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Epic SAR at Yosemite National Park
Aug 30, 2017

It’s one thing to be “stuck” in an urban setting with its amenities, resources, and immediate responses. It is quite another when stuck in, on, or under a cliff, river, or snowbank, in the middle of the vertical world of Yosemite Valley, or the expansive, remote areas the park is also famous for. 

Wilderness search and rescue (SAR) is a whole different ball game – unquestionably true for Yosemite National Park

(Photo © Yosemite Conservancy / Keith Walket)

SAR incidents there range from the absurdity of a light aircraft going down in a three-day blizzard 30 miles from the nearest accessible road, among peaks over 13,000 feet high, complicated by not even knowing within two miles of exactly where the victims are, to the “piece-of-cake” broken ankle, in which case all you mostly need are a few strong backs to carry a litter. Oops, sometimes those ankles are attached to a 260-pounder who is at 12,000 feet with an un-flyable, several-day rain storm setting in, and the nearest trail is three miles away over broken granite and through downed trees – and all manner of dilemmas in between.

More than 8,000 search and rescue missions have been recorded in the 1,200 square miles of Yosemite National Park over the past half-century. I personally participated in some 800 of these during my nearly 10-year career at YOSAR (Yosemite Search and Rescue). All of these incidents – big or small, hard or easy – had an impact on someone: victim, family, friends, or the rescuers themselves. Here is one such event, mostly long-forgotten and never before told, until now...   

Search and Rescue at Half Dome - Yosemite National Park. (Photo: NPS/Dave Pope)

There had been any number of rescues off the broad faces of Half Dome and El Capitan, and out of the rivers and rapids and from under the waterfalls – from nearly everywhere in the park. But how about cave rescues? Wait, you say, there are no caves in the granite of Yosemite! Actually, there are quite a few. When large boulders from rock walls tumble and roll and crash onto others, voids or caves form. For hundreds of years, Native Americans lived in them, as did “hippies” of the 1960s and early 1970s.

On this Sunday, April Fools’ Day, in 1973, some teenagers were exploring around these bus-sized boulders in the Valley. Mike, a 17-year-old from Sacramento, was leading the way, and managed to wiggle through a hole. The opening, a short tunnel about 20 inches long was, at its largest, only 24 inches wide and 18 inches high. A tight squeeze. It angled downward, 20 feet above ground level, making it totally hidden from below – obscure and off the beaten path.

Mike snaked in on his belly, head first and hands out in front, his body filled the entrance and blocked the daylight. Suddenly, with his eyes not adjusting fast enough to the gloomy black, he began sliding. Flailing frantically, he grabbed onto a loose, basketball-sized rock, then fell 10 feet. He landed on hard stone at the bottom and the dislodged 50-pound piece of granite smashed his left leg – the proverbial “between a rock and a hard place!” Mike suffered a compound fracture in two separate places of both the tibia and fibula in the lower leg – pointed bone ends stuck out an inch or two in several places. Adding insult to injury, this eight-foot square cave had been used several times as a toilet – there were human feces where he landed!

Search and Rescue team at the Royal Arches in Yosemite National Park. (​Photo: NPS/Dave Pope)

Emergencies that occur in confined spaces – sewers, holes, and caves – are a specialization unto themselves, requiring distinct skills, techniques, and equipment. Little of this expertise really existed in 1973, certainly not in Yosemite. 

That weekend, a dozen members of the San Diego Mountain Rescue Team were in the valley for routine training and several park rangers were assisting, including this author and Roger Rudolph (we were the park’s only two EMTs at that time). 

Once alerted by the dispatcher, the rangers were enroute within a minute, rescue gear already in hand. Within 20 minutes, Roger and I, along with two other rangers, had all crawled through the hole and lowered to the victim. We faced a truly ugly scene; dirt- and feces-contaminated bloody bones stuck out while his screaming ricocheted around the dark and musty pit.

For those versed in rescue and emergency medicine, prepare to cringe by how we were forced to improvise. Roger first gave the victim a healthier-than-normal shot of Demerol, without which there was no way he would withstand the pain of what was soon to follow. The drug took effect, which, as we cleansed the open wounds as best we could with water and saline solution (glass bottles in those days), was a blessed and good thing. We then pulled traction by hand, attempting to draw the jagged bone ends back inside his leg. Quickly covered with compresses and yards of roller bandage, it was then held in place by two blowup air splints – we feared a bone end might puncture the thin plastic of just one air splint. A nylon litter was twisted through the only entrance and down to us. In some ways, all of this was the easy part.

We now faced wrestling him up the seemingly short ten feet and out through the hole; however, with him tied onto the litter, it could not go out the way it came in. We struggled, somehow pushing him up the bulging rock face. One of us even stood on the shoulders of another to aid the stretcher up this broken, outwardly curving rock. Once at the opening, but still inside, he had to be helped out of the stretcher and, lying flat on his back with his arms stretched straight overhead, he inched and squirmed through the entryway, partially using his own power while being gently pulled from outside. Once free, he was put back into the stretcher and clipped onto the 100-foot-long zip line that the team from San Diego had created. He was smoothly down and off the rocks. Although thoroughly unorthodox, Mike’s leg was saved. 

A sense of adventure and spontaneity are to be applauded under some circumstances, this was not one of them. Mike was unprepared and ill equipped and showed little common sense. He was lucky; by himself, his skeleton would have been found years later. 

In the recently released Big Walls, Swift Waters: Epic Stories from Yosemite Search and Rescue, Charles “Butch” Farabee explores many of the SAR missions that took place in Yosemite, including some performed by the U.S. Army, which managed the park from 1891 to 1914. This book, illustrated with nearly 200 photos, documents both the history of YOSAR and recites many incidents involving cliff, water, and trail – and includes four pages on “Safety Tips for Staying Alive” and critiques and suggestions on what was good, what was bad, and what the victim could have done better, if anything.

Available at bookstores or at the Yosemite Conservancy Store: