Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Yosemite National Park’s HRT

Editor’s Note: The following story originally appeared in the October/November 2012 issue of Vertical Magazine. We’ve republished it here to accompany the above recently-released video showcasing the Yosemite National Park Search and Rescue Team’s training techniques.

Driving into Yosemite Valley, some four hours east of San Francisco, California, you’re immediately met by giant rock faces towering 3,000 feet over the valley floor. Highlighted by the epic faces of El Capitan and Half Dome, these massive spans of granite are renowned in the world of rock climbing — and they’re only a short hike away from the valley’s roads.

Accessible and iconic, the granite of Yosemite National Park draws devotees from around the world. “El Cap” alone can see as many as 40 climbers a day dispersed over its 100 climbing routes, with nearly 4,000 climbers attempting this prized ascent every summer season. Yet rock climbers make up only a small percentage of the park’s visitors. Each year, around four million people pour in through the narrow confines of Yosemite Valley, exploring the many hiking trails that wind through the granite and along the pounding rapids of the Merced and Tuolumne rivers. Unfortunately, some of them never return. An average of 12 to 14 deaths occur in the park annually, the result of accidents, missteps and over-exertion.

High-angle cliff rescues with technical terrain short haul rescues are the hallmark of SAR work at Yosemite National Park. Tom Evans Photo
High-angle cliff rescues with technical terrain short haul rescues are the hallmark of SAR work at Yosemite National Park. Tom Evans Photo
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Without the Yosemite National Park’s Helicopter Rescue Team (HRT), part of its larger search-and-rescue (SAR) team, this number would be much higher. Using a Bell 205A-1 (modified with Bell 212 rotor blades and a Lycoming T53-17B engine) contracted through Idaho’s Kachina Aviation, the HRT rescues an average of 40 people per year — four of these from the sheer faces of Half Dome and El Cap. With a versatile helicopter and highly experienced crew, the HRT brings a high degree of innovation and professionalism to its lifesaving efforts, adapting quickly to the wide range of rescue scenarios in one of America’s most popular national parks.

Experience Counts

Nineteen years ago, park ranger Lisa Hendy was handing out backcountry permits in Yosemite National Park. Today, she’s Yosemite’s emergency services program manager, responsible for overseeing its SAR team and, by extension, the HRT.

“It’s one of the best search-and-rescue programs in the country, and that’s kind of my passion,” Hendy said. “You do a lot of things as a ranger; search-and-rescue is my favorite.”

Heli-rappel operations were suspended nationwide in 2010 following an investigation into the death of a wildland firefighter. The suspension was lifted last year following procedural and gear changes, and Yosemite was quick to reinstate rappelling operations. Rappellers must recertify every two weeks.
Heli-rappel operations were suspended nationwide in 2010 following an investigation into the death of a wildland firefighter. The suspension was lifted last year following procedural and gear changes, and Yosemite was quick to reinstate rappelling operations. Rappellers must recertify every two weeks. Brent Bergan Photos

Over her career, Hendy — who in 2011 was honored with the Harry Yount National Park Ranger Award for her excellence and versatility as a ranger — has participated in SAR in six national parks. What makes Yosemite unique, she said, are its extreme vertical faces, which pose extraordinary challenges for rescuers. To meet those challenges, the park hires rangers with advanced skills and they join the HRT only once they’ve proven their abilities.

According to Hendy, the chief requirement for joining the HRT is “the ability to self-extricate: if something happens to the aircraft, can those people self-extricate? It’s very hard to measure. We measure that by lead climbing capability and experience on the big wall.” She continued, “To get the experience level to get on the HRT — all of these guys have been doing this for years, 10-plus years at least. More like the 15- to 20-year range of experience. Nobody’s a spring chicken anymore.”

One of these experienced rangers in John Dill. At 74 years old, Dill is certainly no spring chicken, but he still has a youthful exuberance and enthusiasm for his job. Dill arrived at Yosemite in 1970, initially as part of the park’s “SAR siter” program, which allows interested adventurers to stay in the park for free, provided they assist with SAR as required.

“You only get paid when you work as a SAR siter, but the rest of the time is your own,” said Dill. “[For] a climber who wants to climb a lot and [have] free housing in the park, it’s dynamite.”

The program serves as something of an internship: a number of the park’s rangers are top-notch big wall climbers who started out as SAR siters.

Having now been involved in rescue work at Yosemite for more than 40 years, Dill has played a critical role in the development and evolution of the HRT. According to Dill, the park began using helicopters to assist with rescue work in the 1970s, tapping Bell UH-1N Twin Hueys and Sikorsky CH-53 Sea Stallions from the Air National Guard. “I remember being hoisted down on a jungle penetrator — it looked like something out of Terminator,” he recalled. “A big CH-53 stuck us on this thing and put us down. Nowadays, it’d be two weeks of training before you even get into a helicopter!”

Attention to detail is a must for Yosemite's SAR team members.
Attention to detail is a must for Yosemite’s SAR team members.

Naval Air Station Lemoore became the go-to unit for helicopter support, and they trained extensively with the rangers in heli-rappel, short-haul and hoisting techniques. In the 1980s, however, Yosemite adopted United States Forest Service (USFS) protocols for a helitack program, and began using contract helicopters for both firefighting and rescues. Over the years, the park has employed a range of helicopter types, including the Aérospatiale AS355 TwinStar and Eurocopter AS350 B3 AStar, the Aérospatiale SA 315B Lama and MBB Bo.105 (it also continued to use Bell UH-1N Twin Hueys from Naval Air Station Lemoore). Today, it contracts with Kachina Aviation for a medium-lift 205A-1 during the summer busy season. In the off season, or when the contract bird isn’t available, it may call on a B3 AStar from the California Highway Patrol (CHP).

In the rugged, unforgiving, towering terrain of Yosemite National Park, the 205A-1 is the ideal multi-tool, allowing rescuers to use either heli-rappel or short-haul techniques to fit the situation at hand. Although government heli-rappel operations were suspended nationwide in February 2010 following an investigation into the death of a wildland firefighter during a training exercise, that suspension was lifted last year following procedural and gear changes (see p.29, Vertical, June-July 2011; and p.82, Vertical, Aug-Sept 2011). Yosemite was quick to reinstate rappelling operations, and I happened to be on site when two Yosemite rangers, Jack Hoeflich and Chris Bellino, went through recertification training in May 2012.

Rangers Jack Hoe flich and Chris Bellino, with spotter Boots Davenport, ready the cabin for heli-rappel training out of Yosemite's helibase at Crane Flat.
Rangers Jack Hoe flich and Chris Bellino, with spotter Boots Davenport, ready the cabin for heli-rappel training out of Yosemite’s helibase at Crane Flat.

“Basic rappelling is relatively easy. But, as soon as you add in the helicopter, the intensity of the rescue case and sense of urgency, things can go wrong — which makes regular training critical,” said Hoeflich. “The requirement is, you recertify every two weeks. It’s because there’s so much going on in the helicopter. Here, the spotter wants to see everything the same way, in exactly the same sequence.”

In every iteration of training I witnessed, the spotter checked the ranger’s gear in a religious sequence, ensuring every piece of webbing and every buckle was exactly where it needed to be before entering and departing the helicopter.

Tossing Beanbags

One reason why Yosemite values heli-rappelling is because it’s an efficient way to put rescuers on the ground among big trees. It’s also played a role in various other specialized rescue techniques, which Yosemite’s rangers began developing within a year or two of starting a heli-rappel program. Initially, rangers would rappel from the helicopter until they were level with a cliff-stranded victim. Then, they would toss him or her a beanbag attached to a line to provide a means for traveling the final, horizontal distance to the rock face. Explained Dill, who led development of the technique, “We started from rappel. We would throw a cord to the wall and have the guy pull you in.”

Rappel techniques are used to deliver rescuers into big trees, including the park's 200-foot redwoods
Rappel techniques are used to deliver rescuers into big trees, including the park’s 200-foot redwoods

The problem was that the rescuer at the bottom of the rappel would start to spin just from throwing the beanbag, and if a second throw was required, it could take a while to get realigned for it. Because of this difficulty, the rescue teams started throwing the beanbag from the helicopter instead.

The basic technique stands to this day. The beanbag is about the size of a baseball with a thin parachute line attached to it, and the line is coiled in a plastic bottle. As the helicopter hovers just above the target, the spotter makes the throw (in training, they’ve accomplished beanbag throws up to 100 feet). Once the line is over the target, it is attached to a thicker tag line, which is dropped to the ranger dangling below. The helicopter increases its altitude to put the rescuer adjacent to the target, and the rescuer can now be pulled toward the wall.

“We call this technique bean bagging, but really . . .  it’s a sand bag, I only stick one bean in there so we can call it a beanbag,” said Dill. “The other reason [for the name] is because we try to bean the guy.”

“The really tricky part of a high-angle rescue is hovering within 20 feet of the granite. When you’re that close to the wall, you have to know the weather patterns and winds, and have a solid understanding of how those are going to affect the helicopter,” said helicopter program manager Eric Small. “It takes a long time for the contract pilots to work up to high-angle technical and using the bean-bag technique. If we changed contracts we wouldn’t be doing this.”

Ranger Jack Hoeflich is checked by Boots Davenport just prior to dropping down between the trees.
Ranger Jack Hoeflich is checked by Boots Davenport just prior to dropping down between the trees.

Pilot Tim Lyons reinforced the intensity of high-angle rescues: “The biggest challenge I have is the big wall rescue — the closeness to the granite face. I try to explain it to people that don’t fly: if you land in a tight area and clip your blades on a tree you’ll lose your job. If you clip your blades on the wall a thousand feet off the ground you’re going to die.”

To add to the difficulty, the granite can act as a giant heat generator, sucking in the mountain sun and producing its own convectional updrafts with speeds upwards of 500 feet per minute. That, plus prevailing winds that can push huge downdrafts over the rock face, add up to extreme challenges for a pilot who’s trying to hover precisely. As Hoeflich pointed out, “The difference between a 7 a.m. mission and a 1 [p.m.] mission is 20 miles-per-hour gusting winds which can make or break it.”

Then add in the matter of depth perception, complicated by the shadows on the wall. If you ask four people on the aircraft how far away from the wall you are, you’ll get four different answers. When you have nothing to look at but the giant rock face, distance is deceiving, and the tendency is to get too close. Rescuers strive to maintain a minimum of 20 feet of rotor clearance at all times; accurate judgment comes with experience.

A Fatal Storm

Although the beanbag technique for delivering rescuers and gear isn’t new, it wasn’t an officially authorized procedure until this year: crews employed it only in life-or-death situations on actual rescues. Small explained that rescuers have always had substantial leeway in “life safety” situations. “The difficult part is making policy so we can train to do it — that’s the big push now,” he said.

Regular training is critical to performing rescue missions safely and effectively.
Regular training is critical to performing rescue missions safely and effectively.

Park officials were convinced of the importance of bean bagging when, on Oct. 16, 2004, a storm rolled through Yosemite, stranding four climbing parties on the face of El Capitan. As Dill explained, being stranded on El Cap is no small matter: “When the storm hits, it’ll often rain, turn to snow, maybe ice and it’s cold enough to kill you from hypothermia. If the storm clears, there’s a lot of snow on top and that’s running down the wall. There might be a waterfall a hundred feet away blowing sideways into your shelter.”

Two climbers, a husband-and-wife team from Japan, weathered the storm for two days before accidentally losing their haul bags and sleeping bags, dropping them to the ground thousands of feet below. The couple made a push for the top on Oct. 19, but they were unable to make it. The HRT was unable to fly due to weather, and a ground rescue party was still attempting to hike to the top of El Cap to attempt a rescue by rope. The couple tried to weather another night on the wall, but sadly froze to death without their gear.

Conducting short-haul rescues on Yosemite's big walls can be nerve-wracking, said pilot Tim Lyons,
Conducting short-haul rescues on Yosemite’s big walls can be nerve-wracking, said pilot Tim Lyons, “If you land in a tight area and clip your blades on a tree you’ll lose your job. If you clip your blades on the wall a thousand feet off the ground you’re going to die.” Tom Evans Photo

A day later there was a short break in the storm, and Dill and Small prepared to fly to the remaining climbing parties stranded on the wall. By the time the helicopter got going, however, another storm rolled through out of nowhere. The HRT had only minutes to get survival gear to one group of climbers to help them weather the looming frontal system, and the only way to do it was with Dill’s beanbag system. As the helicopter hovered close to the wall, Dill made the shot to the wall with the beanbag. The climbing party anchored the thicker line to the wall, and then Dill dropped out a haul bag containing critical food, water, survival gear — and a radio. He recalled, “We just made it; I couldn’t believe it. We just pulled it out of our butts basically.”

He continued, “When we sent the haul bag over, I stuck a radio in the top. That’s when everybody got so excited about bean bagging. And now the operations chief could talk to the guys on the wall — to the people they’re trying to rescue.”

On the Wall

El Cap’s first ascent in 1958 took 47 days to complete. In short order, the time needed to complete this infamous climb dwindled to an average of three to four days. The record for the fastest climb was set in June of this year by Hans Florine and Alex Honnold, who made it to the top in two hours and 23 minutes.

The Bell 205A-1 has proven to be an ideal multi-tool, allowing rescuers to use either heli-rappel or short-haul techniques to fit the situation at hand.
The Bell 205A-1 has proven to be an ideal multi-tool, allowing rescuers to use either heli-rappel or short-haul techniques to fit the situation at hand.

Like Florine and Honnold, many contemporary Yosemite climbers combine the techniques of aid climbing and free climbing to get to the top as quickly as possible. The faster they climb, however, the more risks they take, and sometimes the results can be disastrous. In September 2010, ranger Chris Bellino was called out when a climber who was speed climbing El Cap misjudged a huge swing on the nose route and impacted a rock protrusion, breaking his femur.

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The accident befell a party of rock climbing guides from Spain who needed to transit horizontally from one vertical climbing feature to an adjacent one. To do so, the lead climber scaled the first ascent, creating a fulcrum for a pendulum swing to the next feature. While efficient, such swings can also be dangerous. Said Bellino, “People are misjudging that swing and are taking a swing that’s taking substantial forces and don’t identify they’re going to hit something.” In this case, the lead climber hit a rock protrusion mid-swing.

Broken femurs are a fairly common break on El Cap, and can lead to massive blood loss if a femoral artery is sliced. While some climbers with broken femurs have been able to self-rescue, rappelling off the wall, in this case the HRT was called out via the climbing party’s cell phone. The 205A-1 picked up Bellino from the valley and short hauled him to El Cap. John Demay was the spotter at the time, with Tim Lyons at the flight controls.

Gina Bartiromo, center, was rescued by the HRT after falling from Half Dome in 2009. Three years later, she has made a near-full recovery from the extensive injuries she suffered.
Gina Bartiromo, center, was rescued by the HRT after falling from Half Dome in 2009. Three years later, she has made a near-full recovery from the extensive injuries she suffered.

Getting Bellino to the wall would prove to be difficult. A critical safety aspect is the ability to anchor the rescuer to the wall — this time there was nothing for Bellino to anchor to except the injured climber himself. So Lyons short-hauled Bellino to the wall using vertical reference flying, 1,000 feet above the valley floor. Bellino made contact with the patient, grabbing hold of his harness and locking into his belay loop. Once locked in, he cut loose from the helicopter and was on El Cap.

Bellino took out his Hilti cordless drill and drove two bolts into the rock for anchor points to effect the rescue, then began stabilizing and assessing the patient. Using the same short-haul technique used for Bellino, the helicopter crew then brought in a second ranger, Keith Lober, with a litter and additional gear. While the helicopter stood off at a distance, Lober and Bellino tied the litter into the wall and began the slow, careful process of putting the climber into it. Said Bellino, “We set up the litter and hung it off the wall and put the patient in, we kind of just drug him into it. . . . They just kind of have to man up and help you out, it’s really hard.” Twenty minutes later, Lober and the patient were ready to be airlifted to the valley below.

Taking the patient off the wall in such a scenario can be very difficult, and the HRT trains for it every year. As the helicopter moved into position, Bellino asked the crew for permission to hook the litter and rescuer to the short-haul line. Communication was critical. During normal short-haul operations, voice commands are given to the pilot in terms of “up” and “down.” When the helicopter is connected to the wall, voice commands change to “tension” or “slack.” Said Bellino, “As soon as we’re attached, it’s slack or tension, everyone knows the helicopter is attached to the wall.”

Lisa Hendy walks to the helibase for another rappel.
Lisa Hendy walks to the helibase for another rappel.

Once the litter and attendant were hooked up, a secondary line holding the litter to the wall was cut, Bellino called for tension in the line, the litter and rescuer were raised up until the line became taut. Then, Bellino cut the litter’s primary attachment to the wall. As soon as the load swung, the helicopter moved away from the wall to “catch” the swing, and the patient and Lober were on their way to the valley floor.

That was only half of the rescue: the second half was getting the injured climber’s partner off the wall. In this case, Bellino simply stayed on the wall and helped the second climber rappel down El Cap — a relatively straightforward task. Sometimes, it’s not so easy. The lead climber is oftentimes a party’s guide and best climber; if he or she is injured, the rest of the climbing party could be completely helpless without the rangers’ assistance.

Pushing the Limits

Yosemite’s emergency services program manager, Lisa Hendy, observed that many of today’s adventurers may bring a false sense of security with them into the park. “People get hold of a Spot [satellite GPS] tracker and they think they can get rescued anywhere,” she said. “You get people that push themselves beyond their personal capabilities and they feel secure they can just call for help. What’s happening is, their judgment is impaired and they’re using that as a crutch to do things they shouldn’t be doing.”

John Dill explains the beanbag system he has developed over the past 30 years in his workshop in the SAR cache at Yosemite National Park.
John Dill explains the beanbag system he has developed over the past 30 years in his workshop in the SAR cache at Yosemite National Park.

That said, Hendy acknowledges that pushing one’s limits can also be part of the joy of wilderness travel, something that will always be attractive to Yosemite’s visitors. When limits are pushed too far, the park’s elite, humble team of rescue professionals stands ready to come to the aid. True unsung heroes, members of the Yosemite National Park’s helicopter rescue team merge multiple disciplines to accomplish extraordinary rescues in one of the most remarkable corners of the world. The National Park rangers never ask who it is that’s missing or injured — if someone’s in need of rescue, they go and don’t look back.

The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not to be construed as official or reflecting the views of the commandant or of the U.S. Coast Guard.

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