A lucid dream: a full moon, and I am alone, balanced on a slippery granite slab at the top of a towering cliff. Just below my heels, the slab turns vertical and drops for thousands of feet. The slope above me radiates a faint moon-glow, but the cliff below is in shadow, black and silent. The vast emptiness is terrifying, yet I must look down. I am scanning, squinting, searching to find someone. It’s too dark. Then a great roar, and the entire face detonates into incandescent light. Perfect clarity. I can pick out where he must be–far, far down the great wall. There is a brilliant orb that is the source of the light, and it accelerates across the night sky: a sun’s passage, yet this sun goes the wrong way, from west to east, tracking a day in just a few seconds. The light creates a precise, charcoal outline of my standing form projected onto the grainy slab in front of me, but the shadow is racing impossibly from right to left. Then the sun goes out–as if someone threw a switch–and it is gone as fast as it came: darkness again, even darker, now, since my eyes can’t adjust. The roar lessens, fades, and all is quiet.
July 1975: Tobin Sorenson’s lead. Gib Lewis and I lean back to watch, and I belay with the rope looped around my waist. It’s a summer morning in Yosemite, and we’re halfway up one of the Valley’s greatest walls, the South Face of Mt. Watkins. Even from the best vantage point atop Half Dome’s Visor, it’s hard to understand just how immense Mt. Watkins is: rising 2,800 feet high and sprawling for a horizontal mile on the north side of Tenaya Canyon.
There’s still only one climbing route up Mt. Watkins, and we’re right in the middle of it: granite stretches up, down, right and left as far as our eyes can see. But Tobin’s attention seizes on the tiniest fraction of this colossal mass of rock, a mere quarter inch. He’s floating comfortably on toeholds, his left hand grasping the edge of a small corner. He has his head cocked to the right, and he uses his other hand to fiddle with a wired nut, trying to make it stick in a tiny constriction. A Lost Arrow piton would have made the placement secure, but Tobin won’t consider that option. He’s risking a fall right onto our belay in order to climb this route using only aluminum wedges. This is the latest style: to try to eliminate placing pitons on big walls. It’s even reached the cover of National Geographic with the first “clean” ascent of Half Dome. That game is why we’re here.
The nuts that secure Gib and me to our belay are good. I nestled them in cracks myself, but we’re trusting a lot of weight to these slivers of metal, about the width of three quarters stacked on each other. I do a swift calculation in my head: Gib and I together, plus sleeping bags, food and water equal around 380 pounds. The anchor is fine to hold our weight, but if Tobin were to fall and put the magnified force of an accelerating body onto it…. My imagination spins out of control: My body is wrenched toward the carabiner as the rope holding Tobin is pulled taut. There’s a loud pinging sound: the nuts pop out of their granite nests and fly straight out toward my face. Then a confusion of ropes and bodies pitching downward….
Snap out of it!
My rational self reasserts itself: the system that secures us to the rock, and to life, is sound, “bombproof,” as we like to say. But I know we often say that word just to reassure ourselves in less-than-bombproof situations. Finally, Tobin says, “Got a good one in!” He chuckles with delight: Tobin, on the surface at least, is a kid, naive, exuberant, relishing everything.
At that moment, I become conscious of a deep satisfaction, both with where I am and how I got here. I am besotted with the splendor our view affords us: the three of us are the only humans as far as the eye can see; sculpted waves of granite lead to a cobalt sky; and the forest of Tenaya Canyon is laid out in immaculate, dark-green shades below. There is a preternatural sharpness to the image as if seen through one of those 1940s stereoscopic viewers. I follow Tenaya Canyon from where it starts at the base of Half Dome, and then on as it leaps in granite steps toward the pleasure domes and greenswards of Tuolumne Meadows. The river is the only movement in this tableau, and it slides and sparkles, but makes no sound. We’re too high to hear it. As I look down canyon, my gaze is constantly drawn to Half Dome, but from this vantage point it seems completely new, no longer bulky and squat as it appears from the valley floor. Instead, it’s a tall, curved sculpture, cut by the great exfoliation of the Northwest Face.
We are three friends who have climbed together for years, who have complete trust in each other, and who are moving smoothly and proficiently up a giant wall. It is far from effortless, but it’s the kind of work we’re good at and love. We’re part of a clan of valley climbers that’s competitive, often crude, and sometimes cruel. But it’s still a family of sorts, and our abode happens to be one of the most beautiful places on the planet.
I couldn’t have imagined, then, that I would return to this spot, under very different circumstances, a little more than a year later.
October 6, 1976, 4:00 a.m. A full moon overhead, but in the shadow of the great wall, there’s profound darkness. With a jerk of my head, the beam of my headlamp penetrates past my feet, toward the same shallow corner that Tobin led the year before. A brief flicker of recognition, and then back to the task at hand. Rapid events have put me here: hovering in space, fifteen feet away from the rock. Until now, this would have been an unimaginable vantage point, except perhaps in a wild dream of nocturnal flight. I have descended in half an hour most of the face that Gib, Tobin and I climbed over two days. This time, I slid down a rope of gargantuan proportion compared to the ones we’d used on our ascent: 12 millimeters thick and 1,200 feet long. One end of the line is attached to trees, pitons and nuts on the summit of Watkins, where six climbers from Camp 4 and four rangers huddle together. The heavy rope funnels through a carabiner brake too hot to touch. I’m pulled backward by my pack; its straps dig into my shoulders. My walkie-talkie periodically crackles with static.
The purpose of our descent into the night is to reach a climber who is lying unconscious, tied to a ledge about two feet wide and five feet long, just beyond the range of my headlamp. He has fallen fewer than 24 hours ago because the unthinkable happened: his rope broke.
That afternoon had been like any other autumn day in the Valley.
October 5, 5:30 p.m. Slanting rays illuminate the cliffs and the trees. Golden oak leaves drift to the ground. I’m sitting at a table in the Yosemite Lodge cafeteria. The glass-walled space is the meeting point for the occupants of Camp 4, where Jim Bridwell, the monarch of the Valley realm–browned and wizened by innumerable first ascents under the pitiless sun–holds court at a round table in the mornings. No one buys anything more expensive than one cup of coffee (but with endless refills). The very thrifty scrounge those little containers intended to flavor coffee–a dozen or so will make a nutritious and satisfying glass of milk. The most impoverished of the lot engage in “scarfing”: grazing on food left by more conventional patrons of the establishment. It’s not unusual to see the boldest of the scarfers spot a tourist just when he pushes his chair away in preparation to stand to leave. Before the vacationer can fully extend his legs, a climber snatches the tray and returns to the roundtable with a plate of scrambled eggs or toast. The visitor’s reaction is unpredictable: amusement, horror, or occasionally rage and shouting.
Richard Harrison, one of my original high school climbing partners, comes through the doors and winds around the tables toward me. Nothing much phases Richard: his philosophy can be summed up in his favorite word: “casual.” To Richard, most of life is just not worth getting worked up about, “It’s casual.” Usually, he displays this attitude with a sardonic smile and a distinctive, leisurely gait. This time, however, he is clearly in a hurry, his shoulder-length hair streaming behind him. “Rescue on Watkins,” he tells me.
I jog over. What fun the last one was: taking helicopter rides up and down Half Dome; sitting on top for hours tending the ropes, eating Park Service food, laughing at how, in a matter of hours, we’d been magically transformed in official eyes from “C4Bs” (Camp 4 Bums) to respected and indispensable rescue experts, capable of safely pulling a couple of wet and cold climbers off the Northwest Face. It had been a nice bonus to pick up the Park Service check at the “general delivery” window of the Valley post office, including an extra buck an hour for “hazard pay.” Here was a kind of “government climbing grant”–even better than the unemployment checks the C4Bs picked up in Fresno.
At the rescue cache, a few Camp 4 regulars are already sifting through the Park Service inventory of climbing equipment. I learn that the rangers were looking for me because of my recent ascent with Tobin and Gib–there’s an urgent need for fresh knowledge of where that meandering route goes.
Chris Falkenstein is there, and it takes a few minutes before I realize that he was one of the climbers involved in the accident. He descended 1,000 feet via rappel and ran the three miles from Mt. Watkins to start the rescue. The effort of that journey is evident in his gaunt face, disheveled hair and hunched shoulders. His partner Bob Locke, known as “Bobo,” has fallen a long way, and the rangers have decided to attempt to reach him immediately, even though night will soon fall.
We jam into the back of a park service pickup to transport us to a meadow below Washington Column, where a helicopter will meet us. The truck has a revolving light on its roof, and our faces are strobed in yellow and red light as we ride through the warm, twilight air.
7:00 p.m.: As the ancient Bell 47 helicopter rises over the lights of the Ahwahnee Hotel, the piston engine wails. The chopper is so underpowered that it can’t climb straight up. Instead, it switchbacks from one side of the Valley to the other, the same way a hiker does on the Yosemite Falls trail. When the aircraft shudders and then rises toward the mass of Half Dome, I forget my unease. Inside the glass bubble of the cockpit, I am surrounded by familiar granite faces on every side. Each one glows eerily in the moonlight.
Mike Graham, Dale Bard and a ranger are already on top, and we quickly get to work hauling ropes to the edge of the great South Face. I introduce myself to the ranger, but I know Mike and Dale well. Mike and I had just returned a month ago from a summer of alpine climbing in Chamonix. He’s one of the only surfers in my Southern California circle of friends: sun-bleached brown hair, a thin but muscular frame, and a golden, beach-boy tan. Dale is a smaller, bashful, almost shy man with outsized forearms. He’s a close friend of Locke. Just last summer, he and Locke had teamed up for a landmark first ascent in Tuolumne, the spectacular Oz on Drug Dome. Dale has already stacked a couple of ropes on top of his pack, and he bounds ahead of us toward a ledge on the shoulder of Watkins that might provide a line of sight to Locke.
It feels as if we’re on an alien planet as we stand together on the luminous rock above the rim. We call in unison into the abyss, “Bobo.” Only a faint echo replies. We set to work rigging.
Since the gradually sloping slabs prevent an easy vantage point to see over the edge, we tie a rope to a tree, and Dale rappels to make the first reconnaissance. He reports from the lip that we’re too far to the west, and he comes back up on Jumars, while Mike and I hustle to set up another rappel 200 feet farther east. Before Mike tosses the coils, he says, “Look,” and he shows me the elaborate knot he has tied at the end. Everyone knows the lore about a rescuer who rappelled off the end of his rope at the top of El Cap. This time, it’s my turn to back down to the edge.
Just as I reach the point where the cliff drops off, a Coast Guard C-130 lumbers up the valley at eye level, its four turboprop engines rumbling and growling. A massive military plane, it’s designed to transport up to ninety-two fully equipped troops. This one is mostly empty, except for the monster searchlight in its open side door. Powered by an auxiliary jet engine inside the plane, the light is capable of illuminating a 3,000-foot granite face like a giant drive-in movie screen. In an instant, it’s high noon on Mt. Watkins. At first, I’m dazzled by the otherworldly glow, but I shake myself and remember to lean out and scan the rock for landmarks. There it is: the great buttress that splits the face. Follow that down to the multilevel platform where we’d bivouacked. I can’t see Bobo, but I know he must be just below.
October 6, 1:00 a.m. Dale has a walkie-talkie, medical supplies, extra ropes and gear hanging all over him. Everyone else is in position to handle the two 1,200-foot ropes, one for lowering Dale, the other for belaying. Ranger John Dill is not that much older than the climbers, but there’s no doubt that he’s in charge. Although we’re in the midst of a complicated nighttime big-wall rescue in the Park, Dill directs the action as if it’s routine. He knows everyone by name and never raises his voice.
In the valley, climbers and rangers are natural antagonists. Here, with our common goal, we forget our mutual wariness and talk only of anchors and rope management, of double-checking harnesses and knots. The team sits in a line, ready to lower the belay rope slowly, using Jumars as grips. As Dale rides slowly over the lip, the radio crackles with his voice: “Man, you should see these jam cracks!” The climbers all smile.
Despite all our calculations, he finds he’s off to one side of the plumb line. So he reports that he’s going to pendulum to the ledge about 200 feet above Bobo. Silence on the rope line. Silence from Dill and the rangers. No breeze. The air is completely still. Finally, Dale says, “I’m turfed out at Sheraton Watkins.”
The rangers look at us quizzically, and we translate: he’s on the big ledge at the midpoint of the face, which the first ascent team had named for its spaciousness and comfort. Dale fixes a directional anchor and continues down.
Then he tells us that Bobo isn’t answering his calls. No more jokes and sarcasm; we lean forward to hear the radio exchanges. After another few moments, Dale says, loud and clear, “He’s dead. I’m coming back up to the ledge.”
We are frozen in place, speechless, except for a whispered “Damn” and an angry “Fuck” from behind me on the rope line.
“Wait, Dale, are you sure?” John Dill asks.
Dale spits out his next response in rapid-fire: “There’s no pulse, he’s not breathing, his skin is cold, and he stinks….” A pause for emphasis. “Yeah, I’m sure.”
We pull the belay rope quietly up while our eyes look across Tenaya Canyon toward the summit of Clouds Rest, at a few faint stars, or at the oceans on the moon. I was supposed to descend next, but the plan seems pointless now. It’s about 3:00 a.m., and I’m about to voice my doubts when the radio erupts again: “Send Rick. I’m not spending the night down here alone.”
There is a tone in Dale’s voice that no one wants to argue with; Dill nods at me. I get ready for the long rappel. Dale’s headlamp is a tiny beacon in the black depths while I ride down, slowly spinning. On the ledge, we cover ourselves with sleeping bags and give in to exhaustion. One last thing: I follow the rope with my beam from the knot at the anchors above to the figure-eight on my harness, before I pull the headlamp off and find the switch. I submerge into the dark tunnel of the bag and shut my eyes.
6 a.m: Morning dawns flat and grey, but Dale and I are unaware of it. We are dead to the world on our tiny, horizontal planet within a universe of vertical granite. The deafening roar of jet engines and the guttural thump of rotor blades startle us awake. The sinister, olive drab nose of a military helicopter rises toward us from about 100 feet away. It’s a UH-1 “Huey,” a jet-powered machine instantly familiar from news accounts of the Vietnam War, which ended in defeat last year. When it’s level with us, the helicopter hovers for a while. The pilots in the cockpit stare, motionless, like extraterrestrials in mirror-visored helmets. We learn that Dill sent the chopper to wake us; we had switched our radios off before going to sleep.
Our job is now to get the body into the litter, which has arrived from the summit on one of the lines. If I lean out, I can see the blue sleeping bag on its lonely shelf. Of course, I’ve been aware of the risk of dying in the mountains, but here death will be right in front of me. Dale and I rig parallel rappels. As I approach the narrow ledge, I recognize Locke’s face. I’ve seen him before around Camp 4. The bright-colored ropes and slings, the rock shoes, chalk bag and rope–which to me had always symbolized fun and adventure–now seem incongruous.
We have to wrestle the body into a shiny, black bag. On the count of three, Dale and I lift his friend into the litter, our faces masked by our bandana headbands against the smell. My mind wanders from the task at hand, and a realization comes to me with terrible clarity: Climbing is not worth this; it’s all useless….
I’m dazed and empty as we watch the litter, hanging vertically, move upward in surges of ten or twelve feet at a time–the summit crew members heave on the rope like a team of rowers.
As we get ready to rappel the rest of the route, Dale says, “Check this out.” He holds up a section of Locke’s lead rope. The cause of the accident is horrifyingly clear. Each of the dozen white strands of the core looks as if it has exploded into tiny balls of fluffed perlon. There’s no sign that it was cut on an edge; the rope seemed to have simply pulled apart from the force of a fifty-foot fall. The ledge where Chris belayed was littered with pieces of aluminum, and it took me a minute to recognize what they were: shattered carabiners.
Chris later described how Locke’s life was almost spared. He was making a mantel move above and right of his last protection when he slipped and swung back into the same corner where Tobin had fiddled with the nut. Locke hung suspended several feet above Chris’s belay, held by only a couple of the core strands. Chris started lowering him, but when Locke was just out of his reach, the two remaining strands broke. Improbably, the haul line stopped Locke’s fall at its end: 150 feet below. Chris began a long, heroic effort to save his partner. First, he descended to a point above Locke, and was able to haul him, hand over hand, up to a small ledge. He put Locke, who was still conscious, into a sleeping bag with food and water nearby. Using the remnants of the mangled ropes, he made a series of short rappels, scrambled down the long approach slabs, and ran down the wooded canyon to start the rescue.
Now Dale and I descend on autopilot: slide down the ropes, search for anchors, pull and thread the ropes, wait for the whistling that signals that the rope is free of snags, repeat. After many rappels and endless scrambling down the lower slabs, we reach the ground. Dill directs us via radio to wait by a large boulder next to the river. The helicopter circles and then descends with an awesome din and furious downdraft. The pilot gently touches one skid to the rock, and we step inside for the ride to camp.
Back at the rescue cache, the rangers offer us six packs of beer. We hear refrains of “good job.” We speak in hushed voices, now, except for an involuntary, “Oh man,” when we smile and recall helicopter maneuvers and aerial, moonlit perspectives on Watkins and Half Dome. Then we notice a somber man talking to the rangers. “Bobo’s father,” someone whispers, and we look away and step back, impelled by the sheer force of a parent’s anguish.
On our way up Mt. Watkins, Tobin, Gib and I experienced the best of what climbing offers. We were members of an arcane guild, and we had crafted a nifty ascent on a flawless face. Our skills had been hard won over the years, through a long and sometimes perilous apprenticeship that trained our bodies and focused our minds. We had known the camaraderie that comes from sharing dangerous situations and narrow escapes–such as the time when Gib fell seventy feet while soloing a Sierra Eastside icefall, but came away with only minor injuries, or when a frozen waterfall collapsed hours after Tobin and I topped out. We had immersed ourselves for days in profound natural beauty that we could never fully describe back on the ground. We had peered out, snug and dry, from an overhanging wall behind a cascade–the result of a summer storm–as it fell fifty feet away. The watery curtain obscured our view of Half Dome, and when the sun reappeared, and the flood thinned to only a veil, the image wobbled and shimmered before our eyes like a mirage. And we had looked down, from high on El Cap, as the pine trees seemed to radiate away from its marble-white base in a pointillist array of spiraling green dots.
But the dark passage down Mt. Watkins was a journey into the netherworld of climbing: a stark reminder that any stretch of the vertical–whether on a big wall or a small crag–can, in a moment of inattention or bad luck, plunge us, and those close to us, into despair, grief and horror.
Four years after the rescue attempt, in August 1980, I had moved to Boulder from Southern California and married the love of my life. Gerry and I lived in an apartment in a charming, older neighborhood near North Boulder Park. We talked of starting a family, sooner rather than later. I graduated from law school, passed the bar, and began a nine-to-five office job. As an antidote to the culture shock of wearing a tie to work, I had my climbing friends and the consolation of great crags near Boulder–all brand new to me–just a short distance from my door. It was harder to find time to climb, but when I did the rosy, textured sandstone of Eldorado Canyon and the Flatirons was delightful to the touch. I found fascination in deciphering new passages on boulders within walking distance of my house (a pastime that I still engage in, though the circuit of doable problems contracts each year).
It was in October that I got the telephone call at our apartment.
“I’m a reporter from a newspaper in Calgary, Canada. I understand you’re a friend of Tobin Sorenson.”
“Yes, I am.”
“I’m very sorry to tell you that he has died in a climbing accident.”
Tobin had been attempting the second ascent of the formidable north face of Mt. Alberta, a remote and ice-shrouded peak in the Canadian Rockies, first climbed by George Lowe and Jock Glidden. He was found at the foot of the face with his pack in a tangle of ropes, pitons and carabiners. He was rope-soloing an aid pitch, when a piton pulled. The force of the fall had ripped out his self-belay.
I hung up the phone and leaned over, almost physically ill. Gerry grabbed my arm and said, “What’s wrong?” but I was not there.
I was back on Mt. Watkins in the shadow of a huge wall. Through the colorless flat light, I looked down at a lifeless body tied to a narrow ledge by a severed rope. The cord had a dark sheath, but a dozen white strands spilled out of it, each one ending in a ball of puffed fiber.
After Tobin’s funeral, I went through my slides, trying to refresh my memory of him in Kodachrome color: Tobin climbing a new route at Joshua Tree, all bright sun, tawny rock, and red PA shoes; or Tobin reading a book in a bivouac cave in the Canadian Rockies, brown hair, tanned face and burnt-orange sweater framed by black-streaked and mottled granite. After going through a few trays, I found a slide from Watkins. Gib had led, and the haulbag was on its way, so Tobin was sitting alone at the belay, suspended on nuts placed sideways in a flaring crack. Acres of grey rock spread out below him, and a helmet of shaggy brown hair obscured his face. I called to him, and he looked up: a young man doing exactly what he wanted to do, without a care in the world, right where he belonged. I smiled, reliving the moment.
But as I studied the photo, in the background, below and behind him, I could make out the spot where a rope pulled apart, and what came after: shattered carabiners, dreams, and a life.