By Audrey Frazier
The call comes in at 8:55 a.m. on Monday, Sept. 19: A climber just below the sixth pitch on the northwest face of Half Dome reports a fall from somewhere to the side and above his position roughly 600 feet up the largest, sheerest slab of granite on the face of the Earth.
Yosemite dispatcher John Dahlberg asks the caller—who says his name is Michael—what he sees. From his current vantage point, Michael is able to provide Dahlberg little more than his willingness to stay put and on the phone.
But he is almost certain it was a climber dropping past him and reports a second climber repelling down along the same route as the fall. Michael agrees to stay on the line with Dahlberg until connected to the Search and Rescue Cache in Yosemite Valley.
National Park Service (NPS)—Yosemite Emergency Communications Center Manager Nancy Bissmeyer picks up her radio before Dahlberg prompts her to or even turns his chair toward his supervisor to relay the information. She’s already on it.
“SAR Cache, this is Bissmeyer reporting an emergency,” Bissmeyer says. “We have a report of a fall from the north face of Half Dome.”
Michael is telling Dahlberg “Yes,” a climber has fallen, and isn’t moving.
At 9:11 a.m., rescue becomes a recovery. A fellow climber, who tells the call center he is a physician from France and who was on the same area of rock at the time of the fall, declares the climber dead.
SAR Cache Incident Command will arrange the recovery effort. At this point, no one suspects the incident will be a rescue. Dahlberg connects Michael with the search and rescue team and disconnects his line.
“It’s jinxed this year,” Dahlberg says, turning to Bissmeyer.
But Bissmeyer is already on to another request. Park Volunteer Hank Parson is at her console asking for clarification of a street name plotted in the dispatch-center-created all-inclusive emergency responder street atlas.
Recovery is now in the hands of search and rescue.
At 10:08 a.m., a helicopter heading toward Ahwahnee Meadow will pick up three members of the voluntary Yosemite Search and Rescue (YOSAR) who will assist in the recovery of the body from a ledge on Half Dome.
“We have done the best that we can,” Dahlberg says. “It’s all we can do. The way I see it, every incident has been determined by the time we answer the call. We keep the caller as calm as we can and pass the information on to response.”
Yosemite’s iconic granite dome attracts hundreds of technical climbers to its big walls each year in addition to hikers securing permits to follow the 400-foot segment of chain leading to the granite dome top nearly 5,000 feet up from the valley floor. And that’s not counting the 7- to 23-mile round-trip hike (depending on the trail chosen and the point of departure).
The climber who fell on Sept. 19—Markus Praxmarer of Innsbruck, Austria—was the third person in 2011 to die from a fall from Half Dome, and the 19th casualty at the park this year as of September 19. On July 31, a San Ramon, Calif., woman slipped to her death while clutching the mounted cables to descend the rain-soaked and slippery granite dome during a severe thundershower. Three weeks later, a Los Gatos, Calif., man fell 2,500 feet off the Half Dome summit.
Six of the deaths at the park involved water, including three hikers who died in July after they climbed over a guardrail to take photos near the top of Vernal Fall and plunged over the edge of the 317-foot drop-off. Two hikers drowned in the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in June. The total doesn’t include a 17-year-old from Fresno, Calif., who died in a Modesto hospital five days after falling off the popular Mist Trail. The young man did not die within the park, so his death is not included in the tally.
The number of deaths occurring through September 2011 already exceeded a yearly average of 12 to 15 by year’s end and included cardiac arrest, car accidents, and deaths attributed to other natural causes. Factors to blame in 2011 include the higher number of visitors—more than 730,000 in July and again in August—and an especially heavy snow pack creating treacherous conditions in fast-moving waters.
Dahlberg mentions the lack of “situational awareness” of visitors. Some do not realize the natural hazards associated with the 750,000-acre park and are not prepared to cope in case something does occur.
“People come here to experience nature without the experience to adjust their response in a dangerous situation,” he said. “They walk up to bears, climb over railings, and walk up Half Dome under a storm cloud. Each loss is certainly traumatic, but visitors must also assume a level of personal responsibility.”
It was different for Praxmarer, as far as preparedness goes. He was a conscientious and highly-skilled technical climber who fell to his death when a piece of rock let loose from a jagged edge cut his double rope just a foot or so above his main security knot. Without taking air resistance into consideration, a free fall from 500 feet would take roughly 5.5 seconds. People very seldom survive free falls from heights of 100 feet or more.
Praxmarer’s climbing partners were able to self-arrest, and an American climbing team took the surviving Austrians on their rope and brought them into the valley.
“Praxi” [as he was known in the climbing community] was a very physically strong and excellent climber, who inspired friendly climbers and mountain rescuers, according to Dr. Norbert Hofer, OBRD-local officer manager in Telfs, in a story posted on the Austrian Mountain Rescue Web page.
“He was full of zest for action, with the rousing way of athletes, but also the deep certainty that the fun and joy of life cannot be neglected,” Dr. Hofer wrote in an article [translated from German] announcing the tragic accident. “Praxi leaves a deep hole in our hearts.”
The 48-year-old Praxmarer was a climbing legend in his native Austria, devoting his life to the sport, from his beginnings of hiking and rock climbing the mountains of Tyrol (Mieminger Mountains, Stubai Alps) to expeditions to Aconcagua in the Andes Mountains. Praxmarer was an International Federation of Mountain Guides Association-certified mountain and ski guide, leading tours in the Matterhorn, Weissenhorn, and Mont Blanc Duforspitze. He had been a member of the Tyrolean mountain rescue in the ÖBRD-Ortsstelle Telfs.
Praxmarer achieved several first ascents and established many new routes, including three for alpine climbing on Karkopf (Mieminger Mountains) with his long-time climbing partner, Bernard Hangl, and the support of the Austrian Alpine Association.
Praxmarer is commemorated in a blog posted five days following his death.
“Praxmarer, you will leave a deep hole in our climbing community,” a fellow climber writes. “We will never forget you. You were a very special person, and our hearts are broken to think you are no longer with us” [translated from German].
The National Park Service issues 450 permits each day to access the cables on Half Dome, from roughly the Memorial Day weekend through the Columbus Day holiday in October. According to park statistics, more than 60 people have died in the approximately 14-mile hike that includes the 400-foot cable section above the subdome (exclusive of technical climbers—like Praxmarer—using equipment to scale the granite walls), although thousands have completed the hike unscathed.
According to park regulations, technical rock climbers ascending Half Dome without entering the subdome area do not need a permit to descend the cables.