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Yosemite's El Capitan Tests Rescuers' Skills

El Capitan Tests Rescuers' Skills
Yosemite's 3,000-foot granite wall is tough even for an expert

Fresno Bee
by Mark Grossi
October 30, 2004

Lincoln Else hung from ropes almost 3,000 feet above Yosemite Valley last week, scanning the ancient face of El Capitan for a suffering climber. Suddenly, a waterfall of melting ice drenched him.

Shivering in the crisp October air, he didn't need a degree from Yale University to figure out this was a miserable spot. Else felt as trapped as the climbers he was rescuing on the iconic granite wall.

But the 27-year-old Yosemite climbing ranger, who actually has a philosophy degree from Yale, got a lot of help from his search-and-rescue colleagues at Yosemite National Park.

"Hanging from a cliff in bad weather isn't anybody's idea of fun or pleasure — and I'm not an adrenaline junkie," Else said. "There were a dozen search-and-rescue people at the top of El Capitan. Their whole job was to watch my ropes and take care of me. That is very reassuring."

Perhaps even more reassuring is that Else is part of the rock-climbing elite, as are several of his ranger colleagues. And, fortunately for climbers stranded in last week's monstrous storm, his seasonal ranger job didn't end until this week.

He is one of the rangers who rappelled from the top of the snow-capped granite wall last week and brought seven climbers in from the cold.

But if he's not just an adrenaline junkie, who is this guy and what happened during this rescue?

When he's not a ranger, he does camera work for documentaries, especially for his filmmaking father, John Else, who produced "Cadillac Desert" for the Public Broadcasting Service.

Lincoln Else also sometimes wears a suit and tie. Last year, he lobbied for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, D.C. His climber friends know him as someone who has challenged many places around the world. In spring, Else went to Nepal and helped run the base camp of a Mount Everest climbing expedition.

Those kinds of climbers find their way to Else's back yard, too. El Capitan is considered a rock-climbing temple where the world's best come to test their skills.

Indeed, the climbers he helped last week were as savvy as Else. Some of them had more experience in difficult conditions, yet they were surprised by the weather's schizophrenic turn from balmy days to blizzard conditions.

Rescues on El Capitan are not nearly as common as searches for lost hikers. They generally occur with sudden weather changes, often in fall or spring. Even the best climbers in the world are caught flat-footed sometimes.

"It was a pretty gnarly situation," Else said. "Even with the best equipment, it's so hard to stay dry and warm on a wall, compared to camping in a tent."

In the glare of the media, the storm brought home a Yosemite distinction in the Sierra: Rescuing people from a 3,000-foot-plus wall is quite a different challenge from finding lost backpackers.

While searchers combed the Sierra National Forest and Kings Canyon National Park for backpackers, Yosemite officials knew right where to find their seven storm refugees. The problem was getting to them.

Over a three-day period, about 100 people worked on the rescue, officials said. Many were park employees and rangers, but many were volunteers.

Though Else is the park's only "climbing ranger," focusing on climbing-related activities, there are many experienced and capable rock climbers among Yosemite's rangers.

The rescue started Oct. 19, when officials decided after two days of heavy snowfall the climbers would need help. The climbers, who had been out for several days, had not signaled for help, but officials worried the storm had become too dangerous.

As it turned out, two climbers — a Japanese team — already had died.

"We'll never know what decisions they made," Else said. "They appeared to be ready for rain and had some gear for cold weather."

On Oct. 19, Else and two other Yosemite employees hiked 12 miles in snow from Highway 120 to the top of El Capitan. They marked the trail in the snow so others could follow.

Cold, wet and tired, they stopped before reaching the top, camped and waited for the storm to slow down. A larger support team would arrive the next day. About a dozen people would perch at the top of El Capitan and pull up climbers after Else and other rangers rappelled down to them.

The climbers were on four different routes of El Capitan: the Nose, Never Never Land, Salathe Wall and Tempest. The two on Salathe first waved off the Park Service's help, but a day later signaled they wanted to be hauled out.

"With experienced climbers, sometimes it's a tough call because they know how to handle tough situations like this," Else said. "When do you ask for help and when do you decide that you can finish? There's a certain amount of pride among experienced climbers. They don't want to be rescued."

From the valley below, officials used powerful telescopes to see that the two Japanese climbers were lifeless on the Nose, the course that was first ascended in 1958.

By Oct. 20, when the storm lifted, Else said, ranger Jack Hoelflich rappelled over the side of El Capitan on Tempest to get a solo climber. Park Service officials in El Capitan meadow on the valley floor radioed directions to the rescuers on top to line them up over the route.

The imposing cliff is not a perfect right angle. A sloping lip connects the top to the sheer, vertical side — a granite wall that becomes icy and wet in snowstorms.

"It's really scary thinking about going over the side," Else said. "The lip had been frozen over and it was melting, so it was slippery. But it's not that bad once you're actually doing it."

Else and his colleagues would clip a line on each person, and the crew at the top would haul him up. A helicopter would pick up the climber and transport him down to Yosemite Valley.

On Oct. 21, Else went over the side, rappelling down to get the two climbers on Never Never Land. Later, other members of the rescue team recovered the bodies of the two who had perished on the Nose. By Oct. 22, the last two climbers on Salathe were pulled to the top.

The helicopter has been used in the past to rescue climbers, said Yosemite spokesman Scott Gediman. But it was only used to transport supplies and climbers this time because rescuers were in position at the top of El Capitan.

With the helicopter and other costs, the rescue price tag is $85,000, Gedman said. Taxpayers will pay, although a few outdoors enthusiasts have been billed for knowingly putting themselves in danger and relying on the Park Service to save them.

Else said he did not think anyone deliberately used the Park Service in the latest rescue.

"No one is above being caught in a crazy, unfortunate scenario like this one," said Else, who has never been rescued. "When we're in a situation like this, we're sympathizing with the person who is being rescued."


From the Yosemite Association Newsroom




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