When things go very wrong

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
Mountain rescue: life and death on a rescue team

When things go very wrong
No matter how much you train for it, rescuers say, nothing quite prepares you for the shock and tragedy of a body-recovery mission.
(Video courtesy Bob Zook)
Excerpt from The Falling Season:
In 1988 the famous physicist Heinz Pagels fell almost two thousand feet from Pyramid Peak when a rock gave way under his foot. His body was in an inaccessible, near-vertical location. The only way to reach it was to fly a rescuer in on a cable hanging under a helicopter. Bob [Zook], dangling like a fishing lure, was carefully deposited by the pilot on a narrow ledge twenty feet from Heinz's mangled body. After hammering several steel pitons into the rock for an anchor and clipping his rope into them, Bob ventured out into the gully where the body was lodged. He slid a sling under Heinz's armpits, retreated from the deadly rockfall raining intermittently on the body, and waited until the helicopter returned. Then he clipped the sling to the cable dangling beneath the bird and watched as Heinz was lifted from the mountain.

A year later Bob was on his first big wall climb, a multiday undertaking up the side of a Utah canyon called Space Shot. After a day of climbing alone, he anchored himself to the sheer red rock twelve hundred feet above the valley floor. He rigged an artificial ledge the size of a cot and, still in his climbing harness and clipped to his anchors, squirmed into his sleeping bag.

"I was in and out of sleep all night long in a beautiful canyon. Absolutely gorgeous setting. I heard this noise, a very loud noise. It was a rustling, banging sound, kind of like rockfall. But it was in the wrong direction. In my dream I woke up and I heard a voice out there also. I said, 'That's not right, there can't be anything out there, because that's space, that's air.' I looked over there and it was just like in television, with the eerie lightning and everything, and he [Pagels] floated up to me and grabbed me around the neck and said, 'You're coming with me.' I reached into my sleeping bag and grabbed my knot that I was tied to the wall with. I held onto that and I said, 'No, I'm not, I'm staying here.' Then I woke up. The moon had just crested the mountain behind, it lit up the whole other side of the valley, the river and everything. But everything was okay; I had my hand on the knot."
--Bob Zook

Bob Zook responds to this passage of the book

©2000, Mariah Media Inc.

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