Friday, September 30, 2011

A Sebastopol copter pilot’s close encounter with El Capitan

The sun moved low and an agonized climber on the face of Yosemite National Park’s El Capitan clenched his thumbless and bleeding hand earlier this week as Sebastopol helicopter pilot Richard Shatto and a team of park rangers readied an audacious and highly technical rescue.

The climber, an Austrian, had been ascending 7,569-foot El Capitan with a friend Monday afternoon when he fell. His ropes stopped him but his right thumb was severed by a rope that had wrapped around it.

The thumb didn’t fall the more than 6,000 feet to the ground, but came to rest on a small ledge only about 80 feet down. The injured climber’s friend retrieved it. The pair used a cell phone to call for help.

Yosemite Park rangers, firefighters and members of the search-and-rescue team massed shortly before 4 p.m. and quickly brainstormed how best to get the injured man, whose name has not be released, safely off the granite monolith.

It was decided that time was of the essence because dusk was not far off and every passing minute made it more unlikely that the man’s thumb could be successfully reattached. The incident commander, Yosemite Valley District Ranger Eric Gabriel, made the call to attempt an unusual type of helicopter rescue.

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