Rescue on the South Face of Half Dome

A Personal Account, Part II
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Zipped in my dripping prison, I closed my eyes and imagined myself at home with my wife, two children, and German shepherd dog. It was Sunday morning. On most Sunday mornings I stayed in bed late. Then I would loll around the heater in the hallway and reluctantly drag myself to the breakfast table for food and hot tea. What I wouldn't give for a cup of hot tea!

I realized there was no chance of Glen climbing the cables. They were surely iced and in the path of frequent avalanches from the fresh snow hanging on the steep, featureless slabs. I tried to convince Warren that we should rappel down the route. He patently refused to have anything to do with rappelling. He said it was folly and he was staying where he was. I thought it was our only hope. Warren's refusal to move put me in a dilemma. I did not want to separate, which is against most ethics of climbing, but I did not want to hang in one place and freeze to death, as I thought we might after another night in the storm. Dying without an effort to escape seemed a most unforgivable thing.

Slowly I climbed out of the hammock and began to set up a rappel alone. I would probably be forced to place several bolts, as I would not always be able to rappel to the piton cracks or bolts we had placed. Warren insisted on staying. I said that I would go down to the Valley and get the park rangers to send a helicopter to rescue him. He said okay and I started down alone.

My immediate goal was the anchor bolt at the end of Warren's last lead, eighty feet below and thirty feet to the left. I hoped to go down, swing over to the bolt, anchor in, pull down the ropes, and continue the descent. I got down the eighty feet, but because of ice on both the wall and my shoes, I could not move even two feet off the vertical track of the rope. My hands were numb, even in gloves. I realized my plan to descend was futile and decided to go back up. I clipped my Jumar ascenders on the rappel rope and put my weight on one. It slipped. I tried the other one. It slipped. The little teeth inside the gadgets were covered with ice and would not bite into the frozen rope. The two strands of the rope were both freezing to the wall and to each other. Even if I had reached the bolt, I never would have pulled down the rappel. The ascenders would not work at all. My strength was ebbing, and I was aware that I might pay dearly for my rashness.

I was infinitely cold. My mind could not conceive of being colder. In midmorning the face was letting loose much of its load from the night before. Small avalanches knocked me about as I tried to tie Prusik loops with stiff hands. The Prusik knots did hold my weight. They didn't slip down the rope. They froze in place each time I tightened one by putting weight on it. Very slowly I moved upward . . . stepping up and prying the frozen snow with my fingers out of gloves . . . releasing the knot and moving it up. After an hour of repetition in agonizing slow motion, I was only halfway back to Warren. My hands felt like two boards. I often felt like blacking out and I had to make conscious efforts not to faint. Warren stood in slings at the pothole helplessly. There was nothing he could do. He couldn't help pull me up in these conditions any more than I could climb the rope hand over hand. I yelled at him to find all the slings he could, clip them together, and lower them. They reached 15 feet below him.

Life was now a line of gold rope stretching 25 feet to the bottom of the slings. My body revolted. It wanted to give up. My mind forced it to painfully and slowly move upward . . . release a knot . . . move the knot up . . . release the chest loop knot . . . move it up . . . step up . . . etc. Finally, I reached the slings, almost two hours after I had started. I stepped into the lowest loop and quickly worked up to the pothole. Warren took off my pack. It was half filled with snow from the avalanches which had struck me as I was getting out the Prusik handles and knots. He dug inside and got out my hammock. I quickly hung it up and got inside. I put my wooden hands between my legs and after a few minutes the agonizing pains of thawing began to shoot through me. I was now far colder and more miserable than before I had started the descent.

Just as I was warming up to the level of "very chilly" from that of "almost frozen," we heard a shout. Warren pulled a soggy-looking walkie-talkie from the bag and miraculously it worked, although it was barely intelligible. Thank God! We came across clearly at the other end! Warren said, "We cannot last another night. Get us help today—a helicopter if possible. We are very, very cold."

They answered that they would see what they could do. Meanwhile the storm was weakening. The ceiling lifted and the low clouds withdrew. Snow flurries became intermittent. About an hour later we were contacted again by radio and were barely able to make out words. After several repeats we finally got the message, "Helicopter . . . will . . . land . . . summit . . . two hours . . . ."

It was now noon. The cold became more bearable. I began to smile and sing songs at the top of my lungs. We were saved. Waiting for a few hours was nothing like waiting the two days and nights we had already. Our ears were tuned for that special sound of a helicopter.

In less than two hours, Warren yelled, "Here it comes!"

I listened . . . . It was only a change in the voice of the waterfalls. Several times we thought we heard it, only to hear the falls go back to their normal voice. Finally at three o'clock we called back on the radio. I asked, "Where is the chopper?"

The reply was understood after many repeats, "Helicopter . . . coming . . . from . . . 200 . . . miles . . . here . . . before . . . five . . . . "

I asked, "How will they rescue us?"

After more tedious repeats, "Will . . . drop . . . rope . . . to . . . you . . . anchor . . . . summit . . . .you . . . will . . . jumar . . . "

I asked, "How will we know when the rope is anchored?" The answer came, "We . . . will . . . tell . . . you . . . . "

I asked, "It gets dark at five. What happens when it gets dark?" We could not get a reply. Our unit had gone dead from waterlogging. We waited in false anticipation, listening to what would sound like a helicopter but was only the fickle voice of Vernal Fall. Thousands of questions ran through our minds, unanswered. At four-thirty we heard a noise that became louder in logarithmic progression. Around the corner of the southwest face came the helicopter.

We smiled, waved, and waited. It made lazy circles, gained altitude, flew near us and took off out of sight. Probably just checking the situation, we thought. Ten minutes later it came back, circling again, and we saw it had a large spool dangling forty feet below it. We watched, expecting to see it drop the rope, fly toward us with the rope hanging, and land on top. Again it disappeared out of sight. We began to have grave doubts about the competence of the pilot. Twice more the chopper made passes near us. Then darkness came and the air was silent; helicopters do not fly in the mountains at night.

It certainly appeared that the pilot must not be experienced in mountain rescue work and could not figure a way to get us off. We were 700 feet below the summit, and on far too steep a face for him to fly very near.

We could think of dozens of grandiose rescue schemes. For instance, they could hover above the summit, drop a long rope to us, we would tie on, and then the helicopter would fly straight up as they do in the movies, land us on top, land itself, pick us up, and tonight we would have a steak dinner in the Valley.

Warren was the first to break illusions. He said that we might as well face up to the fact that we were going to spend another night on Half Dome whether we liked it or not. He was right. Well . . . sort of.

About an hour after dark I heard a strange noise, so I unzipped the hammock and saw a man being lowered on a rope not a hundred feet above us. Hope sent a pulsing warmth through our chilled bodies. I yelled up, "Are you one of the guys from that chopper?"

He was wearing a full down parka with a hood, carrying a walkie-talkie and a large pack, and had a head-lamp strapped to his forehead. From now on, if I ever envision a guardian angel it will be in this form. I talked to the man on the rope for several minutes without recognizing him. Something about the voice, the mannerisms, and self assuredness seemed familiar. Finally realizing who the rescuer was, I recalled an earlier scene, played on the same set, with two of the same players. Eleven years ago, the roles were transposed. Royal Robbins was coming over the top of the northwest face of Half Dome as his three-man party made the first ascent. Warren Harding was the only climber to hike to the summit to congratulate them. Now both the parts they played and the faces they climbed were reversed. Even after Royal reached us and I was talking to him, Warren didn't recognize him under all the paraphernalia. After several minutes, Warren leaned over in his slings, tried to look into Royal's face, and said, "Who are you, anyway?"

After a good laugh, Royal acted like a true guardian angel, bringing us all our wishes. Besides bringing a lifeline to the summit, the depths of his pack concealed dry down parkas, gloves, and even a thermos of hot soup. After putting on the parka and drinking my first hot liquid in eight days, I readied myself for jumaring to the top. Royal had two extra pairs of Jumar ascenders and I clipped a set on the rope and started up. Only thing was I didn't move. The ascenders slipped, just as in the morning. In descending, the rope had rubbed the face and was now wet and icy. As I was getting discouraged, Royal said that the higher I got, the dryer the rope got. It was mainly wet on the bottom end from the vicinity of our pothole. I rubbed the ascenders up and down, trying to make heat from friction to melt the ice in the little teeth. I fought my way 50 feet, rubbing the gadgets briskly on the rope and pushing the cams into the rope with my thumbs. Finally the slipping stopped. Less than an hour later I reached the top, where I was greeted by seven more people, including several good friends. I was ushered into a tent pitched in the foot of summit snow and given a swig of brandy, dry clothes, and a warm sleeping bag.

I realized that we had misjudged the rescue effort. Instead of checking the situation on each pass by the face, the pilot had been ferrying men and equipment from the Valley to the summit. They had began immediate efforts to reach us in conjunction with our support party below the face, who also were given a Park Service walkie-talkie and helped direct Royal down to us, in the moonlight, on the half-mile-wide face. Since our radio was dead and we could not see the summit, we never knew what was happening.

Warren was right in a sense. We were spending another night on Half Dome, but not in the agony we expected. As he came up, Warren had more than his share of difficulties. He was wearing down-filled pants that had become waterlogged and then frozen. In order to start up the rope, he had to cut them in a few places to get sufficient movement in his legs. He had also lost considerable weight through the ordeal. Lying in the tent we heard the following message come from Royal on the walkie-talkie "Warren seems to be having a lot of trouble. His Jumars are slipping and his pants are falling off. He's really having problems!"

We didn't know then, but by some quirk of weather and radio waves, the entire rescue was broadcast through every television set in use in Yosemite, no matter what channel was tuned in. The picture was untouched, but the sound from the walkie-talkies was loud and clear! The next day every park employee with a television—and many tourists—knew about the rescue and the problems with Warren's pants.

By midnight everyone was on top and we spent a comfortable night on the summit. We ate canned firefighters' rations, which tasted to us like filet mignon. Early the next morning the sound of the helicopter came again. It landed on top, its blade spewing powder snow in a wide circle. Warren and I went down on the first shuttle. Are climbers scared of heights? Well, not usually, but I must admit that when the helicopter took off over the 2,000-foot face, my heart was in my stomach.

When the helicopter neared the Valley floor, our thoughts turned to hot showers, hearty meals, and walking, sleeping, and feeling like normal men again—men who owe a debt to the prompt, decisive action of the National Park Service. . . our support party, and the climbers who selflessly performed the mechanics of the rescue. If we ever go back and finish the climb, it will surely be an anticlimax to the attempt preceding it.

© Article copyright Menasha Ridge Press. All rights reserved.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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