Rescue on Half Dome

by John Middendorf

The South Face of Half Dome route, one of the Harding's finest masterpieces, is a 2000 foot wall. The upper 1000 feet is a blank sea of white granite, void of any apparent climbable features. Remote and beautiful, the route had a history of epic and failure. On the 1968 first ascent attempt, a severe storm trapped Warren Harding and Galen Rowell for several days, and they had to be rescued. The rescue itself was a pioneering event in technical technique (documented in The Vertical World of Yosemite).

Other parties had faltered as well, with reasons ranging from lack of proper hooking gear to debilitaing summer heat, often necessitating retreat, and in several cases, the lowering of ropes, gear and provisions from friends on the summit.

In fact, the route had hosted more failures than sucesses when two Yosemite regulars, Mike Corbett and Steve Bosque, decided to go for a winter ascent. The season had been extremely mild--some called it a drought winter--so the venture seemed very feasible.

Yet from the onset of preparation, as the two made multiple six-mile uphill plods to the base, and then fixed several pitches, they experienced minor setbacks. In one storm 30 feet of snow sloughed down the face to pile at the wall's base, and Steve and Mike spent an entire day digging through it to get to their gear. It was a month before the longterm weather report looked good and they were ready to go.

At this point I joined the team. Normally two make for a more efficient wall team, but Mike and Steve were both feeling a standard preparation-delay burnout, and they agreed to let a third man come along. Mike and I had done a few walls together in the past. His undying affinity for big-walls had always been a major inspiration to me, as was Steve's deliberate and understated approach to big-wall adventure, which he would unfailing squeeze in between periods of raising a family and working full-time. I was really excited about our team and the chosen route. It was going to be my 40th long route (1000 foot plus) in Yosemite.

To avoid the more intelligent decision of hiking two separate loads to the base, I carried all my gear one-shot in a towering 100 lb+ haulbag, while Steve and Mike carried their light final assault loads. By the time we got up the Vernal switchbacks (only the first stage of the approach), I was staggering every step. The one-shot technique worked well for El Cap, where the torment of the approach is halfway over once you step out of your car, but this was a long steep uphill plod. Mike and Steve watched and waited, periodically coercing me to off some weight to them. With too much pride of self-sufficiency, I refused. 31,680 staggers later, the grueling approach ended as I pulled into their camp at the base.

While bivied at the base a few local clouds spinkled some rain on us, but the next day we started our vertical journey in beautiful sunny weather. The first two days took us to the end of the Arch, a huge left-facing dihedral soaring halfway up the wall, and onto the Face, a thousand feet of 75-80 degree featured rock with very few cracks.

The eighth pitch, appropriately named "The Great Escape Hatch", is a contortionist's dream: a void gaping bombay chimney, awkward as hell, like an aid version of the Harding Slot. After that, I told Mike, "You know, regardless of a wall's actual rating, every route seems require the sum total of my aid experience." Mike understood the feeling well.

The third day, in t-shirts, we climbed five of the 11 remaining pitches. I eyeballed each pitch for its free-climbing potential, immediately realizing that we had just discovered the the most awesome free-climbable face in the Valley, and I free-climbed some bathooking sections at 5.10a/b between bolts on my leads just to try it out. Harding had originally conquered the blankness by bathooking, a technique of placing specially designed hooks into shallow drilled holes. The climbing and location was awesome, and we often commented on what a ultimate gem of a route this was. We were having a great time.

The day's fourth pitch took us to the one of the Tri-Clops, the namesake of three large shallow dark indentations in the rock which from the ground look like caves (and with some imagination, passageways into the depths of Half Dome). The evil looking place had been Harding's and Rowell's demise, and their energy of desperation seemed to still linger. Though dusk was fast approaching, Mike had a sixth sense about the spot and decided to go for the next pitch, a steep bathooking pitch which ended on "The Ledge", which sounded good on the topo but turned out to be nothing but a small six-inch stance formed by a protruding flake.

Darkness set in midway through Mike's lead. Then, the frightening clanging of gear and a yank on the belay rope. Dead silence. "Hey Mike, you OK?". Silence. "Hey Corbett!" Steve and I flashed headlamps upward but all we could see was the rope disappearing into the darkness. Then from above came, "oh fuck, my finger's broken." Mike had popped a bathook and took a 20-30 foot fall, breaking his finger in an attempt to grab the previous bathook still in place. But a broken finger barely slows down a guy like Mike, and a while later he finished the lead. We set up the bivy in darkness.

Sometime in the early hours of Friday morning, clouds started to move in and a light rain prompted us to dig out our portaledge rainflies. Little did we know it was the start of one of Yosemite's worst storms ever. At dawn it was still raining. Mike sugested a general rest day, and Steve and I agreed. But instead of clearing, which our little box radio had promised, the weather became worse. We braced ourselves for a storm. Later, when the completeness of the radio's lie became evident, I jettisoned it as sort of a symbolic gesture of isolated finality.

On Friday evening the rain became a torrent and the winds picked up. Sometime during the night, Steve's ledge collapsed, and in the minutes it took him to reset it he got completely soaked. From the relative comfort of my slightly damp ledge, I listened to his struggling and cursing and felt sorry for him, but there was nothing I could do, save for lending him my headlamp, since an exit from the ledge for even a minute meant complete saturation. It's funny about Steve: even when he had good reason to scream and curse, he would do so only as if playing a part; no semblance of actual anger existed in his tone.

Unfortunately, hours later my portaledge too collapsed. The portaledge suspension straps were slipping in the wet and icy conditions, causing the ledge to tweak out of shape. In the darkness, I knew what was happening: slowly my ledge was being twisted into a butterfly shape, one outside corner sliding down, and the other twisting up, as if it were trying to dump me out into the void. Any movement made it worse, acclerating the slippage, and it was too dark to see what needed to be done to fix it. Trying not to even breathe, I cried to Steve, "Steve, I need my headlamp back, NOW!" Only my headlamp (a Petzl Zoom) was functioning in the adverse conditions, and it became a coveted item. Steve made an attempt to return it, but in his twisted tangle of his nearly destroyed portaledge, he was forced into non-movement, even the slightest wiggle caused his ledge suspension to slip, which then resulted in the ledge falling apart(by this time his ledge had fallen apart several times). It soon became my only choice to either fix the ever-slipping suspension or just allow the ledge to collapse. In an attempt to retension the suspension, the movement caused it to slip completely, twisting the ledge completely out of shape, resulting in the end-tubes slipping out of their shallow side tube pockets, leaving me hanging in space with an untenable assortment of tubing and fabric. Instantly, everything--my clothes, sleeping bag, and self-- became completely soaked, as if I had jumped fully geared up into the Merced, only colder. I dug my spare wool clothes and raingear out of the haulbag, but they were useless against the deluge. A foot-thick sheet of water poured down from the moderately angled face above. Rain, driven sideways by the high winds, pelted us. I absconded my headlamp, and with a mixture of determination and resignation, I took my time rassembling the ledge. I couldn't get any wetter.

In the end the failing portaledges didn't matter, because by morning all of us were soaked to the bone anyway. Seemingly by osmosis, moisture would pour through the "waterproof" ripstop rainflies (the waterproof coating mysteriously fell off the fabric in large cobweb-like sticky sheets) and created mini- storms inside our portaledges. Continued periodic ledge failure and reassembly made for an unpleasant night.

By 10 a.m Saturday the winds were up to a steady 50+mph, with gusts throwing us and the ledges about. Visibility was nil. Then temperatures dropped, the rain turned to icy BB's, and our soaked gear began to freeze solid.

In desperation, Steve called for an attempt to retreat off the wall. "We'll soon die in these conditions." he said. "We've got to at least try to get out of here!" We exited our ledges and inspected eachother and our gear. Instantly, fingers and toes went completely numb, and the wind and cold penetrated every bone. With uncanny foresight, Mike had insisted on leaving a rope fixed over the otherwise irretreatable roof below the 8th pitch. Still, that was five rappels down and several hundred feet to the left. As we talked further, we realized that the ropes were frozen to the wall in solid tangles, requiring chopping them out with an ice tool. It became impossible to retrieve even a short length of usable rope. Knowing that the Jumars would never grab on such frozen cord, and the fact that the ice- covered wall would thwart any effort to swing sideways to subsequent belay anchors, an attempt to retreat seemed sure-suicide. The near-certain nightmare of even the slightest hang-up in the rappels would result in a fatal separation from eachother. Drilling our own anchors was out of the question, requiring far more manual dexterity than our frozen fingers could provide. Removed from The Ledge and our shelters, we'd be completely instead of partially exposed to the elements, and death from exposure would soon follow.

All sorts of potential and likely nightmares crossed my mind, each ending with three bodies frozen to the wall; and remembering reading about how Rowell fared in 1968 attempting to rappel in similar conditions from only 100 feet below us, I refused to try it, and was the first to disappear back into my portaledge. Sure, we could have rappelled a pitch, but we were dreaming if we thought our ropes could have been pulled. We remained as a team huddled in place, waiting.

All Saturday the storm beat upon us. The roaring sound of flapping nylon and typhoon winds deafened us. I realized how much my entire life depended on that lightweight rainfly. Violently whipping in the wind, it seemed ready to rip to shreds any minute. Steve's fly had been ripped apart by the wind earlier, and critical corner parts of his ledge were mangled into scrap metal rendering his ledge useless, and now he and Mike were sharing Mike's portaledge and fly. If either of the two remaining ledges or flies failed, somebody was bound to die from exposure.

In the meantime, unbeknownst to us, a rescue effort was underway down below. Werner Braun, Dan McDivet, Sue Bonovich, and Tracy Dorton had hiked up in the deepening snow up the five miles to Lost Lake, from which they could get the Valley's closest view of the South Face, and were trying to communicate with us using a bullhorn.

In one of the infrequent lulls in the storm, we suddenly became alert, hearing muffled noise. Instinctively we broke out in loud screaming to expose our position. We were asked "Do You Need A Res- Cue?" (though we had to translate from the distant monotonic single syllable loudspeaker communication). We looked at eachother, agreed quickly that we were indeed in big trouble and needed help, and screamed in unison for HELP until we were hoarse. We couldn't see who we were screaming at.

Like turtles, we then retracted back into our shelters. As the hours passed, the initial hope and excitement of contacting possible help dwindled, and was replaced by renewed concentration on survival. We knew the top of Half Dome would be inaccesible: the hiking route cables were buried and frozen over, and the violence of the storm would prohibit climbing to the top. Uncertainty of our fate made the exhausting freezing misery just that much harder. The burning flames of hell didn't seem so bad.

Inside my ledge, I had to make constant effforts to keep from being completely buried. Huge water-saturated snowpiles would accumulate in moments: I would use all my strength to push it off one end of the ledge, then notice that at the other end snow was piling up fast. A minute of inactivity and the weight began to crush me, tearing the fly apart at the seams, and become almost too heavy to push off. This went on for hours. Because of the angle of the wall above, and the distance the snow had to accumulate and slough down, it was essentially snowing several feet per minute.

Towards dusk, exhausted by my vigilante efforts, I dozed off, despite knowing that I was on the verge of serious hypothermia. It was pleasant. Suddenly I was in a boxing ring, packed full of every variety of boxer and pro-wrestler imaginable, each mistaking me for his trainer bag before a big fight. One of them tried to crunch my skull when I snapped awake shouting, "HeyHooHaw! What?" Steve was stepping on my head.

Mike and Steve, seeing that my ledge had become completely buried by snow, had yelled for me with no response and thought maybe that I had died. Unable to see even where my ledge hung, Steve had kicked steps in the frozen layer of snow and ice across the near vertical wall to investigate. In my initial stages of hypothermic stupor and because of the dampening effect of the thick snow cover, no sounds penetrated--only his foot. "Glad to see you're all right, old buddy", he said before returning to his and Mike's hovel.

Night was falling, but sleep, I realized, would be fatal. I would find that my shivers would suddenly stop, while a temptation to pleasantly drift off beckoned me. I tried to keep my mind busy (some thought to new portaledge designs) and twitched my head, legs, and hands rapidly for warmth in my cramped quarters, by now reduced to the size of a small pooch's doghouse. In sets of 100, I counted to 22,000, twitching with each count.

Eventually I told myself that many hours must have passed. I looked at my watch. It was only 10 p.m. It occured to me that we were experiencing some of the worst storm conditions to be found anywhere. If the route was steeper, things would have been casual. If the winds weren't accelerated by Little Yosemite Valley's Venturi effect, things wouldn't have been so bad. But mostly, if the temperatures had remained either above or below freezing, we would have been sitting pretty, either in a wet rainstorm, or a safe blizzard. The combination of all these factors made for some of the most serious conditions imaginable.

Meanwhile Steve and Mike, with the marginal benefit of ensolite and double boots, sat on a single portaledge, one fly draped over their heads, beating on eachother for warmth and to prevent sleep.

Sometime in the early hours of Sunday morning, the storm broke gradually and the stars appeared. The absense of deafening wind seemed strange and eerie. Steve and Mike were the first to break the potent silence, and we discussed first-light retreat plans briefly. Then it became apparent that the clearing storm was a dangerous blessing: radiation heat losses into the clear sky above sucked the last BTU out of our bodies, and the bitterest of bitter cold prevailed. Temperatures remained sub-freezing, we were exhausted and frozen at 8000 feet. We struggled through each remaining moment of a long night.

In the morning, the sun finally appeared. The relative warmth stunned us into passivity for a while. We basked in the above freezing temperatures and procrastinated for a few blissful moments. Another storm could be seen approaching in the distance, so we started chopping out our buried ropes and made ready for a horrendus descent. We were all functioning slowly and clumsily, but thought we could probably make it down alive. Not a bit of rock was visible, as the entire wall was covered with a four-inch layer of ice.

Soon, as the sun heated up the thick stratum, the avalanches started. Without warning, hundreds of pounds of softball-size chucks of ice would suddenly separate from the wall above us and crash down on our heads. Mike and Steve had helmets, while I stuffed soggy socks in my Peruvian hat for protection. Under one barrage, Mike, standing in the bathtub of ice that was his ledge, suddenly dropped several feet. The bolt supporting his ledge had popped under the strain, but the anchors of each side caught him. From above, Steve and I stared for a few moments at a wide-eyed Mike, still standing upright in his ledge. Wordlessly, except for a few "Hoo-man"'s, we resumed our descent preparations.

The ropes were still only partially chopped out of the ice when we heard it: the characteristic whop-whop-whop of a helicopter, and an emotional wave swept through us. In silent disbelief, we saw the chopper pass and fly almost out of sight. "I sure hope that's for us", I thought to myself, and I'm sure Steve and Mike were thinking the same thing, because we certainly needed it. Then it returned, and amidst continued avalanches, locked into place hovering 100 feet above us, and a angel in a pilot's suit lowered out. Our rescuer later became known as the "Blond Angel", Petty Officer Davis, from the nearby LeMoore Naval Air Station. We were saved.

Mike volenteered for the first ride, and was hooped under his armpits with a "horse collar" and hoisted off. Steve and I watched Mike and Officer Davis dangle fromthe helicopter as it disappeared down the valley, and we discussed our lucky break. We jettisoned some haulbags with gear and sleeping bags and endured some more avalanches.

Eventually the helicopter returned, picked up Steve and took off again. Ten years ago, helicopters that could lock into a stationary flight pattern so close to a cliff didn't exist. Still, I was amazed at the pilot's ability to counter every gust of wind. The spinning rotor blades sometimes came within yards of the cliff. The wind was picking up again, and it seemed like the pilot had a more difficult time locking in place for Steve's hoist. Fearing the worst, I imagined being stranded on the wall alone, bivy gear tossed.

What seemed like ages, the helicopter returned, and it took a couple tries for the pilot to lock into place. Petty Officer Davis, dangling 100 feet below the helicopter, darted to and fro just out of my reach, signaling to the pilot for positioning. Then, with a thumb's up signal to the pilot, he locked into place right in front of me. It was a great relief when he gave me the OK and I grabbed his outstretched hand and pulled him in. The last biner which attached me to the belay was unclipped with no regrets, and hanging with Officer Davis under the helicopter with nothing but a hoop under my armpits, I went for the ride of my life.

As we flew towards the valley, dazed by the awesome view, I didn't notice that we were being winched up. Unexpectedly, the helicopter was directly above us, and I clambered into the cabin. A huge crowd and several other helicopters greeted us in the Ahwahnee Meadow. The extent of the rescue effort astounded me, with over 30 people involved (many of whom had hiked all night in waist-deep snow and were still near the base of the Half Dome cables), and four helicopters ready. The sudden feeling of overwhelming gratitude intoxicated me. The LeMoore Station and the Yosemite Rescue Team had coordinated the effort admirably, and it was thanks to them that we were all alive.

I stepped out of the helicopter and my legs buckled. I hadn't walked for a week. I staggered towards my friends, Jim and Tory, who whisked me away (barely escaping the pouncing paramedics) and took care of me in Jim's warm house, where I shivered uncontrollably for several hours. Jim and Tory made jokes about hiding rolls of dimes in the folds of my soaked and shrivelled skin. Meanwhile, over at the Yosemite Clinic, Mike, with lowered body temperature, was being poked and prodded, given IV's and warm oxygen, and a splint for his finger. We were all alive, and recovering rapidly.

At Jim's, I was mindlessly leafing through that Sunday's newspaper insert. I became entranced by a particular photo in it, nothing registering at first. Then I realized I was looking at a picture from 1970 of Warren Harding standing on The Ledge. He seemed to be smiling at me. Coincidentally, the newspaper had done a feature article about the South Face the same day we were fighting for our lives up there. Whoa.

Later that evening, a unidentified feeling gnawed inside me. The transition from one reality to another made both realities seem unreal. I examined the feeling and realized that all my instincts insisted that I return to a soaked sleeping bag (a dry one wouldn't do), shiver, stay awake, and generally struggle for my life. It seemed we had been up on Half Dome for a lifetime, and I had developed a routine for staying alive that I could not shake.

Instead, I hobbled back to my dry VW van, pulled out a dry sleeping bag, cranked up the propane heater, and passed out.

The End of an Epic.

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