Jeff Johnson on the First Time He Saved a Life

11 Jul

I arrived early to set up the lifeguard tower at Sunset Beach, on Oahu’s North Shore. It was 1994, my first winter season as a lifeguard. I’d made a few mellow rescues but hadn’t been involved in anything serious yet. This morning, the waves were small and clean. The water was packed with bodies. But an offshore buoy had read 17 feet at 25 seconds overnight, which meant that, in a few hours, the surf would be huge.

North Shore lifeguards used to work in teams of two. My partner for the day, Roger Erickson, showed up and, without a word, walked past me up the stairs to the tower.

“Roger,” I said, “buoy number one really jumped last night. The waves are gonna get big quick.”

He turned around, put an imaginary phone to his ear, and said, “Hello? Buoy report?” then waved me off. He proceeded to organize his things.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say I idolized Roger, but you never knew what kind of mood he was going to be in. He joined the Marines in 1966 and was shipped to Vietnam. Returning to Southern California, he fell in with some bikers and served ten months in prison for assaulting a police officer. Roger moved to Hawaii in the early 1970s and for the next three decades paddled into some of the biggest waves ever ridden on the North Shore. We sat in the tower without talking for 45 minutes.

“Roger,” I finally said, “I still haven’t had a legit rescue. Can I get the first one today?”

He scanned the lineup through his binoculars. “You can have every damn one of ’em,” he said.

We posted “high surf” signs in the sand while the new swell quickly filled in. Soon, a set caught everyone inside. Broken boards drifted aimlessly. A cluster of surfers bobbed in the channel. We stood in the tower assessing the damage. “Here you go,” said Roger. “Take your pick.”

I paddled the 11-foot rescue board out into the channel. Most people were doing OK, but one guy was struggling. I put him on my board, and we caught some whitewater to the beach. I filled out the required paperwork and climbed back up into the tower. Sunset Beach was now completely closed out. Waves with 30-foot faces were detonating on the reef. No one was in the water.

Roger scanned the ocean. “It’s not over,” he said, handing me the binos. A lone figure, about a half-mile out, was waving his arms in the air. I got butterflies.

Behind us, the traffic moving along the two-lane highway slowed to a stop. Hundreds of tourists gathered next to the tower. I stood in front of the giant shorepound, holding the rescue board upright in the sand. Sensing a lull, I ran into the water and started paddling. Almost instantly, a wave doubled up on the shallows, sucked me backwards over the falls, and sent me bouncing up the sand. I looked to the tower, where Roger was smiling and pumping his fists.

“That’s alright,” he yelled. “You got it!”

I waited for him to make the call.

“Go!” he yelled, pointing to the horizon. “Go! Go!”

I squeaked into what used to be the channel, dodging waves that seemed to come out of nowhere. Past the break zone, I found a scared teenager sitting on his board, drifting slowly toward Kauai. Mounds of whitewater obscured the beach a half-mile in.

I heard sirens racing away from us on the highway, which meant the jet ski was being hauled to Waimea for another rescue. We were on our own.

“We’re gonna have to ditch your board,” I said.

“I don’t care,” the kid said. We started paddling tandem toward the beach.

Taking a break, we sat up and watched the backs of giant peaks heave toward shore, the offshore spray casting rainbows around us. It was the type of day surfers dream about: waves as big as buildings, the sun sparkling. Then, as if the music suddenly stopped, I realized I didn’t have a plan. I had someone’s life in my hands, and there was a huge audience on the beach waiting for the outcome. But I was mostly concerned with Roger, watching from the tower.

“Listen,” I said with faked confidence, “when I say paddle, you paddle as hard as you can.” The kid nodded. I paddled us farther inside and let a few waves roll through.

“Paddle!” I yelled as another wave drew us up the face. As soon as it started to pitch, I sat up, dug my legs in, and let it pass beneath us.

“Paddle!” I yelled as the back of the wave pulled us forward. “Paddle!”

The next wave exploded behind us with a sharp, thunderous clap. I looked back. All I saw was whitewater. We were being thrashed violently in the froth. It took everything I had to keep us upright.

Finally, the wave shot us out across the flats. The kid still had his hands sealed in a death grip on the handles. We looked at each other with astonishment. I pushed him into a small wave, which he rode up the sand. The crowd cheered.

We sat beneath the tower and filled out the paperwork. “Brah,” he said, “you saved my life, you know. Thanks.”

I went into the tower and sat with Roger. He was scanning the horizon through his binos. There was a long, uncomfortable silence.

“Textbook,” he said quietly. “Textbook.”

Jeff Johnson is a photographer, director, and writer in Santa Barbara, California.

A First-Person Account of the Fatal Yosemite Rockfall

29 Sep

My buddy Drew Smith and I are in the Manure Pile parking lot of Yosemite National Park, racking up for a climb. It’s around noon on Wednesday, and tourists are unloading RV’s, families are setting up for lunch on picnic tables, kids are playing tag among the trees. Just as we shoulder our backpacks, we hear a horrible crackling—the sound that makes every climber, no matter where they are, wince, recoil, and look up with squinting eyes. 

A massive piece of granite detaches from the far right face of El Capitan. It drops as if being pulled by some unseen force, dismantling slowly as it glances off the slabs 1,000 feet below. It sounds like a violent thunderclap as it echoes through the valley walls. The flake, or what’s left of it, lands at the base of the wall with a dull thud, sending rocks of all sizes out into the talus. Boulders roll before finally settling into place. Gravel and sand pour from the enormous new scar high up on the wall. I hear someone yell for help, but it’s faint. Maybe I’m imagining things. That’s what I tell myself anyway. A knot forms in my stomach. 

A thick, billowing cloud of dust rises over the valley: the mid-day breeze separates it into spindrifts. The parking lot we’re in is less than a quarter mile from the rockfall, out of harms way. But we’re shaken. The climbing community is small. When something like this happens, there are usually only one or two degrees of separation between an observer and a victim. Drew used to be a member of Yosemite Search and Rescue (YOSAR), and his rescue instincts kick in immediatley. We look around. Surprisingly none of the tourists have noticed the gash in the monolith. No one is even looking up. Kids continue to laugh and play.

Luckily, the far right side of El Capitan rarely gets climbed. It’s notoriously loose. In 2012, while climbing on the opposite side of the Valley, my partner and I witnessed a similar rockfall in the exact same spot, same scenario. No one was hurt then. Drew and I stare up at the fresh white scar on El Cap hoping the same is true now. But this one seems to be a lot bigger. We hear sirens. “Shit is going down,” says Drew. “Every SAR member is gonna be called out for this.”

For the next couple hours there are smaller rock falls in the same zone. We can’t see the base from our vantage point, but we can hear the impact of still more rocks as they hit the talus. Then comes a helicopter. All this—the sirens, the helicopter, the SAR personnel getting dispatched—is familiar if you’ve been climbing in the Valley long enough. It could mean anything.   

Drew and I drive to the El Capitan meadow to get a better look at the rockfall. There is a helicopter idling nearby, rescue trucks line the shoulder of the road, and Yosemite park personnel are moving about. A couple of rangers keep the traffic moving and the area clear. The SAR team is debriefing beneath a tree. Our friend, Josh Huckaby, a YOSAR veteran, gives Drew a look that means one thing: bad news. 
By evening, I’m back at my camp. I have frantic messages from my wife and my dad wondering if I’m okay. News travels fast these days. Still, the information is hazy. Some reports say it was climbers who were buried under the debris, some say hikers. What we do know: One dead, one injured. I get a message on my Instagram account from a friend in the United Kingdom. He says he’s a good friend of the guy that died, a man named Andrew Foster. Foster was from Wales and worked in sales for Patagonia Inc. Europe. He was not climbing. He and his wife, Lucy, were picking up trash along the base of El Capitan when the rock fell. Andrew didn’t make it. Lucy was rushed to the hospital with a punctured lung and is reportedly in weak but not critical condition. In the message, my friend writes: “He had just handed in his notice to take a year long, once in a lifetime adventure with Lucy…this was just a holiday and just the beginning.”

Johnson's vantage point from Selaginella, near Yosemite falls, during the second rock fall. (@jeffjohnson_beyondandback/Jeff Johnson )

The next day, I’m half way up Selaginella, a climb near Yosemite falls, with a different partner, when a thick, white cloud suddenly surrounds us. I get a text from a friend who says the outgoing road has been closed due to another big rockfall and park personnel are funneling the traffic out the other side of the valley. We assume it is much bigger this time, since we’re about three miles up valley from El Capitan and the dust cloud is dense and easily visible. 

That evening, back on the ground, I’m able to get more information. The new rockfall was in the same location as Wednesday’s. A 500-foot-long, rectangular piece came off the wall directly above the last one. It’s estimated to be as many as ten times larger than the others. A driver was reportedly struck in the head when a rock flew through his sunroof. As of this writing, it was not clear whether he was in critical condition or not. That’s the only injury that was reported. The park issued a 24-hour closure on the road.   

Friday morning I have coffee at the SAR site near camp IV. Everyone is talking about the rockfall but it’s in that casual, matter-of-fact way in which first responders recount horrific events. The conversations eventually turn to climbing and other day-to-day things. More coffee is poured. I send a text to my buddy who was on the body recovery team that pulled Foster from the rubble:  

"What are you up to?" I write. 

"Stress debriefing at 10:00," he responds.