On October 17th, 2021, I attempted the linkup of El Capitan and Half Dome in-a-day. This is the detailed account of the scenario that unfolded and resulted in a rescue from the face of Half Dome by Yosemite's emergency services.
The rhythmic beat of helicopter wings broke the early morning air above the Valley. I turned around carefully on the small ice patch I was standing on. The process of running in place for hours on end had turned the snow into a solid little ice rink beneath my approach shoes.
Finally, I thought. The cold seeped into my feet and legs as they stood still. I didn't see the helicopter, and slowly the sound died. "Must've been for the construction down canyon," my partner murmured.
My heart sank. How much longer would we be stuck on this wintry little piece of Half Dome? Small missiles of ice were beginning to careen down the face toward us as the morning wore on and the temperature continued to fluctuate. I started running in place again to ward off the frozen numbness to which my toes had already succumbed hours ago.
I wondered again how I let myself get into this situation. I certainly know better than this. What was my dad going to say? I shut my eyes with the weight of imagining his disappointment. No use in worrying about that right now. Right now just worry about keeping your toes, I thought. They should be here soon. Any minute now.
30 Hours earlier
I awoke at 2am to begin an attempt of linking El Capitan and Half Dome in a day. After scarfing down some oatmeal and meeting my partner at the meadow, we scampered up to the base of the Nose on El Cap. I set off leading the first pitch at exactly 3:30am, and with slight shenanigans and a few passed partied, my partner and I stood on the summit 9 hours and 47 minutes later. Conditions were gorgeous - high 40’s and breezy with abundant sun.
After descending the east slabs in an hour, we were looking at a pretty good time on our way to a successful mission. I was PSYCHED.
One slight snag: NOAA predicted a storm around midnight. The precip looked somewhat marginal, predictions of .12” of snow around midnight. However it was 100% snow between 12am-2am. But only .12"! That would be nothing. I rationalized the red flags away. We would bring a hard shell. We could wear long underwear. Up high the snow would be drier. It would probably be beautiful up on Half Dome in the snow. We would climb fast enough to be off the wall by the time the storm really hit. We would be hiking in snow and that was fine.
“It will probably be beautiful up on Half Dome in the snow.”
My armor of false confidence was impenetrable. It continued to bolster me even as the winds became blustery while simuling the first block on Half Dome as darkness fell. Soon I was wearing all my layers even while jugging. At the base of the chimneys, I told myself the white dust swirling into view was chalk. I prayed that it was chalk. The temps became frigid, and as I started simul climbing, dragging the backpack beneath me, my gloves still on because it was so cold, I realized that we might be in for worse conditions than anticipated.
I struggled through the chimneys, not wanting to fall because I didn’t know if there was a micro that would catch me. I imagined pulling my partner off of the traverse pitch. I death gripped every jam. I was pulling energy from a reserve that I didn’t know I had. My legs were so tired but my body continued to perform even as the chimneying became awkward and strenuous.
When I pulled out of the chimneys onto the traverse, the reality of the storm slapped me in the face. Winds whipped in every direction and I could hardly peer around for footholds without getting eyes full of stinging wet snow and sleet. Immediately my glasses fogged and became useless. I took them off and shoved them into my pocket. I made my way across the traverse with adrenaline pumping through me, not trusting any feet or hands in anything but the most solid jams. The rope continued to come tight, tugging me backwards into the dark as I down-climbed wet flakes precariously. I yarded on a tipped out #3 to get through the “glory fists” off-width crack before Big Sandy ledge. My hands and feet were concerningly numb.
At big sandy ledge, we exchanged few words. We both knew the fastest way out of this was up. I absurdly thought about the line from the movie Gripped and snickered to myself. Rose, you climb... or we die. My partner took the rack, changed into waterproof gloves, and asked the time - 12:30am. Some psycho part of my brain said “Maybe we could still make it within the 24 hour window!” Ha. I apprehensively peaked at the radar. We were in for even worse weather for the next two hours. I put my phone away and slowly froze while my partner quested up. He excavated gear, took a daisy whip, and slipped off the tension traverse move over and over. It took an hour for him to lead the first pitch of the zigzags. I was on the verge of yelling at him to fix me anywhere when he finally reached the anchor. I slapped the jumars on and began jugging. It was at this point that the full weight of our poor decision-making donned on me. My hands were experiencing some extreme pain after being frozen in my wet leather gloves for the last hour. As I arrived at the first piece, I grabbed the sling and it was frozen solid. The carabiner was frozen shut, and I fiddled hopelessly with it. I went to jump the piece with my top jumar and my thumbs refused to work. I was past the point of screaming barfies… this was really bad.
(Screaming barfies: when your hands burn so badly from cold that you want to scream and barf at the same time.)
Panic rose in my throat and I quickly closed my eyes and directed my mind to focus on logical next steps. Breathe. Warm your finger. Get the piece unclipped. Don’t drop anything. Jug. Repeat.
I clipped into the anchor. Wind ripped around us and snow continued to blow in chaos in and out of our little bubble of light.
“I can’t really use my hands.” I said.
“Yeah, mine are getting pretty cold too.”
“I think we might need to call someone.”
He was worried about the mandatory free moves on the slab pitches above. I was worried about staying warm enough through the next few pitches while belaying. Going down would mean dangerous rappels into unknown territory covered in snow. Going up would mean attempting free slab moves covered in ice. The margin for error had grown dangerously thin. Thinner than I was willing to risk. We had breached the invisible line. One bad fall or accident would lead to a life or death scenario. We agreed on making the call. At 1:51am, I dialed 911.
“I can't really use my hands.”
After talking with Jack, the SAR EMS coordinator, we were to wait out the night until there was light enough to begin the rescue operation. He told me call back at 6am.
We rappelled to big sandy, which was less of a rappel and more bouncing and sliding uncontrollably down the icy rope on a grigri backed up with a frozen alpine draw. This reaffirmed my decision against bailing down. And then, we waited.
Time became nonexistent as we alternated between jumping up and down to hugging to keep warm. We talked about our options. We talked about random things. We played 20 questions. Keep jumping up and down. Don’t fall asleep. Move your hands. Wiggle your toes. Check the time. Don't fall asleep.
At 6am, Jack told us to call back at 8am. The sun rose - ironically beautiful views surrounded us as the light illuminated the wintry valley. At 8am Jack told us we’d hear the helicopter coming whenever everything was ready. It was around 10:30am when we heard the thud of the rescue helicopter wings. The choppers started transporting supplies to the top, leaving and returning with people. Eventually a rescuer popped his head over the edge and was lowered down to simply clip us to him and haul us out around 11:30am, just as much bigger sheets of ice began to melt and sheer off the face above us. Small chunks whistled and flew by us as we were slowly raised out. I felt comically even more helpless than before.
It was overwhelming to see the friendly faces of YOSAR after pulling over the lip of half dome. I was so tired and so grateful. I can’t really describe how happy I was to see them. If I had had more energy, I probably would’ve just cried. They wrapped us in hugs and had hot chocolate ready. Miles made a joke asking what our linkup time was now that we had finally summited. Before I knew it, I was in a helicopter circling through the valley and then touching down by the Awahnee Hotel.
I've spent my time after the rescue going through some pretty serious feelings of failure, shame, guilt and anger at myself. I debriefed with my partner, and we pinpointed where we neglected to communicate about factors that might have changed the decisions we made. We talked about the situation with the rest of the YOSAR team, and analyzed each part of the incident: where things went wrong, how we could have avoided the rescue, and whether or not we made the right calls following our initial decision to continue up Half Dome. It helped to talk it out, and hear others go through the same thought processes I had. It helped to hear the other perspectives. People told tales of their own epics. I knew even after such an irresponsible decision, these people still considered me a part of their community and understood why we ended up on that ledge.
I’ve realized this was the cheapest lesson I could have learned. Learning from it is all I can do. I think it is important to showcase that not every mission is successful. Bailing is just another tool in the box of climbing skills. It’s not worth the risk, and the rock will (usually) be there next time. Big goals can be blinding. I will carry this knowledge with me as I start to take on more and more objectives of a similar scale, as I hope others will too. I know how lucky we were to get out of the situation with no major injuries. Ultimately it could have been much worse. I won't forget that.
A special thanks to Jack H., Scott, Chris, Keith, Michelle, Miles, Jack, the helicopter crew and extra volunteers on the scene, as well as my partner. You all are the reason things didn't turn dire, and that my attitude stayed positive while standing on that ledge. I can't thank you enough for the work you did to get us out of there.
Please consider donating to those who risk their lives for those of us that may put them at risk. The YOSAR folks and the adjacent volunteers and rescuers who work in other areas of the park are some really phenomenal human beings. They deserve the notoriety and the support of all of us.
You can donate at friendsofyosar.org, and help support by following and sharing content from them on social media. You can find them on instagram @foyosar, or facebook @foyosar.