A recent big wall rescue at Yosemite National Park had some added challenges for everyone involved, including a language barrier, unusual heat and challenging terrain. Extraordinary skill and teamwork, plus use of a bean bag/short haul technique, carried the day.
We read so often about successful rescues in parks all across the country that people may tend to take them for granted, but there was nothing routine about last week's save of a group of Korean climbers from the face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.
On the evening of Tuesday, August 24, 2010, park dispatch received a report of an injured climber on a climbing route on El Capitan known as The Nose. The victim, a 47-year-old Korean national, was part of a four-person Korean climbing team.
Good information about the incident is a key factor in a successful rescue, but rangers were unable to communicate with the climbers due to a language barrier, so little information was available at the outset. It was eventually determined that the victim had dislodged a large rock just below the Camp 4 bivy site, was in stable condition, and was unable to climb any further.
A helicopter short-haul mission was planned to extricate the climber from the rock face, but had to be canceled due to the shear vertical wall at the climbing party’s location. Take a look at the photo accompanying this article, and note the location of the helicopter's rotor in relation to the rock face. Updrafts, downdrafts and other unpredictable wind conditions make flying in mountain and canyon country challenging under the best of conditions, and this is work that requires extraordinary skill and courage.
Lacking the opportunity for a relatively quick helicopter rescue, the park sent a small technical rescue team to the top of El Capitan to lower an attendant to the injured climber, but that operation had to be suspended due to darkness. A plan was formulated by Incident Commander Shannon Kupersmith to send supplemental personnel first thing the next morning to support the lowering operation.
On Wednesday morning, additional personnel were flown to the summit of El Capitan for the technical lowering operation. Prior to the start of the mission a spotter in El Capitan Meadow was able to communicate with the climbing party and determine that the man might be paralyzed in his lower extremities. Two medics who reached the scene stabilized the climber and packaged him in a litter.
The new information about the victim's condition increased the urgency for a speedy rescue, and an alternate plan to immediately evacuate him from the wall using the "bean bag/short-haul" technique was employed. The park report of the incident summarizes that approach:
"This technique involves sending a line from the hovering helicopter to the attendant/medic. The attendant/medic then retrieves a tag line attached to the short-haul line from the helicopter while the helicopter maintains a safe rotor distance from the vertical rock face. One attendant then attached himself and the climber to the short-haul line, which was followed by immediate release from the wall anchor."
This is definitely a case of much easier said than done, but the technique was accomplished safely and the injured climber was then flown to El Capitan meadow and medevaced to a hospital.
End of an already long day for rescuers? Well, no.
The remaining members of the climbing team were unable to lower themselves off the route due to their lack of experience and also had to be rescued. Two additional lowering operations were conducted to evacuate the Korean climbers off El Capitan’s 3,000-foot face.
One last detail: These operations were conducted on the hottest day of the summer to date, with the temperature over 100 degrees—and that reading doesn't account for heat gain on all that bare rock. "Just another day at the office" for the search and rescue folks.
Kudos to all involved!