Risky Partnerships and Cliff Hanging


In my last blog, I said I would relate my cliff hanging experience. Literally. Cliff. Hanging. Ok, maybe not a cliff hanging experience per se (LUCKILY!), but more a forced emergency overnight bivy on a crescent shaped ledge brought upon by making several ill-advised decisions. Decisions based on an illusion of control, an inability to communicate, and a poorly aligned partnership. And did I mention the ledge was 450 feet up on the face of the Fairview Dome in Tuolumne Meadows?

My partner and I had climbed several multi-pitch traditional routes (meaning climbs that did not have permanent bolts for protection) that day in Tuolumne Meadows of Yosemite National Park and, although late in the afternoon, didn’t want the good day to end. We decided to tackle a 5.8 trad crack climb, The Regular Route, which ran up the front face of the Fairview Dome.  Rated 5.8. Easy enough. I was tired, but acquiesced. What could go wrong?

After two successful multi-pitch crack climbs earlier that day, we were feeling invincible. Our hubris was that we could just run up another crack in the afternoon; a late start which wasn’t wise, particularly in the Sierras where fast moving fronts are common. Committing another major faux pas in traditional multi-pitch rock climbing, we carried only one rope. We thought we wouldn’t need to rappel down the face as we could merely hike off the back once we topped out. Our third mistake was thinking we could travel faster and beat sunset if we carried a lighter load. Hence we didn’t bring a full rack of traditional climbing protection and anchoring gear of Camelot camming devices, quick draws, hexes and stoppers, headlamps, clothing layers, or the second rappel rope. Camming devices, chocks, hexes and stoppers are the modern version of hammering pitons into rock crevices to secure your rope and YOU in case of a fall. You also use this ‘trad’ gear as belay and rappel station anchors, leaving them behind if you rappel off this ‘protection’ (not usually recommended over using permanent anchor bolts). After all, we justified, once we summited the dome there was a hike off the backend.

Harnessed up and carrying an ultra-light load, we started up the crack. Climbing was fairly easy on the lower pitches, but being tired from climbing, we were not as fast as we needed to beat the inevitable early sunset in the Sierras. After 6 or 7 pitches ( a pitch is a length of climbing measured typically as the distance a standard 60m dynamic climbing rope will reach or between good anchor station locations), at about 500 feet above the deck, we were thirty feet above and to the right of the crescent ledge when the crack disappeared. A bare slab of rock stretched above us with no discernable route. No crack. No footholds. No handholds. My partner stubbornly tried to find a way up as I belayed and watched the sun slide below the ridge sending us into twilight. My partner failed to realize that even if he could continue, there were no anchoring locations to allow me to follow. We were off route. We couldn’t go up and it was getting dark. We were stuck. We had to lower to the crescent ridge.

This in itself was dangerous as the ledge was thirty feet both below and to the right of us.  This meant we would have to lower down and pendulum swing wildly until we could reach the crescent ledge, one at a time. A belay from above would not help if we overshot the ledge. We would hang below the ledge height on a barren rock face forced to jumar up the rope to try again. As I was on belay, my partner lowered first, down climbing with his fingers dragging himself across the rock over to the ledge as I belayed rope down. Once he made it to the ledge, we reversed belay duties.  But having no belay above to lower me, I had to rappel myself down and over to where my partner anchored on the crescent ledge.  To miss the ledge or lose my rappel anchor, I would be dangling 500 feet above the ground loosely anchored with one end of the rope to my partner on the ledge. Deep breath. I started rappelling and walking horizontally across the rock face away from the crescent ledge. Once I was at a full pendulum swing away, I pushed off of the rock and swung down fast arcing over to the crescent ledge. My partner grabbed my leg and pulled me in.

At this point, we were safe but faced the decision of what to do next. To me, the only obvious choice was a cold, hungry night on the rock until daylight could reveal where the route continued. Having only one rope limited the possible rappel length and would force leaving gear as anchors which would in turn cause us to run out of gear because we did not bring enough camming devices or traditional protection to get us safely to the ground. We would have eventually run out of gear for anchors and been stuck clinging to the rock. {There is no down climbing 500 feet in the dark. Just saying in case you are thinking!}

But here is where the weakness of our partnership erupted – explosively and loudly. My partner wanted to forge ahead and not stop to evaluate the situation. We did not share the same risk assessment and problem solving methods. (I’m not saying either was wrong here…just pointing out differences!)

An obvious critical issue was the misalignment of our partnership.  There was little give and take or shared decision making in our partnership; important in most productive projects, critical in a life threatening activity such as multiple pitch technical rock climbing. A domineering, close-minded partner, my partner was not the sort to take advice. The type of person that always corrected you, for example on how to properly fold a bag of tortilla chips. No kidding. The ‘correct’ method involved folding both sides of the bag to a triangle top and then rolling the triangle top down tight. Every other method of folding was incorrect. So you get the picture. Now, I’m sure I had faults as well, like not speaking up regarding risky decisions with which I felt uncomfortable. But folding tortilla bags was not my problem.

Our partnership imploded on the fateful night of our overnight 40° bivy. Oh yeah, did I tell you that it was 40° degrees under a full moon? Pretty, but with only tank tops and spandex climbing shorts, it was frigid! It is true that it is the darkest and coldest before dawn!

On the bright side, I learned why they called the Sierras the ‘Range of Light.’ As I sat there awake, a sentinel watching the bright moon travel across the sky, silvery white light began painting the ridges of the Sierras as the sun crested the horizon. My partner slept cradled in my lap on the rope to keep insulated from the cold rock as I pondered how this team partnership could survive. The night on the crescent ledge was both a victory in that we persevered and finished the route the next day, but also a failure in our partnership. Communication and negotiation is intensely important in partnerships, whether in personal or business relationships.

Now, if you think my story was thrilling, you might be surprised to hear that the first time the Fairview Dome Regular Route was climbed in 1958 by climbers Wally Reed and Chuck Pratt, they also became stuck on the infamous crescent ledge. Reed and Pratt later returned to the Fairview Dome and found the remaining portion of the route which led, fairly easily, the last 500 feet to the summit where they could easily hike off the back of the dome. Many climbers have been rescued from this ledge. Early the next morning, my partner and I also found the easy climbing route from the left side of the crescent ledge (climbers take note – don’t go right!!) to top out and hike off. Perhaps we should have done some research first, eh?

Any comments you would care to share?

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Climb On!

Lesley Davidson



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