Please keep my family safe

Quick moving weather turns a outing into a cliffhanger

Peter and Kathy Holcombe Peter and Kathy Holcombe  |  09.07.2015

Above: Yosemite National Park is a perfect introduction for Abby to multi-pitch rock climbing.

On my first date with Peter, he showed me how to rock climb, and together, we have been chasing dream pitches up big mountains ever since.  To a rock climber, there is no place more sacred than the granite slabs of Yosemite National Park, and from the day Abby was born, her bedtime stories have consisted of epic tales of climbing in the Valley.  It took us almost a decade before her first proper introduction into the climbing in Yosemite.  Her first day was pretty typical of July, and we suffered blistering temperatures and a lengthy cue of climbers waiting at the base of all the classic routes.  In lieu of a repeat performance the next day, we decided to head to Tuolumne Meadows, the high country of Yosemite, and seek refuge from the suffocating heat and infestation of people.

IMG_4343-002A red cheeked Abby rappelling down from her first climb in Yosemite Valley in blistering heat.

We wake the next morning to flower laden meadows, crystal clear lakes and snow capped peaks; the crisp alpine morning a dramatic contrast to the heat we suffered the day before.  We set our sights on a leisurely two pitch (250 feet) route up Lembert Dome – a roadside classic.  After an easy five minute approach we find ourselves alone at the base of the route – a rare treat in the apex of the climbing season.

IMG_4353-003Abby and Kathy patiently waiting for their turn after letting a guided party pass through.

The next pitch proves challenging for Abby with many of the holds just out of reach.  With great perseverance, she eventually makes it through and I quickly follow.  Once again, we are all together at the belay ledge.  Peter sets out on the last pitch snaking his way up and around a corner and out of sight.  When he reaches the top I can barely hear him as he yells down that Abby is “On belaaaayyyyy!”  I look up to watch Abby climb, and notice the wispy white clouds swirling overhead, and in minutes, the wind starts to blow – just a little.  As Abby disappears around the corner, the top of the dome we are climbing suddenly disappears into thick, black clouds.  I am on the ledge, alone, and silently screaming at Abby to climb fast – I know what is coming and am terrified.

The wind is howling now and  I can’t hear Peter at all.  After what seems like an eternity, my rope comes taught and I assume that he has me on belay.  I can feel him pulling hard on the rope silently urging me to hurry.  I leave the belay just as the first drops of rain begin to fall.  The drop in temperature is noticeable.  Within minutes the light sprinkle becomes a deluge, a pounding rain perforated by nickel sized hail.  Then thunder – not a distant rumble, but a bone rattling sonic boom right above me.  There is lightening striking all around.  I am flying up the route, terrified that Peter and Abby are at the top, completely exposed to the fierce storm raging above.  My mantra is a simple prayer, repeating endlessly in my head, “Please keep my family safe!”  As I round the corner for the final stretch of the climb, I am almost knocked over by a torrential waterfall running down the route.  It is almost a foot deep and three feet wide and completely obscures all of the holds for the remainder of the pitch.  I hesitate for a moment but am instantly urged into action by a flash and boom that occur spontaneously overhead.  I take a deep breath and plunge into the waterfall frantically grasping for anything to help me move closer to the top.  “Please keep my family safe!”  I find a hold and move up the waterfall to a ledge.  I lean out for a breath of air, my face stinging with cold and pummeled by hail.  I dive back in.  “Please keep my family safe!”  Another hold, progress.  The deluge lessens, and I can keep my face exposed and just reach through the waterfall with my arms.  I am shivering and can no longer feel my hands.  Peter is pulling hard on the rope trying everything in his power to help, but I am alone.  “Please keep my family safe!”  As last I can see his faint figure through the storm, Abby is hunkered down beside him, doing her best to hide under her tiny helmet and avoid the hail.  She is sobbing – cold, tired and afraid.  Peter is shivering uncontrollably.  I can’t feel my fingers or toes, but the relief of seeing my family seems to ward off some of the chill.

IMG_4376-004Abby enjoying the climb, oblivious to the approaching storm.

We are at the top of the route, but feel a million miles from safety.  The standard descent from the route is an exposed scramble down steep slabs, and with slippery, wet rock and several inches of hail that has accumulated on every ledge, this simply isn’t an option.  Peter quickly sets out on an exploratory mission to find an alternate descent route.  I put him on belay and position myself over Abby in a feeble attempt to protect her from the lightening, hail and cold.  This seems to soothe her and I share with her my prayer and we sit together on the ledge chanting the same words that helped me through the last pitch.  “Please keep our family safe.”

Through the wind and the chaos of the storm, I hear Peter scream “Belay is ONNNN!” and hope that he has found a way down.  Abby and I are shivering so much that we are almost frozen in place, but another flash of lightening spurs us into action.  Once we start moving, the storm weakens and we begin to thaw.  As we make our way over to Peter, the hail and rain stop and the immediate threat of lightening dissipates.  The temperature has dropped to forty degrees and we are in wet t-shirts and shorts.  I am cursing our novice mistake of climbing in an alpine environment without warm jackets and rain gear.  We have climbed long enough to know better.  We are still almost 300 feet up the dome with no obvious descent route in sight.  Again, Peter sets out in search of a weakness in the cliff face that will allow us to safely reach the valley floor below.

IMG_4364-005Our alternate descent route from Lembert Dome as the storm abates.  We rappelled down the water streaks just to the left of the trees.

The clouds that concealed the meadows below throughout the storm finally part, and we see a park ranger looking up at us with binoculars from the parking area below.  His loud speaker reverberates off the rock formations, “Climbers, do you need assistance?”  Simultaneously, Peter finds a rappel station and we signal to the ranger that we are ok, and begin our descent under his watchful eye.  I lower myself first, quickly, because I know that Abby and Peter are still dangerously cold.  Abby follows, and as I watch her descend, I can’t help but smile with pride at my ten year old daughter who is calmly rappelling 200 feet down cold, rain drenched ropes by herself after an adverse and extremely intense situation.

We arrive at the RV a few minutes later, and drag our cold exhausted bodies inside.  We crank up the thermostat and heat a kettle for hot chocolate.  At last we are safe, together and extremely grateful for the warmth and shelter of Winnie the View.

IMG_4368-006Winnie the View provided much needed comfort and shelter after our harrowing adventure.  Home sweet home never felt so good!


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