THE FIRST EL CAP RESCUE: summer 1970

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Peter Haan

Trad climber
San Francisco, CA
Topic Author's Original Post - Sep 3, 2006 - 03:48pm PT
Hi again everybody. Here a little story I just finished; I had promised to get it done and put it up so here it is:


Summers in Yosemite can be wonderful. In the shade of huge pines and firs while under sheltering cliffs during sweet afternoons, millions have enjoyed playing in the meadows and the river as time seemed to soften and lose its demanding edge. Incredible scenic hikes lead off in every direction. Families spend appointed weeks every year here for generations and with the thousands of points of interest, go away fulfilled, relaxed and well-fed, decade after decade.

And so it is not surprising that some climbers have come here with something like this in mind as well. Itís such a peaceful spectacular place that it might be hard to understand how in this midst, one could actually come to witís end or even die while people capered below.

By the early 70ís many parties were already trade-routing up the Nose. Ascents were completely commonplace, the ledges were getting rubbished and crap-filled. There were tons of fixed pieces, and route information was available everywhere. What looked like heaven from below during summer could be a stinking crowded shock in suffocating three-digit temperatures, with perhaps no wind. And worse, no shade. Yvon has called El Cap a vertical desert; perhaps it was becoming a vertical desert with frequent horizontal outhouses.

The first big rescue on El Cap was in summer, in the usual extreme heat and otherwise perfect weather that makes Yosemite famous. Quite obviously a party above the Great Roof was screaming down to us, for a rescue. Many of us reached the summit by helicopter. It was a small bubble cabin type of copter, and I can recall approaching the enormous Salathe and Dihedral Walls from the west in this thing, sensing vertigo suddenly spring up in me, as the huge wall instantly gave scale to how high we suddenly were, spanning beyond my field of vision and completely filling the transparent cab. And just the frozen movement of this huge surface created a sense of awe, terror and urgency.

We had a couple of large reels of 1/2Ē twisted lay nylon rope brought up there, and perhaps 15-20 climbers. In fact this was the beginning, informally of SAR, with the West Buttress rescue later that year. Suddenly there would be free campsites for us and a small degree of relief from the denigrating myopia of the authorities even though for the next thirty years, they remained intent on wiping us out, even our Camp. It was not too clear how to get this rescue accomplished, as we were not sure if our distressed party could jumar out, or would have to be lowered or hauled. There was hardly any information with which to work.

Bridwell, already with years in ski patrol and EMS at Squaw Valley, lowered off the top on the first big line while belayed by us with the second line. He naturally assumed this role and had the confidence of the rangers. The rest of the group---all Camp Four types but federal employees for a few hours---stayed quite a ways back from the rounded actual edge, belaying and monitoring with no exposure at all. As soon as Jim was free of the rock past the big summit overhangs, he spun violently. The twisted-lay rope was of course causing this with the combined weight of Jim and all that heavy cordage now free to stretch and rotate, with perhaps 500 more mostly freely hanging feet below him. Suddenly horribly worried, we could hear his desperate swearing on the radio, and just as abruptly, he managed to descend further to get some contact with the route, to squelch this troublesome development and the amazing sounds coming out of our radios.

When he reached the party of two, they were exhausted but ready to get out of there, like right now. They had the necessary equipment for the climb and no injuries. Very very rapidly, Kelly Minnick from Colorado and Brian Robertson, a mountaineer from Scotland and Huandoy Sur/Whillans notoriety, arrive one after the other over the big rounded edge we had all been staring at for the last few hours. They had jumared 500-600 feet in nearly record time. We were all impressed. The story was they thought they were in trouble, they were running out of water. Both were sunburned and quite fair skinned. Brian had shorts on even, was portly and bright pink. To complete the image he was really vociferous, practically stentorian. Kelly was quieter, quite thin, probably younger and had long red hair. They did not talk directly to each other. It was immediately all about restoring oneís reputation and ego at the expense of a partner, perhaps. It seemed they openly despised one another. They were not regular partners but paired for this ascent.

It was not the picture of climbers near death, unable to progress, empty-handed and doomed. It was apparent that they just couldnít---no, had refused---to climb together further. They hated being sunburned to bits, werenít prepared for the awesome exposure on this route without shade, and needed some water. Mostly grateful to us to get rescued, they were clearly preoccupied nonetheless by a variety of personal concerns that included neither real humility nor willfully managing to take care of all situations that stood in the way of a summit or a safe retreat. It was shocking that a party would call for a large-scale rescue without exhausting all other possibilities clearly present to everyone else.

As we dispersed quickly, organizing to leave and go back to camp, I wandered a couple hundred yards over to the top of the famous Salathe Wall over which we had flown just hours prior, returning, curious. Without knowing it, I would end up soloing it a year later. Standing there by myself on the distinct edge, it was the first time that I had ever been right in front of exposure such as this, 3200 ft. It appeared to me almost as a door, that lead to another complete existence, so compelling the visual image was almost blurred with meaning.

But I was upset in a way I did not understand. This rescue, with its initial grim look and morbid open-ended possibilities, had triggered something in me. When it turned out a raving success, albeit somewhat unnecessary, this should have relieved me and the visceral grip we all feel in emergency situations. In fact the whole affair was over well within a day, a handful of hours. But I wanted to join this yawning gorgeous zero before me. I wanted to sail into the immensity, not because I wanted to die but perhaps because I was somehow terribly lonely, suddenly, after the valiant group effort of our team rescue had ended.

It had been my first such emergency operation. The noble bonds the hastily formed group made, the grave vital unity to which, honored, I had briefly belonged, had evaporated in minutes, as if it had not been there in the first place. We had thrilled to the sense of mission. Had it all disappeared into this huge place, this hole in the world below my feet? This sublime drop-off was also curious, new, attracting a deep primitive desire for flight, earthly transcendence, and somehow, impeccable worthiness. It seemed to promise an enormous alternative answer to everything else, all things, without disclosing how terrible this answer would be on the way down. Shocked and struggling between reason and primitive emotion, I turned back to leave, to return again in a few months for the next strange rescue operation we would mount in the fall on the tail end of a bad storm.
Chicken Skinner

Trad climber
Yosemite
Sep 3, 2006 - 04:27pm PT
Peter,

Thanks again for yet another wonderful story.

One funny thing I have noticed about doing big walls is that partners are either the best of friends afterwards or never want to see each other again.

Ken
john hansen

climber
Sep 3, 2006 - 10:16pm PT
Did SAR stop using twisted ropes after that, I'm picturing Mr bridwell at about 40 RPM ,2800 feet up. Too bad there isn't a transcipt of that radio conversation. I bet it included alot of #^%$@&* &#%ing.
Ropeboy

Trad climber
Fresno CA
Sep 10, 2006 - 08:18pm PT
I was in Camp 4 shortly after the rescue and a song was being sung about the Brits and their self inflicted need for a rescue. I copied it down at a picnic table and still have it. Here it is for grins.

MORE WATER
Sept 1970 - Rob Wood
sung to "The Streets of Laredo"

As we were a-boozing in camp 4 one evening,
As we were a-boozing in camp 4 one day,
We heard to our horror, the croaks of a climber,
More water, more water, were the words he did say.

When the rangers they heard of a potential disaster,
They went to their files and they pulled out a card.
And to our amazement the name of the climber
Was our old mate Brian, t'was Brian so hard.

After three days of climbing , they'ed run short of water,
For this is all that they thought they would need,
Up the Nose they had started with only three gallons,
To climb it, said Brian, I'll climb it with speed.

A Rescue, A Rescue, were the words of the Rangers,
The climbers they lined up to ask what the fee,
Seven dollars an hour if you are well known,
If not , we must ask you to do it for free.

But the law said only ten men on the rescue,
And sweet Bev, she said, I want to go too,
Seven dollars an hour for maid's liberation,
For Brian the chance of a bloody good sc**w.

The chopper it started at seven in the morning,
Jim Bridwell was there to tell what to do,
For ten dollars an hour I'll rappel down the wall,
Seven dollars an hour for the rest of my crew.

Old Bridwell on a cable to Camp 6 was lowered,
To Brian and Kelly some water to bring,
While down in the Valley many tourists did gather,
And we ran to the phone, Ken Wilson to ring.

Such a scandal, such a scandal, will be the next headlines,
Just what I needed to make some good news,
First El Cap British rescue, he duely reported,
News that will surely bring grins from Creag Dubhs.

You may have your hammock and harness to help you,
You may have your liscense in Boulder to guide,
But if you're on El Cap without any water,
Just think yourself lucky that you haven't died.

Peter Haan

Trad climber
San Francisco, CA
Topic Author's Reply - Sep 10, 2006 - 10:43pm PT
Hilarious!
Rhodo-Router

Gym climber
Otto, NC
Sep 11, 2006 - 11:30am PT
Viva el Taco! Thanks Peter.

Worth wading through all the other OT rubbish.
TKingsbury

Trad climber
MT
Sep 11, 2006 - 12:19pm PT
Great story, and a very nice read.

Do you know if the two who were rescued ever attempted another wall?




Roger Breedlove

climber
Cleveland Heights, Ohio
Sep 11, 2006 - 01:06pm PT
Hey Ropeboy, pretty cool that you had the foresight to record the ditty. Funny.

Roger
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