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The Climbing Life: The March of Folly

Posted on: June 2, 2016


This story first appeared in Alpinist 54—Summer 2016.

June 1972: The author's friends "on the north couloir of Bloody Mountain: John Long and Richard Harrison strike a pose using a tongue-in-cheek approximation of French Technique." [Photo] Rick Accomazzo

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"I'M SO GLAD TO SEE YOU BOYS," Lee Sorenson shouted as he ran across the campsite toward us, his bearded face beaming with love and relief. His oldest son, Tobin, and I were a full day and a night overdue. It was March 1975, and we'd just made the second ascent of the Valley's first major ice climb, Upper Sentinel Falls. Tobin and I were ready to account for our delay with a tale of blunders, privation and forced marches, but Lee didn't wait around to hear it. No embrace, not even a handshake. He continued past us, jumped in his car and yelled over his shoulder, "I have to go tell the rangers." The door slammed, and the car tore off.

Our story would wait until later—when we were staggered to learn how lucky we were to have made it back at all.

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BY THE EARLY 1970S, Yosemite Valley was already known as the place every serious rock climber had to visit. Few people, however, had considered its ice. This was a natural oversight: stories of big-wall pioneers often included dramatic scenes of tongues cleaved to mouths from heat and thirst.

Although chilly 14,000-foot peaks and permanent snowfields gleam along the nearby Sierra crest, the Yosemite Valley floor is just a few miles from California's flat, torrid Central Valley. Most people encounter Yosemite's waterfalls in summer, when wild spray and big air create a gigantic-screen moving picture for millions of tourist eyes—and for many, a deadly attraction.

In Off the Wall: Death in Yosemite, a macabre compendium of park fatalities from 1851 to 2006, search and rescue ranger Butch Farabee and his coauthor Michael Ghiglieri list dozens of hikers who have waded into swift currents and been swept over precipices. A long-running thread on the climbing forum Supertopo is entitled, "Almost inevitable...over Vernal Falls." It documents the recurring fates of visitors who ignore the large signs that warn, in no uncertain terms, not to go into the river above the 317-foot cascade. Few climbers stick around to see Yosemite after November, when north-facing walls turn cold and almost sunless. It can be nasty living in a tent in a deep valley with little winter light. But sometimes, a hard freeze descends, and waterfalls, ranging from rivulets and seeps to fifty-foot-wide rivers, transform into magnificent still-lifes of streaked grey streamers. After a prolonged frigid spell, this ice can be solid, though temperatures change quickly. When they do, the surface takes on the consistency of a Slurpee, and if you toss a Slurpee against a convenience store wall, you'll observe that it doesn't adhere so well.

There was another reason that climbers avoided these waterfalls: they're steep, like the surrounding walls. Up until the early 70s, most of the world's major ice routes had been less than vertical. Ice climbers were just beginning to take advantage of the new curved and drooped-pick tools. Californians practiced on the couloirs of the eastern Sierra, which turned from soft snow, to hard snow, to water ice over the course of a summer. I still have a photo from June 1972 of my friends on the north couloir of Bloody Mountain: John Long and Richard Harrison strike a pose using a tongue in-cheek approximation of French Technique, the ancient protocol for ascending low-angle slopes using crampons that lack frontpoints— described in such charming terminology as pied en canard.

Richard, John, Ging Gingerich and I had also done the couloir on Mt. Mendell, which contained real water ice of midwinter hardness even in early July, shattering into dinner plates and saucers at first blow. I couldn't stop peering into it: you could see straight through the surface to the rock five feet below. It reminded me of the blocks that mustachioed bartenders ply with ice picks to make $17 cocktails in faux Prohibition saloons. In a glass, gin-clear, it would have clinked delightfully.

The routes on Bloody Mountain and Mendel, however, were still far from vertical, and they have since been descended on skis and snowboards. By 1974, visiting climbers and Valley denizens alike were alert to the potential of steeper ice. Jeff Lowe had traveled quietly from Utah to try the 1,680-foot Widow's Tears, but the ice was so thin and fragile that he down climbed the first pitch rather than search for an anchor. Once he reached the ground, the route collapsed. After Charlie Porter pointed out Upper Sentinel Falls, Camp 4 residents Mark Chapman, Jim Orey and Kevin Worrall clambered up a pine tree to get a better view. The flow glimmered like a beacon high on the southern rim, too alluring to be ignored.

"Sentinel Falls is a [circa] 2,000-foot waterfall just west of Sentinel Rock. Kevin Worrall, Jim Orey and I did the first ascent of the upper falls in December 1974," Mark Chapman wrote on SuperTopo.com." Worrall and Orey approaching Sentinel Falls. [Photo] Mark Chapman

In December 1974, Mark, Kevin and Jim crunched across Sentinel Bridge in leather boots. They scrambled up snow-covered slabs between bushy ledges, bypassing the lower section of the cascade. Near the base of the Upper Falls, they bivouacked. It was Kevin's first foray into the Valley's dark, wintry side. He felt motivated, as usual, by the prospect of a first ascent, but this one was unlike any of the dozens of hard rock routes he and his friends had already accomplished. They were still rank novices with crampons and axes, and the new experiences of hammering tools, engaging frontpoints, and shivering at belays would remain vivid memories, even forty years later. There were three pitches to the top, and then, Kevin recalls on Supertopo, "a brutal night sitting on our packs through the longest night of the year."

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I'D HEARD OF KEVIN and Mark's exploits through Richard Harrison, one of the few other climbers who stayed in Yosemite past autumn. That March, Tobin and I, still teenagers, packed ice gear in my car and headed out from Tobin's mom's house in Southern California. Visions of vast, frozen terra incognita sparkled in our minds. We'd do Upper Sentinel first, we thought, and then take a look at the big prize, the unclimbed Widow's Tears. Although we'd pored over the instructional sections of the Chouinard catalogues, neither of us had much firsthand knowledge of winter adventures. I'd learned from past rock climbs that lack of practice wouldn't affect Tobin. He never backed down from a lead.

We slept little that first night in Camp 4, perhaps because of the bear that shuffled and snorted a few feet from our bags. More likely, we felt that buzz of ambition and anxiety we always got when we returned to Yosemite. Lee was there too, on a springbreak trip with Tobin's younger brothers and sister. They were staying in one of the motorized campsites near the river, among the RVs, circus tents and gas generators. I knew Lee was a preacher, but when he invited us for a barbeque, I discovered there was no fire and brimstone in him; he radiated pure welcome and warmth.

Mark and Kevin suggested that we ski up the road from Badger Pass toward Glacier Point, rather than repeat their grueling fourthclass approach from the Valley floor. So Tobin and I brought light cross-country equipment: three-pin bindings, leather boots and narrow, waxless skis. This was the state of the art for backcountry skiing in those days. On the east side of Yosemite, Allan Bard and other experts had used similar flimsy gear to make first descents of steep couloirs. Tobin and I could barely manage a shaky snowplow on the easiest slopes, and we were uninitiated in the secrets of the Telemark turn.

It was lightly snowing when we parked at Badger Pass. We shuffled up the Glacier Point road, stooped under the weight of a rope, crampons, a light rock rack, a few screws, a stove, bivy gear, an aluminum pot and a can of baked beans. Low clouds engulfed us like a shroud. Deep, soft drifts muffled all sounds. Even our waxless skis were dead silent. We shivered from more than the cold: there was a sense of being in a strange, new country, with none of the usual markers—only thick firs and pines pressed under the weight of fresh snow. After six miles, we left the road and followed the frozen Sentinel Creek to a balcony at the top of the falls, where we stamped down a tent platform. Across the way, Yosemite Falls peeked through the clouds, water shooting from a snowy bank, 2,500 feet into the air, leaving behind a lacing of ice on stone.

This was our first real winter-camping experience. When we woke at dawn, we learned that our inexpensive shelter, a bright orange "tube tent"—think of a long, heavyduty garbage bag strung on a line between two trees—wasn't well-suited for such use. Torrents of condensation ran down the inside of the impermeable, vapor-barrier walls. I wasn't concerned. The morning temperature seemed mild, and we'd slept comfortably through the one night we planned to bivy. As we wrung water out of our soaked down bags, jammed them into stuff sacks, and post-holed down to the base of the falls, I thought only of the climb ahead.

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AT THE START OF THE ROUTE, the silence was broken by the gurgling of water just under the surface. The ice seemed a little mushy, but reasonably secure, and the picks sank all the way to the handles. Tobin led the first pitch rapidly, driving a pin or two into cracks in nearby rock to complement the questionable screws. From my vantage point, he looked solid, displaying none of the histrionics he often used to propel himself up dicey sections of stone. On my lead, a ten-foot-diameter hole gaped in the center of the gully. Running water cavorted and splashed in plain sight. I skirted the gap on a couple of feet of soft ice stuck to a sidewall. I didn't pause to consider what might happen if the narrow strips that framed the hole and supported the entire couloir above also collapsed. And neither, apparently did Tobin: by the time he belayed me up the last pitch to a handy tree, he was smiling broadly. All was going according to plan. Now to get down to the valley in the quickest way, I thought.

Pitch 1: Mark Chapman on Sentinel Falls in 1974. [Photo] Mark Chapman collection

Neither of us had hiked the Four Mile Trail in summer, but on the map, it seemed like a feasible shortcut. The deep snowpack had buried the signs, so we started our descent in what we guessed was the right vicinity. At first, the slope was gentle, and we traversed long sections linked by stationary kick turns.

When it got steeper, we began falling. Each time, anchored by heavy packs, we faced a laborious process to get back on our feet. As the angle increased, we set off snowballs that peeled back the top layer of the slope and coiled on themselves until they looked like cinnamon rolls. By the time they accelerated out of sight, they were five or six feet high. It became clear that if the terrain kept getting steeper, we, or the slope we were standing on, would slide right off the hill. Eventually, cliffs emerged below us. Rappelling wasn't an option: too much precarious snow lay between us and the rock; there was no guarantee that we'd find enough anchors to reach the ground. I looked for some way around the precipices, but they went on and on, in all downward directions. I knew then that we were completely screwed.

I YELLED TO TOBIN above me not to descend any farther. To make matters worse, slowly rotating, battleship-grey clouds now encircled us, and the snow fell more heavily. I got out the map, but I realized that our world was shrinking; we'd never find the trail. I explained to Tobin that we had no choice except to go back up and return the way we'd come.

Already worn-out, Tobin could only muster a heartfelt, "Darn it." True to form, he never swore. We both almost wept: the Valley floor appeared so close, just beyond our bamboo ski poles, less than a quarter mile away.

Up proved infinitely harder than down. We couldn't achieve any kind of rhythm; our skis slipped backward on each sidestep. When we reached the rim, big flakes drifted through the dusk. Thoroughly lost, we hoped that if we kept making our way east, we'd eventually hit Glacier Point and the road to Badger Pass. On the map, we were only a mile away, but as we broke trail in deep snow, those skinny skis sank down, down, down, before they achieved buoyancy. Each step was hard won.

Just before night fell completely, an opensided stone structure emerged. We'd reached one of the summer tourist shelters at the Glacier Point parking lot. A tent was pitched inside. A couple more appeared nearby. As we dropped our packs, the occupants came out to stare at us. We must have been a sight: every inch of our wool hats, sweaters and pants was coated in snow and soaked through. We'd been moving nonstop all day, with nothing to eat or drink since dawn.

Three of the skiers had already laid out fluffy down bags, and they were warming cups of after-dinner hot chocolate. They must have thought that we'd done what they had: skied the eleven miles from the road closure to spend the night at Glacier Point—a pleasant outing. After brief greetings, I got out our little stove to melt snow.

The skiers watched in silence while Tobin searched for our matches. One man pulled a lighter out of his bright orange parka. "Here, use this," he said.

I thanked him. The sound of gas lighting made the shelter seem cheerier.

He looked at me askance. "Didn't you guys bring a fire starter?" He had a tone of smug superiority.

Tobin and I just glanced at each other and smiled. It was too hard to explain all that we'd been through. Somewhere deep in my pack, my waterproof matches remained in a sealed plastic bag. But Tobin had an old book of paper ones in the pocket of his dripping wool pants. With a big, goofy smile, he pulled out the soggy, pliant matches, and he played along. "Of course," he said, "We brought these." He held them up triumphantly and attempted to strike one. No spark. He tried another and then another. Nothing. I controlled the urge to laugh as the audience first gaped and then smirked at Tobin's insouciance about the most essential of the "ten essentials." Tobin kept giggling and striking matches with a theatrical flourish: "Oh, look! This one sparked a little, let me try another one." He went through the whole pack, grinning like an idiot. None lit. "Darn it, these worked fine before we left."

Next, the skiers learned that we intended to lay our bags out on a plastic tarp. "You didn't bring a tent?" the guy in the orange parka said with a sneer.

I'd had enough. "Look, we didn't just ski here, we climbed a 400-foot, frozen waterfall this morning, and it was a choice between carrying this"—I pulled the soggy, 11mil from my pack—"or a tent. We chose the rope." This declaration stopped the preparedness lectures. We'd matched their smug one-upmanship with our own ingrained belief that climbers operated on a higher level than tourists, hikers and skiers. As John Long later explained in Valley Uprising, we Yosemite regulars believed we knew the place better than anyone because we explored not only its horizontal plane, but the sublime, vertical dimension that made it one of the wonders of the world. We were the teenage illuminati who knew the secret of life, and it was simple: just climb.

But the skiers had the last laugh: they slept in dry comfort that night. Our down bags were just flimsy rip-stop nylon enclosing hard lumps of wet feathers. We'd cooked our one can of baked beans the night before, and we had nothing to flavor our hot water except a couple of tea bags. One skier took pity on us and invited us into his tent. He even let us have some of his soup and hot chocolate, which we accepted with humble gratitude. Still, my bag was so wet it had become completely useless, and Tobin and I decided to share the drier of the two: my head to Tobin's toes.

But first, what to do with my sopping pants? I figured maybe they'd dry if I took them off and hung them inside the tent. I had no idea that wool dried from the inside out by body heat, as sheep well know. At dawn, I lifted them off the line, stiff as a piece of lumber, and impossible to put on. The prospect of walking out—sans pants—was alarming. I hugged them to my chest for ten minutes or so until they thawed out, though they were still shockingly cold. Tobin and I slogged back out to Badger Pass, eleven long miles on the snowcovered tourist road. At least it was impossible to lose the way.

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WHILE LEE WENT to call off the rescue, Tobin and I met our friends at Camp 4. John Long stared at us as though we were ghosts. It wasn't just that we were overdue. Yesterday afternoon, he'd walked out to the meadow to look up at Sentinel Falls and check on our progress. When he did, he was startled, and then aghast.

The entire 400 feet of ice was gone.

It had collapsed most likely an hour or so after we'd climbed it. The remnants lay piled in a giant heap at the base. Our prolonged absence had only seemed to confirm our fate.

I laughed about John's mistaken conclusion when I later recounted the story, but John, who normally made light of anything and everything, turned uncharacteristically quiet. "It may be amusing now," he said, "but it was not so funny then."

Lee, on the other hand, was utterly enthralled when we finally explained what happened. He delighted in every detail, as if he'd never doubted we'd get back safely.

The day after our misadventure, Tobin and I were summoned to appear at Park headquarters. The ranger Butch Farabee invited us to sit in the stark, metal chairs in front of his desk. I told him the story from beginning to end: the skin in, the planned bivouac, the climb, the failed ski descent, the unplanned bivouac and the long march out.

After a brief silence, Farabee lectured me about our lack of responsibility and the trouble to which we'd put the National Park Service. "Don't you think you should have tried something easier to climb?"

I bristled: I'd occasionally served as a rescue team member myself, hired by the Park Service for my climbing skills. While Tobin and I were beginners at ice, we knew a lot more about technical ascents than any ranger in those days. I sat up straight in my chair, and I looked Farabee in the eye. "There is absolutely nothing I'd do differently next time, other than not get lost. And of course, no one ever plans to get lost. So really there's nothing I'd do differently."

His eyes flashed. Unable to get contrition from me, he began his cross-examination of Tobin with a deft, leading question. "Isn't it true that you were rescued off the Prow a couple of years ago?"

Tobin nodded meekly. Two springs earlier, a swift storm had struck while he was attempting his first big wall.

"So this is the second time we've have been called out to rescue you?"

Another quiet nod.

I tried to interject, but Farabee continued to browbeat Tobin, who shrunk deeper and deeper into his chair. At last, Farabee seemed to grow tired, and he showed us the door.

By then, I was so chilled that I couldn't warm up for weeks. As we lounged in front of the Deli, John, clad in jeans and a T-shirt, looked at me wearing a down jacket, with a wool cap pulled down around my ears. "Almost too hot in the sun, eh Ricky?"

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SOON AFTER our near debacle, Mark and Kevin reached the top of Widow's Tears. The hardest first ascent of a Yosemite waterfall to date, the climb pushed them so close to the edge that Kevin told me he was overcome with emotion when they succeeded. But ice remained a marginal pursuit in the Valley, reserved for those patient enough to wait for the right cold spells. Ed Sampson and Richard Leversee finally climbed the ephemeral Lower Sentinel Falls in 1987. The first complete ascent of Sentinel Falls didn't take place until sometime later, when Walt Shipley and Kevin Fosburg took advantage of a hard freeze that occurred right after several competing teams had given up and left. Only this past winter did Vitaliy Musiyenko and an anonymous climber make the first and second recorded free solos of Widow's Tears.

My youthful bravado has long since faded. Looking back, I'm chagrined at the series of errors Tobin and I made. I later learned that those monster cinnamon-roll snowballs were what avalanche professionals call "pinwheels" or "rollerballs": signs of an imminent wet slab avalanche. The collapse of the falls represented our most serious, unrecognized narrow escape. Somehow that realization made an otherwise good story embarrassing rather than heroic. We were so inexperienced we weren't even aware of how close we'd come to leaving our families bereaved.

It was the "unknown unknowns" that almost got us. Donald Rumsfeld made that phrase notorious when he tried to explain the limits of military intelligence, but poets and explorers had used the concept long before he did. The phrase denotes a hierarchy of awareness and risk: There are the things you know, the things you know you don't know, and things you don't know that you don't know. The last are the most dangerous: in our case, we didn't realize that the warm night—which made our bivouac at the top of the falls so pleasant—also ratcheted up the danger. In retrospect, the signs were obvious: the noise of bubbling water; the malleable, soft ice; the giant hole.

In Supertopo discussions about Vernal Fall, climbers are alternatively sympathetic and derisive toward unwary tourists who plunge to their deaths, at times accusing them of an utter lack of common sense. Yet Tobin and I were as oblivious as a couple of summer hikers splashing out into the shallows of the lower Merced River. Imagine it. The interminable granite steps of the trail from Happy Isles are behind you, and you're hot and dusty. The bright waters beckon, just as the frozen Sentinel stream summoned us from the Valley floor. Boots and socks come off, so you can soak your feet. A mist rises below. Refreshingly cool water tugs gently at your ankles as you wade in, and there is only a distant rumble from downstream.

Reassuring your friends that you are safe—you're just going out so they can get a photo—you take a step, your bare foot slides on a slick rock. There's a loss of balance, a gentle splash. You should be able to stand up, but you can't: there's nothing to grasp except gravel and polished stone. The current is insistent now, like a riptide at the beach, and you float unhurriedly, but steadily toward the lip of the falls, and suddenly there is only the roar: louder...louder.

[To learn more about Rick Accomazzo, check out The Stonemasters: California Rock Climbers in the Seventies by John Long and Dean Fidelman. For more of the author's adventures with Tobin Sorenson, see "He Would Just Go: Tobin Sorenson and the Alps, 1977," in Alpinist Magazine Issue 49—Spring 2015—Ed.]

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