No Rescue: the Bob Locke Accident on Mt. Watkins


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Rick A

Boulder, Colorado
Topic Author's Original Post - Sep 8, 2007 - 12:27pm PT
This is a more or less contemporaneous account that I wrote after participating in the Locke rescue attempt mentioned in Jerry Dodrill’s thread. I cleaned it up a little bit, but it is pretty much as I wrote it 30 years ago.

Tobin Sorenson on the South Face of Mt. Watkins. Sheraton Watkins below and left.

Yosemite Lodge Cafeteria; 6:00 PM

Staring at the grease that floats on my cup of coffee, I’m not in a good mood. Didn’t get much done on this trip: retreated off El Cap, somebody ran over my rope in the parking lot, and it rained for days at a time. But still, it’s better than being in the city… maybe I’ll find a job in Mammoth for the winter and put off returning to LA.
I should have spent more time up in Tuolumne. It’s so much better there: distant horizons instead of confining walls; fewer people and more beautiful than the valley; domes that have been glacier- polished to a golden sheen instead of the slate- grey shades below. Thoughts drift to a route last summer…sitting on the edge of an improbable lake, set like a diamond on the very summit of a Tuolumne dome, giddy with delight after the climb that ended on its shores. The crux sequence was so intricate and absorbing that the replays of it were enough to make me smile for months afterward.
Richard Harrison comes over.
“Hey, Ricky, they want you at the cache.”
“What for?
“Rescue on Mt. Watkins.”
I walk over, pleased with the prospects. If it’s like the last one, it’ll be great. What fun that was, helicopter rides up and down Half Dome… sitting on top for hours eating Park Service food and enjoying the view while we tended the ropes… laughing at how, in a matter of hours, we had been magically transformed in official eyes from “C4B’s” (Camp four bums) to respected and indispensable rescue experts. The rescue had been a great success—a couple of wet and cold climbers had been safely pulled off the Northwest Face, and a good time was had by all concerned. It was also a nice bonus to receive the Park Service check that arrived in the mail, including an extra buck an hour for “hazard pay”. Like the unemployment checks the C4B’s picked up in Fresno, it was truly a “government climbing grant.”
At the rescue cache, a few Camp 4 regulars are already there, sifting through the Park Service stash of climbing equipment. I learn that the rangers were looking for me because I climbed the South Face of Mt.Watkins recently with Tobin and Gib, and they need fresh knowledge of that route. Chris is there and it takes a few minutes before I realize that he was one of the climbers involved in the accident, and has run here from Mt. Watkins to start the rescue. I don’t recognize the name that is repeated, but Chris reports that he fell a long way and the decision is made to attempt to reach Chris’ partner, Bob Locke, known as “Bobo,” tonight.

Above the Valley; 11:00 pm.

As the old Bell helicopter labors to rise over the lights of the Ahwhanee Hotel and switchbacks toward the mass of Half Dome, my nervousness at takeoff is forgotten as I try to absorb as much as I can of a staggeringly beautiful sight. Inside the glass bubble of the cockpit, I am surrounded by familiar granite faces on every side, each one softly glowing in the moonlight.
Dale Bard, Mike Graham and Ranger Dan are already on top and we quickly get to work hauling ropes to the edge of the great, 3,000 foot South Face. It feels like we’re on an alien planet, as we stand together on the luminous granite slabs that slope toward the lip, our voices echoing “Bobo” as we call in unison into the abyss…No answer, but we are still far above him. The sound of the helicopter returns and we set to work rigging the lowering operation.

Top of Mt. Watkins; 2:00 a.m.

After hours of preparation, we are finally ready to lower Dale, who has a walkie-talkie, medical supplies, extra ropes and climbing gear hanging all over him. Everyone else is in position to handle the two 1,200 foot ropes. John Dill, the ranger in charge, is on the radio coordinating our actions with Dale’s instructions, while also talking to the pilot of a Coast Guard C-130. The huge plane circles every few minutes to provide brief periods of illumination from a giant “Carolina Moon” search light.
The whole crew is working efficiently and is in high spirits. As Dale rappels slowly over the lip--one thick line for the rappel, the other for the belay-- the climber in him cannot be contained , and the radio crackles, “ Man, you should see these jam cracks!”
After many fraught moments listening to Dale’s instructions on the radio as he inches his way down the face, he is getting closer and has to pendulum to reach a ledge about 200 feet directly above Bobo. Finally, Dale reports, “I’m turfed out at Sheraton Watkins.” The Rangers look at us quizzically and we translate: he’s reached the spacious ledge at the midpoint of the face, named by the first ascent team, Chouinard, Pratt and Harding.
Dale reports that Bobo does not answer his calls. No more jokes and sarcasm now; we all lean forward from the our positions on the rope line to hear the exchanges between John Dill and Dale on the radio. Another few moments, then Dale loud and clear,
“He’s dead. I’m coming back up.”
Dill breaks a long silence, “Wait Dale, are you sure?”
Dale is a friend of Bobo and he explodes,“ There’s no pulse, he is not breathing, his skin is cold, and he stinks…yeah… I’m sure.”
We pull the belay rope up as Dale ascends back to Sheraton Watkins.
It was the plan that I would descend next, but it seems pointless now. It’s about 3:00 AM and I’m about to voice my doubts about whether this is really necessary when the radio erupts again,
“Send Rick down, I’m not spending the night here alone.”
There is a tone in Dale’s voice that no one wants to argue with, so I get ready for the long rappel. My mind is now thankfully occupied as I’m lowered over the edge. Dale’s headlamp is a tiny beacon in the black depths as I ride down, slowly spinning. On the ledge, we cover ourselves with a sleeping bag and exhaustion brings sleep without further thought.

Sheraton Watkins; 6:00 AM

The morning dawns flat and grey, but Dale and I are unaware of it. We are dead to the world on our tiny, horizontal island within a vast vertical sea of granite, as the sun rises up the canyon. Suddenly, we are startled awake by the deafening roar of jet engines and the guttural thump of rotor blades. We open our eyes to the sinister, olive drab nose and cockpit of a military helicopter facing us, hovering 100 feet away at eye level. We turn on the radios and learn that Dill sent the helicopter to wake us; we had turned them off before going to sleep.
Dale and I get ready to descend to start the job of putting the body in the litter. I am anxious and unsure how I’ll react. I’ve always been acutely aware of the risk of dying in the mountains, but I have never handled a dead body. We rig parallel rappels and lower off the ledge together. Chris had tied Bobo into a sleeping bag on a two-feet-wide ledge, supplied with food and water. When we get even with the ledge, I recognize a face I’ve seen before around Camp 4, but I didn’t know his name before now. The brightly- colored ropes and slings that surround Bobo seem horribly out of place. The rock shoes, chalk bag and big-wall rack, always to me the implements of fun and adventure, seem profoundly sad now.
Dale and I silently get Bobo into the litter, faces masked by bandanas. My mind is un-tethered from the task at hand and a realization comes to me with terrible clarity:
“climbing is not worth this; it’s all useless..” I’m dazed and empty as we watch the litter rise towards the summit.
We descend on automatic pilot: rappel, find anchors, pull and thread the ropes, wait for the whistling that signals that the rope is free of snags, repeat. After many rappels and scrambling down the lower slabs, we reach the ground. Even the new experience of climbing onto a large boulder near the river, and then clambering onto the skid of the hovering Navy helicopter cannot not raise my spirits.

Valley Floor; 6:00 pm

Back at the rescue cache, the team is offered congratulations and beer. The talk is subdued, but punctuated by excited exclamations as we recall amazing sights and helicopter maneuvers. Then, awkward silence, as we notice a somber man talking to the rangers. “Bobo’s father,” someone whispers.
I head straight for my tent and sleep until late morning. At the cafeteria, the talk slowly returns to the usual: A3+ aid pitches , new free routes, future projects, but it all has a hollow ring to me. I leave my friends in the cafeteria and decide to drive home to LA. But I make up my mind to take the long route, up into the high country, through Tuolumne Meadows.


Social climber
Ventura, California
Sep 8, 2007 - 12:37pm PT
I'll transfer this from the other thread.

Chris Falkenstein’s amazing effort in his descent and sprint to park headquarters set the pace for this effort. The only helicopter available that night on the few minutes notice was a small Bell 47 and not having much “useful load” we had to shuttle in pairs to get to the top of Mt. Watkins. This first photo gives you the feeling of the slope landing with only lanterns for markers. The pilot joked on my trip it was his first night flight but I think he did that on every leg to break the ice with his passengers. Must have done it a dozen times that night

This is a shot under the Carolina Moon

This was our ride home the next day.

J. Werlin

Sep 8, 2007 - 12:41pm PT
Heavy duty piece Rick. Enjoyed it immensely. Well done.
seamus mcshane

Sep 8, 2007 - 12:43pm PT
Rick-Sad tale. Good writing. Great pic of Tobin.

Social climber
Ventura, California
Sep 8, 2007 - 12:53pm PT
Really good and sobering story Rick.

I never thought it was the best idea to send Dale down there first he an Bob were too close. It was really hard on him that night and hard to listen to.

nick d

Trad climber
Sep 8, 2007 - 01:22pm PT
Thank you very much for sharing those thoughts and experiences. Even though we are total strangers (mostly) the common bond we all share is defined by a willingness to submit ourselves to be tested. Not all of us will pass the tests, but all of us will learn from the lessons. Thanks again.

Michael Smith
Michael Kennedy

Social climber
Carbondale, Colorado
Sep 8, 2007 - 02:17pm PT
Rick and Mike,

Thanks for posting. Very sad and moving. Kudos to all involved for the selfless work. And a good reminder that we all walk close to the edge whether we know it or not.

Michael Kennedy


Social climber
The West
Sep 8, 2007 - 02:32pm PT
Wow Rick, Mike too. I'd read the account in the AAC acident book or somewhere, but never felt it like while reading that.
Mighty Hiker

Social climber
Vancouver, B.C.
Sep 8, 2007 - 05:26pm PT
Thank you Rick and Mike. Very moving.
Peter Haan

Trad climber
San Francisco, CA
Sep 8, 2007 - 09:43pm PT
I know what you mean, Ricky. In situations like those, in fact it really does seem that climbing or mountaineering is simply not worth it, when friends and good people are killed, usually violently. The losses lasting forever in the hearts of the survivors, for perhaps 80 or more years, and going even further in our literature!

Dave Roberts tries to work on this banner subject in his most recent book, “On the Ridge between Life and Death”, but mostly ends up with a very compelling, intimate and richly textured autobiography. He is not able to answer this question, only pose it over and over again (rightfully I would say) as he reminisces, however expertly, on his amazing life and that of his friends. This question serves as a great axle for him as he writes, though.

If we look at other endeavors, maybe things get righted. For example all of us must know at least a couple people who have been killed on the road, and in thinking of these friends, we don’t come away with the resolution that driving is just not worth it....that we should start walking or using animals to carry us to avoid the terror and nausea of these violent events. We just don’t. We accept the hazard, however tearfully, and get back behind the wheel or on that bus or train.

I ponder this question in the same way everybody else does, is it worth it? But apparently compared to driving, climbing is safer, statistically, however radical it appears! And so taking away the drama, and the tiny arguments about how climbing is optional and could be quitted and driving would be mandatory and must continue, we see that in fact pointless and brutal death surrounds us in all kinds of ways and degrees, always has, and that climbing is not actually as worse or perilous as many of the things that we deeply accept, such as high speed driving or smoking.

So if all things here are more or less in scale, that climbers are not dying in inordinate numbers, by the thousands every month for example, crazily just for sport, and that highway drivers do die, just going on a vacation or to go to the grocery, then we have nothing to complain about that would be unusual, in other words, there is some rationality to our living this way. Human history as zillions of prior writers have noted, has been really very very tough and apparently will continue to be so in ever-changing ways, many irrational; it's a nearly impossible project. What we gain from climbing and mountaineering is so huge in balance with (comparatively) statistically moderate risk that we just keep doing it until our interests lead us elsewhere and we are the better for having been in the sport and art.


Trad climber
the blighted lands of hatu
Sep 8, 2007 - 09:52pm PT
Thanks Rick for the great read - very sobering. I read it this morning and really didn't know what to say...

I'm curious - do you still feel it's not worth it ? The risks vs the pain the ones that might survive an accident have to face ? I see this thread contrast the Fosset one and I have my own feelings on the risks I take, but that's just me, and I haven't been where you were, not by any means...


Social climber
The West
Sep 8, 2007 - 10:14pm PT
The thing is that driving is often not a choice.

You don't have to climb; unless you HAVE to climb.

I've had times when I KNEW it wasn't worth it; Jim Adair, Carol Moyers, John Rutt, Derek Hersey, Todd, etc. But, despite that, after all these years, and how much I know better, climbing is the thing I keep coming back to.

I'm not planning to die, anywhere, but the statistics make it look like it will catch up with me, somewhere, somehow. I'd rather be climbing, than doing a lot of things, when the final chess game presents itself.

chico ca
Sep 8, 2007 - 11:26pm PT
Sad Memories..

If my memory serves me..right after this accident/because of this accident, the Park service finally installed emergency phones- at Mirror Lake and Little Yosemite Valley??

WBraun, Does the Park Service offer -grief Counselling- for the SAR Team?

Sep 8, 2007 - 11:33pm PT
Yes they do.

I've been forced to attend a couple of them in the past years and they are a nightmare.

The grief Counselors need counseling. (drama queens)

They are dumb for me as I don't need it.
Jerry Dodrill

Bodega, CA
Sep 9, 2007 - 01:21am PT
"when the final chess game presents itself."

It's always a bummer to find yourself in check, but with each game we hopefully sharpen our abilities. The biggest risk is to not learn the game, and unknowingly find yourself in checkmate.

Thanks for sharing Rick, Mike.
Rick A

Boulder, Colorado
Topic Author's Reply - Sep 9, 2007 - 11:08am PT
Thanks for the comments. I had that in a drawer for thirty years and debated whether it was better left there. That day I certainly felt climbing wasn’t worth it, but that feeling didn’t last long and I voted with my feet: I did my most intense and dangerous climbing after this incident.

I tried to hint at which direction I was heading with the ending of the piece where I was going back up to the meadows, to remind myself of the rewards of climbing. But I still have difficulty balancing these rewards against the devastating impact that one mistake can have on those we would leave behind.

Gym climber
Otto, NC
Sep 9, 2007 - 11:31am PT
What can you say, you just have to be f%$'n careful up there. And perhaps find other ways to satisfy the need for that out-there feeling when people are counting on you to stick around.

Sometimes other people serve as examples for the rest of us. Tough on them; a good thing for the (current) survivors.

Trad climber
Lee, NH
Sep 9, 2007 - 11:34am PT
Powerful story and a sobering read on this rainy Sunday morning.
Ed Hartouni

Trad climber
Livermore, CA
Sep 9, 2007 - 12:43pm PT
thanks to Rick and Mike for a deeply moving story. It adds tremendously to the one line explanation of a guidebook climb name...

from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

'Tis all Chequer-board of Nights and Days
Where Destiny with Men for Pieces plays:
Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays
And one by one back in the Closet lays.

right here, right now
Sep 9, 2007 - 01:43pm PT
Nice job Rick and Mike.

Our rewards are uplifting peak experiences to be sure; while the consequences can be stark, subdued, and dour.

I give great thanks for a fairly extended sojourn among the cliffs with my true friends, as not all of us have been so lucky. Oddly, it all seems to blend: memories of long ago, of yesterday, a feeling of lingering virility today and a fine sense for the hope which flows from “now”.

We are all in it together, whether in part or in whole and we shall more or less pass together.
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