John Long: Slaying Giants
Cast by chance into the frenzy of a dramatic Yosemite rescue, the author confronts his youthful fears head-on.
Looking back on all the crazy, dreary and magnificent days I spent in Yosemite, I’m amazed how certain events, some loud, others discreet, could launch me in unexpected directions. Throughout it all, some nameless anxiety pressed me to try and reinvent myself every summer—a no-win game of diminishing returns once I became fluent per all things Yosemite. When my learning curve flattened after a decade, Yosemite and I were done with each other. Leaving was easy. Getting started, however, almost never happened but for a glum May afternoon during my first summer in the Valley. I was an 18-year-old wannabe hardman in the early 1970s and had lived in Camp 4 less than a week. Bleak shadows stole over the valley. An hour before found me storming up 300-foot Arch Rock and sweating in a T-shirt. Now, I sat dead still with my arms wrapped around my torso. I was more than simply cold. The towering walls had lost their sunny grandeur and seemed to sneer down at me with hostile intentions.
I glanced down valley at Half Dome, veiled in ancient shade, then panned right to Sentinel, soaring off the terraced approach slabs like a prodigious black tombstone. I shuddered. Would I ever get up those walls? Did I really want to? Everything inside and outside of me felt huge and overwhelming, and nothing in my experience tempered the moment with proportion. For months I’d thought about little more than finally getting right here, in the presence of the giants. But in all the dozen books I’d read about Yosemite, no one had ever come clean about how this paradise could seem so menacing.
I’d bolted for Yosemite the second school let out, and naturally, I’d run my mouth off about all my big plans. Now the bluster had calved away and I could actually see where those plans would take me. For a long while I sat on top of Columbia Boulder, in an edgy daze, wondering which option I might survive: slinking out of the Valley some lonely night and living with shattered aspirations, or packing the haul bag, jumping onto the vertical unknown and fighting the beast of my own doubts. I could have gone either way, when a “Hey, John,” startled me back to the present. It was my cousin, Roger Rudolph, then the head backcountry ranger, and allied with the budding Search and Rescue Team.
I scrambled down and Roger gushed out a mouthful: an accident on the East Buttress of Middle Cathedral, two pitches below the summit; a leader fall and a head injury. A helicopter was en route to ferry the Valley czars Jim Bridwell and Mark Klemons to the top of Middle to conduct a rescue. In case that plan did not work, the Park Service needed another team to trudge to the top of Middle, schlepping a green backpack that was currently occupying several acres around Roger’s feet. If the Bridwell/Klemons team hadn’t set down by the time we gained the top, I’d rap to the victim and … well, we’d have to flesh out the plan from there. “You handle that?” Roger asked. Roger was about 15 years older than me and a mentor who had skied 100 miles across Tioga Pass in winter, carted injured hikers out of the backcountry on his back, and ran a government department with 40 men. By sheer happenstance he now needed me to pony up.
“I’m in,” I said.
“Meet me back here in five,” Roger said. I dashed for Camp 4’s rescue site, urgent to find someone who could handle the job. Luckily I found Englishman Ben Campbell-Kelly lounging around camp, recovering from an early ascent of the North American Wall with his countryman Bryan Wyvill. I explained the situation, and that I needed him along, and Ben said, “Let’s go, man.”
Roger, Ben and I manhandled the pack into Roger’s squad car and a few minutes later he dropped us at the roadside below Middle Cathedral. “You’ll have to bust ass, boys,” said Roger. “You got about three hours of daylight.” I shouldered the pack and staggered up through the pines toward the gully left of Middle. I couldn’t have had a better man alongside me than Ben Campbell-Kelly, a proven veteran of these walls; he was as solid as Solomon.
Shortly we entered a steep labyrinth of dead-end trails, teetering minarets and low-angled choss corridors. We hadn’t a clue about a proper path and never found one. For two hours we flailed and cursed our way up that gully, sometimes hand-carrying the pack and shoving it through a pinch when we couldn’t wiggle through with it on our backs. We could more easily have dragged a grand piano up Rixon’s Chimney. About halfway up we heard a copter circling above, and Ben and I wondered if we weren’t killing ourselves for nothing.
When we finally busted out onto the shoulder beneath Middle’s shapeless summit, Ben claimed he’d burned more gas and lost more hide grappling up that damned gully than he had climbing El Capitan. I shouldered the pig, and with Ben shoving from behind, we trudged up grainy slabs toward the top. Only the crown of El Capitan shimmered in light. We had maybe an hour before night fell like a curtain.
We soon met a team who’d just topped out on the East Buttress. In their late 20s, both wore colorful, long-sleeved rugby shirts and thin, white navy pants, the formal costume of the ’70s Yosemite climber. I wondered about these guys’ lives, and their fantastically lucrative jobs that allowed them to have just fixed two brand-new ropes above the injured climber, before dashing back to San Fran for work and family. They’d fetch their ropes later, or never.
Gusting winds had kept the copter from landing on the summit, said the climbers, scrubbing the Bridwell/Klemons rescue effort. I confirmed as much with Roger, over the radio. We thanked the two climbers and moved over to the fixed lines. I clipped in and started down, battling not to get pulled over backward by the pack.
Ben shouldered the pig for the last rap and we touched down on a lower-angled, terraced recess by a big pine tree burgeoning from the wall. The injured climber—I never learned his name—lay curled in a fetal knot on a sloping ledge scarcely bigger than his body.
His partner, Peter Barton, sitting dejectedly on a shelf 10 feet below, had tied the victim taut to a cluster of pegs. Ben and I rigged a line off the victim’s anchor and moved to a tapering ledge 10 feet lower. According to Peter, the victim had taken a tumbling fall and banged the back of his head. Though partially responsive at first, he hadn’t moved in two or three hours.
I asked Ben what he knew about first aid and he said, “Nothing.” Since I was the son of a doctor, Ben reckoned I’d absorbed essential medical know-how by association, and suggested I paddle up to the victim and play doctor.
The victim’s breathing seemed smooth, though hurried. He mumbled now and then but couldn’t answer any questions. On the back of his head the hair was raked off in one spot, but no shocking dent or gash. As to how this guy looked, or even his age, I can’t say. I think we unconsciously experience accident victims as non-persons, that we resist seeing them deeply or personally lest we project ourselves in their boots. Had the victim looked at me, or said something instead of just lying inert, I might remember his eyes, or his face. But it’s all a blank.
I reported the victim’s condition to Roger, over the radio, and he said to pack the guy into a sleeping bag—there was one inside the giant pack—and to watch his airway. It took all three of us to wheedle the victim into the bag. I felt useless, knowing this guy needed assistance we couldn’t hope to provide. Roger said there wasn’t much more to do, and to just settle in for the night. Back at park headquarters, Bridwell and two rescue rangers were devising a strategy for tomorrow. Pray the victim somehow holds on. Over and out.
Ben and I rapped to the lower ledge and sat back. The slab dropped below for 20 or so feet, then the wall steepened and plunged out of sight. Peering off that perch, I hunkered down for my first bivouac on a rock wall.
We dug into the pack and found a headlamp, several gallons of water, a 12-pack of lemonade mix, a wall rack, a lead rope, a great mass of pulleys and bewildering rescue tackle, a frightening 12-inch knife, two balaclavas, a second radio, several packs of batteries, a first-aid kit that folded out like an accordion, a shovel, a compass, two ensolite pads, and 20 other items I can’t remember—but not so much as a breadstick for grub.
“Whoever packed this thing should be flogged,” Ben said. “We’re buggered.” Thankfully we had a couple packs of smokes between us and we lit up, gazing into the gloom.
Far below, the earth seemed to open up, then night crawled out and swallowed the wall and the world.
Ben, 30, had a rowdy head of red hair and an elegant sideburn-goatee constellation befitting the British academic he was in the private world. His calm, rational manner was a balm to my willies which, after an hour in pitch darkness, were once more rearing up and stampeding over my resolve. To divert myself I pried Ben about his many adventures on big walls in Norway, the Alps and of course most recently the great El Capitan. His comments were so understated I came to believe that sitting there on that tiny ledge in my flimsy white navy pants and a T-shirt was no big deal after all. I admired myself for throwing in with the Yosemite hardmen and, around midnight, figured I was nearly one myself. Then it got very cold, and the victim started wailing in tongues. Peter asked what the hell we were going to do, and things went south from there.
Ben and I took turns making sure the man didn’t swallow his tongue or do something worse. The guy bit our fingers down to the wood, and sometimes his arms flailed and his legs churned inside the bag. We couldn’t have been less helpful.
Around dawn, the victim quieted, and might have died for all we knew. The notion frightened me so I hand-walked up the slab and found him still alive, but apparently in a coma. We couldn’t do a thing. I returned to the ledge and shimmied my legs into the big pack for warmth. I never knew a person could feel so wasted. Then Roger cut in over the radio. A copter was blading in from Livermore Air Force base to attempt an “extraction.”
Bridwell had reckoned that at our present location, the wall was sufficiently low-angled to allow a copter to hover some hundreds of feet above, and lower a litter down on a cable winch.
“That should be pretty good theater!” said Ben. And we’d be seeing it momentarily, as the percussive thumping of copter blades started echoing up the Valley.
“Will you look at that bugger!” Ben yelled, gazing skyward. Whatever copter I had envisioned, it certainly wasn’t the monstrosity hoving to several hundred feet above. Big as a Greyhound bus, it resembled something out of Star Wars. Two enormous blades produced a pulsing thunder that rattled our bones and shot down a shaft of prop wash that swirled every pine needle and bit of turf into a choking tornado. I thrust my head into the big pack and when I pulled it back out, the surrounding area looked as if it had been scrubbed with a wire brush. A soldier stepped from the open cargo bay door of the copter and lowered down on a cable, like a dummy on a string. He sat on a “chaparral Leveler,” a bullet-shaped cylinder the size of a fire hydrant with two fold-down metal flaps on the bottom. Later someone said they used to swoop the Leveler through “hot zones” during the Viet Nam campaign, and would pluck out of the fire anyone who could mount the Leveler at speed.
The giant Sikorsky “Hercules” stayed glued in the sky and the soldier slowly descended perhaps 175 feet until finally touching down on the slab about 10 feet below our ledge. Whoever piloted the ship was a dead-eye who basically delivered the soldier in our laps. With his huge helmet and smoky visor, plus the dashing Air Force jumpsuit, the soldier resembled Flash Gordon. The moment Flash stepped off the chaparral Leveler he was unroped, 1,600 feet off the deck. His mountaineering boots skedaddled on the slab as his hands pawed for a hold, and we knew right off Flash Gordon was no climber.
Ben quickly anchored off a loop of rope, handwalked down and clipped in Flash, who pulled up his smoky visor, exposing the face of a 15-year-old boy, which he compensated for by screaming out his orders. The plan sounded basic and, surprisingly, went off without a hitch. The copter lowered down a litter and we loaded up and lashed down the victim, who was winched straight into the hovering ship.
“OK,” said Flash, staring at the ship still hanging directly overhead. “Who’s going with me?”
“How’s that, mate?” Ben asked. We’d figured Flash would jug out on the fixed lines with Ben, Peter and me.
“I’m going out on the Leveler,” said Flash. “And it gets squirrelly with one man. I need another guy to balance the load.”
“I’ll go,” I said without thinking.
“Good man,” Ben replied. He’d climb El Cap in a snowstorm but he wasn’t daft enough to volunteer to get winched off a Yosemite wall on a guitar string. I wasn’t courageous, I’d just opened up my trap and blurted.
The next 15 minutes passed in a blur. I remember just before sitting onto the Leveler that Flash Gordon said not to worry and to simply hold on tight. We sat, face-to-face, on two metal flaps barely larger than my hand. This set us up like two guys bear-hugging with a flagpole between them. There were no straps or tie-ins at all.
Suddenly the cable came taut and my stomach fell into my boots as we were pulled off the wall and into mid-air. After 10 feet we started yawing side to side and the copter motored out away from the wall, initiating a harrowing pendulum. Lest we smacked the face, the pilot had no choice but to sweep even farther out into open space, away from the wall, which set us swinging in wild horizontal arcs. Only vaguely could I feel the winch pulling us up as we sliced through the air like trapeze artists hitched to the moon. I remember flashing on a saucy French tourist girl I’d met in the cafeteria, and how she’d probably have to spend the rest of her life without me now. With nothing more to lose, I enjoyed the indescribable view as best I could.
About 15 feet from the cargo door, right when we stopped swinging, we began spinning, faster and faster. In 30 seconds I felt so dizzy I thought I might pass out and pitch off. Then they shut off the winch and we dropped a few horrible feet and wrenched to a stop. I glanced up and saw a flurry of airmen fiddling around the winch, which started back up with a lurch and then stopped again, with Flash and me dangling about waist-level with the open cargo bay door. Flash was nearest the ship, and one of the airman reached down and yanked him on board. This instantly rocked the Leveler out of balance and I nearly fell off. For a moment the airmen, with curious blank looks on their faces, stared down at me dangling in space. Then Bridwell appeared from somewhere, grabbed a strut on the door and reached down his hand — and his was the Hand of God if ever I saw it. We locked arms; the Bird yanked and I shot off the flap and belly flopped into the bay. The Bird, who’d been spotting for the pilot, gave a thumbs up and the big ship banked and headed for El Cap Meadow.
Several medics huddled over the victim. His vital signs checked out and they figured his chances were good (I later learned he did survive, following several operations to relieve pressure on his brainpan), which amazed and relieved me. Several minutes later the big ship touched down. In a 50-yard radius the tall grass in Yosemite Meadow was pummeled flush as the pitch on a putting green. Bridwell and I jumped out and the ship thumped off for the trauma unit in Fresno.
Roger rushed up and started laughing and smacking me. I’d expected an official reception, or at any rate a swelling tourist mob. But it was barely seven in the morning and the three of us found ourselves alone in the middle of the meadow. In a few short minutes, everything went still and quiet. It seemed as if nothing had ever happened. But something had. In the midst of a firestorm of personal doubts, circumstances had conspired to knit me into the very fabric of Yosemite life — with the Park Service, the rescue team, the climbers of the day and the great walls that remained our hope and our passion. From that moment on I accepted doubt and fear as the lot of every Yosemite climber, and never again did I question where I should play out my youth.
A few summers later I fell in with Peter Barton, the partner of the victim on the Middle Cathedral rescue. We teamed up for several significant climbs, including the first ascent of Stoner’s Highway, also on Middle. Peter shone on the many run-out slab leads. A year later, while ferrying loads up to the West Face of El Capitan, Peter lost his footing on a steep bit and suffered a tumbling fall that proved fatal. A helicopter flew in from Livermore to recover Peter’s body. Over the steep moraine below the West Face, the copter experienced mechanical problems and ditched in the boulders, the crew barely escaping when the ship burst into flames.
I haven’t seen Ben since the rescue on Middle. I trust he’s doing well.