BIG WALLS, SWIFT WATERS
The World’s Longest Lower?
This tale begins at sunrise on Saturday, September 23, 1972. Climber Neal Olsen was leading a difficult section on the twenty-fourth pitch of the
Nose on El Capitan, just above Camp V—a set of ledges about 900 feet below the top of the cliff. In an unlucky accident, he pulled a 125-pound boulder down on himself. He tried to dodge it, but it still glanced off his head and back before striking his right leg and smashing it badly.
By 7:30 that morning, Yosemite SAR Officer Pete Thompson was organizing one of the most demanding rescues in the history of North American mountaineering. Pete had an A-Team of six local climbers in his office: Jim Bridwell, Bev Johnson, Tom Gerughty, Jim Breedlove, John Dill, and Loyd Price. Their mission: to develop an initial rescue plan, estimate equipment needs, and identify other technical climbers they wished to have with them. The idea was to lower a rescuer from the summit of El Cap 900 feet down to the stricken climber. Then Olsen and his rescuer would be lowered to medical staff on the Valley floor, 1,800 feet below. At the time, only one other long-lowering rescue even remotely similar to this one had been performed, in Grand Teton National Park in August of 1967. In total, 18 men and one woman—Bev Johnson—would be flown to the top of El Cap that day.
The team’s task was made even harder as a result of a disastrous incident earlier that summer. Seven weeks before, just past midnight on August 1, 1972, a 17-year-old boy had torched the many tons of stacked hay in the government’s horse barn. The barn and stables were lost as were another seven older wooden structures. One of these terribly flammable Civilian Conservation Corps–era buildings held the Valley SAR cache. Ropes, webbing, pitons, bolts, carabiners, sleeping bags, rain gear, and related,