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Special Report
Six Nights on the Dark Tower
When a storm trapped seven climbers on Yosemite's El Capitan last fall, rangers mounted the park's largest rescue operation in a decade. By Daniel Duane


Photo: Yosemite's El Capitan
ANOTHER DAY OF LIFE: Just before sunset on October 21, 2004, Yosemite Search and Rescue technicians resupply two storm-battered climbers high on the 3,600-foot (1,097-meter) face of El Capitan.

A few hours before the storm hit on Saturday, October 16, 2004, Tom Andrews and Marisol Monterrubio Velasco set up a bivouac for their fourth night on Yosemite National Park's forbidding, yet irresistible, El Capitan. They'd both been in Yosemite for weeks, living in the freewheeling atmosphere of the climbers' crowded campground known as Camp Four, and now they were capping off their stay with an ascent of the classic Salathé Wall route, widely considered the finest pure rock climb in the world. They were also getting to know one another. Andrews, 44, a certified mountain guide, had recently completed a gig as a stunt coordinator for an off-Broadway show in New York City. Monterrubio, 22, was visiting from Mexico City, where she had been studying physics at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. The two had met in Camp Four a week or two before starting up.

Monterrubio was by far the smaller of the two—rescuers later described her as "a little doll"—so she huddled on a narrow stone ledge known as Sous le Toit, in her Gore-Tex bivvy sack, while Andrews rigged his one-man porta-ledge. They finished their fourth day roughly 2,500 feet (762 meters) above the Yosemite Valley floor, had a can of chili for dinner, and drifted off to sleep looking up at the Salathé Roof, a massive outcropping beyond which lay the last major obstacle before the summit, the Salathé Headwall, 400 feet (122 meters) of gently overhanging granite.

Shortly before midnight, the two—and every other climbing party on El Capitan—awoke to a cold south wind. Clouds filled the starry sky, lightning bright in the west. Moments later, the deluge hit so hard that it woke up Keith Lober, the 49-year-old manager of the Yosemite Search and Rescue (YOSAR) team, in his nearby home. It sounded, he said later, as if someone had turned a fire hose on his roof. Up on the wall, Andrews, spooked and drenched, quickly rigged his porta-ledge rain fly, turning the little suspended cot into a kind of tent. Monterrubio crowded in beside him.

Porta-ledges are notorious for swinging in bad storms. For the rest of the night and all of Sunday, winds up to 50 miles an hour knocked the pair around mercilessly. Confined to a narrow nylon bed that would've made one person claustrophobic, the two were well up into the sky—the ground impossibly far below and the summit beyond reach—with only a single sleeping bag and no rain gear. Sheets of rain blew up, down, and sideways, and waterfalls, formed by the sudden downpour, began cascading off the Salathé Roof. When the wind shifted, the waterfalls pounded, and soon began to penetrate, the nylon rain fly. The next morning every climbing party within reach of the ground beat a hasty retreat, but Andrews and Monterrubio found themselves trapped, as if pinned to the hull of a freighter in an Atlantic nor'easter.

By Monday morning when the rain turned to snow, the two acquaintances were still huddled together, soaked through, and cramped and cold and nearly out of food and water. They only had half a bag of waterlogged Fig Newtons, a handful of lemon drops, and a liter of water remaining, so they started brewing lemon drop tea. And that's when the storm went from bad to worse.

OCTOBER SURPRISE

Although the storm had been forecast, scores of climbers and backpackers had misjudged how severe it would be. Longtime rangers said it had the character—and duration—of a January blizzard, not an October surprise. By week's end, the search for some 30 hikers and climbers stranded up and down the Sierra Nevada made CNN.

Back in Yosemite Valley, Lober, David Horne, 40, and a ranger named Ed Visnovske, 38, had been monitoring El Capitan since Sunday. YOSAR lacks the resources to patrol the park's many climbing spots and has no legal obligation to keep tabs on climbers, but everyone in the organization climbs, has a heart, and knows when it's bad up there. They began mounting a rescue mission before they received the first distress call.

Besides Andrews and Monterrubio, Lober and Horne had counted four other parties on El Cap. One of those parties, a man and a woman on a route called Flight of the Albatross, had been saved when the woman's boyfriend carried several heavy ropes up El Cap's standard descent route and—in the torrential downpour—rappelled hundreds of feet into space, found his girlfriend, and led her and her partner to safety. The others included Tommy Thompson, 40, and Erik Eriksson, 49, huddled together in a two-man porta-ledge on the far left side of the wall, on a route called Never Never Land; and an El Cap veteran named Dave Turner, 23, two rope lengths from the summit on a route ironically called The Tempest. Turner had already been alone on the face for 12 days.

The final party was on a small rock ledge called Camp VI, about 500 feet (152 meters) below the top on the famous Nose route. They did not have a radio. Camp VI has a nasty reputation for turning into a frigid and lethal waterfall during storms, and the rangers could see that the climbers were trying to cover themselves with a yellow tarp.

On Tuesday afternoon, Horne and Lober sent rescue personnel to the base of El Cap to yell up; one man thought he heard a faint response. Visnovske, meanwhile, began asking around Camp Four. He soon learned that it was a young Japanese couple, so he took YOSAR's public address system into the meadow below the wall and asked another Japanese climber to call up to them. The two were still invisible in the storm, but Lober and Visnovske heard a distinct reply—what sounded like a woman's voice, screaming. Andrews and Monterrubio heard part of this exchange; it was their first sign that rescuers were paying attention.

Most El Cap rescues start with a helicopter rushing personnel and supplies to the summit, but the storm—now a whiteout blizzard—made that impossible. The only solution was to go in on foot by way of an 11-mile (18-kilometer) path around the backside of the granite massif and prepare for what could become four distinct foul-weather rescue operations. The entire YOSAR climbing community, including rangers, resident climbers, and even itinerant rock bums who volunteered, began pulling together supplies.

Among the crew, however, were a number of guys who were still recovering from the previous week, when they'd spent 48 hours straight on a manhunt. A fugitive from Brentwood, California, identified by police as Richard Celebrini, had allegedly shot and killed his wife and two of his three kids and fled into the northern reaches of the park, near the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. And he was armed. Lober and YOSAR ranger Eric Gabriel took to the air with loaded rifles, ready to shoot the man from the helicopter if need be, but they failed to track him down. By the time the suspect was located about five miles northeast of the reservoir in Tiltill Valley, he had shot himself to death.

Rested or not, Lober knew they couldn't launch on El Cap until Wednesday morning, so a light advance crew, led by ranger Lincoln Else, 28, was dispatched immediately—post-holing through deep new snow and tying pink surveyor's ribbons to trees, marking the way. Sometime that same afternoon, a brief parting of the clouds let Lober get a look at the Japanese team through his big spotting telescope. The pair had left their bivouac at Camp VI and were perhaps 200 feet (60 meters) higher, climbing upward. "This reinforced my impression that they were in trouble," Lober said. "It was like, 'Holy shit. We're too late.'"

Photograph by Mike Shore

Who will survive? Pick up the February 2005 issue of Adventure to find out.


Additional Excerpts
From the print edition, February 2005

Stranded on El Cap: Yosemite's amazing rescue effort


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Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park embraces a spectacular tract of mountain-and-valley scenery in the Sierra Nevada. Get the latest park visitor information at their Web site.

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