TNSAR Search 19/10/2004

Yosemite El Cap callout

On Tuesday, October 19, TNSAR responded to a rescue on El Capitan in the Yosemite Valley. While we were never deployed to the field, there was a legitimate need to have additional personnel on scene. In addition, it was fascinating to watch first hand the operation of a major rescue effort by real professionals.

Beginning on Sunday, October 17th a winter storm cycle moved into the west for most of a week. At Tahoe City the snow level hovered around 6,500, with rain off and on most of the week. To the south, in Yosemite Valley a number of climbers were on the face of El Capitan and all were stormed in. Most of the parties were experienced and well equipped, but the Park Rangers and YOSAR were particularly concerned about one pair on the Nose which had little gear to weather a forced bivouac.

The Tahoe Nordic Search and Rescue Team was paged at 9:30 pm on Tuesday, October 19th with a request to join the Placer County Mountain Rescue Team (PCMRT) to support the planned rescue efforts for the following day.

We were to meet in Auburn at 2:00 am for the drive to Yosemite. Five team members met at the Team Garage at 11:00 pm and left for Auburn at 11:30. It was snowing over Donner Summit, with chain controls, but traffic was light at that time of the night so we made good time to Auburn. We met at the Placer County SAR garage with 5 PCMRT team members and two Placer County Police. We departed Auburn at 3:30 for the long drive to the Valley, arriving at 7:15 AM.

At the Yosemite Search and Rescue (YOSAR) cache we were briefed and issued radios. There were teams from Marin County (Bay Area Mountain Rescue Team) and Mariposa County as well as the YOSAR team already in the field. They were stretched out along the trail to El Cap from the Tamarack Flat trailhead off of Hwy 120. They had started out about 4:00 AM. It was an 11 mile slog from the highway. Snowmobiles could make the first three from hwy 120 at Gin Flat to Tamarack Flat, but the remaining 8 from there were on foot, with 2,500 gain, 1,300 loss. The conditions were harsh up at 7,500 along the trail.

We were shown to some unused offices where we could unpack and prepare for a support assignment. We expected to be asked to hike (or ski) in the trail with additional supplies to relieve the rescue teams on the mountain. Around 9:00 am YOSAR fitted us all with nomex flight suites in anticipation of clearing weather and the opportunity to fly equipment and our team to the top. We then moved to the El Cap meadow to be in place if the weather broke where we waited in the truck, in the rain, for a couple of hours. The teams in the field were still hiking.

By noon the weather had turned truly bad, and the forecast was for continuing weather until the next day. It was windy and snowing hard at the valley floor. Based on the radio traffic it was clear the management had given up on the pair on the Nose. They could not be seen from below. The first effort would be to the solo climber on the Tempest just east of the Nose. We went to the Village for lunch and while enjoying our Chili Dogs monitored the radio traffic. The first team made the top and got a fire going to thaw their fingers. A spotting team on the valley floor was moved to Cathedral Beach where they could line up the rescuers over the climber below if the clouds broke. We returned to the meadow.

About 1:30 there was a significant break in the storm, they flew in the contract Huey helicopter which made a close up check of each of the climbing parties on the face. They verified the pair on the Nose were dead (blue, covered in ice, hanging from their ropes). They then landed in the meadow and picked up a sling load of gear for the rescue teams on top. The chopper then approached each party on the face and with a loudspeaker asked if they requested rescue. All declined except the solo climber which had already been in contact via Family Radio.

By now the weather was downright nice. The sun was out, the snow melting off the rocks and all the trees in the valley steaming. Really quite beautiful. The YOSAR team rappelled the 3 pitched down to the solo climber. The helicopter picked up the sling load which was never unpacked, and we were released to go home.

Made the drive back to Tahoe City in good time, arriving around 10:00 pm. Total time for round trip to Yosemite less than 24 hours.

Some points to make:

1) While just waiting around all day was frustrating, if the weather had not cleared our services would have been badly needed. The teams on the top had gone in primarily with rescue gear. If the incident had stretched to the second day, a major resupply would have been required. We (us and PCMRT) were the only personnel in place for that support.

2) The YOSAR people treated us like real people. By issuing us radios we could monitor the development of the rescue without bugging anyone. Whenever we were around any action they took the time to get us involved and show us how they do things even though it would have been quicker to do it themselves.

PS: The next day (Thursday) one of the remaining teams was rescued to the top. Reportedly in good condition. Another group had quit by Thursday afternoon and a rescue for Friday morning was anticipated.

Sheriff Dispatch Comm Van Truck Skiers Snow Cats Snowmobiles
Dennis Meah Dedee Driller
Jackie Thomas
John Pang
Marty Schoonmaker
Steve Twomey
Bob Wright
Peter York
Mike LeFrancois
Russ Viehmann