Capitan Rescue Team from Secretary of the Interior Rogers C. B. Morton. It was granted in recognition of the high degree of professionalism and valor exhibited. 

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