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Yosemite National Park Successfully Conducts Rescue on El Capitan

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Date: September 28, 2011

High Angle Rescue of Austrian Climber who Severed Thumb

Yosemite National Park Search and Rescue Park Rangers completed a complex, high angle, helicopter rescue on El Capitan on Monday afternoon, September 26, 2011, in which an Austrian climber severed his thumb.  

Two rock climbers were ascending El Capitan on The Nose Route, a popular and difficult climbing route on the 7,569 granite monolith in Yosemite Valley. After two days of climbing, the climbers were approximately 1,000 feet below the summit. In mid-afternoon, the lead climber sustained a fall that was not life threatening. However, during the fall, a secondary rope became wrapped around his right thumb, severing the appendage clean from the hand. The severed thumb miraculously fell approximately 80 feet and landed on a two foot by one foot ledge. The climbing partner was able to retrieve the thumb and the pair called the Yosemite National Park Emergency Communication Center seeking emergency assistance.  

At 3:50 p.m., the park's contract helicopter, piloted by Richard Shatto, along with Helitec Crewmembers Jeff Pirog and Eric Small, and Yosemite Park Rangers Jeff Webb and Dave Pope, flew from Yosemite Valley to assess the situation. Although the weather was favorable with light winds, impending darkness was an issue and Incident Commander, Yosemite Valley District Ranger Eric Gabriel, made the decision to attempt to extract the climber via short-haul. This is a technique where Park Rangers are suspended from a rope below the helicopter to remove the climber from the wall. Gabriel, who had consulted with the park's medical clinic, knew of the short window of time in which the thumb could successfully be reattached and felt the complex mission was worth pursuing. The helicopter hovered near the climbers and Park Rangers Webb and Pope were successfully short-hauled to the injured party. Once on the wall, the injured climber was transported back to El Capitan Meadow via helicopter. On the ground, the climber was transferred to another air medical helicopter to be flown out of the park. Webb remained with the partner overnight and was raised approximately 1,000 feet the following day to the summit using traditional rock-rescue technique.

Later that evening, the injured climber underwent surgery at the California Pacific Medical Center, Davies Campus, in San Francisco, where his thumb was successfully reattached.  

"This was an incredibly technical and complex rescue mission with a lot of inherent risk. However, knowing that the thumb could be reattached, coupled with the confidence I have in my team, I made the decision to attempt this rescue. I was relieved, and thrilled, that this ended successfully and we were able to make a positive difference in this person's life," stated Gabriel.  

Yosemite National Park Search and Rescue conducts hundreds of rescues each year. These range from lost hikers to complex technical rescues like the one described above. The efforts in this incident highlight the skill, dedication, and commitment to service that exemplifies the Search and Rescue team in Yosemite National Park.

Did You Know?

Nevada and Vernal Falls

In Yosemite Valley, dropping over 594-foot Nevada Fall and then 317-foot Vernal Fall, the Merced River creates what is known as the “Giant Staircase.” Such exemplary stair-step river morphology is characterized by a large variability in river movement and flow, from quiet pools to the dramatic drops of the waterfalls themselves.