“… it is my belief that to take unreasonable risks deliberately is usually a sign of irresponsibility and arrogance, while to do so unawares shows lack of experience and judgement; and that a narrow escape should be deemed a failure of competence and not a matter for pride.
I have been guilty of these lapses more often than I care to remember.”
Eric Shipton, ‘That Untravelled World ‘
I had been in Yosemite almost three weeks, my time split between mingling with the tourists in the valley, and walking the vast, empty, back-country.
The valley was stunning, but oppressively crowded. Climbing the sheer sides to trek into the Sierras beyond, revealed a sharp contrast. Leaving the roads meant leaving the crowds. An hour’s walk from Glacier Point, the country was wild, the silence only broken by the crashing of meltwater-swollen waterfalls and the lonely calls of the birds.
Banner Peak, Mt. Ritter and the Minarets from
Foerster Peak – the highest peak I climbed in 1981
I had walked over thirty miles from the road and met no-one for five days in the spectacular mountains. From a twelve thousand foot peak I could see range beyond range receding into the crystal clear Californian air, and not a building or a road between me and the distant horizon.
My time in Yosemite was running out. In the three weeks left before I had to be in Alabama to go caving, I planned to visit other wild places: the desert, perhaps the Rockies. But I still had one project left here. The half-mile sheer drop of Yosemite Falls commanded the whole valley, and I just had to see it from the top too. But the Upper Falls trail had been closed by a landslide which killed three people the previous autumn, so I had to choose a longer route. A two day trip round the north rim of the valley offered a chance to visit several viewpoints, including the top of El Capitan, so on June 17th, I set off into the Tenaya Canyon.
When ice, rather than water, occupied the valley, Tenaya carried the main glacier, cutting a mile-deep rift between Half-Dome and Washington Column. Now the main flow (the Merced River) comes from a hanging valley to the south, while Tenaya creek is but a small, misfit stream in an impressive canyon whose north wall I had to climb to reach the rim.
The North Dome Trail seen in this 1992 photo from Half Dome
The trail winds a weary zig-zag route up the shining granite wall. The sun beats relentlessly down, bleaching the sparse grasses to a pale straw colour. The temperature soars to the upper nineties. At the top, the path plunges into the deep and welcome shade of mixed forest. Wild flowers create a splash of colour where lightning has burnt a clearing in the trees. Young pines are already competing to fill the gap. The path winds along the bank of a creek where I take a long drink and a short swim. The water is icy cold. It hasn’t rained for weeks – only hours ago this water was snow in the High Sierra.
For a couple of miles, the trail heads west between the oaks and pines. A squirrel peers inquisitively at me from a log almost within arm’s reach. By the time I have my camera ready he is ten feet away and almost invisible against the background of last autumn’s fallen leaves. The sun filtering through from above makes patchwork patterns on the ground which could hide a hundred like him. I walk on, and a scratching tells me my friend has gone to find more pine cones in a nearby tree.
Suddenly the forest thins and the trail breaks out onto North Dome – a bare granite monolith so flawless there are no cracks for roots to burrow into. Small hollows hold green mosses, but no soil. From the rounded summit there is a magnificent full-on view of Half-Dome’s North West face, its eighteen hundred sheer feet towering above another three thousand feet of scree and rough crags. There are certainly climbers on that face, taking three or more days to climb mind-bendingly exposed routes, but they are too small to see from here.
Further to the right, the Merced River crashes down from the Little Yosemite valley to flow more peacefully across the valley floor, between its towering granite walls. Where once the ice retreated to leave a lake, that same river brought down silt from the high country to form lush meadows where the peaceful Mono indians shared their existence with the ‘Uzumati’ – the Grizzly bear. Only a century ago, the white man arrived to deprive the indian of his land and hunt the grizzly to extinction. Now the meadows are changed almost beyond recognition by the tourist invasion. One of those tents, I recall, is my own. Further right again I can just see the cliffs of Yosemite Point concealing the falls which are my objective for tonight. Time is getting on and I have several miles yet before nightfall.
From North Dome, the trail plunges back into the forest and away from the vertiginous rim. To the north, trees and rising ground hide another expanse of bare mountains separating Yosemite from the Tioga road, the first road pass over the Sierra in two hundred miles.
The path leads in a big arc to the north, crossing two small creeks well upstream from their suicidal leap from the rim. As the sun starts to sink to my right, I head south again to emerge dramatically onto Yosemite Point. Directly below, I can see people like ants crawling around Yosemite village. I am glad to be up here where it is quiet, and cool.
Turning right along the rim, I come to the cliff behind the Lost Arrow. Three climbers have just completed the dizzying Tyrolean traverse from the summit of this isolated needle to the main cliff, swinging out into a space too vast even to contemplate (you can just see their abandoned sling in the photo).
There is only an hour of daylight left, so I hurry the last few hundred yards to the top of Yosemite Falls. Here I find a ledge that lets me look down the full half mile plunge of the stream. The water breaks into spray so fine that most of it is blown into the walls. I find myself amazed that any of it reaches the bottom at all. A short way upstream I bivouac by the side of the creek, which seems to gurgle along blissfully unaware of its impending dive into space. As the last golden rays of the sun leave the face of Half-Dome, I reflect that this is my last night in the high country around Yosemite.
Yosemite Creek just before its plunge into Yosemite Valley
Next morning there is a chill in the air and I wait until the sun touches the trees above me before venturing out of my pit. Two hundred yards away is a black bear. He seems interested in me, so I hastily eat all my remaining food and burn the wrappings so he is not tempted to pursue his interest. I make lots of noise as I pack up my gear and he wanders away into the forest, somewhat to my relief. Walking along the rim, I find the sun shining in my eyes as I look towards the best views, so I linger at the viewpoints, waiting for the light to improve. The views all seem less impressive from this end of the valley, until I eventually arrive on El Capitan. The summit itself is an unassuming rounded dome with little view. The spectacle is at the edge where the slope steepens dramatically to fall away in the biggest vertical cliff in the USA.
Cairn at the top of El Capitan’s Nose – view to Half Dome
I am disappointed to find that the edge is too rounded for me to look straight down the sheer face of the Nose, but the sight of hundreds of little toy christmas trees in the meadow below makes me keep a respectful distance. I sit around hoping for some climbers to emerge over the edge, but the chances are slight. I glance at my watch and realise that I shouldn’t be here at all. The trail from El Capitan to the valley takes a very long route to avoid the steep drops from the rim. Once at the bottom of El Cap, there is still a two mile walk back to my camp. I realise that I will be doing almost half the walk in the dark.
As the trail leaves El Cap, It occurs to me that there is an alternative. Climbers who have ascended El Cap don’t walk the trail, there are two possible descents, one by abseil, and one via El Capitan gully. I am at the top of the gully and it looks easy, so I get out the guidebook and consult it. There are no technical pitches, the grade is equivalent to about ‘Moderate’. Three thousand feet of mostly simple scrambling should be a lot faster than an eight mile trail, much of it over large boulders (I think of the Wasdale screes, and my mind is made up).
For a thousand feet there is no difficulty. I only need to remove my rucksack in two or three places. Then it gets a little steeper. I consider. It is now a long way back up, and I can see the gradient eases not far below. I am confronted with a chimney of about twenty feet. It is not too wide, so I drop the sack and start to back and foot. Halfway down, there is an undercut: the chimney gets a little wider, the far wall is damp and polished. It looks too far to jump, so I decide to go back up to look for a bypass on the right side – it looks as though there should be an easy route on grassy ledges over there.
When I wake up I find I have double vision and a painful foot. I am somewhat wet so move myself out from the bottom of the chimney with some difficulty. I have no idea how long I have been unconscious. It could have been anything between two and twenty minutes, but it doesn’t occur to me to think about this until the next day. My immediate concern is to assess the damage. Apart from my foot and a bruise on my head there is no apparent injury. After about ten minutes the double vision clears itself. Concussion seems the least of my worries, so I assume it is now cured. I take off the boot to see what the trouble is. My foot immediately does a good impression of a balloon. I cannot get the boot back on. I guess that the foot is broken, and anticipate that I could be here for a while before any climbers descend. No-one knows I am here, so I will have to wait for help. There is still an hour or so of sun in the gully, so I get everything dry while I have the chance. At least I have a water supply close at hand!
As the sun sets it starts to get cooler, so I arrange myself a bivouac. I can’t move out of the gully, so life is a little uncomfortable on the rocks. I move a boulder which sticks into my ribs, and get into my pit. Investigation soon shows that I haven’t eaten all my food for breakfast, I still have a teabag and about two spoonsful of sugar. I decide to keep them until someone finds me, then eat them before setting off down.
Morning. I see no point in getting out of my pit, so reach out for a drink and fester until the sun hits me. The temperature goes right up and I struggle out of my pit. My foot is a rather interesting colour, mostly purple but with a few odd yellow bits. Life could become dull here. By late afternoon I am calculating how many parties are climbing El Cap at any one time, how long they take to climb it, and how likely it is that they will come this way on the descent. I am optimistic, and estimate that a party probably descends the gully at least every three days or so. I am sure that with help and an abseil rope on any more pitches I can get down without needing a stretcher or anything similar. The gully faces southwest and I am glad that it is fairly narrow. I only get roasted for about three hours, and the rock stays cool.
On the third day I am slightly worried. The swelling has gone down enough to get my boot on and thus protect the foot, I can move around a little. First I look at the next obstacle down the gully. There is a chockstone and a five foot drop. I am sure I can get down it, equally sure that I can’t get back up. Below it another chockstone and an unknown drop. There is no room to sleep down there, and water is out of reach. It would be foolish to descend. I find that there is an extensive system of ledges on the right, and I shuffle around for a couple of hours on my backside trying to find a way down. I find nothing but impassably steep grass and rock below me. The only way down is in the gully. I shuffle back to the gully with a large handful of grass seeds. It takes so long to get the husks off these, and the seeds are so small inside that I eventually give up. I manage to arrange a more comfortable bivouac on a sloping grassy ledge where a tree stops me from sliding down, and I am only about fifteen feet from the water. There is no way that anyone descending the gully could miss me.
The “descent” gully marked left of El Capitan’s SW face
The previous afternoon, I had noticed a helicopter flying down the valley. It returned about half an hour later, and I remembered that there was a regular fire patrol. Next time it appeared going down the valley, I would arrange to have a fire going before it returned.
Next day at about 11 am: I hear a chopper and frantically set about lighting a collection of dry wood under a nearby bush. Half an hour later, the chopper returns. I look up. Rising above me is a thin column of smoke which stretches up over a thousand feet until level with the rim. There it is whipped away in the clearer air above, but in the gully it must be quite visible. Perhaps it is my imagination, but I am sure that the chopper pauses on its way back up the valley, and my morale rises considerably. By nightfall I have to conclude that a fire in a gully couldn’t spread, and that the fire patrol could happily ignore it. Darkness falls again and frustration rises. I can see headlights of vehicles in the valley. Surely they must see a fire at night?
Day six, and I gather lots more bits of wood, determined to make a visible fire shortly after dark. As I sit around waiting for the sun to set, a hummingbird repeatedly buzzes my kagoule, obviously confused. It is bright orange, so it must be a flower, but where is the nectar?
Darkness falls quickly, and I light my fire. A nice jolly blaze, and obviously visible from the valley, it lasts almost an hour before the last embers fade away. I had seen a couple of dozen sets of headlights pass, and one set even stopped in what I judged to be Bridalveil meadow on the opposite side of the valley. They must have seen me, I reason. Someone would come looking tomorrow. Day seven. Time passes slowly. No-one comes to look except my friend the hummingbird. This is getting dull. And somewhat worrying. Day eight is exactly similar, but in the evening, I notice a bonfire just below the rim on the far side of the valley. Someone camping up there, I think idly, then realise the implications for my own fire two nights previously. I think of all the things I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I wonder if I should make a will.
On day nine, the strange mixture of frantic worry and total boredom has almost resolved itself into resignation when something dramatic happens. As I sit on a rock, generally feeling pissed off, the sound of a chopper in the valley attracts my attention. May as well be as visible as possible, I think. I grab the kagoule, intending to wave it in the air. To my surprise, the helicopter is not the usual fire patrol, but seems to be filming climbers on El Cap. It flies right into the gully, a couple of hundred feet above me, and perhaps a hundred and fifty yards away. I wave the kagoule frantically. The chopper turns. They must see me. No-one could come that close and not see me. The chopper retreats slowly around the corner of Salathé wall. It will be at least a couple of hours before any help comes, so I sit back and wait.
By next morning, I know that I am never going to attract attention from the valley. I had obviously misjudged the chances of climbers descending this way. Death by starvation could take a long time, but I must make a choice soon, or it will be too late. If I wait any longer, I will end up too weak to get down. The frustration of the previous day’s helicopter incident is too much. I find that I would rather die quickly in a fall than face weeks of wasting away. There is always a chance, of course, that I will get down. The chances of being found seem rather small. At two o’clock I am ready to go.
After ten days of healing I can use my foot for balance, though not to take any weight. I extract the draw cord from my rucksack and sleeping bag, duvet and kagoule. Knotted together, they are around ten feet long. I get myself down that first five foot drop, look back up it, and know I am committed. The moment of truth. I look over the edge of the next chockstone. It is a chimney, probably about ten feet to the next chockstone, but undercut.
A straight fall would take me about twenty feet, so I will have to swing under the chockstone I am on now. I throw the rucksack down to land on the next chock. It shortens the drop by about a foot, but isn’t very secure. I rig the thin cord as if for a rappel, hoping to be able to pull it after me in case I need it lower down. I will not be able to slide down such a thin cord without losing my grip, so I have to hold it as far below the belay as possible while getting my body over the edge with only one foot to manoeuvre. The top of the chockstone is smooth. Polished granite when I need a jug-handle. I get my legs over the edge and lie across the chockstone like a beached whale swept up some narrow cove by a storm. I try to rest to maximise the strength in my arms, but realise that I am lying on my right arm, cutting off the blood. I have to go for it quickly and hope my toe will find rock below. I slide off the rock, manage to jam myself briefly while my left hand transfers to the line. Then as slowly as possible I straighten my arms till I am hanging at arms length. I still can’t feel the rock below me. I cannot look down because my arms are in the way. I realise that I need to swing in to reach the chock and as I move, my bad foot brushes something. The rucksack! So I am within a foot or so. I slacken my grip on the string, which looks too thin. It starts to slide through my fingers. Suddenly, my right toe hits rock, and my world expands again. I pull into the chock and jam my elbows into the sides of the chimney. Now the string is pulling me outwards so reluctantly I let it go and sink down onto the chock. It is wet. I don’t care, just sit and let the water soak in.
I realise that I must get on with the job in hand and drop the rucksack down the next drop, it is only about four feet. Above me, the string jams as soon as I try to pull it down. I perch on one leg and struggle to undo the knots so I still have something to use lower down. Cold water trickles down my arms. My leg aches. It seems to take an eternity to untie my ‘rope’, but eventually I manage it and drop back down to the chock. Below the next drop it is sunny, so I lower myself over the edge and onto my rucksack. Now there are only small drops over chockstones, back to the easy scrambling I was happy with ten days ago.
Looking back up to the two chockstones that had blocked my descent.
As I scramble on my backside into the more open gully below, I start to think that I’ve done it, I’m going to get down. But I have to clamp down on those thoughts. I’m still more than fifteen hundred feet from the bottom. Soon, there is another drop. About ten feet, with a peg and sling at the top, and wet. But the sling is a good hold, and I can swing down from it onto a good foothold, then use my own string for the last three feet. This time it really is the last pitch. The gully turns sharp right and becomes an open rubble slope. I fail to notice that the stream has sunk into its bed and I set off down the slope on my backside with only a pint of water. By the time I realise, it is too late to go back up. I assume that I will meet the stream again lower down anyway, that doesn’t seem to be the problem.
The thing that is causing trouble is the size of the rocks. What started as a slope of scree is now a jumble of large rounded boulders, getting bigger as I descend. I find myself perched on a smooth round cobble fifteen feet high. I retreat. I am wasting time and energy trying to find a route down and realise that I could leave the stream bed and slide down the slope on the right. There are trees to hang onto and the going is fairly easy, but it is getting dark. I slip and grab a tree. I have to stop and wait for morning, so find a flat spot and get into my pit. I am asleep in moments.
I wake, feeling dry, to find that it is light. Eight o’clock. I am surprised, in the light, to find that I have crashed out in the middle of an ant trail. A two inch wide highway is carrying traffic of wood ants across my pit at waist level, so I extract myself very gingerly, then jerk the bag clear and shake it thoroughly. For the next half hour I find ants periodically escaping from the stuff sack and crawling onto my shoulders. They don’t seem to sting.
As the slope eases and nears the level, I find that progress on my backside is no longer practical, so pick up a branch and use it as a crutch. At Nine thirty a.m. on June 28th, I reach the road, but realise that the one-way system is against me. This road carries traffic leaving the valley. If I just look like another hitchhiker, will anyone stop ? I find a bit of card and write “HELP” on it, then wave the sign at passing cars. Three roadmenders’ trucks go past, one stops and reverses towards me.
“Are you in trouble ?”, comes a call from the cab.
“I seem to have broken my foot”, I reply.
He calls a ranger on his CB radio, and from then on in, my troubles are purely financial. It is surely a sign that civilisation has yet to arrive when the first question a medic asks is “how would you like to pay ?”.
Postscript (1997). The teabag and the sugar ? By the time I decided to go down under my own steam, I had used up all my remaining stove fuel in lighting signal fires, so couldn’t make a hot drink. I can confirm that, even after eating nothing for ten days, an American teabag is so awful, that I had to spit it out !
Andy in the prusik contest in Bowling Green (Kentucky) a week or three after the accident
Text first published in the Northern Pennine Club Newsletter, during 1982