This is a quite sobering, valuable account from a friend of mine
who was there ...
Thursday, June 13, 2002
The mission for the day was to climb Braille Book on
Higher Cathedral Rock. Jim Bridwell, Chris Fredericks
and Brian Berry first climbed this 5-pitch 5.8 classic
We were surrounded by ponderosa and incense cedar
trees, tall and old.
It was 10:00 A.M. and the arduous approach had begun.
At 11:00 A.M. and "warmed up", we reached the base of
BB. For most of the trail, the incline was at about 60
degrees or greater. Thanks to good beta, we found the
base without a hitch. As the East face of Higher
Cathedral came into view, we spotted a team of three
just cleaning the anchor from the top of the first
pitch. As we exited from the side trail, we noticed a
person racking up at the base. I could see that he was
rigging up a mechanical belay device called the Wren
Soloist to his waist harness and chest harness. He had
already built his base anchor for which he would later
lead off from.
The soloist is a unique tool in that where the rope
self-feeds through the device as you climb unlike the
Petzl's gri-gri, which also can be used as a self
belay device but requires you to manually take up the
slack created by ascending. The Wren Soloist is not
without shortcomings. For instance, the tool requires
the climber to tie a back up knot on the free side of
the rope. By design the tool has its limitations. On
the first page of it's instruction manual, the company
clearly states, "the soloist is designed to provide,
in conjunction with a backup knot, a means of self
belay for the solo climber". That understood, it is a
great tool for top-roping (on a fixed line, perhaps at
your local crag).
Rick, from Baytown, Texas, started the conversation
off by commenting on the approach trail. "Hell of a
hike", he said. "Not too bad, a quick hour", I
replied, having just caught my breath a few yards
back. He went on to say that it took him over two
hours because he took the first trail that led to the
northeast buttress area and that he was carrying a 65
-pound pack. I couldn't figure out which was worse,
hiking that trail for two hours lost or carrying a
65-pound pack up it. I guess the answer is obvious,
hiking that trail, lost, with a 65-pound pack.
Rick suggested that we climb first since he only
intended to climb the first pitch. Cool. "Ty Cook,
The first pitch, a 5.7 with flakes, knobs, corners,
and finger cracks, an interesting 7. Sweet and it
Pitch 2 is a bit harder at 5.8. Ty, you're up. (New
rule, the second can only pass on two leads in a row).
After the first 15 feet, Ty joked that he has used
every climbing technique he knows. I'm thinking,
excellent, class is in session. Actually, I was
thinking "Glad Ty is on line".
Every now-and-then I take a peek over the ledge to see
how Rick is advancing. Slowly. Ty is about 25 feet shy
of the second belay. Rick is just entering the crux of
pitch one; the crux being 70 feet off the deck with a
clean right facing corner and a finger crack with
pretty good footing. In my opinion, it was not the
most straight-forward of corners. Rick stood there for
a bit. The next thing I saw was Rick's grip give way
from what looked like a layback position. He literally
peeled away from the rock and began to flip upside
down. I could hear the rope feeding through the
soloist. Catch, catch, I was saying to myself, but he
didn't tie any back up knots and the rope kept sliding
through the device. Rick swung his arms out left and
right. The left arm snagged the branches of a birch
sapling that was growing in a wet corner about 30 feet
off the ground. I heard the snapping of the branches
and saw his body turning more horizontal, with his
back down, face up and then hit the ground. The noise
from his impact filled the ravine. The sound, trapped
by the corner feature of the cliff, rocketed up past
Time 12:30 P.M.
"Ty, Climber down"
The party ahead of us began yelling.
"Help on Braille Book"
"Help on Braille Book"
I think we all took turns yelling, "Help on Braille
The alarm carried as other climbers on Middle
Cathedral passed on our cries for help.
I instructed Ty to build an anchor so I could lower
him down. As was doing this, I took in what rope was
out, locked off the belay, and began communicating
with the climber below. I rattled off a few questions
doing the best I could to figure out his injuries. I
asked, "Are you bleeding?" He says, 'My bone is
sticking out of my arm". I called up, "He is alive and
breathing". That took care of airway and breathing. We
then exchanged conditions and gave First Aid advice.
We discovered that he has a compound fracture in his
left arm and that he is hurting all over. "Come on
Ty", I said. I must have seemed panicked because Ty
reminded me that he was still on lead. I checked
myself and reassured him that he was still on belay.
High energy. Just as I lowered Ty back down to the
first belay, Johann Aberger, the third climber of the
party above, lowered down and cleaned the anchor Ty
During our descent, two local climbers, Jack Hoeflich
and Greg arrived on the scene. Later I found out that
they had already climbed Braille Book in 2 pitches as
well as the northeast buttress, all by noon, and that
Jack is a SAR member. Jack completed a Head and
C-Spine evaluation and then controlled Rick's bleeding
using a sweatshirt and First Aid supplies. Greg found
a 2-way radio and a cell phone in Rick's backpack.
Rick had 65 pounds of stuff in his backpack. The cell
phone couldn't get a signal but the 2- way did. Jack
took off to the base for help, leaving us with
instructions to keep the radio to channel 12.
We are on the ground; Johann, Ty, Greg, myself, and
Rick are at the base of Braille Book once again. Ty
and I both have medical training but Johann who is a
certified EMT took charge of the First Aid. He began
by looking for additional injuries, taking a medical
history, and mostly comforting the climber. Within a
few minutes, we had taken his pulse, respirations, and
had a fair understanding of his symptoms. Things began
to calm down a little.
Greg asked to be belayed so that he could clear Rick's
gear which consisted of three pieces; one cam, a hex
and one nut (if I recall correctly).
About 40 minutes later we established communications
with the Yosemite Search and Rescue Teams with whom
Greg coincidentally works with while he lives in
Yosemite Valley. "Greg to Cedar". Things seemed to be
getting better. Rick's heart rate was as high as 102
with over 32 respirations. He had terrible pain in his
hips and often asked us to adjust his leg positions.
We took turns wetting his lips, but not letting him
drink. Rick could spit, far. We took turns telling him
things are going fine, joking, (which in hind sight
was more for our sanity then his). Rick apologized
for ruining our climbs.
It is now around 3 pm. We used the better of three
First Aid kits, dozens of gauze pads, a sweatshirt,
tee shirt, and a triangular bandage. "Greg, How much
longer?" and "What's the estimated time of arrival?"
I must have asked Greg these questions ten times.
At one point, the three of us couldn't find a pulse in
Rick's right ankle or foot; his capillary refill was
poor to none. "Greg, shock, faint if any pulse, blue
lips, ask the doctor what should we do". Greg calls
back; "Apply traction to his right leg". Greg came
over and showed Ty what to do. He held just below
Rick's knee and pulled with just enough tension. Rick
responded happily to this. The pulse was back. We then
propped up his legs using his climbing ropes. Okay.
Deep breath. Ty, Johann and I often looked at each
other for both approval and support but maybe more for
simple reassurance than anything else.
The time is moving slow. How the hell are we getting
this guy out of here? Major trail work starts; moving
small boulders, pushing loose soil, pulling saplings,
and breaking dead branches. So much for leaving no
YSAR members Donna Sisson, John Dill and Dave Horn
rappelled with packs from a refurbished chopper
recovered from the Vietnam War. The litter was lowered
on its own. We then helped carry over the bags and
litter to the scene. The three SAR members quickly
unpacked the bags, sorted out the equipment, put the
neck brace on, evaluated the patient, got the IV in,
administered oxygen and issued instructions. After 4
hours of applying pressure, Johann was relieved from
It was clear that the SAR team knew what to do and
were prepared. Although I was busy and involved, I
felt as if I had nothing to do. To tell you the truth,
it felt good to step back from Rick and let the
rescuers do their thing. In fact, they may have asked
that of me once.
Dave called out, "On three, we all lift together and
you two slide the basket up past his head by 6
inches". "One, two, three." It went that fast.
It is now about 5:00 P.M.
A total of 9 people (two additional climbers joined
the effort around 4:30) including 6 climbers, and 3
YSAR members, carried a well secured Rick, a 245 pound
man, close to 50 meters, first down a narrow and steep
section then up the other side and of course over a
downed tree and finally to the top of a large boulder.
We actually built a belay anchor at the top of the
first section to prevent us from falling under the
weight and dropping Rick. ( helpful tip, belay from
above the working party). Close to 5 hours from the
time of injury, Rick is on top of a boulder, in
"critical" condition, and on his way to the hospital.
A Navy helicopter hovers overhead. Jason Laird, the
Corpsman, is lowered down. Moments later the corpsman
is attached and standing at the head of the litter as
the litter is being hoisted up. I raised my camera to
take a photo, focus, snap, then instantly major
propeller downdraft occurred. I ducked my head to
avoid the debris, then as quickly as it started, the
wind ceased. The mechanical noises of the copter's
engine changed. I looked up and saw the helicopter
spin 180 degrees. It began to head down the ravine but
at the same slope as the ravine. Within an instant,
the litter was pulled quickly down hill, as if being
launched to catch up to the force pulling it from
above. Suddenly, the litter with Laird attached and
standing at the head of the victim, headed backwards
down the ravine and collided with the upper section of
a pine tree (exploding the trunk and braches at the
point of contact). From where I was standing, it
seemed like the rescuer and the litter fell to the
ground. Evidently, the steel cable hoisting the litter
snapped but the nylon belay rope attached to the Navy
corpsmen stayed intact and that suspended the two as
the copter continued down to the valley floor. I ran
towards the pick up site, thinking that we have two
victims on the ground.
"My god", shouted Dave Horn, who was just a few feet
away as I reached the flat top of the boulder where we
had left Rick just moments before. I asked Dave if
they had fallen and he said that they continued down
hill. It seemed so unreal that something like this was
happening. Did they survive that impact?
Bewildered and stunned, several of us began to gather
the medical supplies and bag the climber's gear. Donna
red bagged the hazardous materials. Johann stayed
behind to wait for the others in his party. We began
the descent. First we came across the pine tree that
the corpsman and the climber crashed into. Greg went
over and told us that the trunk had about a ten inch
diameter and seemed to be severed. I asked him if the
tree appeared to be healthy or not. It was healthy.
Further down the trail we found more broken branches,
all looked freshly broken and some ends were still
moist. It was suggested by John Dill that the litter
and rescuer might have swiped this tree rather than
collided with it, having only taking down branches. A
short distance later John Dill spotted what was
thought to be the victim's neck collar, which had some
blood on one side of it.
The SAR team made tracks and dropped us half way down
the descent. Ty and I arrived at the truck close to
6:30 pm, tailgate down, bare feet hanging, beer in
hand. We take turns uttering the words "what the
hell", mixing in a few "what the f#@ks" and "holy
shits". A Police Officer pulled over, got out of his
car and started to document the parked vehicle's
license plates. As he approached us, we made no
attempt to hide the beers. He asked us if we knew
about what had happened. I answered yes using my
eyebrows as if the look on our faces and the dirt all
over every other part of our bodies didn't give it
away. I asked him how the rescuer and climber were
doing. He said to us that the medic was in critical
condition and in route to a hospital. "And the
climber?" I asked. "The climber is dead, I am sorry
you had to hear it from me" he said.
I didn't know if I should feel more sorry for the
critically injured rescuer, Jason Laird, who didn't
need to be there, or a dead climber, Rick Zucatto, who
shouldn't have been there. Tsunami.
Jason Laird's injuries included collapsed lungs and it
was reported that he received lacerations on 60% of
his body. Another report stated that he may have had
pelvic injuries. He has since been released from the
hospital and is resting comfortably at home. Thank you
Rick Zucatto was visiting Yosemite Valley and camping
with his two children, his wife, aunt and uncle and
his mom and dad at a campground near Curry Village.
While Rick went climbing, his family went mule riding.
Rick was pronounced dead upon arrival.
Later that night, Ty and I are standing on a sand dune
in the middle of the Merced River. The water is
passing us on the left and the right. I poke a small
stick in the sand, just about a foot below the water.
The water, interrupted, moves around the sides of the
stick I placed, rejoining back again, then moving on.
Creating this very smoothe pattern of water flow gave
me something to focus on. I placed several more
sticks, then a few more; seemed like one for each
feeling I had about this day. I must have placed a
bunch because a beaver approached me and said that he
was going to take over from there. I was mad. I was
angry that today happened and seriously it could have
Ty and I talked a lot, drank a bit more.
"Won't you take me to the river. Let me see my
reflection in the water"
June 14, Friday morning, definitely wouldn't call it
an 'alpine start' to our day by any sense of the
definition. Ty and I drove to the ranger station to
meet with Jack Hoeflich to document what we had
witnessed. Seemed easier to talk with Jack, knowing
that he was part of the rescue and, equally but
differently, affected by the serious injuries of Jason
Laird and the death of Rick Zucatto.
24 hours had past, then seventeen days, by now I must
have replayed the event a hundred times, in my head,
to my wife, friends and strangely enough I am not sure
how to finish the story this time.
I want to say; climb safe, maybe; know how to use all
the tools that you climb with, maybe; that a First Aid
kit is not only for you but to help others; don't
skimp, maybe; maybe say that I am very glad I took a
self-rescue course (thanks Mark Chauvin), that am glad
I know First Aid. I am sure I would say that I am
grateful for the services that the people of Yosemite
Search and Rescue and the US Navy provide. I think I
should say that this entire event didn't need to