Climber Dies Descending Machete Ridge

by Jody Langford

On the afternoon of Saturday, March 21, 1970, Gerald Osborn (age 24) and Kathy Sasaki (age 20), both students at UC Berkeley, climbed the ridge route on Machete ridge, a long, popular climb in Pinnacles National Monument. It was dusk when they began their descent. The usual descent from Machete Ridge is to the east down an obvious grassy gully. It involves a short rappel from an imbedded rock nubbin on the crest of the ridge.

Utilizing the nubbin and believing they were on the normal descent route, Osborn joined their two 150 foot ropes and rappelled down first. His rappel, however, took him down the sheer 600 foot west face of Machete. He terminated his rappel on a small, rotten ledge after descending about 120 feet. Here he found a bolt anchor and set about establishing another rappel point.

In the meantime, Miss Sasaki began her rappel and continued past Osborn to the end of her rope. She was approximately 30 feet below him and out of sight. She called up to Osborn that she was having trouble locating another anchor point. Apparently she managed to gain footing and Osborn advised her not to move until he could descend to her. At that point she apparently lost her footing and fell 400 feet to her death. Osborn said he thought he heard her fall. This occurred at 7:30PM. Osborn's second rappel carried him another 130 feet to the lip of an overhanging wall. He stopped there and began calling for help.

It was not until 9:30PM that hikers on the trail below heard his cries. They reported the situation to the park technician at the Chaparral Campground who reported it to Chief Ranger Jim Langford. A rescue team comprised of six park employees, headed by Langford was promptly organized. Miss Sasaki's body was found at 11:00PM at the base of Machete, near the entrance to the caves. She had smashed through a large oak tree at the bottom of her fall, breaking off an eight inch diameter branch.

A climbing team, consisting of two rangers and a park technician, reached Osborn from above and his rescue was accomplished by 4:00AM.

Analysis

Kathy Sasaki had been climbing for less than six months. Osborn had over five years of experience. Neither had been on the Machete Ridge before.

In doing the climb, Osborn was relying on the guidebook. It is not clear whether he got his directions confused in choosing a descent route or if he deliberately decided to rappel the west face. It is difficult imagining Osborn purposely selecting the west face for a rappel because of the tremendous exposure involved and the lateness of the hour. The west face was in full view during their approach to the climb from the Chaparral Campground. This route is steep, involving aid and rotten fifth class pitches where extreme caution is necessary. This fact hampered rescuers who were approaching Osborn from above in the darkness. As it turned out, only one person descended to Osborn because of the nature of the terrain.

One questions Osborn's wisdom in allowing his relatively inexperienced companion to descend past him down an unfamiliar cliff in darkness. It may be that he had doubts about the anchor he had located and thought Sasaki could find a better one. It may be that they were on the wrong side of the ridge by mistake and were expecting to encounter the "grassy area" described in the guide book.

There is the remote possibility that Sasaki went off the end of her rappel line, but Osborn doesn't believe this happened. Her rappel harness and carabiner were underneath her body when she was found. She evidently had clutched them in her hand when she fell, indicating that she had removed the harness prior to her fall.

In exploratory rappels such as this, the first person down should have a safety belay and carry ascending equipment. Neither Osborn or Sasaki had ever Prusiked.


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