Friday, May 25, 2012

The ugly side

At the crack of noon, under a cloudless sky, The Brewer and I roped up for Beulah's and Heliotrope, at the Solar Slab in Red Rocks. I was sweating from the approach and stuffed my shell into my pack on top of our post-climb PBRs.

"Butch," said The Brewer, "I'm bringing my shell."

I rumaged around memories of epics and concluded that The Brewer was right and stuuffed the shell into a stuff sack, clipped it to my harness, and set off.

I sweated enough to strip down to my blinding white skin, and on arriving on the Solar Slab terrace, we looked up and saw five people at the bottom of Heliotrope, which shares a first belay with Solar Slab and Sunflower.

At the belay were two parties. One was three women-- one experienced and two not. These had started their day at 6:00 AM at the gate, and had taken six hours to climb the three pitches of Johnny Vegas. The other two were a couple from Oregon. The girl wore a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, and her boyfriend shorts and a t-shirt, as well as a surprsingly large pack. They were on their first multi-pitch.

The three women set off up Solar Slab and I chatted with the girl as she followed up Heliotrope and I led behind her. They were on their first-ever multi-pitch. At this point the wind had picked up considerably, and we enjoyed perfect temps with the sun.

As I arrived at the bottom of the third pitch of Heliotrope, the guy was leading up onto the very runout fourth pitch, and, in somewhat higher wind, his girlfriend was shivering. I lent her my shell and brought The Brewer up. The girl thanked me for the shell and said she had left hers at the base. When I asked what we in her boyfriend's pack, she said he was carrying another rope, and their lunches.

Meanwhile, way below us, the party of three was still on the first pitch of Solar Slab proper. Their leader was a snail, as were the seconds, who were not simul-seconding, even though they had two ropes.

The Oregonian leader got scared and bailed onto the neighbouring route, Sunflower, and The Brewer and I climbed up. At the top of Heliotrope, the wind was ripping, the sun was gone, and clouds were moving in. We ran into two girls, Heather and Angela, and agreed to share ropes and simulrap down the Solar Slab raps. Heather had a shell, but Angela didn't, and so The Brewer gave her his. He had two wool layers and a fleece on.

As Heather and I rapped down, we looked across and saw the Oregonians. I asked them if they were bailing, and they said "nah, we're gonna finish."

I said "It's cold, you don't have a lot of clothes, and it might rain. You should bail." They wanted to comtinue.

A few raps later and we reached the belay where we had first met the Oregonians and the three women. The three women were bailing in what was now near darkness, very high-- like sideways ropes high-- wind, and very cold temps. It took them fucking forever to set up their rap, and then they refused to simul-rap. Above us, The Brewer was yelling rap beta to the Oregonians, who lacked not only clothes but headlamps.

"Look," I said to the three women, "there are seven people here. You're going to hold all of us up in bad weather. If you are worried about simulrapping, the first person can fireman the rest."

"Um, we're not comfortable with that," said the experienced woman.

The Brewer and Angela arrived, and The Brewer explained that the Oregonians had now found the rap route. They did have a light, it turned out-- one had a micro pen-light. At this point I stopped worrying about the Oregonians. All they had to do was rap straight down and they would get back to their packs. Iw as a bit worried about The Brewer. He's tough as nails, and smart, but there's only so much you can do while the wind rips away at you.

By the time we rapped onto the Solar Slab terrace, it was dark, and the wind was howling. The three slugs managed to stay ahead of us on the next rappel, but on the rappel after that, they went the wrong way, and their whole system turned into a clusterfuck. The first woman rapped way past the anchor, into the wrong part of the gully, and decided to jug up.

"Fuck it," I said, "we're passing," and installed a sling and biener on a tree to bypass the slugs. Heather and I set off, passing the slug woman and her prussiks. If you have ever climbed the Solar Slab gully, you will know how ridiculous this is-- it's third class, and here was this woman, jugging!

As Heather and I started the final rap, a few drops of rain and hail fell. By the time we reached the ground, thirty seconds later, it was pouring and sleeting. And by the time we retrieved our packs and brought them to the ropes-- maybe two minutes-- there was a waterfall blasting down the gully, out of which emerged a soaked Brewer and Angela. I could nto believe my eyes. The waterfall was literally so powerful that no normal human being could have moved up it, even ont he third-class rock under it.

As we packed, we heard yelling, and looked up. The three slugs were doing their slow thing in the guly, but the Oregonians were atop the Solar Slab buttress, their tiny lamp a-flicker. Through the howling sideways wind and sleet, we heard "HEEEELLLLLLP!"


There comes a time for all of us when the decision we are about to make will have life-and-death consequences. We had all of our clothes on, and were freezing. Above us were two climbers minus proper lights and clothes, in what was now a full-on snowstorm.

There was no way to climb back up to help them. Sandstone is mush in water; the gully had a waterfall blasting down it; we were frozen and out of food. So we called 911.

The S.A.R. guy they put us onto said that there was literally nothing to be done. He told us not to attempt a rescue. He also told us that there was nothing he could do until morning: sleet, darkness and very high winds would prevent both climbers and helicopters from doing anything. He also advised us to make sure we were not putting ourselves in danger.

We went to Vegas for fast food and what followed was the most miserable night of my life. There were two dead people out there. Cotton clothes, no light, and trouble finding the bottom half of the rap route = death. I tossed and turned.

The next morning, as we silently waited for coffee to boil, a climber walked into our site and told us that S.A.R. had flown out at first light and had found the Oregonians, who had rapped Johnny Vegas, having had to cut various stuck ropes, and who had made it to the ground, but were too hypothermic to move. When S.A.R. got to them at 6:00 AM, the girl's body temp was 83 degrees. Both were in critical condition in the hospital.

An hour later we saw a Ranger, who said "your 911 call saved their lives."

* * * *

The question as to what we did right and wrong still bugs me. Should we have done anything differently? I have a few ideas.

a) It should-- but unfortunately doesn't-- go without saying that if you are on a multi-pitch, you should, always, have a rain-shell, a hat, and a headlamp, which can hang, light and hassle-free, from your harness. Angela lacked hers, as did the Oregonians, and I nearly left mine behind. There is no way that having this stuff is gonna slow you down, or compromise your experience, so just fucking bring it.

b) The three women slugs made poor decisions. If you are climbing in three, and you are paranoid, and slow, and one of your party is a gumbie, you should not be on a multipitch. And if it takes you six hours to climb three pitches, you would be best off not starting a six-pitch route at 1:30 PM. If things go sideways, and one experienced person has to mandhandle two others off a route, you are asking for trouble. It is necessary to re-evaluate objectives in light of what happens. As I write, four people just died on Everest, and what it comes down to is, they wanted it badly enough that objective reality (it was late, and they were exhausted and sick) got ignored.

On top of that, when the shit hits the fan, you defer to the experienced, and you move fast. We simulrapped with the girls; the slugs should have done the same, or at least let us pass earlier. If you are gonna fuck around, don't interfere with others.

c) The Oregonians made every mistake in the book. Too much gear, too little clothing, not assessing their situation, refusing to turn around, no headlights, not having proper beta for finding the rap route-- add that to bad weather and you've got a disaster.

d) Did we screw up? We did...but there is no way we could have known that we did. The Brewer managed to direct the Oregonians to the rap route, and then we descended. We could have waited for them on the Solar Slab terrace, but when we were rappeling off the terrace, we saw them, descending the rap route. We had no way of knowing that they would have trouble finding the rap route off the terrace. They also had double ropes, which, we assumed, would make for fast raps, as they had for us. They had, after all, climbed up past the rap route that morning.

Should we have waited at the base of the cliff for the Oregonians? Maybe...but we were out of food, and frozen, and we did not have any emergency equipment like bivvy sacks. If the Oregonians had come down with any problems (e.g. hypothermia) we could have done little more than huddle with them. This would however also have put us into major danger. We could not have gone back in, because the park gates were closed.

My S.A.R. friends in Squamish say that you take care of first yourself, then your rescue team, and finally the accident victims, in that order. A rescuer or team who are in danger or unable to do X or Y are going to not only not help the victims but also put themselves in danger, potentially amplifying the problem.

e) Finally, making things safer for people does not actually make things safer. Solar Slab, which gets at least ten ascents a day, was equipped with a dedicated, 30-meter-at-a-time, bolted rap route. Paradoxically, this route has not done much to reduce epics and accidents. While it is now easier and faster to get off, this same ease and speed means that more less-experienced, slower, weaker etc parties will try the route. This will obviously lead to congestion, but it will also mean that, when things go sideways-- like rockfall, or weather-- there will be more people with fewer skills up there. The best rap route in the world is not going to help you if you can't retrieve stuck ropes, or if you forget your shell, or if you climb into poor weather too late in the day.

e) There is my Supertopo post (and many responses) here.

Anyway. Everyone survived...but now I look at sunny 5.6 routes and I'm glad I have a light shell and a pocket lamp.

1 comment:

  1. Wow. So well put! Thank you for all of this. I will never leave the jacket behind again.