"Crisis On Half Dome - 2009"
A witness account of a near-fatal fall
As observed by Vanessa Holz and Rick Powell
This story and photos submitted through firstname.lastname@example.org.
June 6, 2009
Half Dome, Cables Route
Thursday, June 4, 2009 - our long-awaited trip to Yosemite and Half Dome was under way. I had been planning this trip with my 3 children, niece and nephew, along with a boyfriend, girlfriend, and a husband; nine of us in all. The Half Dome trip was much more than we bargained for. The main factor was the weather. We arrived at the entrance to Yosemite at 1 AM. Since we didn't have a place for that night, we didn't go into the park. Instead, we threw out our sleeping bags on the asphalt in the "Snow Play" area, just before the park entrance, and covered ourselves with a tarp. At 4 AM, the thunderstorm and rain started, so we threw our stuff in the car and headed to the valley. We had to get in line at Camp 4 to get a campsite, first come / first served. We waited in line for two and a half hours until 8:30 AM, in the drizzling rain, to get the site. Then we went to breakfast and returned to set up camp. The rest of the day went OK. We went for a hike to Mirror Lake, explored the Indian Caves, and went to dinner in Curry Village.
The following day was the hike to the top of Half Dome, the iconic granite monolith that dominates the skyline at the end of Yosemite Valley, protruding almost one mile above the valley floor. It is a 17 mile round trip hike, with nearly 5,000 feet of elevation gain. We started out with clear skies, but got a late start, 8AM. We also made many photo stops along the way. It's hard to keep a group of nine moving, especially when it was the first time for several. Our route took us along the Mist Trail, probably one of the most spectacular trails on Planet Earth. We didn't get to the cables of Half Dome until 1:30 PM, three hours later than I had planned. By that time, the top was covered in clouds, but no rain. (See our group photo before the climb, on the sub-dome, with the cables in the background, below) The cables are about 600 feet long, with an elevation gain of 400 Ft. At the steepest point up the cables, the rock is at an angle of 45 to 50 degrees from horizontal. About every 10 Ft, there are a set of vertical poles holding up the cables, with a wooden slat spanning across the bottom of the poles. These slats are the typical resting point on the way up. We made it to the top of the cables in 30 minutes, according to my GPS, and the skies had cleared up for a great view. We walked along the main ledge, over-looking the valley, and tried to see how brave we could be by looking over the side to see Mirror Lake, more than 4,000 feet below us. After lunch, I called my wife, Diane, to let her know that we had made it to the top, and that we were getting ready to head down. We took our traditional group photo on the point. These were the last pictures that I would take this day.
While we were enjoying the views and having lunch, Gina and Vanessa had arrived at the bottom of the cables. We didn’t know Gina and Vanessa, but by the end of the day, our lives would become intimately intertwined. They had just completed the 8 mile hike up from Yosemite Valley in about 5½ hours with their friends Peter and Trisha, and were now getting ready for the final assault up the cables. Trisha had decided to wait at the bottom, while Gina was debating whether or not she could make it. In Vanessa’s words:
“We had set our turnaround time for 3:30pm. I was not wearing a watch so I don’t know for sure what time we arrived at the base of the cables. I can guesstimate that it was around 3:00… Peter started up the cables alone. Gina and I were to follow approximately 5-10 minutes later. I can remember seeing him on the cables about one third of the way up while we were still sitting below preparing to climb.
“Things to note about Gina are these: She had spoken of feeling fatigued and reaching her physical limit. She had been eating and feeling full but still low on energy. She possibly had not been staying properly hydrated as she mentioned on more than one occasion that she had not needed to use the bathroom for quite a while…. She said she felt mentally capable, but not so sure about being physically prepared.… I know Gina is very in tune with her body, so I let her make the decision to climb. I did not pressure her one way or the other. Looking back, I wish I “had really evaluated with her the prospect of climbing. We gathered a few essentials and made our way to the base of the cables.
“I felt tired during the upper switchback portion of the trail, but upon reaching the base of the cables I took a rest and was ready to make a speedy ascent, snap some photos, and get back down quickly. We started the cables together. At the bottom there was a pile of gloves, mostly leather work gloves or the equivalent. [Author’s note: Gina had fingerless bike gloves, and Vanessa had poly-spandex gloves, both sets non-waterproof] I made note of them, but then continued up the cables with my poly-spandex gloves. It later proved to be a mistake for each of us not to take a pair from the pile. From the top of the mini pre-dome, or quarter dome as I have heard it called, I thought the cables looked so steep due to a foreshortening effect. However, upon encountering them I was surprised to realize that they were indeed quite steep. I had the thought ‘I am surprised these are here and anyone is allowed to use them.’
“The rock was dry. The view was grand. The clouds were high with little patches of fog drifting down in the valleys off to the sides of Half Dome. It was brisk, but not too cold. However, the cable was cold to the touch. I began ascending with my light gloves but quickly realized that they did not grip the cable very well, so I continued the rest of the way bare handed. The cable was cold, but not too cold to inhibit use of bare hands. Moving quickly up the steep grade helped to keep my body temperature up. I moved quickly and easily up the cables with the occasional traffic stop. A couple of times I had to move a rung or two ahead of Gina in order to keep traffic flowing. I was maybe four rungs ahead when I heard her call up to me that she was going to go back. I looked at her and I called down 'OKAY.' Immediately a few of those descending called out to her 'No! ... You can do it! ... It’s not that bad! ... It’s worth it!' This cheerleading seemed to boost Gina’s confidence. She continued to climb the cables. I tried to wait for her to catch up a few rungs, but more or less I continued to the top. I turned back around at the half way point to take a few pictures of Gina on the cables. A few moments later we encountered Peter on his descent. We were all smiles and hellos. He also snapped a photo of Gina, we then continued on our separate ways, he to the base, Gina and I to the summit.” --Vanessa
We started down at 3:15 PM, and that's when the trouble really started. There was some guy paralyzed with fear on the cables, holding up everyone trying to descend. (During this time, two women passed us on their way up, Gina and Vanessa, but I didn’t even notice them. It would be later that they would play their part in a once-in-a-lifetime experience for all of us.) Then it started to rain, and the granite was getting slippery and very dangerous. My entire group was below me, except for my daughter, Julie. She was having difficulty on the slippery rock and was having trouble descending. I had already slipped twice on the rocks myself, both times ending upside down, holding on to the cable with my hands. After that, I got the hang of keeping my body more perpendicular to the rock to keep from slipping, and that worked much better. This technique required a good grip on the cables with strong upper body and arms. I stayed with Julie while the others continued to descend. I let her come down one section at a time, making sure that I was below her in case she slipped. Eventually, she got the hang of it and continued down.
It was during this time that Gina and Vanessa completed their ascent and started their way back down not far above:
“Along the way up, a few people said to us “it’s much easier going down.” Well, that is only true when the rock is dry. Still, this seemed encouraging to Gina, and I was glad to hear it as well, mostly for her sake as I have had more experience on rock to begin with. Gina made it to the top not too far behind me. In the time we were climbing the cables, the fog had reached up to peak level completely hiding the view from the top. There were a couple of guys hanging out at the top, and off to the left, down from the main peak, there were at least five other people in the fog, walking around on the granite. I took a few photos, a couple of which would have depicted an amazing view if not for the fog. I snapped a couple photos of Gina and I together, and she took one of me at the supposed view point. In the meantime it had begun to precipitate a very light snow. I knew getting down soon needed to be our top priority so we headed back to the cables, not anticipating how slippery the rock was to become in such a short amount of time.
“We arrived at the cables and I put my gloves on. There were still a few people coming up the cables at this point. I happened to glance down and notice a pair of leather work gloves lying on the rock just above the cable anchors. I looked at them for a moment trying to decide whether or not they belonged to anybody. Seeing as how most everyone was either already descending, off on the peak, or coming up the cables, I deducted that they were probably abandoned… I first grabbed one glove thinking that maybe I should leave one behind, but then I turned back to them and decided there was no reason not to take both. I was not sure I would even use them. I just knew my gloves provided no traction on the cable. I thought I would only use the work gloves if my hands got too cold holding the cable. However, even as I was having these thoughts about the gloves, I found myself putting them on immediately and grabbing the cable. This would prove to be the smartest move I could have made aside from bringing my own pair to begin with. I would soon realize they were invaluable to the process of descending cold, wet cables. And even later, after fully descending, I would begin to realize that those gloves made it possible for me to get down, and may very well have saved my life. If not for those gloves, my hands would have suffered the same exposure to the elements as Gina’s had. My hands would have gotten ice cold and would have no longer been able to grip the cable….In those gloves, my hands remained warm, dry, and fully functional. Gina was not so lucky.
“The descent begins with a moderate grade, but it does not take long to round the top and find yourself staring down the steepest section of the cables. Shortly after rounding the top Gina began to act apprehensive about her footing. She was not sure how to best step downward. We stalled for a few minutes trying to negotiate the increasingly wet rock. I paused to let a few people pass, who kindly gave a few tips for foot placement. It was helpful because I was having a hard time explaining this method to Gina. The method I used, and was trying to impart upon Gina was this: face the rock, place your whole foot on the granite with your step perpendicular to the rock, stick your butt out, and tightly grip the cable in front of you... a sort of rappel position. I wanted her to realize that the best traction, especially on wet rock was going to come from having your feet pushing into the rock from a perpendicular angle. We were able to use this method for a time. However, as the rock became saturated, and the cable became ice cold due to its conductivity, Gina’s hands became colder and colder until they were nearly as cold as the cable itself. She was also slipping on the wet rock more and more, partially due to the consistently wet conditions (rain, freezing at times into wet snow like drips), and in part due to the fact that it is nearly impossible to maintain the rappel position if you don’t have full use of your hands. The rappel position we were using absolutely required hand/forearm strength, both of which were dwindling for Gina.” --Vanessa
There was another young woman, who was also in trouble. I later learned that her name was Phoebe. She had been coming down next to Julie, and she was both slipping on the rock and having difficulty holding on to the cable. While she was next to Julie, I stayed below both of them, making sure that they did not slip past me. After Julie gained enough confidence to go down on her own, I focused all of my attention on Phoebe. She was visibly frightened and shaken, so I offered to assist her. Phoebe could not keep her grip on the cables, and her feet kept sliding on the granite. Her husband, Bill, had already descended well below her, so she accepted my offer. I had to ease her down, one step at a time, letting her use my boot for support to keep her from slipping. I would move my boot about 12 inches at a time, and then she would move her foot down to my boot. We continued in that manner most of the way down. About 50 feet from the bottom, Bill came back up and helped me with Phoebe.
During this time, Vanessa had been struggling to assist Gina, but things were getting out of control:
“The more time we took getting down, the more dangerous the situation became….At that point my main objective was to keep her calm….I kept telling her she was doing great, that she was going to be okay, that she was going to get down. She began to lose color in her face, especially in her mouth. While she spoke, she could barely move her mouth. She was aware of this, which seemed to scare her. She kept telling me “I can’t move my mouth.” I responded with “You are just a little cold and you are letting yourself panic, so just stay calm, you are doing fine.” She started calling out for Peter to help us. She kept yelling “Peter I need you!” I called out to Peter once or twice, but I just knew that I had to remain calm and keep her calm. I redirected my focus to Gina. I could hear Peter calling back up to us to keep moving, and that he couldn’t come up and that we had to come down. I felt at a loss. I so desperately wanted someone to come up and help me, help me get her down. What I realize now is that I needed someone to say “stay put.” I also needed to rely on my own judgment and act on my idea of anchoring her somewhere... though at the time, I did not know where. My focus had become so narrowed with the call for us to come down, that I could only think of getting her down; I stopped searching for other options. That is where I feel disappointment in myself. On the one hand I am proud of myself for staying calm and focused, but on the other hand I wish I would have been able to realize that we could have stayed put.
“At the time, I knew we were the last people coming down the cables. At one point Peter called to us that he and Trisha were leaving because they were cold. This made my stomach drop. I feared we were going to be alone on the cables with no one to help us should we need it. What I realized now is that no one would have left us to hang there on the rock. But not having fully realized this, and knowing it was extremely dangerous for anyone to attempt climbing back up the cables in these conditions, I did the best I could do. Alone.” --Vanessa
I finally reached the bottom at 4:00 PM. I said goodbye to Phoebe and her husband Bill, and I went looking for the rest of the group. It had taken me an extra 10 or 15 minutes to help Phoebe down, so everyone in my group was waiting for me. It was getting late and we had a long hike down to the valley. I just wanted to get started, so we could reach the bottom before dark and get to Curry Village in time for our reward, pizza! I didn’t even turn around to check if anyone still on the cables was having trouble, oblivious to the disaster that was unfolding behind me. High on the rock above me, Vanessa and Gina were in trouble. Their friend Peter had gone back up to help them, but couldn’t make it all the way to where they were. He urged them to continue their descent.
“I knew she was most stable on the slats of wood between each set of poles. My goal was to guide her and spot her as she stepped down the granite. She was having such trouble holding on to the cable that she would start down, her feet would slip out from under her, her hands would barely maintain grip on the cable, and her feet would land hard on either the wooden slat, or against my feet. Her body would come crashing into mine. I was able to brace myself against the right hand pole, holding onto both cables, positioning my body as a net. This was not my ideal, nor my planned way, for getting her down. It just happened that way. This should have been our stopping point, a place to stay put and wait for help. This was not to be. We were at the crux, the steepest section of rock. It was so slick. The cables were stingingly cold to the touch. Twice I had to remove my gloves, shoving them in the waistband of my pants as not to drop them. Some sections of the cables were exposed enough and steep enough that I could not risk the gloves slipping, or my hands sliding inside the men’s size gloves. I knew my bare hands would provide me the best grip, but only so long as they did not get too cold. I would lower myself to the next wooden slat and immediately put the gloves back on, my palms stinging from the cold of the cable. I would then get myself into position: spread my feet apart so one rested at each pole, anchor my feet on top of the wood, outsides of my feet pressed firmly against the poles. Next, center the small of my back on the right hand pole. And last, wrap each hand tightly around each cable. Then I would brace myself as I coached Gina down to me, hoping I could once again get her to the next rung.
“...we arrived at a familiar spot where one of the poles was missing its cap that was supposed to keep the cable secure. This meant that the cable could rest in its usual position, in the 'U' shaped fixture on the top end of the pole, but it also meant that with any type of tension or slack, the cable would come out of its proper placement and create an excess amount of slack. This caused the immediate and extreme deterioration of Gina’s balance. At this point she appeared to be clinging to the cable more with her wrists and arms than her hands. Every weight shift on the cable from below caused her to be thrown off balance. This meant she was lurching forward and bending backward... I tried to hold the cable in the U shaped slot, but this was useless. I told her to hold on while I let the cable go slack. This way she would know what to expect, that the cable would stay slack. This was one of the times she slid.
“...I can remember her praying for God to get her down. She just wanted to be down. That’s all I wanted, too. There is something eerie and conclusive about hearing someone pray aloud, out of sheer fear for one’s life. A prayer of this nature reeks of desperation, a last and nearly lost hope. I felt doom in every cell in my body. Mortality forced into tangibility.…
“I want to state here that one of the most intense feelings I had was that of being utterly alone and abandoned, left to get Gina down on my own. Left to comfort her and keep her calm, and at the same time keep myself safe… Gina was trying so hard to be brave, to focus, to do what I asked her to do, to trust me. I could see this in her face and hear it in her voice.” --Vanessa
Some of my group had been stopped by a woman, Trisha, who was very frightened for her husband and two female friends. Her husband, Peter, had gone back up the cables to persuade their two women friends, Gina and Vanessa, to come down. One of them, Gina, was pleading for help, because she couldn't hold on and kept slipping on the rock. At 4:09 PM, I caught up with my group and met Trisha. Trisha pleaded with me to go back up and help. She said that Peter wasn’t able to get back up to them, and that no one was going up to help them. I really didn’t want to go back up, because I didn’t want to hold up my kids and extended family from getting back to the valley. We were not well prepared for going down the mountain in the dark, and it was already after 4PM. Trisha was persistent. Having just seen these perilous conditions and how dangerous they were for Phoebe and others, I knew that the situation was serious and life threatening. I knew that people had died in falls from these cables, and three people had died in the just the last 3 years. (Another would die the following week, under the same circumstances.) I couldn’t say no, even though it was late and cold, and with my family needing to get back. They would just have to wait. I made the decision to go back up for Gina and Vanessa. At 4:12PM, I started back to the base of the cables to find another set of gloves. (Note: times are based on data from my GPS, so they are very accurate). Above me:
“At some point Gina was able to regain some composure. Color was coming back into her face and she told me she could move her mouth again. We created a system where I would chant to her: 'PUSH YOUR FEET INTO THE ROCK! BUTT OUT! HOLD THE CABLE! BABY STEPS! KEEP YOUR FEET UNDER YOU PERPENDICULAR TO THE ROCK! PUSH HARD WITH YOUR FEET! USE YOUR LEGS! PUSH HARD! BABY STEPS!' Over and over again I would chant these words to her. She would repeat them with me. I was totally focused on her. I was trying to be calm and strong, but at one point I had to tell her she needed to stop sliding, that she needed to try with all her might not to slide. I knew she was not intending to slide, but this situation was dire. So we continued, me chanting, her slipping with each slide, me bracing for impact knowing this could not go on much longer. We had been taking it one rung at a time, and it seemed if we could keep that up we would eventually make it down. Another factor was going to come into play that I had not anticipated.” --Vanessa
I found a set of reasonably dry gloves in the pile of discarded gloves at the base of the cables, and at 4:15PM, I started back up. In 3 minutes, I was about 120 ft up the cables when I yelled to Peter and asked where the two women were. He was about 40 feet above me. He indicated that they were up the cables another 100 feet above him, almost out of sight, and just at the steepest part of the descent. My heart sank seeing how far up they were, knowing how dangerous it was for them, and how difficult it was going to be for me to get them down safely with no equipment. I really didn’t want to go all the way back up there, but I knew if someone didn’t help them, there could be serious consequences. There were at least a dozen people between me and the girls, all coming down, except Peter. Peter, having left his jacket with Trisha, was getting cold, and he didn’t have enough confidence to get them down without great risk to all of them. So, he was just waiting midway up the cables. That meant I had no choice. I had to go up for them, because there was no one else available. For the first time that day, I felt real fear. I didn’t know if the fear was for me, for them, or from a premonition of the pending disaster.
“It is hard for me to recall exactly, things were happening so quickly and I was more concerned with keeping Gina on the cable than I was with noting our exact location… I remember looking down the cables during a brief clearing in the fog and telling Gina we were half way, or almost half way. I did not know this for sure, or even fully believe it. I hoped it was true, but moreover I hoped it would encourage her. Then I saw something that made my heart skip; one of the poles had somehow been pulled free from the rock on the left side (climber’s left). It hung down against the pole below it. I looked for the wooden slat and saw that it was hanging vertically down from the pole on the right side. This was not good. It didn’t occur to me to think that the cables route itself would start to fall apart. This was a shock. I heard Gina ask me something to the effect of “what’s that?!” I calmly told her that one of the poles was missing and that it was okay because we had been descending solely on the right hand side up to this point. My worry was not having the extra pole to brace myself against should she slip into me again, which I believed for certain she would.
“Things were bad and getting worse. This was probably the steepest section of the descent and she was telling me she couldn’t feel her hands. We were stopped at the same rung at this point. She had terror in her face. “I can’t feel my hands!” Over and over she told me this. I told her to take off her gloves, but she couldn’t because her fingers would not move. So I took her hand and I put it on the back of my neck. This was a trick I used when doing snow sports to warm my hands quickly. While I had her right hand on the back of my neck I reached over and massaged her left forearm to get the blood circulating. Then I massaged her right forearm. It was too dangerous to have her try to put her left hand on my neck because that would require her to face downhill. I massaged both her arms one last time then put my hands back on the cable.
“I could not support her slipping into me with only one pole to brace against. I had to descend to the next pole down. Once secured at that pole I started chanting to her again 'PUSH YOUR FEET INTO THE ROCK! BUTT OUT! BABY STEPS!'... etc. I remember her getting one foot onto the pole with the dangling wooden slat. At first she had her foot on the wood and I told her to get her foot onto the pole because the wood was liable to shift under her weight.
“This is where time stopped.
“I don’t remember her making it past that pole... The next thing I remember is that she slipped again. I saw her arms peel off the right cable and I have a fuzzy memory of her peeling off the cable again. This leads me to believe that this is where she fell because in order to peel off the second cable there would have had to be sufficient slack in the cable in order for her to reach it from a sitting position. Thus she must have fallen where the left pole was missing. Where the cable was slack… What will stay with me forever is seeing her slip, trying to self arrest on the cable, peel off and slide outward. She was screaming.
“I screamed 'GINAAA!!!' and then 'CATCH HER!!' all in vain, knowing no one could possibly catch her at that velocity. She was sliding on her back on a smooth granite slab for a distance, incredibly fast, before I saw her hit a lip, or a ledge that caused her to bounce and roll onto her side, perpendicular to the fall line, with her head pointed towards the cables. This is when I turned away, crouched down with my face in my chest and my arms extended to the cables and screamed out a long, screeching 'NOOOO!!' I turned away after she bounced and rolled because I knew she was falling to her death. She was sliding further away from the cables, gaining momentum, and eventually heading for the granite pour off that leads to the cliff at the saddle.” --Vanessa
Just as I was starting to continue my ascent, at 4:19PM, the unimaginable happened: I heard a scream, Gina’s scream, and as I looked up, saw her sliding down, out of control, just to the east of the cables. There were other screams from the people on the cables. It was like seeing a horrible accident where someone was in the process of being killed right in front of your face. I felt shock, panic and thought “What do I do?” all within a single heartbeat. I immediately ducked under the left cable to get to the outside of the cables, to see if I could stop her. Once under the cable, I looked up again to see her flying down the hillside, going way too fast and too far out from the cables for me to reach her. I thought for sure she was going to continue past me and over the side of the dome to her death, hundreds of feet below, like three others had done since 2006.
Suddenly, she collided with a small 12 inch up-shoot ledge, at a speed in excess of 30 MPH, and something almost physically impossible happened. Miraculously, she came to a stop, just 15 feet above where I was standing. It was a miracle that she did not hit the ledge and roll right over it. It was a miracle that she even hit the ledge, because an instant before, she had been airborne, and the ledge was only 6 to 12 inches high. It was a miracle that her trajectory kept her so close to the cables, because with the slant of the granite, you would have expected her to slide out well beyond the small shelf, which was only about 20 ft long. Instead, she hit the highest part of this little ledge and came to rest face down.
The impact was so great, that I didn’t think she could have survived. How could she? At 30 MPH, that is like falling off the top of a 3 story building on to solid granite, and she may have been going faster than that. She had a vertical elevation drop of close to 100 feet, and in a frictionless fall, that would have accelerated her to over 50 MPH. Did she slide long enough before starting to tumble and fly threw through the air, that it would have reduced her speed to something that she could survive? I feared not. I was on top of her in seconds to check her status, dreading the worst, not knowing what I would see.
She was lying along the ledge with her head towards me and about 8 feet from the cables, with her feet pointing away. As far as I could see, she was completely still and unconscious. As I knelt down to her, I could see blood on her face and mouth, and there was blood running down the crevice of the little ledge from beneath her body. Seeing the blood, I feared that the impact to her head had cracked open her skull on the side facing away from me. As I knelt down for a closer look, I could see that she was still breathing. Her knee, which had actually been a key in stopping her, was wedged into the crevice of the ledge and up against her chest. I was worried that this would impair her breathing, so the first thing I did was to climb over her and pull her knee down to straighten her leg. To get back to her head, I walked along the ledge to avoid putting pressure on her. She was still breathing, but I could not see where the blood was coming from, other than from her mouth. The sounds that she was making were similar to those that a friend of mine had made after having a serious brain injury accident, so I didn't want to move her. I assumed that she had a serious head injury and probably several broken bones, but for now, she was alive.
Once Gina fell, my attention was glued to her, and I took little notice of anything else, including Vanessa, who was still up when up the cables:
“All of the sudden, I didn’t hear her screaming anymore, before or after I turned away I don’t remember, but mere seconds after that I heard Peter’s voice shriek out 'DON’T MOVE!!' I immediately realized that meant that she had not gone all the way down, that she was not going to fall a thousand or more of feet off the saddle. I shot up and called out a forceful yell of 'GINA! DON’T MOVE!!' I paused for only a second then I began to descend. As I slowly and calmly continued down I heard people calling out for 911 calls. Luckily there were numerous people with phones who were able to make emergency calls.” --Vanessa
At that point, people on the cables were asking what they could do, and I said we needed to keep her warm. Peter had descended down and proceeded to ask me questions and instruct me on what to do. He was a Physical Therapist, so he had some medical knowledge. I checked her airway and breathing, but could not get to her pulse without moving her more than I wanted. The air temperature was probably in the low 40’s or colder, with rain and snowflakes coming down. She was lying on the cold granite, with a small amount of water flowing under her in the device of the little ledge. Peter handed me several coats and ponchos, and a sweatshirt to put under her head, but there was no way that I could insulate her from the cold granite. As I lifted her head to place it on the sweatshirt, I could feel no injuries on the other side. There was hope. Then I called 911. I don't know if anyone else had already called, but they acted like this was the first time they heard of the accident. My message, "Critical injury, need emergency evacuation!" I gave them our location and some information on her condition. Then my phone went dead.
“An Asian man, only a few rungs down, looked at me and said he would stay there so as to spot me on my way down. I accepted his offer and descended to him. He would descend a rung, and then I would descend to him. We did this until I reached the ledge where Gina fell. Then I told him to go on without me.
“By the time I had made it to the ledge, a man named Rick was sitting on the ledge with Gina, keeping her covered and reporting her vitals down to a woman at the bottom (Erin). Her voice was very serious, but very calm. I felt so relieved that there were people down there trying to help Gina. I also remember hearing Peter’s voice relaying information. At some point when the fog cleared, or when I got below the fog I could see Peter on the cables below. He looked at me, and with daggers in his eyes he sternly and desperately said ‘VANESSA, YOU BE CAREFUL.’
“I continued to stay in that spot, looking at Gina and feeling completely helpless to do anything for her. I let Rick know that she was thirty-five and that was about all I said. At one point I asked him if he wanted me to come onto the ledge. He said sure. I hesitated. I looked at the ledge and the distance it was to the cables. It was maybe three feet. So close, but so far. The rock was still dangerously slick. I was not sure I could make it onto the ledge without slipping. I didn’t want to become a second victim by trying to get onto the ledge. There was nothing I could do for Gina on the ledge except be there in case she became conscious. I stayed long enough to pass up a rain jacket to put over her, and then I decided I needed to get down. I felt immense guilt about this. There I was, Gina’s friend, unable to help her, leaving Rick with the burden of monitoring her and keeping her safe. I felt like I was failing her.” --Vanessa
100 ft below, Kiley, my niece's husband, was on the phone, talking to emergency personnel, yelling up to me for information and instructions. Kiley had some training in emergency response and is an ex-EMT, so he was coordinating the activities below. We had two RN’s in our group, my daughter Erin, and Scott’s girlfriend, Anna. They also helped with a lot of questions about Gina’s condition and gave instructions on what to look for and what to do. All I could see was that her breathing looked normal, about 20 breaths per minute, her color was good, and her head was in a good position. Kiley said that help was on the way, and would be there in about an hour. This was a relief, because I didn’t know how I could keep Gina warm and alive for very long. Now the wait.
“I still was eleven or twelve rungs above the base. My hands were still warm, but my arms were becoming fatigued. I am all too familiar with the way my forearms feel right before my hands let go during a climb. It is when my fingers let go without me telling them to. My arms were not in this state, but I know the beginning sensation of muscle fatigue. I kept telling myself there was no rush, Gina was safe for the time being, and I needed to keep myself safe. The rock was so slick, but my grip was good and my method was solid. I basically did a fairly smooth and quick rappel-style descent, facing uphill I slid one foot then one hand, then the other hand, then the other foot. Over and over I did this, pausing only a few times to assess my footing options. I edged my toes into cracks where I could. I recall stepping on the mid-mountain eyelet anchors and realizing that they were very slick. I had to be very careful when stepping on them. I paused to shake out my arms and hands every couple of rungs in order to keep my arm muscles and hands loose. As slippery and risky as this was, I remember feeling completely calm and grounded. Descending was well within my ability. I moved with relative ease down the rock. I slipped one or two times, thankfully minor slips, and made it safely to the bottom with a wave of relief coursing through my veins.” --Vanessa
Before starting up the cables, I had left my day-pack with my rain gear behind, since I was not planning on being on the cables for very long. I thought I would be up and down in 20 or 30 minutes, and I thought the day-pack would be a hindrance. I had on my rain jacket, which seemed to have lost all of its water repellent properties. I had on my hiking boots, which seemed to soak up the water like a sponge. I had on my Levis, which quickly became drenched. My hat, which fell off my head when I ducked under the cable, was lying on the granite 20 ft below me. So, I was very cold. I yelled down that I needed something to keep me dry. Kiley came up with a poncho, my rain pants, and my ski cap, and then stayed with me for the duration. I said that he could go down and take the rest of the group back down to the valley, but he said that he was not going to leave me, and that the rest of the group wasn’t going to leave either. It felt good to have that support, but it worried me that they were exposed to the cold weather and had an 8 mile walk to get back to the valley. As the group leader, I felt responsible for getting them back to camp and felt guilty that they had to wait for me. For the next 2 hours, they huddled in a tight group below, covering themselves with ponchos and rain-gear, in an attempt to stay warm and dry, while Kiley huddled next to me under his poncho. None of us were prepared to spend a cold wet night up there, so this was not an option. But, help was on the way....More waiting.
At approximately 6PM, the Park Ranger came up from Little Yosemite Valley, about 4 miles away, and said that Search and Rescue (SAR) were on their way from the Yosemite Valley floor, 8 miles away, and would maybe arrive in another 1½ to 2 hours. At that point, it was agreed that my kids and extended family, everyone except for me and Kiley, would go down and wait at the Ranger Station in Little Yosemite Valley. They had been refusing to leave as long as I was still up there, but once the ranger showed up and we had official confirmation that help was on the way, we were able to convince them to head down to the half way point and sit around a warm fire. I didn’t know it at the time, but Vanessa had also been waiting with them, not wanting to leave Gina. By the time they left, it was around 6:45PM, about 2½ hours after the fall.
All during this time, I had been monitoring Gina, checking her breathing, praying that she would live, and frightened to death that she would stop breathing. The bleeding had stopped, which I later found had been only coming from her mouth. She would occasionally arouse from unconsciousness, and then fall back unconscious. At one point, she came to, threw off her coverings and tried to get up, with no awareness of where she was or how rolling over the little ledge would end her life. I talked to her. I told her she was badly hurt and that help was on the way. I told her we needed to keep her warm. She sank back into unconsciousness. I kept telling her to keep breathing. I placed my hand on her shoulder so that she could feel human touch and know that she was not alone. And I prayed.
The ranger who had arrived earlier was advised by his superiors not to go up the cables because he was not properly equipped. He said his job was to monitor the situation and communicate with the emergency personnel. He said that Kiley and I could come down and that we had no obligation to stay up there with her. I told him that I would not, could not, leave her up there by herself. The rescue crew was still more than an hour away and she could roll off the ledge or get cold and die of hypothermia. How could she be left alone? Kiley said that he would not leave me up there alone with her, so Kiley and I stayed, and waited.
We were told that the SAR team had to come up from the valley on foot because the conditions were impossible to fly in a helicopter. The visibility was almost zero, and these peaks are hazardous, even in good conditions. I was worried that Gina, Kiley and I would have a hard time waiting in the cold for the SAR team coming from the valley on foot. By this time, I was shaking so much from the cold that it was difficult to control my hands. I tried to keep my hands warm under my poncho, but continued to reach over to touch Gina and check her breathing and her color. Kiley was cold too, but seemed to be in a little better condition, not being as wet as I was. However, my main concern was for Gina. I could see that she was breathing, and there was occasional movement in her legs, but I couldn’t tell if she was keeping warm. She wasn’t shivering, and I could feel her warmth under the coverings, but she was lying still and wet on the cold granite. I couldn’t determine if she was going into hypothermia. I thought about sharing body heat, but it would have been difficult to lie next to her without moving her or putting pressure on her. There wasn’t enough room on that little ledge. I was so afraid that she was going to stop breathing, and I didn’t know how I could revive her in these conditions. I didn’t know what to do, feeling so helpless with this precious life lying crumpled next to me on the cold granite as the rain continued to fall. Fighting back the tears, all I could do was pray, “Please God, let her be OK.” With an aching heart, “Please my Lord, let her live.” Another hour or more to go, and we waited in the cloudy drizzle for help from below. When would they get here, and would it be in time?
Then, another miracle: In the distance, we heard the sound of a helicopter. Out of the clouds it came, searching for a place to set down on the sub-dome across from the cables. After several attempts, it touched down long enough to let two Search and Rescue crew off. It was incredible what they did, one of the most amazing things I had ever seen. My relief was beyond measure. Within a couple of minutes, they were up and assessing Gina’s condition. It was immediately obvious that the rangers were experienced professionals who knew exactly what to do. They observed, probed, brought her out of unconsciousness, got her to respond by having her move her legs, having her squeeze his hand with hers, telling her to stay with him. He gave me the privilege of helping, letting me hold her head while the two of them turned her. I placed the neck and back support under her as they lifted, holding her head again as they secured her. Then I placed the rescue basket under her as they again lifted her.
While the Rangers had gone back to the cables for the basket, and before putting her in it, I took Gina’s hand in mine. She in response, squeezed mine, and pulled it to her. It was in that moment that I believed she was going to be OK and that my prayers had been answered.
By this time, the visibility was so bad, the chopper couldn't land. They made two attempts to pick her up, but both times had to fly off to wait for a break in the clouds. I thought that Gina was now in good hands, and I needed to get going. It was about 7:30 PM, getting dark and colder, and it was 4 miles to the Ranger Station, where the rest of my group/family was waiting. Kiley and I headed down. A little after 8PM and just before dark, 4 hours after the fall, the chopper made its final attempt for the evening. This time, there was enough of a break in the clouds that they were able to successfully pick Gina up off the ledge, right where we had put her in the basket. This meant that the ground team would not have to carry her down the bumpy 8 mile trail by foot, which would have risked further injury in her unknown condition. Along the way down, Kiley and I saw several members of the SAR team that had been coming by ground from the valley to rescue Gina. After hearing that she had been picked up by the chopper, they had turned around and were starting back down.
We reached the Ranger Station, and waited for all of the SAR team to return. Then everyone headed back to the valley. On the way down, I spent most of the time talking with Vanessa, Gina’s friend, who had been with Gina when she fell. Vanessa told me the story about how Gina fell, but it would be days before I would get the complete story from Vanessa’s written account that described the emotional trauma that took place before and after the fall. Vanessa said that Gina had been frightened and desperate, not being able to control her descent. Gina’s hands were cold, weak and numb, and she constantly lost her footing on the slippery granite. Vanessa would position herself below Gina, and 3 times, Gina slid out of control into Vanessa, where she was waiting at the next set of poles. On the 4th slip, Gina went to the side and under the cable, past Vanessa, and down the side of the mountain. There was nothing Vanessa could do. Vanessa had been risking her own life standing below Gina, because Gina could have taken them both out.
Vanessa was able to get down the cables without a problem, and stayed with my family at the base of the cables, not wanting to leave Gina. On the way down the cables after Gina fell, she had stopped briefly where Gina was lying, but she thought that Peter and I had things under control and that there was nothing that she could do. I first talked to her at the Ranger station, and she told me a little about what had happened. She seemed quiet, not showing much emotion, but I imagine that she was feeling horrible inside, having been with Gina when she fell, but unable to do anything. I stayed with her most of the way down to the SAR station in the valley, and we did a lot of talking about the accident and other things, making the nighttime hike go by quickly.
We arrived at the SAR Station around midnight, and we were informed that Gina was in intensive care at Doctor’s Medical Center in Modesto, seriously injured, but doing OK. Finally, we could breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that this incredible effort by everyone involved had been a success. The SAR team was nice enough to then feed us and drive us to our camp. We got to bed around 1:30AM.
The next day, after a well deserved late sleep-in, we packed up camp, went for a raft ride down the Merced River, and then headed for home. On the way, Julie, my daughter, got a call from Gina's friends, Peter and Trisha. Gina's status: Shattered jaw; broken back, but no spinal nerve damage; cracked skull with bleeding on the brain, but no serious brain damage. It was at this moment that I knew for sure that this was truly a miracle, not in human hands. It is rare in life that we have the opportunity to do something that significantly impacts someone else’s life, and for some reason, I was given the gift of being in the right place at the right time, to play a small part in saving Gina’s life. For me, and I hope for others, this is a reminder to always take the time to help someone in need. Of course, most of the credit goes to the SAR team: the Rangers who jumped out of the chopper on that rocky 8500 ft peak; the pilot, Tim Lyons, and the chopper crew, Jeff Pirog, and "Boots" Davenport, who so skillfully maneuvered the chopper in almost zero visibility to drop off the Rangers and later returned to pick up Gina. They all risked their lives to save Gina’s.
Update on Gina's current status, as of 7/07/09: “Her injuries were: A broken clavicle, a compression fracture in the spine in the thoracic region (no nerve damage), a couple of broken ribs, a shattered jaw, and a fractured cranial bone with a small amount of bleeding under her skull (subdural hematoma). She had surgery to repair her jaw with a titanium plate inserted, but they did not wire her jaw shut. She took her first steps about 12 days after the fall and is now walking without assistance. Her balance and short term memory are not completely back to normal, but improving quickly. On 7/8, she will be leaving the hospital and moving to Camarillo for 3 to 6 months of physical therapy. The good news is that with time to heal, it looks like Gina will have a full recovery.”
There were many contributors who made this outcome a positive one. It was Trisha who took the initiative to get help, and convinced me to go back up the cables to help Gina and Vanessa. Peter had already gone back up to do what he could, leaving his jacket for Trisha to keep her warm. After Gina’s fall, it was Peter who first helped me assess Gina’s condition and get her covered with warm and dry coverings. Kiley on the ground below us, communicated with the emergency personnel, and made sure that help was on the way. He also demonstrated that he was the kind of person that I want for a lifelong friend, refusing to leave me alone up there with Gina. The Park Ranger made it up the 3½ to 4 mile trail and 2500 ft climb in just over an hour, with his radio for direct contact with the SAR Team. That gave us confirmation that the SAR team was on the way, and allowed us to send the rest of the group to the Ranger Station to get warm around the fire. That was a big relief. There were also the Brazilian rock climbers, who helped several stranded people down the cables after Gina’s fall, and thus prevented any other injuries.
Then there was the SAR team that was coming from Yosemite Valley, 8 miles away, more than 4000 feet below us. Actually there were 2 teams, a quick response medical team coming up the slabs from Mirror Lake, and a support team coming up the main John Muir Trail. Even though they never reached Gina, they played a significant role in her rescue. Since we assumed that a helicopter rescue was out of the question, if there had been no ground rescue team on the way, then we would have been forced to get Gina down ourselves. The Brazilian rock climbers could have helped us to lower Gina with their equipment, but the risk to her might have been high, not knowing her condition. She could not have been left up there for long, so we would have had to get her to shelter and warmth. Knowing that the SAR team was on the way prevented us from having to take that drastic action, and this may have prevented further injury to Gina. So, it was important that we knew they were coming.
The SAR team's courage and experience in these life threatening situations saved Gina. Even with the ground SAR teams in route, these guys made the decision to take a great risk to rescue her that evening with the chopper. They had every justification not to go, with the poor visibility, treacherous terrain and the approaching darkness. Instead, they made the decision to rescue Gina under very hazardous conditions. When they picked up Gina in the basket, one of the Rangers flew with her, both of them suspended 100 feet below the chopper on a short haul cable, from an elevation of 8600 feet down to the valley floor at 4100 feet. There, an air ambulance was waiting to fly her to Modesto for emergency medical treatment. Their action freed the ground team from having to get Gina down from that precarious location. It would have been a long and bumpy ordeal carrying Gina down, particularly down the steep hill of the sub-dome, which is just narrow, rocky steps. This could have greatly aggravated Gina’s head and back injury. Once down the sub-dome, they would have assessed of her condition to decide whether they would have had to take her down the long trail that night, or spend the night up there and wait to have her air-lifted the following day. Neither of these options would have been good for Gina.
There were so many factors that fell into place to save Gina, starting from the little ledge that stopped her from going over the side to her death, to the amazing rescue by the SAR team. Her shattered jaw probably absorbed the impact to her head and saved her from fatal head trauma. Even the cold turned out to be a positive factor. Lying there still and cold was probably the best thing for Gina. It helped stop the bleeding, swelling and bruising to her brain until the rescue team arrived. Any variation in all the numerous factors may have changed the outcome completely. I believe someone was watching over her.
Written by Vanessa Holz and Rick Powell
Edited by Diane Powell and Nate Knight
Rick Powell can be reached at email@example.com