On Wednesday at 5 a.m in Yosemite National Park, the rescue page came in: Two male hikers had been out all night near the rim of Yosemite Valley in the proximity of North Dome Gully.
The day before, the pair of British tourists had hiked 7.2 miles and 2,700 feet up the Yosemite Falls Trail and planned to descend down the Snow Creek Trail over 4.7 miles to reach the valley floor. They became disoriented at snowline, got lost and descended into a one-way gully leading to a cliff.
To make matters worse, a winter storm warning went into effect at 4 p.m. the following day. Blizzard conditions were expected, with snow down to 7,000 feet. The YNP Facebook page states:
“Yosemite is forecast to receive up to about five inches of rain and two to three feet of higher-elevation snow tonight through tomorrow [January 16–17]. As a result, all roads leading to Yosemite Valley will be closed before midnight tonight [January 16].”
January is mid-winter in Yosemite, with rain and snow frequently falling between intermittent sunshine. On the day the hikers began their trek, strong winds picked up and blew the snow off the trees. Clouds moved in and out of the valley, at times covering iconic Half Dome across the valley from them.
After losing their way, the two cut east toward Washington Column, where they may have picked up a climbers path leading toward North Dome Gully, one of the most feared descents in the park due to its exposure, loose ground and complicated route finding. It’s also long; it would take experienced climbing teams several hours to navigate down it. But the two hikers didn’t make it down North Dome Gully; instead, they descended near it.
Where they ended up it’s “a much steeper gully than North Dome. It’s [a gully] near North Dome and Snow Creek,” an anonymous source familiar with the rescue told ASN.
They continued their descent, including aimless down-climbing, digging themselves deeper in until they were utterly stuck – and then darkness set in. That’s when they finally called for a rescue with the one remaining service bar on their phone.
Because the lost hikers had their cell phone, they were also able to get their GPS location and relay it to 911. Dispatch called the Yosemite Search and Rescue Team (YOSAR) team and the decision was made for the two to hikers to hunker down for the night. They were at around 5,000 feet. That night temps dropped to the low 30s and it also rained.
Two people searched that night – the hikers called in the rescue at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday – but were unsuccessful in finding them. It was a scout that got fairly close, but not close enough. The two rescuers went all the way to the rim and tried to figure out where the hikers were. At 2 a.m. on Wednesday they reported that they could not find them. The second text went out at 5 a.m. that morning.
“The rescue yesterday used everyone on duty – four people on the ground plus a CHP pilot and crew chief,” our source stated. “In the winter we contract commercial operators or California Highway Patrol if they’re available, or military assets. It’s a free-for-all in the winter.”
Per protocol, since Yosemite only operates their main helicopter from spring through autumn, a helicopter was ordered in from California Highway Patrol to assist with the rescue.
The ranger noted that many areas in Yosemite are closed for public safety, in order to clear up resources that have been working on a skeleton crew since the partial government shutdown began 26 days ago. This includes the John Muir Trail, which typically requires nine people to perform a carry out of an injured hiker. In comparison, the rescue of the two British hikers had only four people on the ground, performing a difficult and dangerous rescue high above the valley floor.
ASN repeatedly reached out to Yosemite’s public relations officer but our calls were met with a busy signal and emails not returned. “All media requests must be approved by PIO (Public Information Officer). I need their approval to give an interview,” the incident commander said.
To speed up the rescue and beat the incoming storm, two rangers were hoisted down to the landing zone and equipped with ropes and hardware while two others hiked in from the Valley floor. Overnight gear was also flown in, in case the rescuers and victims would have to weather the incoming storm overnight. The four rescuers met at the mouth of the canyon that led 550 feet down the steep rock to the stranded hikers.
Here they set up a rappel and tied two ropes together, then two men descended the wet and loose rock. The victims were “uncomfortable and shivering” but uninjured.
“They got themselves to a place that good climbers wouldn’t want to be. There was no way down from there,” said one of the rescuers.
They were then shown how to go up a fixed rope using ascenders and webbing ladders. Once out of the gully they were fastened into a “screamer suit” (a body harness used to clip rescuees to a long line hanging out of a helicopter). One at a time the victims were then hoisted inside and flown to nearby Ahwahnee Meadow.
“An hour later it started dumping [rain] and we got 3 inches last night. They would have died [from exposure],” the same rescuer said. “It’s great for the two young Brits who got to live. During the shutdown there are limited services critical to health and safety, but we saved lives.”
The unpaid government worker has no knowledge of when he’ll get paid. He also described the ranger offices that act as the central operating area for the park as a “ghost town.”
More Hiking content From ASN