During the day on September 20, a group of four hiked to Budd Lake as a day hike. At approximately 3 pm, they decided to split up. They did not have a plan to reunite at a certain time or location. As a storm came in, bringing heavy rain, hail, and lightning, three of the four descended to the trailhead, while the fourth stayed at Budd Lake. The subject at Budd Lake had no overnight or rain gear. Two members of the group tried hiking back up the trail to Budd Lake, but lost their way and weren’t able to reach the lake. Two Yosemite Search and Rescue (YOSAR) team members based in Tuolumne Meadows responded to the incident. The subject was found at 1 am on Sunday at Budd Lake. He was very cold and had stayed put at Budd Lake because he thought something had happened to the rest of his party. The YOSAR team members warmed him up and hiked with him to the trailhead.
That same night, Tuolumne Meadows rangers took a report of a flashing light on Tenaya Peak. When a ranger tried shouting to the party, he heard a reply of “Help!” At this point, rain, hail, and lightning had been underway for several hours. The party was over two thirds up the Northwest Buttress route and not moving. Due to a forecast of continued rain, hail, and lightning and the exposed nature of the route, a rescue team was scheduled to respond at first light in the morning. The next morning, the weather had improved. Two YOSAR team members quickly climbed the route and reached the party at 7:30 am. The party of two was very cold, but uninjured. After receiving dry warm clothes and food, the party was able to climb to the top of the route with the rescuers leading them.
The climbing party on Tenaya Peak had checked the forecast before departing on their climb. Despite the 40% chance of precipitation, they chose to continue. In their guidebook, they had read the “Staying Alive” section by John Dill, prompting them take warm clothes, pants, headlamps with extra batteries, and an emergency blanket, all of which helped them significantly. The leader described himself as a 5.7 climber, while his partner described herself as a 5.5-5.6 climber. The Northwest Buttress, rated 5.5, was reportedly well within their abilities under good weather conditions.
A main learning point to take away is the seriousness of being caught on technical terrain in a lightning storm. In this case, the party was hit by the weather three pitches from the top. They then descended three pitches before they stopped for the night. Still in a very exposed location, one team member’s hair was standing on end due to the lightning. You should consider a number of questions before you head out: How long will it take you to climb the route? Are you prepared to climb under wet conditions? How long will it take you to retreat, if necessary? Should you even begin the climb, given the forecast?
The Budd Lake incident also offers a couple of learning points. One is the risk of separating from your group: It is often safer to stay together. If you do choose to separate, set a meeting time and place. Make a plan for what to do if someone doesn’t show up at the agreed-upon time. Also, being prepared with appropriate clothing and gear whenever you go out, especially if you choose to hike in inclement weather, is key. The subject at Budd Lake was lucky that another hiker was kind enough to give him warm clothes. Carrying a few items such as an emergency blanket, rain jacket, and additional layers can be extremely beneficial.
Left: Many rescues begin with rescuers spotting a light on a cliff accompanied by a call for help. Middle: Climbing route on Tenaya Peak. Right: Climber ascending to the top of Tenaya Peak during the rescue operation