The First Bad Weather El Cap Rescue: West Buttress 1970

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Peter Haan

Trad climber
San Francisco, CA
Topic Author's Original Post - Aug 25, 2006 - 08:39pm PT
In late October, Yosemite usually gets its first serious two-day storm bringing hints of ice, snow, and the dangerous changes of the approaching season.

I was about to leave Yosemite for the season, and had started to figure out how to do a couple of months in the Bay Area and Santa Cruz without my Valley. It was 1970.

But I was still there, and with over twenty of my friends and colleagues a really large operation was being organized for the first big rescue on El Cap that involved bad weather. Schmitz, Bridwell, myself, Klemens and just about everyone else who was still in Camp, were suddenly on staff. A party of two men on the West Buttress was being watched closely. They had sustained some bad freezing weather below the Grand Traverse, werenít adequately protected and had gotten dangerously wet. And it appeared that they werenít really progressing. Eventually, they started to call out, and it became clear that they had decided they needed help, although it obviously was something they did not want to face.

So, during the early night and the weather still questionable about 20 of us hiked to the top of El Cap from Crane Flat area, in the fresh fallen snow. We established a kind of giant tent city there. The mules had already arrived with all kinds of provisions and these huge army-green low-slung tents. Lloyd Price for some reason was in charge of us, and had given a speech earlier, warning of giant sheets of ice, winter conditions and death at hand. It was really a big event for the Valley at the time and no one knew what was actually going to end up happening. The much fabled and wonderful Ranger Pete Thompson was located on the Valley floor with a Questar and radios as well. We all actually revered him and to work with him on the rescue was an honor. I think his son later became an Olympian.

Anyway, as day broke and everyone was able to get prepared for what seemed like an ominous situation, about 15 of us descended rappel lines over the choppy uppermost parts of El Cap to the enormous capacious Thanksgiving Ledge, a feature that slices across quite a bit of the western facing portions of the upper section. Our spot was basically in plumb to the location of our boys located under the big overhangs of the Grand Traverse. But they were still about 600 feet below us even after the descent to Thanksgiving. The terrain above the Traverse is no longer that steep and although still real climbing, produces tons of rope drag because of its slabby nature. And worse there are books and other features that make for trouble. To make it more iffy still, we cannot see the party, and are using Peteís observations from the floor, to help us via radios.

The approach was to belay Bridwell down to them as he rappelled another line. Jim reached the pair who turned out to be Mike Caldwell and his partner I think named Hendrickson (or Fredickson?). The weather was improving and temperatures were reasonable. Jim reached the party, got Fredrickson to begin jumaring out of their bivy up the 600 ft of rock to our post. So in about an hour or so, he reaches our huge ledge, and it turns out that he has sustained an eye injury that has nearly immobilized him. A sliver of chrome-moly had flown off his hammer into one of his eyeballs and remained there scratching the crap out of his eyelid, while inflaming just about everything else out of which he was made. Very incapacitating and painful. Although he had managed to jumar 600 ft to us in a fairly short time, thus displaying his ability to still effectively climb or at least follow a rope out of the situation, he was severely depressed and would hardly speak.

Upon his arrival, I took him over to my area and watched him. Because the ledge was nearly 15 feet wide here, he and I were unroped. As he had been jumaring, we had been belaying him on a second massive 600 ft long line just like the one he ascended. It took about 8-10 of us to even pull slack up on this line, as it hugged the slabby zillions of yards between the site of their demise and home on our ledge. I remembered Gerughty talking about how friction increases hyperbolically over radiused edges. So when we took up rope, of course with the power of that many young male climbers each with a jumar on the line, we were rocketing him upwards apparently right out of his slings, as if the plan was to merely haul him up like a bag rather than allow him to power himself to our post as best he could. It had not been comfortable, flying out of slings, getting jammed under roofs and in flares. But he was up and he could feel it was going to end, and that we had been able to dispel the horror of his past days.

But he wouldnít talk. He hardly looked at me. He sprawled on the stony deck of Thanksgiving Ledge, with a tiny conifer about 5 feet high that grew there, behind him near the edge of the great abyss. The weather continued to stabilize and give us all comfort and hope. His face was pale and swollen from the eye problem, the horrid exposure and who knew what else. If he had been hypothermic, he was not now, after this huge jumar he had managed. As time went by, with only the briefest of words between us, he decides to stand up and do something. As he rises, his legs after all this jumaring, canít quite finish getting up too, so he falls backwards rather than having his feet under him. I am watching this with utter disbelief and horror, thinking that he is going to fall off my ledge and go to his maker upside down at 150 miles an hour. But the sturdy little conifer held him, only by chance centered to his back, and he resumed sitting, hardly noticing the real situation that had developed just then. No one else noticed, I think, but I couldnít help sharing this experience immediately like a magpie.

So after Fredrickson finished his jumar to us, the friskier partner, Mike Caldwell tied on 600 feet below and also began the rude experience of ascending our system. After surmounting the Grand Traverse roofs and flares, he became visible to us, about 400 feet below. The great distance between us kept the swear words to mostly unintelligible phonetics, but the gestures, although microscopic at that distance, were pretty clear. Caldwell was not liked in Camp, nor in Berkeley, and here now as our rescuee, became our toy. We howled with laughter and as time wore on, we got over it, he arrived on the ledge and essentially repeated himself a few more times, without thanks. It became clear that their rescue was indicated for more reasons than weather. And it had been really really expensive, had involved some 20-30 men of all sorts arriving in bad weather by all kinds of means, to come to their aid and mostly at night, all with the rapt attention of hundreds on the Valley floor. It was the first time such a rescue had been performed; it had been a success with all involved safe and a little wiser.
Chicken Skinner

Trad climber
Yosemite
Aug 25, 2006 - 09:02pm PT
Thank you Peter for taking the time to write these stories. I hope others are influenced by you and do the same. This goes for younger climbers as well. It is too easy to tell yourself I will do it later and next thing you know a large chunk of time has passed and the memories start to fade.

Ken

'Pass the Pitons' Pete

Big Wall climber
like Oakville, Ontario, Canada, eh?
Aug 25, 2006 - 09:05pm PT
{applause} Bravo! Great story, great writing. Did you just write that now for us?

I was just up on Thanksgiving Ledge - a lovely place when the sun is shining.

I don't know anything about high angle rescue. I have yet to be rescued climbing [however I was recently rescued caving, sort of, after getting flooded into Roppel Cave] and am unfamiliar with how it's done these days.

Werner, if the same situation were to repeat itself in the same place this fall, how would you guys do it?

Thanks for a great story, eh?
john hansen

climber
Aug 25, 2006 - 09:51pm PT
Just checking. That couldn't be Tommy Caldwells Pop could it? I heard he climbed. Probably not.
Ropeboy

Trad climber
Fresno CA
Aug 25, 2006 - 10:39pm PT
Thanks for the story and the history. Did you take part in an Oct 72 broken leg rescue at camp 5 of the Nose? I was on sickle on that morning. We bailed and notified the rangers, then had to stay off the wall and watch the helicopters and watch Bridwell get lowered down the route beside the litter all the way from camp 5. I never learned the injured climber's name and am curious if you heard it.
WBraun

climber
Aug 25, 2006 - 10:47pm PT
Nice hike, huh Peter? Ugh! It's a real pain especially in deep snow while it's raining and snowing on yah and carrying a ton of sh#t to boot.

Ropeboy this is the 72 Olsen El Cap Sar where you are referencng Bridwell being lowered to the ground.

Peter Haan

Trad climber
San Francisco, CA
Topic Author's Reply - Aug 25, 2006 - 11:34pm PT
HI buds,

Yes this was Tommy's dad-to-be. Interesting isn't it. Tommy didn't exist then. Tommy clearly has gone on to amazing levels of our art and is a great guy. We are lucky. Remember, Dale B. talks about holding tiny infant Tommy in his arms, years and years ago. Kind of a passage for both of them.

Yeah Werner, the hike, the hike....and the night, the kooky questionable weather. It is just amazing what we have done for others, especially you. Buddhists say, Happiness is cherishing others.

The next story is about the July/summertime rescue we all did on the Nose, for Brian Robertson and Kelly Minnick. We were kind of finding in those days that parties weren't actually unable to go on---hey the parties could jumar 600 feet in record time when they were given a rope----they kind of threw in the towel. There seemed to be these severe interpersonal things going on, kind of a total team meltdown---a bitch fight really. I know that later there were really f----g desparate rescues, but I never saw them. I always thought those on the back of Half Dome were shockingly hard and dangerous. Middendorf's tale of survival back there stands as one of the most amazing stories of survival in US climbing. By then, I was already slaving away on the coast, surviving in another manner .

hugs all, P.
'Pass the Pitons' Pete

Big Wall climber
like Oakville, Ontario, Canada, eh?
Aug 25, 2006 - 11:58pm PT
People got rescued because they didn't get along with their partners?!

I thought the guys of old were real hardmen. What a bunch of pussies! Shut up and climb. Geez.....
HighDesertDJ

Trad climber
Arid-zona
Aug 26, 2006 - 12:13pm PT
I like the figure-8's tied directly to the runners on the litter rig. Thanks for posting this up, Peter.
SammyLee

Trad climber
Memphis
Aug 26, 2006 - 02:16pm PT
Funny how "dirt-bag" lowlife climbers change to "skilled rescue climbers" when things go to sh#t two thousand feet off the deck. Not really sure the attitude back then was like that, so maybe I speak out of turn.

I walked around camp 4 a bit two weeks ago and I suspect that if they were asked, the dirt-baggers there would do whatever they could to help.

Very cool story, especially that it was Tommy's dad. I look forward to more.
Roger Breedlove

Trad climber
Cleveland Heights, Ohio
Aug 26, 2006 - 07:06pm PT
Hey SammyLee, the climbers in the late 1960s and early 1970s were well respected for their climbing ability, their hard work, and good sense on rescues. Also, those that skied were trained in first aid and rescue. Bridwell was an ace at the stuff. He was a ski patrolman at Squaw Valley in those years.

Perhaps more importantly, the climbers in Camp 4 were the only ones around who could pull off a rescue.

Nice story Peter.

Hey Ropeboy, there is a nice thread on the 1972 rescue here on ST. Werner posted lots of great photos.

Best, Roger
Zander

Trad climber
Berkeley
Aug 30, 2006 - 09:42pm PT
Hey Peter, and everyone else,
Thanks for the great thread. Good stuff.
Zander
Russ Walling

Social climber
Out on the sand, Man.....
Aug 30, 2006 - 10:13pm PT
Peter: Missed this on the first pass.... nice one (again!)
Peter Haan

Trad climber
San Francisco, CA
Topic Author's Reply - Aug 31, 2006 - 12:05am PT
Hi again buds. Thanks Russ. Glad that some of you draw meaning from this thread. To answer Pete, yeah I am just writing this stuff for us here on this forum. And there will be more. I donít have a site nor do I give much time to the other forums. (These writings arenít up anywhere else) And it is really good for me to do this.

Even though 35 years or so have passed, this rescue account has got to be interesting to many especially since it has fingers that reach into this very day, 35 years later, considering who we rescued. Realize that full-scale operations like this had not happened at all by this point. Frankly we didnít know if they could be pulled off, on this scale. And my account here is the first big-ass rescue on El Cap in bad weather if you donít count Madsenís solo effort rappelling off the end of his rope thinking that Pratt needed a rescue on the Dihedral a couple years prior, providing Pratt with unique views of Jim meeting his maker.

I should have clarified that once our West Buttress rescue team was on the rock that morning, the conditions were workable. There was no ice, just water, and the weather got somewhat honest with us eventually as the day wore on, true to form for a late October storm. But it lingered and didnít make things real clear for us. In advance of the effort, there were all kinds of guessing and worry involving dozens of people and the Government. Those of us who lived there a lot, knew that the storm could hit us with a second wave and make things really hideous. Only a couple of us had any experience on ice and snow you see. And no equipment for it. So, as we went up there to try to get these two guys off the massive wall from which they were calling us, we hadnít a clue what was going to happen to us all, we were just Valley rockclimbers with basically no proper equipment.

best P
john hansen

climber
Aug 31, 2006 - 12:14am PT
In 1968 Robbins rapped down to Harding and Rowell on the South face of Half Dome , when they were trapped by a storm. Not nearly as vert though.
john hansen

climber
Aug 31, 2006 - 12:17am PT
Did you work in more rescues after that?
Peter Haan

Trad climber
San Francisco, CA
Topic Author's Reply - Aug 31, 2006 - 01:17am PT
Hi John H.

I was on a number of rescues, but only two on El Cap. The next story will be about the other rescue, which took place during the summer, I think in 1970. Some of the smaller rescues were interesting though. I covered one about a year or so ago here; Werner and I did it. Secret Storm. I was gone from the Valley on a consistent basis by 1973, visiting alot, but not trying to live there. And frankly by that point, some of us had had enough of this kind of excitement.

Yeah RR rescued Warren and Galen on the back of Half Dome then, and it was a very dangerous very daring very technical rescue btw. In my account I was focusing on El Cap's history. BTW look for Middendorf's (deuce4) account of his survival story on the Back of Half Dome quite a few years later during that insane flood that hit Yosemite.

best P.
Jerry Coe

Trad climber
Berkeley,CA
Sep 2, 2006 - 10:09pm PT
Hey Guys: Wild memories swell up for me. I was on the Aquarian Wall during this storm. Rick Sylvester and I had ascended over a four day period to the ledge on top of Timbuktu Towers. We slept in our down jackets and haul bags. The storm produced the lethal combination of rain turning to snow and then cleared late that night to suck the warmth from our bones and form a skin of verglass over everthing.
We were the lucky ones. At first light in rain and continuing snow we were warm and dry. we started an 8 hour overhanging descent following a Comici line of rappel anchors set by Schmitz and Bridwell in a previous attempt. The Aquarian Wall was yet to be completed and S and B would later make the final attempt completing a great line they had worked out. I remember the rooster tails of water spraying out of my beeners as I descended. At the end of each rappel we hit the knot in our lines and had to pendulum into the wall find and grab the anchors. We walked to our car and returned to the ranger club to thaw before a great fire in the fireplace . I think looking out to a clearing frozen night sky after being soaked to the skin would be like staring death in the face.
Peter Haan

Trad climber
San Francisco, CA
Topic Author's Reply - Sep 3, 2006 - 12:02am PT
Hi Jerry,

I haven't conversed with you for 34 years I think....Thatís right, I had forgotten, a lot was going on that day. You are right, it was a tough storm, as some of the late October weather can be; everything changes in a matter of hours and can be bad for a few days sometimes, with very low temperatures, high winds and quite a bit of precipitation. And the Aquarian is a nasty place to be in weather, especially the lower half. Bridwell had been watching you guys too. You and Rick were a practiced team and had experience and obviously did well.

I think what knocked out the Caldwell party was in the final analysis, loss of morale. Hendrickson's (sp?) eye injury was really hard for him to ignore, they had gotten really wet, and didn't seem to be communicating with each other effectively. And they had stopped loving what they were doing on all levels. And yet they survived easily by jumaring huge distances very quickly. They needed to rejoin regular life, make the challenge stop, to be back on the ground right now.

best, P.
Chicken Skinner

Trad climber
Yosemite
Sep 3, 2006 - 02:21pm PT
Peter,

I would like to hear about soloing the Salathe. Burly!

Ken
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