Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Search and Rescue Mission Report

This is the link to the Inyo County Search and Rescue Mission Report detailing our rescue from their perspective.  Those guys were awesome and are all my heroes.


Friday, October 18, 2013

Helicopter heroics

This is the conclusion of my previous post.  If you missed it and you care to read them in order scroll to the the bottom of this post and start there.

Inside our cubby, the temperature was probably close to 40 degrees, I only can guess that because our slushy water was slowly getting less slushy.  Forty seems warm considering the night before it was in the teens, but there was no way to avoid touching the cold rock and we were still shivering more than we weren't.  It was still cold enough that when Roman peed into a empty bottle he chose to snuggle with it until it lost its heat.  I'd like to say I thought it was gross but I was jealously wishing I could pee as well. 

We got in the cubby at 1:00 in the afternoon on Wednesday.  It was a long uncomfortable night of wondering how many days we might need to stay in there and how long we could make our food and water last.  We passed the time by trying to get someone on the radio.  We could hear other people clearly talking back and forth but for some reason they could not hear us.  Hoping for the smallest cell signal we prepared a text to our wives that had our GPS coordinates and said that we were going to need helicopter rescue.  At 5:00 AM on Thursday, after 16 hours in our claustrophobic cubby, Roman turned his cell phone on to check the time and saw he had a signal.  He immediately sent our text.  Within minutes we got a text back.  It said that a search and rescue team had already been assembled and that a helicopter was available weather permitting.  We started to celebrate.  Roman's signal turned in to 2 bars so he called Michelle.  Michelle had to pinch herself to make sure she was not dreaming.  Like most wives would, she had been fearing the worst.  

Roman and I's anticipation of the sun to rise now was like that of kids on Christmas morning, except our Santa was going to be flying a CHP helicopter.  We talked about happy things like helicopter rescues, Churros and Disneyland, but mostly helicopter rescues.  We wondered how exactly it would go down.  Would a search and rescue guy be lowered to us?  Would they simply lower us a rope and harness?  Would they lower us a stretcher of some sort to strap into?  It seemed we were only hours from being reunited with our families and we couldn't think of anything sweeter. 

Around 7:00 the sun started to shine onto our little doorway.

I immediately broke out a window to see a glorious sunrise.  It looked like perfect conditions for a helicopter rescue.  Our rope still hung outside from the last rappel the day before.  It was frozen.

This is a short video I took upon realizing our good fortune.

At around 8:00 the helicopter started buzzing around.  I was hanging out the window of our cubby waving Roman's red backpack.  I was naive enough to think he may have seen me on his first pass over us.  I had no idea how hard it must be for them to spot us on the huge mountain face, but after watching him buzz past us 10 or 20 times I started to realize.  Luckily we had a signal again and I called the search and rescue team.  They put me through to the helicopter copilot and I started giving directions as to where we were. 

It seemed like it took longer than it should have but I eventually guided them to just about 100 yards in front of me exactly at eye level.  I was furiously waving the red backpack.  They still could not see me.  

"I'm looking straight at you!  I am waving a red backpack!"

The pilot could sense my frustration.  Finally when they were only about 50 yards in front of us, the pilot spotted me.  I realized that if we didn't have cell phone service it might have been days before they actually spotted us. 

Once the helicopter did find us the pilot immediately told us we were in the worst possible spot for a rescue.  He told us there was no way he could get close enough to rescue us from our current location.  

In this video the pilot is surveying the cliffside for a location in which he could rescue us from.

The pilot found an finger of rock that stuck out from the cliffside far enough he could get the helicopter in for a rescue.  It was only enough room that he would barely be able to put one skid down but it was the only real option to get us off the mountain.  The spot was about 3 pitches away from us.  He flew the helicopter to it and asked if we could get to it.  My immediate response was no.  Two days ago, when the cliffside was a rock face it would have been no problem, but now the face of the mountain was 70% snow.  We didn't have any gear to protect ourselves on snow and I didn't really have much experience on it.  I was definitely scared at the thought of going out on the exposed snow.

Search and Rescue had a team ready that had all the proper gear for protecting the snowy pitches.  The pilot said he would come back, drop them off at the pick up spot, they would then come to us and then guide us back to the pick up spot.  He figured the whole process could take up to 8 hours.  Which didn't seem that bad until he explained to me that the morning was the best time for a rescue, often in the afternoon the wind picks up and they can't do the technical flying that would be required to pick us up.  Basically there was a decent chance we would be spending another night in our cubby this time with two more guys.  I knew there wasn't room for anyone else in the cubby and I really didn't want to be there another day.  I talked it over with Roman and called back the pilot.  I told him not to bring up the Search and Rescue team we were going to attempt to get there ourselves.

I have been asked by everybody, "Did you have enough food and water?"  The honest answer is we took enough food for one full day of climbing and after being up there for 3 days we still had 3/4 of it left.  The stress was so great that I never once thought "I'm hungry, I'm going to eat something." instead a few times I thought "I should try to eat something" and was never able to actually stomach much.  

The water was similar.  We took enough to go up and down the technical sections only, but after 3 days still had about half left.  The reason for that was it was either frozen or slushy and we were so cold already that neither of us could bare the thought of drinking ice cold slush and making our body temps that much lower.  

This combination of not eating or drinking had to be taking a toll on our bodies ability to cope with what was now to be required of us for the rescue.  In the cubby I didn't care about our bodies weakening states because once we got in there, I was planning on staying in there until rescue came.  I had shut it down mentally and physically.  Now we had to get it going again for one last push.

We started to organize our gear.  Our rope was frozen and I was wondering if we were going to be able to pull it down or not.   I remember secretly wishing that we would not be able to get the rope down and I could call back the pilot and tell him he needed to bring up the rescue team.  The rope was stubborn but we worked it down.

The first pitch was a horizontal traverse along the shear face.  I set it up as a rappel and managed to get in only two pieces of protection in the hundred feet.  I was about half way through the pitch when Roman yelled to me, "I can't find my belay device."

"Are you kidding?"

"No I can't find it."

"I'm not coming back there.  You better find it!"

Roman is notorious for misplacing things, however this was not the time to lose your most valuable piece of gear, but he had lost it nonetheless.  

I finished the pitch and fixed the other end of the rope so Roman could traverse across the fixed line with just his personal anchor.

The next pitch was a straight forward rappel.  Or at least it would have been straight forward if we had two belay devices.  I have read a million different ways to rappel without a belay device but never actually done any of them.  Of course they had all run together and I was having trouble coming up with just one legitimate way.  Roman rigged up some kind of triple rope wrap of his locking biner and it was going to have to do.  During the rappel Roman knocked his radio loose and it fell.   I was expecting to hear it hit against the wall a few times and then here it explode when it hit the bottom, but the wall we were on was so shear and so tall that I heard it hit the wall one time and then nothing, I waited for an explosion but nothing.   

Here I am on the rappel.  Notice the helicopter in the top of this picture.  Like myself, Search and Rescue wasn't convinced I had what it took to do the pitches in the snow, so the helicopter stayed constantly near us in case something went wrong.  You would think that would have given us a sense of reassurance, but really it made the situation feel like a Hollywood production and definitely added a level of stress. 

The second rappel deposited us about 80 feet below the pick up spot.  The finish line of our epic was finally in sight.  Eighty feet of what was easy climbing before the snow was now going to be a formidable test.  

Roman was light headed and having dizzy spells.  My hands had been painfully cold and now didn't have much feeling left in them.  I was far from 100 percent, but the best thing about climbing is the challenge it presents.  If it were easy there would be no reason to do it.  Most climbers favorite climbs are the ones that push them closest to their limit and Roman and I were getting very close.   

Starting the last pitch the first move just to get off the ground was very steep.  As I did it I wondered if I still had enough in me to get up it.  The pitch had some good old fashion climbing stress, very different from the "lost on a mountain in a snow storm stress" we had dealt with the day before. 

Even in the stress of the last pitch, the beauty around us was undeniable.  The fresh white snow, the crystal blue sky, the gorgeous alpine peaks, then throw in the drama of a helicopter circling over head and you have probably the most memorable pitch of climbing I have ever done.  I am embarrassed to say I loved the last pitch.

Finally we arrived at the rendezvous point.  It felt like I had just finished an ironman.  It wasn't quite over we still had the unknown of jumping into a mostly moving helicopter.

The pick up was everything we feared it might be.  Roman said it was the scariest part of the whole ordeal.  We crawled out 3/4 of the way to the end and hoped that was as far as we needed to go.  The pilot made a pass and signaled to us that we needed to go all the way to where the arrow is pointing.  He told us to lay flat and hold on as there would be gusts of 120MPH that could blow us right off the snowy rock to a certain death.  We laid there in the snow for about 20 minutes waiting for the pilot to burn off fuel and then we heard his siren and knew it was go time.  We tighten down our grip on the rock.  To add a little more Hollywood flare the pilot came up from the below us.  It felt like he magically appeared out of thin air and our environment turned instantly violent.  He went up about twenty feet above our heads and then lowered back down ever so slowly.  The wind was too fierce to watch what was happening and we could only peek every couple of seconds.  Finally he put his skid down just barely onto the rock.  The door already open, the copilot yelled for us to go for it.  I jumped in and scooted across to make room for Roman.  I looked back just to see Roman land safely in next to me.  We were safely inside.  During our 3 days I had wanted to break down crying at least 3 or 4 times but had managed to kept it together.  Neither me or Roman could refrain any longer and both of us let our tears of gratitude flow freely.

After getting checked out for frostbite by the paramedics we were released to go and take a picture with our rescuers.  We will be forever indebted to them both for their great skill and their willingness to risk their own lives to save ours.

We also got to meet and thank our would be rescuers, the Search and Rescue Team.  Who despite being simply volunteers were also willing to risk their own lives to save ours if they had been asked.

Needless to say there were more than a couple of heroes there that day.

Thank you California Highway Patrol and Search and Rescue!  And a special thanks to the taxpayers of California who make helicopter rescues free for boneheads like myself.  I promise not to need another one. 

Sunday, October 13, 2013

In need of a helicopter

When you have resigned to wait on a cliffside for a helicopter rescue, you have a lot of time to think about what went wrong.

When Roman was coming to town and thought he could spare a day of his trip to go climb a mountain with me, I was tickled.  We both really wanted to do the East Face of Mt. Whitney.  Having two or three days to do it would have been better but we knew we could do it in one long day.  It would be 20 hours or so but we could pull it off.  We had done a similar outing on the Grand Teton and it had turned out to be one of my best days ever in the mountains.

The East Face of Mt. Whitney is a long route of 13 pitches with a rating of 5.7 (a grade we were both comfortable with).  What got us in trouble was the commitment level of the climb.  Once you get about half way through the East Face there is no longer a retreat option.  The only way off the mountain is to finish what you started.  The other problem was the route finding, which had been reported by many as difficult and had rendered many climbers lost.

We got to the trailhead at about 1:30 AM got our packs together and laid down for an hour before our 3:30AM start time.  The hike in was a little longer than we anticipated. We got a little lost in the dark and that cost us about an hour of light.  We had planned to be to the technical climbing around 7 but it was closer to 9.
During the last hour of the hike we could look up at the face we were planning on climbing.
It is an intimidating looking face. 

                                          The first pitch was exciting with lots of exposure.

It was a beautiful day and we were both enjoying the thrill of having such a classic climb to ourselves.  The climbing seemed more difficult than we had expected which made the climbing all the more enjoyable.  After the fourth pitch we realized the reason for the increased difficulty was we were off route.

    It took us two traversing pitches to get back to the route, and cost us more precious daylight.

We were to the famous Fresh Air Traverse pitch where the guidebook said was the easiest place to get lost on the route.  We could not afford to get off route again.  It was getting late in the day and we were worried about possibly having to spend a night on the mountain.

We took a good look at the guidebook and were pretty convinced we could see the Fresh Air Traverse. We went for it.  It required a rappel that we could no way go back up on.  If it wasn't the Fresh Air Traverse we were certainly going to be spending the night.

I wanted to record the Fresh Air Traverse with the GoPro so I got it out and turned it on.  When I realized we were not at the Fresh Air Traverse I hit a new low in Mountaineering.  The stress of the situation was tangible.  I never would have recorded it on purpose but turning off the GoPro was the last thing on my mind.  Below is some high mountain drama.  Warning: my wife says it is boring and could be rated PG-13.

After finishing the plan formulated in the video above we had time for one more pitch before it was mostly dark.  We talked about trying to continue on with headlamps but decided it would be safer to man up and wait for morning.  It was time to put on our thermals (thank goodness we brought them) and get ready for the longest night of our lives.

We were on a small sloping ledge, too little to dare sleep without being harnessed into the rock.  We dressed, tried to eat and drink a little, and sent a text off to our wives that said we were going to be out another day.  Remember we had only slept one hour the night before, so I figured we would get some sleep despite the horrendous conditions.  By 8:00 it was pitch black and we were getting into our warmest position.  I fell asleep and woke up 50 or 100 times.  I snuggled with Roman.  I spooned with Roman.  I went through cycle after cycle of "shiver, violently shiver, shiver, violent shiver.  I felt Roman do the same.  I dreamed I was falling off the edge 10 times.  It had to be almost morning.  I finally dared to look at my watch.  It was 9:45!!  How was that possible?  It had already been the longest night of my life and it had only just started.  The rest of the night I never dared to look at my watch, I couldn't have handled that kind of disappointment again.

Oh how we were looking forward to that sun coming out and warming us up, when it finally got light there was no sun to be seen.  Clouds had rolled in during the night.  We forced ourselves to get up.  Roman couldn't feel anything in his feet.  I didn't realize that he had slipped into the river the day before and his shoes and socks were still wet so he had only had his climbing shoes to wear that night.  Despite the daylight my body still just wanted to stay in the fetal position and shiver.  It was very difficult but we forced ourselves to rack up our climbing gear.  We were both so cold that our bodies were barely working and we wondered if we even could climb.

We climbed one pitch and my body started to work again.  I warmed up to the point that I wasn't completely miserable.  During our second pitch it started to snow.  I simply ignored the snow and kept climbing, refusing to admit that it was really happening.  The climbing was more difficult than it should have been and I didn't know if it was because of the snow or because we had never really gotten back on route after missing the Fresh Air Traverse.  We climbed a third pitch and the snow continued to fall harder and harder.  The snow was impossible to ignore now.  Drifts were gathering at the top of the wall and every few minutes the drift would get blown off the top and we would watch it roll down the cliff face and then brace ourselves for it to hit us.  The barrage of snow drifts would push the snow down even the tiniest of openings between clothes and skin.  I was getting wetter and wetter.  I was climbing in a light pair of belay gloves and my hands were freezing.  The thought of spending another night on the mountain, this time wet, was enough to scare the heck out of me.  I had seen enough episodes of "I Shouldn't Be Alive" to know the misfortuned mountaineer is most likely to lose his fingers, toes and nose.  It felt like that fate could realistically be ours if we didn't make good decisions.  The pitches were getting increasingly more stressful, and the snow was making them harder and harder.  We did a fourth pitch and I got to a point that I should have been able to climb but with the snow it wasn't happening.  I wanted to cry.  I was getting scared enough that it was hard to think straight.  I lowered off on a cam and started up a different crack.  After another 70 feet of climbing I was right in the same predicament.  I really don't like wasting gear but our situation was getting desperate.  I lowered off on another cam.  Roman had noticed a small hole in the rock he thought we could take cover in at the start of the previous pitch.  He suggested we go back and take cover from the storm.  It was the right thing to do and I was glad he suggested it.  I am a little bummed that we were so stressed on day two that we didn't take a single picture.  The conditions were the gnarliest mountain conditions I had ever witnessed, by a lot.

We rappelled back to the shelter.  I was the first one down and when I saw it I didn't think we could both fit in it, but we cleared some rock out and it barely housed the two of us.  It was only 1:00 in the afternoon. It was going to be another long night.
One guy would have to lay in sideways and jam himself in as far as he could so that the other guy could sit in the fetal position at the front of the door way.  Both positions were bad and we debated which was worse.  We took turns switching every two hours.  It was miserable, but it literally may have saved our fingers and toes.  That hole in the rock was a tender mercy of the Lord.

It was embarrassing but we knew with the amount of snow that was falling we were going to need to be helicoptered off the mountain. We had no reception on the cell phone.  We tried to call out an SOS on the radio, but could not get any one there either.  I assessed our food and water supply and figured we could hold up in the "crack" for at least a week if we had to.  We figured we would get reception on the cell when the storm broke whenever that was. 

We watched as the doorway filled to the top with snow.  The snow made it like a little igloo.  It wasn't warm but it was a lot less cold than we had been the night before.   

We finally manage to sleep some while we waited for the storm to break.

Story of the rescue to come.