YOSAR: Ghouls or Heroes?
In 1996, the same year information was compiled for an article in a magazine which portrayed Yosemite's Search and Rescue team as morbid ghouls who amuse themselves by abusing the dead, members of YOSAR were having a busy summer. Many had been called out for over 50 technical rescues and carry-outs. Despite their hopes for a quiet fall, the call-outs continued. One was considered so routine that John Dill, biographer of over 25 years of Yosemite's rescues and one of the experts of the world in safe vertical rescue techniques, didn't even bother to write it up for Accidents in North American Mountaineering, the annual report given to analyzing the unsafe events of the year. Late in the day on November 10, a climber, Jason Gilbert, made it down to the road and notified the authorities that his partner, Annabel Raab, was stranded several thousand feet above the Valley floor on the Leaning Tower chimney. A huge rock had been pulled down by their ropes after a rappel and had badly shattered her leg. The rescue team immediately mobilized. At 6:19pm, only an hour after the call came in, the first SAR wagon left the Rescue Cache with the lead team equipment and six of the most experienced members.
After approaching the base of the Tower, Werner Braun and Scott Stowe climbed in the darkness up the chimney, and arrived at the patient by 8:10pm; remarkably fast climbing time considering the terrain even in the best of conditions. Ranger-Paramedic Keith Lober and others followed, ascending the ropes left by the lead team. More teams were dispatched to bring up additional equipment, and throughout the night, anchors were placed, ropes were methodically fixed, and plans and backup plans were made for stabilizing the patient and lowering her to safety. Rock fall danger was high but all were careful, and minor snafus like running out of headlamp bulbs and ascending devices were dealt with promptly by the support teams, with Scott Burke and Dave Mathews transporting additional equipment and a foldable litter from the car to the site of the accident in record times. Even before Keith Lober stabilized the fracture, Annabel Raab's screams were heard all the way to the parking lot far below, and by 9:06pm Lober was granted permission to administer morphine by the doctors in the Yosemite Medical Clinic. Shortly thereafter, the lowering began.
By 1:45am, Keith Lober and the patient, who despite increased morphine dosages screamed incessantly from fear and pain, were finally lowered the last rope length to the base of the chimney. From there to the road lay a long, steep and loose talus/boulder field, which required endless running belays. The rescue team leapfrogged belay and lowering teams on the taxing talus descent. "It was slow and hard work" says Evan Jones, chief ranger in charge of Search and Rescue. In the wee hours of the morning, at around 3:30am, taxed after the all night venue, the litter carrying teams made it to a clearing where it was decided that a helicopter could come into and pick the patient up. But the helicopter would not be able to be sent out until dawn, and since it is a policy for YOSAR to never depend on any future mechanical assists for anything possible by manual labor, the team continued down, and three grueling hours later, by daybreak, made it down to the road.
Over 25 people participated in the rescue, a model of teamwork and efficiency. Considering the terrain and danger involved, it required all the skills of what is most likely the best vertical rescue team in the world. Why do they do it? Not for the money: of the 15 climbers who risked their lives all night in the effort, none made much for their efforts, with Werner Braun receiving the most at $286.69 for 24 hours of work on the Raab SAR. They do it because they are passionate, concerned individuals who love living the outdoor life and have developed and honed a unique set of skills. Their expertise in helping to save others comes from that passion.
For the heroic lifestyle they have chosen, the Yosemite Search and Rescue team deserves a better portrayal than the one given them by the press. Why didn't we see more tales of their true craft? The fact that they, as a team, can extract someone from such a perilous place to safety in less than 12 hours is astonishing, and that's the real story. One would think that a magazine given to represent climbing interests would be aware of the greater depth of such full-time climbers, and to fairly portray their lives, instead of the irresponsible one-sided sensational garbage that we were forced to eat.