The First Bad Weather El Cap Rescue, 1970


The First Bad Weather El Cap Rescue, 1970


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 Federal 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, weren’t adequately protected and had gotten dangerously wet.  And it appeared that they weren’t 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 Tamarack Flat area, in the fresh fallen snow.  We established a kind of giant tent city on the summit.  The pack mules had already arrived with all kinds of provisions and these huge army-green low-slung old-school tents.  Lloyd Price for some reason was in charge of us, and had given a speech earlier on the Valley floor to all congregated in the Ranger’s Club, 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 dihedrals and other features that make for trouble.  To make it more iffy still, we cannot see the party, and are using Pete’s observations from the floor, to help us via radios.


The approach was to belay Bridwell down to them as he rappelled another line or maybe we just lowered him.  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 and Lloyd’s admonitions now would sound like more fairy tales.  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. The route demanded hammering bongs in deep flares in those days.  A sliver of chrome-moly had flown off his hammer or a piton 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. This was Tom’s way of seeing deeply into situations, physics. 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 unpredictably, getting jammed under roofs and into 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 wouldn’t 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 jumaring he had managed.  Activity is usually the cure for light hypothermia but somehow this wasn’t included in their agenda. .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 can’t 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 like a magpie I couldn’t help sharing this experience immediately.


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 brutal system.  After surmounting the Grand Traverse roofs and flares, he became visible to us, about 400-500 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, an event never seen before on El Cap.  It was the first time such a rescue had been performed there; it had been a success with all involved safe and a little wiser.