By 2 p.m. on the second day, the rain was falling like steel chisels. Slumped atop Boot Flake, halfway up the Nose of El Capitan, I watched in a detached stupor as one of my partners, Chris Rowins, labored on the rain-slick King Swing pendulum. As he slip-slided about, fat cold raindrops pummeled my down duvet, the only “storm” gear I’d brought. By the time Chris completed the swing, my jacket was a sodden mat of duck feathers. I stripped it off and discovered I was actually warmer in a cotton T-shirt.
It was 1981, the first El Cap outing for us three Okies—Chris, Jimmy Ratzlaff and myself—and we weren’t about to bail under any circumstances. Though all the other teams on the same route had retreated, we pressed on like mules, heads bowed to the torrent. A heavy graupel beat down as we clawed onto our bivy at Camp 5. Lightning sizzled across the night sky. Since I had a down bag, I left it stashed in the haulbag rather than get it wet. Shivering and too stupid-cold to anchor myself (Chris had to tie me in), I wrapped an Ensolite foam pad around my torso, squatted on the ledge, and wondered how an Oklahoma mama’s boy like me had managed to get in deep Dutch like this.
“Shivering and too stupid-cold to anchor myself (Chris had to tie me in), I wrapped an Ensolite foam pad around my torso, squatted on the ledge, and wondered how an Oklahoma mama’s boy like me had managed to get in deep Dutch like this.”
Yosemite seems like a fair-weather paradise, but because it sits high in the Sierra Nevada (the Valley floor is at 4,000 feet) and close to the Pacific Ocean, cold, wet storms can strike any time. The October 2004 events on El Cap illustrate the ferocity and unpredictability of Yosemite weather. They also eerily mirror events of 20 years ago: multiple parties start up the Captain under fair skies; a sudden and lasting storm catches climbers high on the wall; some teams retreat safely; others are rescued; others are able to summit; and others die.
Then, as now, climbers being prepared and exercising good judgment—and the speedy actions of YOSAR—prevented even greater tragedies. Here’s how you can avoid becoming a Valley statistic.
BE YOUR OWN WEATHERMAN
Chris McNamara has climbed El Cap 64 times and never been caught in a storm. He attributes his good fortune to checking forecasts, only climbing when he has a long-enough good-weather window, and a “lot of luck.” Stack the odds in you favor: learn what McNamara knows.
The Valley is subject to fierce localized thunderstorms and low-pressure systems sucked inland from the ocean by the Jet Stream. Thunderstorms usually blow in, pound you, then clear. Nevertheless, don’t take them lightly—it has snowed in Yosemite in July.
Storms carried by low-pressure cells cause the most weather-related rescues and deaths. These storms, which ruck unimpeded across the Pacific, gaining heft and momentum, can last up to a week. Usually, they crop up in late-spring and early fall—times when the birds are chirping and the meadow grasses are brilliant green. The storm rescues and fatalities this past October were caused by such a storm, as was Crusher Bartlett’s epic on the Pacific Ocean Wall. These early and late-season whoppers are dangerous because they bring plunging temperatures, snow and sleet. At least two teams of climbers have died of exposure on El Cap, pinned by such storms to the granite monolith.
Before you attack El Cap, check the weather (call 209-372-0200), paying particular attention to cells moving off the Pacific. Even if the forecast is clear for two days (the duration of Yosemite forecasts), expect the weather to change. Two days is enough time to get well up the wall ... but also enough time for that monster Pacific cell to wend its way inland and start hammering.
KNOW YOUR ENEMY
When you get wet and cold, and especially when the wind is blowing, your core temperature drops as blood diverts from your arms and legs to feed such essential organs as your brain and heart. The onset of hypothermia causes your limbs to feel wooden. Your coordination deteriorates and you have difficulty with simple tasks such as tying knots. In an attempt to warm itself, your body automatically begins to shiver. As your situation worsens, your judgment becomes impaired. Speech is slurred. You become confused, even irrational. Apathy sets in—you no longer realize you are in trouble. You die.
Recognize the onset of hypothermia while you still can. The signs, again, are:
• Slurred speech
• Loss of coordination
• Irrational behavior
If you or your partner exhibit any of these symptoms, you are already in bad shape. Take immediate action. Strip off wet clothing and don warm duds. Bundle into sleeping bags, together if necessary. Keep your inner stove stoked by eating and drinking. Exercise to generate heat, but not to the point where you exhaust yourself. With advanced hypothermia, wherein the victim is essentially incoherent, exercise can draw cold blood from the arms and legs and shock the heart, causing ventricular fibrillation, or a heart attack. If your partner is in such a state, keep him still and quiet, and seek help.
Hypothermia and exposure can kill quickly (see hypothermia.org for more info). All of the climbers who survived the October 2004 storm wore materials that insuate even when wet, such as nylon and polyester. I epicked on the Nose because I had a cotton T-shirt, cotton pants, a down duvet and nothing waterproof— garb identical to that of a Japanese climber who died of exposure 50 feet from El Cap’s summit in 1984. Cotton didn’t kill me, but might have if not for my foam-pad “vest.”
"I epicked on the Nose because I had a cotton T-shirt, cotton pants, a down duvet and nothing waterproof— garb identical to that of a Japanese climber who died of exposure 50 feet from El Cap’s summit in 1984."
Even in the summer, when the chances of a frigid, moisture-laden storm seem remote, bring essential clothing and bivy gear. Pack a full set of midweight synthetic, long underwear; balaclava; gloves; socks; a synthetic, insulated jacket; and waterproof or waterproof/breathable (w/b), seam-sealed rain gear. Also bring a synthetic sleeping bag and a full-length closed-cell foam pad, which you can use to line the haulbag, or wear, in a pinch.
Fatten up the clothing list for ascents in the spring, fall and winter.
If you know you’ll bivy on ledges, bring a bivy sack: fully waterproof or w/b, seam-sealed/taped, and with a hood that cinches into a leak-proof seal. Even if you have a portaledge, carry a bivy sack. In a prolonged storm, all portaledges leak, turning into bathtubs. A bivy sack inside your ledge affords double protection.
For your portaledge, always bring the rainfly, which must be full coverage and seam-sealed/taped. Don’t skimp. Tommy Thompson and his partner had the most bomber ledge and fly available, and credit the gear as instrumental to their survival this past October on the final pitches of El Cap’s Octopussy.
The debate over coated (waterproof, but not breathable) versus w/b flies rages. Both can work—or not. The main source of interior moisture comes from water you exhale, which builds up even inside w/b flies. Stop breathing! Or, lift your fly during lulls in the storm and vent. A fly with an interior pole/hoop can keep damp fabric from sagging onto and soaking you.
In the comfort of your home, set up your ledge and do a “wet run.” Hang the ledge, with fly attached, and spray it with a hose to detect leaks. Recoat seams with SeamGrip as necessary. On the wall, always prep your ledge with the fly attached and ready to deploy.
FIND THE SWEET SPOT
As they say in the real-estate biz, location, location, location. Don’t get locked into “fixed” bivies, those sites with horizontal ladders of bolts and rivets. These sites are usually rigged with little thought to shielding you from foul weather. Before you pitch camp, consider the site’s exposure and architecture. Slabs become waterslides. Those beautiful gold and black waterstreaks? … nuff said. Vertical to overhanging walls usually keep you out of water’s way. Since ledges typically sprout on vertical (or less than) walls, they seldom offer much shelter. The roomy Block Ledge on the Salathé Wall is notorious for luring in climbers and becoming a soggy hell.
Roofs—big roofs—are top banana. Hunker down under these. One climber passed two thunderous days standing in a haulbag clipped to pins under the Great Roof on the Nose, wisely avoiding the luxurious but exposed ledges just below. When the sun finally poked out, he blasted to the summit while other teams, strung out on the perches below, had to bail.
Even when you’ve found the perfect wall sanctuary, plan on getting wet. El Cap winds are famous for swirling rain in all directions, even straight up. Batten down your rainfly and keep your sleeping bag and extra clothing stowed in stuffsacks until you’re ready to doss, or don your storm gear. Cinch up your haulbags. Rain can wick down ropes—hang your portaledge directly off the anchors and not from the cord.
SHOULD YOU STAY OR SHOULD YOU GO?
Whether you stay put, retreat or go for the top depends on a host of ever-changing variables: How close is the summit? How quickly can you get down? Is your storm gear adequate? Do you have a sheltered bivy or can you reach one? Are you already wet?
Unless you’re just a few pitches from the ground or can otherwise rappel quickly, you’re likely better off hunkering down. If you descend in a maelstrom, you can quickly get wet and cold, become confused, and start making mistakes. It can also be an error to sprint summitward—the teams who have died of exposure on the Nose were caught out this way. Food for thought.
If you choose to climb or rappel, be certain you can make it. Know the way—some rap routes differ from the ascent line—before you leave the ground. Scope the descent as thoroughly as the ascent. Put on your storm gear while it’s still handy. Once you start climbing or rappelling, you might not be able to rummage it out of the haulbag. Dump unnecessary weight, like extra water.
Lastly, bring a cell phone. Being able to readily communicate with rescuers or call for a weather update is cheap insurance.
Chris, Jimmy and I got lucky on the Nose. On the third day, the rain turned to snow. It was colder, but drier. In the frigid fog, we crawled from Camp 5 to Harding’s exit bolt ladder and the top. We staggered through knee-deep snow the last few feet to El Cap’s summit. The rest of the day, we postholed in our rock shoes down the endless Falls Trail back to Camp 4. My dogs were so ruined from all that slogging on prune feet that, after a good night’s sleep, I still had to crawl, Joe Simpson-style, the 100 feet to the closest soda machine. I swear that Coke was the nectar of the gods.