The First El Capitan Rescue 1970


The First El Capitan Rescue 1970


Summers in Yosemite can be wonderful.  In the shade of huge pines and firs while under sheltering cliffs during sweet afternoons, millions have enjoyed playing in the meadows and the river as time seemed to soften and lose its demanding edge.  Incredible scenic hikes lead off in every direction. Families spend appointed weeks every year here for generations and with the thousands of points of interest, go away fulfilled, relaxed and well-fed, decade after decade.



And so it is not surprising that some climbers have come here with something like this in mind as well.  It’s such a peaceful spectacular place that it might be hard to understand how in this midst, one could actually come to wit’s end or even die while people capered below.


By the early 70’s many parties were already trade-routing up the Nose.  Ascents were completely commonplace, the ledges were getting rubbished and crap-filled.  There were tons of fixed pieces, and route information was available everywhere. What looked like heaven from below during summer could be a stinking crowded shock in suffocating three-digit temperatures, with perhaps no wind.  And worse, no shade.  Yvon has called El Cap a vertical desert; perhaps it was becoming a vertical desert with frequent horizontal outhouses.


The first big rescue on El Cap was in summer, in the usual extreme heat and otherwise perfect weather that makes Yosemite famous.  Quite obviously a party above the Great Roof was screaming down to us for a rescue.  Many of us reached the summit by helicopter.  It was a small bubble cabin type of copter, and I can recall approaching the enormous Salathe and Dihedral Walls from the west in this thing, sensing vertigo suddenly spring up in me, as the huge wall instantly gave scale to how high we suddenly were, spanning beyond my field of vision and completely filling the transparent cab.  And just the frozen movement of this huge surface created a sense of awe, terror and urgency. 


We had a couple of large reels of 1/2” twisted lay nylon rope brought up there, and perhaps 15-20 climbers.  In fact this was the beginning, informally of SAR, with the West Buttress rescue later that year.  Suddenly there would be free campsites for us and a small degree of relief from the denigrating myopia of the authorities even though for the next thirty years, they remained intent on wiping us out, even our Camp.  It was not too clear how to get this rescue accomplished, as we were not sure if our distressed party could jumar out, or would have to be lowered or hauled.  There was hardly any information with which to work.


Bridwell, already with years in ski patrol and EMS at Squaw Valley, lowered off the top on the first big line while belayed by us with the second line.  He naturally assumed this role and had the confidence of the rangers. The rest of the group---all Camp Four types but federal employees for a few hours---stayed quite a ways back from the rounded actual edge, belaying and monitoring with no exposure at all.   As soon as Jim was free of the rock past the big summit overhangs, he spun violently obviously wrapping rappel and belay lines around each other dangerously.  The twisted-lay rope was of course causing this with the combined weight of Jim and all that heavy cordage now free to stretch and rotate, with perhaps 500 more mostly freely hanging feet below him.  Suddenly horribly worried, we could hear his desperate swearing on the radio, and just as abruptly, he managed to descend further to get some contact with the route, to squelch this troublesome development and the amazing sounds coming out of our radios.


When he reached the party of two, they were exhausted but ready to get out of there, like right now.  They had the necessary equipment for the climb and no injuries. Very very rapidly, Kelly Minnick from Colorado and Brian Robertson, a mountaineer from Scotland and Huandoy Sur/Whillans notoriety, arrive one after the other over the big rounded edge we had all been staring at for the last few hours.  They had jumared 500-600 feet in nearly record time. We were all impressed. The story was they thought they were in trouble, they were running out of water.  Both were sunburned and quite fair skinned.  Brian had shorts on even, was portly and bright pink.  To complete the image he was really vociferous, practically stentorian.  Kelly was quieter, quite thin, probably younger and had long red hair. They did not talk directly to each other.  It was immediately all about restoring one’s reputation and ego at the expense of a partner right in front of us 20 rescuers.  It seemed they openly despised one another.  They were not regular partners but paired for this ascent.


It was not the picture of climbers near death, unable to progress, empty-handed and doomed.  It was apparent that they just couldn’t---no, had refused---to climb together further.  They hated being sunburned to bits, weren’t prepared for the awesome exposure on this route without shade, and needed some water.  Mostly grateful to us to get rescued, they were clearly preoccupied nonetheless by a variety of personal concerns that included neither real humility nor willfully managing to take care of all situations that stood in the way of a summit or a safe retreat.  It was shocking that a party would call for a large-scale rescue without exhausting all other possibilities clearly present to everyone else.


The rescue complete we dispersed quickly, organizing to leave and go back to camp;  I wandered a couple hundred yards over to the top of the famous Salathe Wall over which we had flown just hours prior, returning, curious. Without knowing it, I would end up soloing it a year later. Standing there by myself on the distinct edge, it was the first time that I had ever been right in front of exposure such as this, 3200 ft.  It appeared to me almost as a door, that lead to another complete existence, so compelling the visual image was almost blurred, so full with meaning.


But I was upset in a way I did not understand.  This rescue, with its initial grim look and morbid open-ended possibilities, had triggered something in me.  When it turned out a raving success and just a mid-day caper, albeit somewhat unnecessary, this should have relieved me and the visceral grip we all feel in emergency situations.  In fact the whole affair was over well within a day, a handful of hours.  But I wanted to join this yawning gorgeous zero before me. I wanted to sail into the immensity, not because I wanted to die but perhaps because I was somehow terribly lonely, suddenly, after the valiant group effort of our team rescue had ended.


It had been my first such emergency operation.  The noble bonds the hastily formed group made, the grave vital unity to which, honored, I had briefly belonged, had evaporated in minutes, as if it had not been there in the first place.  We had thrilled to the sense of mission.  Had it all disappeared into this huge place, this hole in the world below my feet?  This sublime drop-off was also curious, new, attracting a deep primitive desire for flight, earthly transcendence, and somehow, impeccable worthiness.  It seemed to promise an enormous alternative answer to everything else, all things, without disclosing how terrible this answer would be on the way down. Shocked and struggling between reason and primitive emotion, I turned back to leave, to return again in a few months for the next strange rescue operation we would mount in the fall on the tail end of a bad storm on the West Buttress.