Two men are trapped on the side of a 3,000-foot-high cliff in Yosemite National Park. One of them has just lost a thumb. Who are you going to call? These guys.
The phone call came in just after 3 p.m. on September 26, 2011. It concerned a severed thumb. The caller alerted Yosemite Search and Rescue that an Austrian mountain climber named Michael Schmoelzer was at that moment dangling from the face of El Capitan, the 3,000-foot sheer wall of granite at the western edge of the park. Schmoelzer, an experienced climber and instructor, had just lost his right thumb when a rope ladder he was using came loose from its anchor as he stepped on it. He tumbled several feet down the slope until his safety rope snapped tight. Unfortunately, during the fall the rope ladder wrapped around his thumb and sheared it off, leaving a jagged mess of exposed bone and tendon. Miraculously, the thumb landed on a ledge 80 feet below, right next to Schmoelzer’s partner, Richard Edelsbacher. Still, Schmoelzer was no longer capable of going either up or down on his own. He was calling for a rescue.
The man who answered the phone, park ranger Dave Pope, understood immediately the challenge that lay ahead. The 29-year-old former business student had climbed El Cap numerous times himself, and he knew exactly where Schmoelzer was stranded and how difficult it would be to get down from there.
At the same time, fellow ranger Jeff Webb was at home in his two-bedroom log cabin preparing for his evening shift. The skinny, wisecracking 41-year-old was also an avid climber and skier and, like Pope, had seen plenty of evidence of the dangers behind the park’s beautiful vistas: a fractured skull here, a shattered femur there. In one accident a climber literally split in half from a big fall. Just the week before, another Austrian, Markus Praxmarer, had plunged to his death from nearby Half Dome mountain. Webb was starting to worry about job burnout. It was getting to the point where every time he looked at the breathtaking scenery, he saw dead people. Now he was about to embark on another dangerous mission with an unpredictable outcome. At least the weather was cooperating: It was warm, with just a bit of light wind. A perfect day for a rescue.
Pope and Webb are both members of Yosemite Search and Rescue (YOSAR), responsible not only for saving injured climbers but also for tracking down missing hikers and rescuing swimmers who have underestimated the danger of the park’s turbulent rivers. With Yosemite hosting five million visitors annually and comprising a wilderness about the size of Rhode Island, this is no easy task.
On the walls of YOSAR’s operations center, housed in a brown wooden building with a rusty corrugated roof, are photos of the missing and the dead: victims of human frailty, bad weather, poor judgment, gross stupidity, or simply lousy luck. The number of photos had grown by 21 so far in 2011, the largest number since 1978. They had earned Yosemite the unwelcome title of “most dangerous national park in America,” and there were still three months to go in the year.
An unusually harsh winter followed by snow melt was partially to blame. Yosemite’s rivers were swollen and unpredictable. In July three day-trippers from St. George Assyrian Christian Church in California’s Central Valley climbed over a safety barrier at the top of Vernal Falls to pose for photographs. One of them, a 21-year-old woman, lost her footing on slippery rocks and plunged 317 feet to her death.
Two of her male companions, aged 22 and 27, perished over the falls trying to save her. At the time Vernal Falls was pushing 800 cubic feet of water per second, the equivalent of 60 double-wide trailers crashing down a 300-foot cliff. The body of one of the men was found three and a half weeks later trapped under a rock more than 80 yards from the base of the falls. The bodies of the other two were found that December.
Some church members criticized YOSAR after the accident. Why, they asked, wasn’t there a lifeguard at the top of the falls? Or a net at the bottom? And why weren’t divers sent into the water to rescue the three?
“No diver in his right mind would have gone into those waters,” says Dov Bock, YOSAR’s chief of operations. “It was a wall of white.”
Park officials also rejected the notion that more signs or taller guardrails could have prevented the tragedy. “We don’t want to fence everything in,” says John Dill, a retired YOSAR veteran who is still a fixture around the office and a search-and-rescue guru to the younger members. “It’s supposed to be a wilderness,” he says. “We don’t want to turn Yosemite into a petting zoo.”
Now here was a chance to put their training into action. It was 3:30 p.m., and while the two Austrian climbers waited for help to arrive, the YOSAR team was considering its options. Every YOSAR mission gets ranked as low-, medium-, or high-risk, depending on the complexity. The lowest-risk option was to use long ropes to lower rescue workers from the top of El Capitan and haul Schmoelzer back up to the summit. But although it was the safest choice for the rescuers, it would take hours, and Schmoelzer needed to get to the hospital quickly. The next best option was faster: Fly a helicopter as close to the wall as possible and pluck Schmoelzer to safety from a ledge 2,000 feet high and not much wider than a kitchen shelf. But this method was pregnant with danger.
Incident commander Eric Gabriel considered the options at hand and quickly gave the go-ahead to try a helicopter rescue. He assigned Dave Pope and Jeff Webb, both trained EMTs, to the job and then turned to Pope’s wife, Dov Bock: “I want you to coordinate the backup plan. Pack gear, grab ropes, load it up on the truck, and when you’re ready, drive to the meadow and meet the helicopter.”
The afternoon light was beginning to fade. Before long, shadows would start to creep up the mountainside, and with them the strict regulation that all ranger helicopters return to base.By the time the YOSAR team made it to the meadow at the base of the cliff, the chopper—a vintage Bell 205 with upgraded rotors for high-altitude flying—was ready to go. Pilot Richard Shatto, who spends most of his flying time fighting forest fires for the local fire department, punched the Bell into the sky to make a quick scene assessment. He knew that whatever the situation, it was going to be dangerous. In 2005 a strong downdraft sent a different pilot’s rescue helicopter out of control on Higher Cathedral Rock, killing the man suspended on a stretcher below.
At first Shatto considered refusing the mission, but then he spotted Schmoelzer and Edelsbacher huddled together in a recessed nook. He decided he had to try and save them. “I can do this,” he shouted over his shoulder to the men behind him. “Can you do this?”
“Dude, if you can keep us in this position, it shouldn’t be too bad,” Webb yelled back over the roar of the engine. The helicopter returned to the valley floor, and while the team waited for it to cool down, incident commander Gabriel took a moment to go over the protocol one last time. If the winds started to gust, he told them, they should call it off. All it would take is one strong downdraft to put everyone’s life in jeopardy in a second.
Then it was time to go. Webb and Pope snapped themselves into haul lines fastened to the belly of the helicopter as Shatto gently eased it into the air. Soon the two EMTs were dangling 150 feet below like little pendulums swinging from a clock.
Veteran rescuer John Dill nervously peered at the stranded climbers through a high-powered telescope. He knew what was about to unfold, because in the 1980s he invented the technique, known as the beanbag toss, that was about to be attempted. Crew chief Eric Small would throw a baseball-size bag of sand connected to a nylon rope to the climbers. If they could catch the bag and then secure the rope to the cliff face,they would have a lifeline to the rescuers. But in order to make this a successful toss, the helicopter would have to come close to the rock face. Very close.
Shatto approached El Capitan as slowly as he could to avoid swinging the two dangling medics into the side of the cliff. As the granite wall loomed, Pope called out the distance between the tip of the rotor blades and the rock face through the two-way radio attached to his helmet.
“Sixty-foot rotor clearance. Forty-foot rotor clearance. Twenty-foot rotor clearance.”
They were as close as they were going to get. Crew chief Small, sitting in the helicopter door with his feet on the skids, threw the first beanbag. But the cord attached to it was too short. Shatto dropped the chopper lower, and Small tried once more. Again the cord came up short. Shatto repositioned the chopper for a third try, then a fourth, a fifth, and a sixth. A crew member ransacked the aircraft and came up with one more beanbag. This would be their final shot.
As Shatto hugged the Austrian climbers as close as sanity allowed, Small took a deep breath and threw the last bag. Edelsbacher reached out and grabbed it, then quickly anchored the cord to the wall as Pope and Webb prepared to make the move to the ledge. As of that moment, the rescuers were connected to the ledge where the climbers waited. The helicopter rose higher, lifting the two medics to the level of the rock shelf.
Then came the hard part.
No helicopter pilot wants to be tethered to a giant rock. But because the crew had used the last beanbag, Shatto felt they had little option but to stay in position. They wouldn’t get another shot at this, but as long as Pope and Webb quickly crossed the 20-foot gap to the climbers, Shatto felt he could hold steady. The initial idea was for Edelsbacher to pull the rangers over to the ledge, but the Austrian was too weak, so they dragged themselves, hand over hand. At last they reached the two exhausted climbers.
“Do you have the thumb?” Webb asked. Schmoelzer tapped the breast pocket of his jacket, where his detached digit was stored in a ziplock bag. With that the crew hauled Pope and Schmoelzer into the helicopter. Still on the rock, Webb cut the anchor line and Schmoelzer was on his way to the California Pacific Medical Center, where his thumb was successfully reattached.
The mission was accomplished. No first responder was injured. And a few days later Schmoelzer flew back to Austria to recuperate, grateful to the brave men and women of YOSAR for risking their lives to reunite him with his thumb but haunted by the blank-faced giant he never got to conquer.