Posted by: Walker Mackey | 2011/02/16

The Rescue

On December 13, 2010 El Captain rocked my world. My name is Sarah Land, and here is a bit of our story.

We were about 1200 feet off the ground on the morning of day three. We were bedded down at belay nine, or as we named it; Chinese Water Torture due to the constant drip, drip, SPLAttering of water that somehow found a way to drip in close enough to the wall that it fell directly on our ledge’s fly’s.

Around 9:30am I geared up and took the lead, this in its self was an amazing feet!! The two days prior, moving at top speed we had managed to eat, break down camp and start climbing in no less then two hours. Today even in with the soreness and typical wall aches that had started setting in we managed to accomplish all of the above in less then an hour and a half. Hurray!! We were finding our groove, utilizing the capabilities of a three-man crew.  I have never climbed with three people, this added in an extra gear clutter but also an extra hand when needed.

Back on belay, I was happy and the sun was shinning on me! The valley floor below was covered in snow and the dreaded shade. Somewhere in the 30 to 50ft range, away from the belay I slowed down. A new kind of problem presented its self to me. Lying between the button head I was hanging on and the next button head, was a unnerving grouping of loose blocks and a hollow sounding flake that measured approximately 10’ across. A span I was unable to reach without an intermediate placement.  The ultra fun, cheesy banter that was going between me and my partners turned into bad attitude Sarah talk and warnings that “ some rocks might come down, so be on the look out”.

I have had trouble explaining how it looked exactly, when telling the story to friends and family. Now, writing it with out the use of hand gestures and exaggerated facial expression I find another picture painting challenge.

Directly above me was this little tiny rooof… a 6” deep roof.  Behind the “roof” was a crack ranging in the BD .75- C4, #1 range. Up high and out left there were a few ultra tinny cracks, like black Alien or BD grey C3 and there were a few forearm sized blocks perched on each other resting on top of this little roof. I sussed out and tried a few placement options in all of the cracks. While doing this a few rocks dislodged. One about the size of a baseball fell out into my hand and as I rolled my eyes and chucked it over my shoulder another tiny quarter’esk sized rock fell out directly into Rio’s lap. This worried me because those forearm-sized blocks were in about the same launch spot and unlike their little brother who had softly landed in Rio’s lap these would wipe him and Walker out!!

I was in the zone. There was no option in my mind other then up. I contemplated throwing off the smaller blocks. Mainly so that I wouldn’t have to keep hearing the screeetch and grinding of their granite self’s rubbing against each other every time I placed a cam behind the darn roof. But I also thought of it so that they couldn’t choose to break free on their own and kill my belayers.

Finally I chose to place a BD .75 behind the hair raising, flakey block/roof thingy. As I slowly shifted my weight onto the piece my face got lightly dusted with granite grit and the block gave way. El Captain released and let out a giant ROAR!

We guestimated the fall to be in the 6 to 9ft range, not to bad for a fall. The block we guestimated to be, 7ft wide by 5ft tall by 6ft deep. Originally when I talked with my friends and the search and rescue crews I said the block was roughly 200lbs, I think I was slightly off. I sat dangling from my daisy. I never asked if the rope came tight but I don’t think it did.

My head was swirling and I heard this buzzing in my ears, the kind of humming a noisy old refrigerator makes. The sun seemed so bright and I couldn’t quite place myself. Walker and Rio’s voices started coming clear. They were hootin’ and hollering out “Waahhhoooo, it missed us!!” Thinking now I can’t imagine what it must have been like for them. Watching this giant block glance off of me headed straight for them. I know that then they were pretty happy and so was I. Hearing them yelling settled my question of “ Did it hit Walker and Rio”. Almost immediately I squealed out “ It didn’t miss mmMmeeeEEE!!” Later we all had fun making impersonations of my initial yell. It had such a helpless, silly, scared, angry and primitive feel to the tone.

After I got their attention I started to yell, bellowing up from deep inside of me. I wanted to release all of the cluster. I wanted answers and I wanted to climb. Somehow this computed to yell. “Yell Sarah, scream and you’ll find the answer” this was the advice my internal self spoke to me. So I followed yelling and screaming for a few moments. Walkers voice changed and he started asking me if I was hurt, if I was broken. I felt thankful to have him there guiding me back to reality.

At this point our agenda changed. My initial thoughts, as I was falling, were ok your going to stop, yell a bunch, and keep climbing. Now as I looked up and saw that not only were the small blocks gone but also the whole roof and the button head I was trying to reach were all missing. In their place sat a giant rock scar. It didn’t seem real. My only explanation of why were not squished flat as a pancake is that due to the steep nature of the route as soon as the block set free pushing for ground it started falling away. For this reason I suffered only minor abrasions and a chipped transverse process in my L3 vertebrae.

Halting on the end of the line was only the first stop back into the world of reality. I was no longer on lead instead I was on lower out and play patient duty. Rio was the first to asses my injuries. He assured my there was no black and blue just a bit of blood lots of scrapes and that I was swelling up pretty good. I could feel the lumps on my back, which felt a bit creepy. They were kind of waxy and puffed out abnormally.

We decided the best first step would be to set up the portaledge so I could sit relieving the pressure my harness was applying to my back. The boys were on it and in no time I was out of the sun and on my bum. My phone was going off. I called a few friends who have climbed El Captain so much they have it dialed. We needed beta, decent, ascent and just plain old advice. They came through and really aided us in calming the nerves while filling in the blanks of our fuzzy picture. Eventually we decided to call for a rescue. I was loosing mobility in my arm and was experiencing extreme pain in my lower back any time I tried to sit, pull, lift twist basically do anything other then sit and listen to people talking.

I swallowed my pride and dialed 911. Dispatch transferred me over to Yosemite Search and Rescue dispatch call center where I explained the event of listed off our assessment of injuries and potential issues. Then the question came….” Do you think you can get down?”. Well of course we can get down I thought. We can get down or we can get up its just going to be scary, hard and what if I have internal bleeding!!!! With a sigh I answered as truthfully with a “Well uh…yes”.  She responded with what was at the time the most heartbreaking reply. “ Ok give it a shot and if you get stuck call us back.”

I hung up the phone and sat in silence. It took a lot for us to make that call. I was adamant that we make decisions together and here we were three climbers hanging out running options. The last one was to call for rescue. I feel we pride ourselves in being capable, independent persons and rescue somehow just didn’t resonate positively in our mind. After I picked up the pieces of my broken heart I spread the news that we were going to descend on our own. HAhaha, I remember them just looking at me with this, you have got to be kidding me face. I after all I was the main one pushing for rescue simple, because I was already exhausted. Conjuring up the nerve to say lets do it ourselves would condemn me to hours, actually days of more work, strategizing and I was already wiped out after only a few hours of doing this. Now after convincing them we were just going to hang out and wait I was telling them it was time to start formulating a descent strategy again. They took it and ran with it. Walker started sorting our gear and Rio started coiling our ropes. Rio out of all of us did amazing. This just so happened to be his first big wall experience. Having climbed on and off for the last few years he was in deep water prior to the accident and now he was sitting in the middle of the ocean. He maintained a calmness and willingness to do whatever we asked of him and somehow he managed to figure it all out. Thanks Rio and thank you to Walker because without you I would have never made it up or back down for that matter.

Our steep wall that had kept us dry and kept us from being pancakes was now posing to be our biggest challenge. We settled on a plan for the first descent pitch.  Logistically this was the easiest of the 9 that would follow. Our destination belay was almost directly below us roughly 90ft. I took the position of first down since we were not quite sure how to lower the bags and Rio and this was a pretty easy pitch to back aid. So easy, I was able to clip three fixed pieces and then just bounce my way off the wall while rappelling for about 65ft and grab the anchor.

I sat hanging at belay Chinese Water Torture for about 3 hours before Rio made it to me.  Racking the gear and figuring out some way to put Rio in the least technically demanding position as possible was challenging and Walker somehow figured it out. In the time I spent alone at the anchor I went threw a million scenarios. I also experienced a lot of pain and emotional swells. Apparently concussions do crazy things to people. : )

My good friend and climbing partner Colleen called me up. She had a funny feeling as well as a good ear that lead her to calling me. I remember answering the phone and trying to sound ok. I believe I started off with “ HI” and in the calmest voice I could conjure I said “ everything’s going good and Iii Iiii Iiii uhhhh blahhhhhhhh” I broke down and started crying again. She comforted me deeply like a sister or a mother to a child. She also gave me some great insight and advice. After our conversation I decided to call SAR again.

Sitting and watching my partners struggle to descend, sitting and letting my legs go numb because it was the only position I could hold that kept my back relatively pain free and watching the sun set drove me to the conclusion that we made. With the odds were stacking up against us and time was moving by so quickly. I felt my injury was putting our team in danger. Rio, even with our help was still a novice climber and Walker with the experience and capability to descend a steep overhanging route with an injured climber seemed to be growing tired. The added responsibility of informing Rio barred down heavy.

Around 2:30 or 3:30 I can’t remember I called YOSAR and initiated a rescue. Their well-organized team had us safely to the ground Monday December 14 around 10:30 – 11 am. I couldn’t have asked for a crew as proficient and friendly as them.  Thank you for helping out our team.

It has been 8 weeks now and I have started climbing again, simple yet satisfying problems. Per recommendation of my doctor I wont start lead climbing till March and can you guess what I have planned… Joshua Tree baby!! Till then I am indulging in body conditioning with two of the best personal trainers I have ever worked with Ruben Vaughn and Julie Spiker. Having Hans Florine as our gym manager is incredibly inspiring, there is always a positively amped crew of folks including Hans himself encouraging the growth and training of ones mind and body, how many push ups can you do in one day..???!!


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