SAR Technician Dave Pope during a recovery operation in the Merced River. Photo by Jack Hoeflich.

Rescue Report

Analysis of Fatalities on The Nose of El Capitan

October 19 to 22, 2004
El Capitan, The Nose

SUMMARY    

Two Japanese climbers died high on The Nose of El Capitan in mid October 2004. The following is an examination of the facts we know surrounding this tragedy mixed with educated guesses of what happened and why.

Some of the information presented here we know for sure, some is probably true but could be wrong, and some is a “best guess” based on the available information. Much of the “timeline” information has been interpolated from a digital camera found with the bodies. The camera itself was damaged but the photo information, including timestamps, was intact. The rest of the information came from witness statements and the death investigation.

This is not meant to be a judgment. It is simply a fact-seeking discussion. The point of this discussion is to examine the choices and circumstances that led to tragedy so that future parties can avoid a similar fate. In the end, there are an infinite number of variations on what could have happened up there. We can never be completely sure.

What we know for sure is that Ryoichi, age 26, and Mariko, age 27, died of hypothermia in the middle of pitch 28 on The Nose sometime between 8:00 am on October 19th and 11:00 am on October 20th, 2004. They simply climbed until they got too cold to continue, then they stopped moving. Eventually their hearts stopped, too.

BACKGROUND    

The Climbers:

Ryiochi

He was lean and wiry. He was reported to be a strong boulderer and free climber. Based on their progress up The Nose this seems true. His acquaintances in Camp 4 claimed that he was not very experienced at aiding and big walls. This is probably true as well, but what he lacked in experience he apparently made up for in study; there were subtleties in his rigging that an absolute beginner would not use. For example, his anchors were neat and organized: textbook in fact. If someone did not teach him these techniques then he probably learned them from a book. There is no substitute for experience, but Ryoichi at least put his knowledge to use and he did it correctly.

Ryoichi did all of the leading and hauling. Mariko, his partner, reportedly led her first pitch ever just days before on Washington’s Column. Ryoichi climbed mostly in free climbing shoes and he freed as much of the climbing as he could. He had a standard hauling set up with a mini-traction.

He had a few unorthodox approaches however. He tied into both the lead line and the haul on the front of his harness with a standard figure eight follow through. This was not unsafe; it just seems a bit unusual. It is possible that he was using the haul line in something like a double-rope technique or for pendulums. He also did not have a normal set of ascenders. Since he did no following and wouldn’t need to ascend much, this was not unsafe either. However, most climbers with more experience would take along a normal set. Instead, Ryoichi had one handle-less ascender and one tibloc.

Ryoichi had topos and notes of the route in English and Japanese.

The Climbers:

Mariko

She was small and appeared to be a healthy, fit person. She did not seem to have been climbing very long, although she did own most of her own gear. There were pictures on the recovered camera of her leading a pitch on Washington’s Column. This was reported to be her first lead ever. She was also reported to be “basically a beginner” as far as walls are concerned. However, looking at the time line from the camera she appeared to be fast enough. She did all of the following and cleaning. She used a standard ascending setup with adjustable daisies, aiders and ascenders (possibly belonging to Ryoichi, based on the wear.) She appeared to have nothing but Velcro slipper type climbing shoes for her feet and no knee pads.

Equipment

Originally they were reported to have been unprepared for the climb. This later appeared to not necessarily be true.

They had two ropes, both 60 meters long. They used the pink one for leading and the blue one for hauling. They also had a short length of 8mm cord that they used for anchor systems and possibly for lowering out the bag. The rack consisted mostly of Ryoichi’s gear and it seemed adequate, although perhaps a bit light. They had a full sized Black Diamond haul bag and they both occasionally climbed with a small backpack, including a camelback. They had two lightweight synthetic sleeping bags, two Gore-tex type bivy sacks, and sleeping pads. They had some extra clothing, all of which was synthetic. They had a small canister stove and cook set. They appeared to still have clean water and a small amount of food when they were found. However, they did not appear to have been eating very calorie-rich foods.

Like many climbers on The Nose, they did not have a portaledge. Instead they carried a lightweight rain fly that seemed to have been taken from a small tent. They also did not have any “fully waterproof” shell gear or heavy gloves. And, as mentioned above, Mariko appeared to have nothing for her feet but climbing shoes.

Prior Climbing

The first pictures of Yosemite appear on their camera on 9/27 when they went climbing at the Manure Pile. There are shots taken on 9/28 of them bouldering in Camp 4. On 10/3 they began to gear up for the South Face of Washington’s Column.

Ryiochi and Mariko started up the Column on 10/4, fixed up to the Kor Roof and then came back down. On 10/5 they hauled bivy gear up to Dinner Ledge and continued to climb and fix above the roof, returning to Dinner Ledge that night. On 10/6 they climbed to the top (with no haul bag) and rappelled back to Dinner Ledge for another bivy. They reportedly had some kind of minor epic rappelling the route and possibly arrived at the ledge after dark. On 10/7 they rappelled with the haul bag and returned to Camp 4 where they apparently spent several days resting and planning their next climb.

THE NOSE    

Ryoichi and Mariko began to climb The Nose on October 13th, 2004. They hiked to the base of The Nose and climbed up to Sickle Ledge. They returned to the base of El Capitan that day, probably using the fixed ropes, and it appears that they bivied somewhere near the base.

According to photos on the recovered camera, at 8:30 am on 10/14 they were back on Sickle Ledge and Mariko can be seen jugging the fixed lines. They continued to climb all day and likely bivied that night on Dolt Tower.

They were up early on the 10/15 (and every day it seems) and by 11:40 am there’s a shot of Mariko belaying from on top of Texas Flake. The weather continued to be perfect with only the occasional stringy cloud visible in the photos. They continued climbing and bivied that night somewhere in the gray ledges below Camp IV, probably at the top of pitch 19. This spot was small and cramped, but it is likely that another party was already at Camp IV and/or Ryoichi and Mariko arrived at the top of the pitch right at dark.

On 10/16 at 9:30 am Mariko and Ryoichi caught up to the party in front of them at the start of pitch 22, the “Great Roof” pitch. They would continue to follow this party up the rest of the day and by 3:30 pm they were at Camp V. (This other party later continued on and made the decision to climb into the night and push for the summit. They finished as the storm was breaking and bivied the night of 10/16 on top.)

They arrived at Camp VI later that day with enough time to fix at least part (if not all) of the “changing corners” pitch. They had their last contact with the party in front of them at this point and then Ryoichi rappelled back to Camp VI, cleaning the pitch as he went.

This is where things became complicated. A large storm hit the valley around 11:30 that night, October 16. There was little indication before hand of what type of storm this would be. Having left the ground four days earlier, it is unlikely Mariko and Ryiochi expected it.

By the morning of 10/17, they were hunkered down at Camp VI. There are several photos taken early that morning where Ryoichi and Markio appear comfortable and relatively dry, even happy. They probably expected the storm to clear that day. Early that morning it did seem to be letting up but, as would happen throughout the storm, this was just a lull between fronts. They apparently just stayed hunkered down for all of 10/17 as well as 10/18.

The next and final set of pictures was taken on 10/19 at around 8:00 am from Camp VI. They were taken by Mariko of Ryoichi. He is apparently ascending the rope they fixed three days before and the blue haul line is with him as well. He appears to be wearing all of his clothing and does not look very comfortable. Water is visible running down the walls and out in space as well.

It is significant that they took these photos; people typically don’t take pictures when they’re fighting for their lives. At this point they were no doubt wet, probably hungry, and at least a little cold, but taking the time and effort to snap a few shots could indicate that they were not yet desperate.

Unfortunately, there are no photos past this point. What happened next can only be conjectured. It is reasonable to assume that Ryoichi continued to ascend the fixed rope and then started hauling the bag. Mariko would have also ascended and gotten set up for belaying Ryoichi on the next pitch. A sleeping bag and the rain fly were left out for Mariko to use while she belayed.

Leading the next pitch probably took a very, very long time given the conditions, which were probably changing around them rapidly. Camp VI is poorly situated to weather out a storm; it is possible that when they left, this pitch was fairly dry in comparison. As is often the case, however, the wind picked up later in the morning, and relatively dry areas would have turned suddenly into frigid waterfalls. Nevertheless, Ryoichi finished the pitch and fixed the pink lead line to the standard belay at the top of pitch 28. The anchor was neat and organized and did not appear to have been built in haste; he was still thinking clearly.

Movement usually creates warmth. Mariko was not moving and probably became very cold, so cold it may have been quite difficult to get moving again. There was most likely a communication breakdown between the two at this point. As the wind and weather intensified, it is unlikely that they could hear each other. Ryoichi would likely have tried to start hauling the bag when he finished the pitch. If Mariko was unable to release the bag and/or the bag got stuck, Ryoichi would not have been able to haul. Eventually he must have realized that he had to return to Mariko and help her.

He rappelled on the lead line and tried to clean the gear as he went. Some cams with Ryoichi’s markings were later found on this pitch. They were easy to remove, which could indicate that he was rushing and leaving gear to save time. He most likely rappelled into the maelstrom that Mariko had been hanging in for hours. He, too, was likely becoming very, very cold.

What follows is one possible story to explain what happened next:

Ryoichi finally returned to Mariko at the belay. They were both very cold and wet as they tried to figure out their options. They realized that they couldn’t stay where they were. A more promising option was to return to Camp VI and try to set up there again. Ryoichi realized that he would have to use the haul line to rappel back down, since the lead line was still fixed one pitch higher. He was still tied into the blue haul line and tried briefly to undo the knot, but his hands were freezing and he was losing function. Unable to untie the knot, he decided that it would be easier to cut the line right next to the knot.

Both he and Mariko had knives, but Mariko’s was longer and serrated, attached to her harness on a long cord. Ryoichi used Mariko’s knife to cut the blue rope away from his harness. (Blue rope fibers were found in Mariko’s knife during the investigation. Historically, it seems common for climbers in similar situations to start cutting ropes as the situation worsens and their hands start to freeze.)

The desperation was mounting and the conditions were extreme. Ryoichi began to re-rig the blue rope with his numbed fingers. During the confused circumstances he managed to accidentally lose the haul bag and the blue rope with it. Both the rope and the haul bag were later found exploded at the base of the route. A sleeping bag and both bivy sacks were with it.

They now had little choice. They knew it was only three more pitches to the top from their high point. They still had one rope and most of the rack; maybe they could climb out. Ryoichi attached his ascenders below Mariko’s on the fixed line and tried to help her up the rope. Mariko, nearly frozen from her stationary belay, was barely moving and they both had lost most function in their hands. After struggling about half way up the pitch they could go no further.

They realized that they had to go down. Stopped at a single bolt, they both clipped into it and stayed attached to the rope with ascenders as well. Ryoichi cut the lead line below the point they were attached in an attempt to get enough rope to rappel back to Camp VI. Barely able to move now, Ryoichi started to coil the free portion of the lead line but he never finished. Instead, they wrapped the rain fly around themselves and tried to hang on. The wind was screaming. There was nothing more for them to do but wait.

It is unlikely they survived the night. The orange rain fly was observed through binoculars around 6:00 pm on 10/19 whipping wildly in the wind. No other movement was seen.

A rescue effort that had started on the morning of 10/19 continued through the night. By 11:00 am on 10/20 a team was in position at the summit. Around the same time, during a clearing in the storm, the party on The Nose was observed with enough clarity to determine that they had not survived the night. Other parties still stranded on the wall were requesting rescues, and the effort shifted to pulling them out first.

On 10/21 the rescue team on top split into two groups. One team rescued a party on Never Never Land. The other recovered the bodies of Ryoichi and Mariko.

QUESTIONS    

Why didn’t they use the Nose rappel route to escape?

Ryoichi probably knew about the rappel route; he seemed to have done his research. Possible reasons for not going down are:

  1. They didn’t think they were in trouble at first. The photos of them on the 10/18 show them relatively comfortable. They were prepared for some bad weather, just not as much as they received. What they probably did not know is just how vicious storms can be on El Capitan and the fact that Camp VI is a really bad place to be due to runoff from the top.


  2. Their lack of experience probably contributed to their reluctance to rappel. Contemplating the hundreds of feet to the ground and all of the possible things that could go wrong can be intimidating. They reportedly had just had problems rappelling off of Washington’s Column and probably did not want to put themselves in that position again.


  3. They were much closer to the top than the bottom; they only had four pitches to go. Sometimes the fastest way down is to keep going up.

Why did they leave Camp VI and start climbing into the storm?

There are several reasons that they may have decided to continue on into the storm. Although they were not yet out of food, they were running low and the storm was going into its third day. It is also likely that Camp VI was becoming increasingly wet. They had waited for two days and finally thought that they would go for it during the next lull. Unfortunately, that break only lasted about an hour on the morning of 10/19 and then they were stuck with some tough choices.

Did they throw the haul bag off on purpose?

It is possible that they made the decision to toss the haul bag, push for the top, and worry about getting it back later. There are at least two reasons they probable were not thinking that way:

  1. The blue rope came down with the haul bag. It’s unlikely they would deliberately toss their second rope and cut their options so dramatically.


  2. The conditions were extreme and they would have know that even if they made it to the top, they would need all of their bivy gear to wait out the rest of the storm. One sleeping bag, both bivy sacks, and some food came down with the bag.

Why didn’t they yell for help?

Based on their inexperience with big wall climbing, they may have assumed that they would not be heard. This is a common misconception. Despite the apparent distance from the ground, they were actually within shouting distance of the meadows below and probably would have been heard, eventually. It is also possible they thought they could still climb out without help.

LESSONS LEARNED    

Given the right (or wrong) set of circumstances, we are all unprepared at some point. There are unpredictable variables in climbing. We try to figure out which ones can get us into trouble and prepare for them as best we can.

Although Ryoichi and Mariko were ultimately unprepared for the storm that killed them, we cannot dismiss them as inadequate. Consider that the first person YOSAR pulled off the wall during this storm was a well-known big wall veteran with multiple solo winter ascents and enough gear and supplies to stay on the wall for a month. He was only one pitch from the top, but conditions were bad enough that he realized he might not survive another night and requested a rescue. When the most experienced and prepared person on the wall needs rescue, can we ever really be prepared for a storm like that?

It is possible that Ryoichi and Mariko could have survived the storm if they had a four season expedition portaledge and fly. But honestly, how many parties haul a portaledge up The Nose? Not many. It seems t he lesson is that there is a “minimum equipment list” that all big wall climbers should take with them. The problem is that this list changes somewhat for each person and for each season.

The list can change while you’re still on the wall. The storms in the fall are fast and unpredictable. When Ryoichi and Mariko left the ground, the weather was perfect and typical of Yosemite in the fall. This seems to lull people into the idea that winter-type storms just are not possible.

If this particular storm had been predicted earlier, would it have changed things for Mariko and Ryoichi? Possibly, but not likely. They had some gear to wait out a storm and did so for two days, but it is impossible for most people to envision themselves in the extreme conditions of a big wall in a winter storm. Parties can steel themselves for the misery and boredom of riding out a storm on the wall, but the physical and mental debilitation of hypothermia is a slippery slope that is hard to prepare for and harder to resist. It is likely that Mariko and Ryoichi felt that their gear would be adequate to weather a storm. Had the storm broken earlier, as most do, perhaps they would have been right.

Another important question arising from this incident has to do with communication. Most of the other parties on the wall during the storm had communications with someone on the ground, either by cell phone or radio. If Mariko and Ryoichi could have talked to someone on the ground, would they have called in time to launch a successful rescue? Possibly. There is no doubt that communications contributed to the other teams deciding that they wanted out; they were able to receive an updated forecast and to learn that the tops of their routes were coated in treacherous ice and snow. Knowing the status of the other parties on the wall allowed YOSAR to prioritize and streamline rescue operations.

An established communications plan is nothing new to outdoors “minimum equipment” lists. Item number 10 from the “Ten Essentials:” Tell someone where you are going. Maybe it should read “Have someone on the ground you can talk to ” for wall climbers. More than one party “self-rescued” during this storm by calling friends to help them out - you don’t necessarily need a “hotline” to YOSAR. Just having someone responsible on the ground monitoring your progress can help by being your rescue advocate, your lifeline.

Does having a radio or cell phone remove some of the adventure from the climb? Absolutely. But what is the real difference between calling for help with a radio and calling for help by yelling, other than potential effectiveness? It’s a matter of degrees. Could radios and cell phones be used to launch “unnecessary” rescues? Again, absolutely, but then the need for a rescue is often very subjective and more than one “unnecessary” rescue has been launched from cries for help.

CONCLUSION    

Big wall climbing can get you killed in more ways than one. Study the weather carefully before you go, pack appropriately, have a plan for escaping, and have a means of communicating with someone on the ground. Don’t believe people when they tell you “It never rains in Yosemite,” because it does. Sometimes it snows for days during prime climbing season. Understand before you leave the ground that you might have to bivy, climb and/or rappel in a frigid, wind-whipped waterfall before you make it back down. We can never be prepared for every contingency, but take the time to work out as many details as possible and never underestimate the forces of nature.


Written by Ed Visnovske

Edited by Nate Knight



Read the El Capitan Rescues overall report.