Disclaimer: This story reflects the author’s recollection of events. Some names and identifying characteristics have been changed to protect the privacy of those depicted. Dialogue was re-created from memory.
Rescue on the Grand Teton:
I remember standing below the fixed rope at the top of the Moraine and thinking—who in their right mind would still be on the mountain in this weather? It was 4:00 p.m. in the afternoon on July 18, 2002, and I was with two clients tucked under a rock about fifty yards below the fixed rope at the top of the Moraine on the approach to the Lower Saddle of the Grand Teton. When the wind shifted just right I could hear voices high on the Exum Ridge calling out climbing signals. Storms had ravaged the Grand Teton all day and more bad weather was expected that evening.
My clients were two eleven year-old boys and I was anxious to get them situated at the hut on the Lower Saddle. Poor weather had plagued us for the entire seven mile hike: hail, rain, and freezing winds. And now we were waiting for the log jam of people at the fixed rope to clear out so we could pass through to the Lower Saddle.
Climbers were moving in both directions up and down the fat rope that was tied off at the top of the slash. The fixed rope was by far one of the most dangerous aspects of climbing the Grand Teton. The gully was a magnet for falling rock that originated from the hillside of the saddle and the climbers were clay pigeons the entire time they were on the traverse. The climbing in the gully was also awkward and sometimes people fell further elevating the danger of this section.
We waited until there was a lull in the flow of the climbers and then I hurried my clients across the slash using a belay for each boy and made the final one-hundred yard hike to the Exum hut. As we approached the quonset hut, I couldn’t help notice that all of the bivy sites were occupied by climbers, people were everywhere. Some of them were putting tents up, some were taking tents down, others were packing gear—the saddle was a hive of activity.
When we reached the hut I heated water for my clients supper, fed and hydrated them, and tucked them into their sleeping bags for the night. Just as I handed each boy a cup of hot chocolate, I thought I heard someone shouting for help.
I stepped into the doorway of the hut and looked up the steep trail that rises from the Lower Saddle to the Black Dike. Several hundred feet below the Black Dike someone was running down the trail waving his arms. He shouted again, “Help! Someone help me!”
Several of the guides were already walking towards the man as he sprinted in our direction.
I moved outside the hut and turned my face to the west: A massive storm surged straight at us from the high plains of Idaho. I estimated that we might have a couple hours before the onslaught reached us.
My heart clenched in my chest. I had a sudden intuitive sense of what was about to happen. There were no rangers at the National Park Service (NPS) hut, the weather was about to get bad again, and it would be dark in a couple hours which meant flying a chopper onto the Lower Saddle might be out of the question this evening. There was a high likelihood that we would be the ones that had to handle this situation—whatever it was.
I joined the others, circled the man. He was strung out on adrenalin. His words were halted, out of breath.“My girl friend rapped off the ends of the rope.” He cleared his throat. “She’s hurt bad…Please help me get her down!”
Wes Bunch, the senior guide, held up his hand. “Settle down.” He said. “Start with your name.”
“I’m Rob Fuller and my girl friend is Jennifer Strand.” He sat on a rock, rubbed his face with his hands. Rob was dressed in a yellow Gore-Tex jacket and a white helmet over a dark stocking cap. There was blood on his sleeves, chest, and face. Someone handed him a cup of hot chocolate. “Jenn rapped off the ends of the rope,” he said again, like he couldn’t believe his own words.
Wes interrupted him. “The Owen rappel?”
Rob nodded. “She fell down the ledges above the upper saddle. I think she’s broken her arm.”
“What’s was situation when you left her?” Wes asked.
“She’s hurt pretty bad. I don’t know if she has any other broken bones. I left her in the shelter of a boulder…kind of a cave.”
“Was she drinking and eating?”
He nodded again, wiped some hot chocolate off his mouth with the back of his hand. “I left her with water and trail mix.”
One of the other guides asked, “Can she walk?”
Rob shook his head. “I don’t know.”
At this point Wes Bunch, walked away from the group and produced his cell phone. In a moment he was speaking with the Exum office who relayed the situation to the National Park Service.
When Wes returned, Rob was sent off to the hut for food and hot drinks. We gathered around Wes. “The park is going to try to airlift a team in here asap if the weather holds,” he said.
We all glanced to the west. You could already hear the thunder in the approaching storm. Wes continued. “In the mean time they’ve asked us to initiate a rescue.” Every guide nodded. All of us would go, if asked.
“I need three volunteers,” he said. “It would be best if you have wilderness first responder training or better.”
I put up my hand along with two others, Miles Smart and Dave Bowers. Both Miles and I were WFR’s and Dave was a wilderness EMT. We decided that Miles and Dave would pack the climbing gear and first aid supplies and I would pack a couple sleeping bags and pads and some extra climbing gear. We each moved off to make quick preparations so that we could start the climb to the Upper Saddle as soon as possible.
My mind was a jumble of emotions as I packed the gear into my rucksack. I wondered what my daughter was doing as I made my preparations. She was staying at Guides Hill with her mother which is about fifty yards from where the NPS would stage their rescue command. This was also the place where the choppers would take off and land once the NPS initiated the shuttle operation to the Lower Saddle.
My daughter’s bright eyes had filled with tears earlier that morning. She didn’t like it when I was away overnight on the Grand Teton. Once the helicopters started landing and taking off she would know that something bad had happened up here. The kids would gather near the edge of the cabins and watch the choppers as they cycled up and down to the saddle. The children would ask…no…they would demand to know if their fathers and/or mothers were involved in this operation.
There would be inquiries and phone calls made to the main office. I had no doubt that my daughter would know shortly that I was going up the mountain to rescue someone. I suddenly felt a certain woe, tears welled in my eyes. I swallowed it back. Stuff like this had a deep effect on me given the fact that I had been climbing over thirty years and I had seen a lot of shit. I don’t know if it was part of getting older or if I was just being overly emotional. Even as I write this the power of that moment, just before we started up the mountain, makes my chest tighten and my palms sweat even though this event happened over fifteen years ago.
But then I thought about the young woman who was stranded above 13,000 feet below the Owen rappel beaten and broken. No doubt she had a father somewhere who was unaware that his little girl was in desperate trouble. He might be watching the nightly news or a ball game with a beer in his hand. But in this moment he had no idea that his daughter was hurt badly on one of the most inhospitable mountains in North America. In the name of her father, I would do what I could to help his daughter.
I shoved the last of the gear into my pack and glanced at the western sky again. The winds were picking up and I could see flashes of lightning. Time was not our friend.
We gathered together in front of the hut. The plan was to climb to the Upper Saddle, find Jennifer, and assess the situation which included administering First Aid and to establish a cell phone link with the NPS. Rob was to accompany us since he knew exactly where to find his girl friend.
Together we started up the trail to the Black Dike. Miles took the lead and set a blistering pace up the mountain. Soon the group was spread out on the trail and as we reached the Black Dike, I stopped to dress down. I stashed my wind breaker in my pack and pounded up the trail after the others—I was in the hammer mode. My breath puffed with each step, cold sweat trickled down my neck.
I was a machine with only one purpose—to climb the one thousand feet to the Upper Saddle and save Jennifer. I passed the Briggs Slab and worked up through the broken terrain that trended left onto the gentle ramps that led to the Black Rock Chimneys. Here I climbed the chimneys to a notch that opened onto the final talus and boulders that led to the Upper Saddle.
As I reached the saddle I could see Miles, Rob, and Dave above me on a set of ledges below the Owen Rappel. Miles stood atop a rock with his cell phone pushed against his ear, Dave kneeled to the right where I saw him attending to Jennifer. To his left, knelt Rob who was holding Jennifer’s hand. I moved up the ledges and crouched next to David and introduced myself to Jennifer.
After fifteen years I can’t remember what Jennifer said to me. But what I do remember was her demeanor: She was tough. There was a strength in her eyes and an appreciation that we had come to help her and a willingness to do whatever was necessary to get down off the mountain. I could tell that she understood the gravity of the situation.
There was a large gash below her left shoulder. I could clearly see the bone glistening in the evening light—it looked like a compound fracture of her arm. She was covered in blood, beat up bad. David asked me to support her arm while he assessed her other possible injuries. There were lacerations on her face, blood on her yellow shell and undergarments. Dave started at her head and palpated her down to her feet. It seemed that her arm was the worst of it and that her other injuries were severe bruises and lacerations mostly on her face.
What was left of the sun suddenly faded followed by an immediate chill in the air. The breezes were gusting now. I turned my face to the sky. Thick, grey clouds obscured the upper elevations of the Grand Teton. The distant thunder was louder and I could also hear the regular chop of a helicopter that was landing at the Lower Saddle. Then Miles shouted, “They plan to short haul a ranger to us here on the saddle. They want us to get her ready. They will short haul Jennifer to the Lower Saddle from here.”
Dave and I nodded and focused intently on splinting Jennifer’s arm. Even as Dave placed a sterile compress over the exposed bone we heard the chopper take off from the Lower Saddle. “This is going to hurt a little,” Dave said.
He placed a sterile compress over Jennifer’s wound. I shifted my stance and held the compress in place while Dave wrapped gauze around the compress and tied it off. Then we used a foam covered aluminum roll to fashion a splint and immobilized her arm across her abdomen using a triangular bandage. Lastly, we pulled her shell over her shoulder and secured the arm of the jacket so it wasn’t flopping around. Just then, we heard the chopper breach the northern peaks and enter Valhalla Canyon. Miles shouted. “Choppers coming in! Get Down!”
I could see the helicopter coming straight at us from the north with the ranger hanging below the machine on a line about one hundred feet long. The winds from the west howled through the Upper Saddle and bobbled the chopper as the pilot fought his way toward the narrow cleft between the Enclosure and the Grand Teton. I could see the pilots head who was level with us as the chopper penetrated the narrow gash between the granite walls. It was as if I could reach out and touch his window—there was no margin for error; any miscalculation and we were all dead.
Underneath the helicopter hung the ranger. Slowly the chopper eased down until the ranger reached the ground, released the hook and dropped onto the Upper Saddle. Never once did I see the pilot turn his head. He stared straight out the window toward the Middle Teton before the machine started to back out over the Black Ice Couloir and the Valhalla face. Then he banked the chopper sideways and dove into the canyon before rising as if fired from a sling-shot to soar over the peaks and motor back to the Lower Saddle.
The ranger, Scott Guenther, climbed up to us and inspected Jennifer. With no time to spare—we could already hear the steady beat of the chopper returning—we lifted Jennifer and all the gear and down climbed to the Upper Saddle. We tethered her to Scott and crouched on the saddle to await the helicopter. The plan was to hook the line hanging under the chopper onto Jennifer and Scott and short haul them to the Lower Saddle.
Sharp fingers of sleet stung my face as the chopper pushed in from the north. I watched the machine bob up and down as it toiled upstream in the gale toward the saddle. As the chopper lurched over our heads the hook whipped at us like a sickle. Above us, the under carriage of the chopper dropped in the wind like a wrecking ball. The hook wavered mere feet from our faces. Then the chopper gave over to the wind and was gone, carried away by the surge of the storm.
On the radio we could hear the pilots voice: “Can’t make it, boys!” He said with frustration. “See you in the morning.”
Just then, the full force of the storm fell on us like a giant hammer. Whatever vague light had existed when the chopper had retreated was now chased away by the onslaught. Rain and snow streamed across the saddle, lightning simultaneously exploded against the summit of the Grand and the Enclosure with a concussive bang. There was no directionality to the rampage. Just a chaos of wind, rain and snow all around us. A wash of freezing madness which threatened to ensnare us in its icy grip. We became a machine with a single purpose: take Jennifer and get the fuck off the mountain.
Miles and I reorganized the gear while Scott, Dave and Rob, attached cordelettes to Jennifer’s leg loops and the waist loop of her harness and then they picked her up and started down the mountain with her suspended on the cordelettes between them in a modified fireman’s carry.
Miles and I followed a few minutes later. I noticed a change in the storm immediately. We transitioned from being under the storm to being within the storm. The rain and the snow swirled around us and there was an absence of light, yet in the beam of our head lamps it was a complete white-out. The lightning and thunder were one massive organism: there was no longer a separation of the flash and the bang. The lightning was all around us in bluish-yellow nets and the sound of it was like someone ripping a cardboard box next to your ear—you could still hear the boom of thunder but it was in the distance like it was happening far away in a parallel universe.
We were blind and could not see the others though there were three sets of head lamps with them. Both Miles and I knew that it was crucial not to climb down the ramps that lead to Wall Street. If that happened we would most certainly loose the others and trap ourselves atop a massive cliff system. We knelt suddenly lost. Miles leaned close to me. He shouted through the wind. “You know the way?”
Nets of lightning erupted around us. The hot snap of electricity buzzed and I felt a tickle in my ears.
“No.” I shouted.
“What the fuck?” He said. “I thought you were Mr. Teton!”
“I’ve only climbed this bitch three times.”
“That’s not what I heard.”
I didn’t respond. Maybe he was thinking of someone else. Instead, I leaned down closer to the rocks. The weird thing was that the cloud level seemed to stop within maybe twelve inches of the ground like a house on fire where the smoke layer is elevated off the floor. I waited for the lightning again.
When the nets of bluish-yellow light ripped by our heads again I saw the shadow of the ridge to our right. “This way!” I shouted, and hurried over the high point.
We kept low, spider walked, used hands and feet to move as fast as we could. Once we crossed the ridge I kept the rise of it on my left and moved back up every time the slope wanted to force us down and right. In this way we caught up to the others.
I first saw them as a dark shadow within the netted lightning and then I caught the glimmer of their head lamps. The nets opened around us with a terrible ripping sound, shocks sent tremors up our legs like touching an electric fence. We caught up to Jennifer in the midst of a blast and crouched over them to offer protection. In that moment, Dave turned his face up into the light of my head lamp, found my eyes. “We’re gonna fuckin’ die!” He mouthed the words.
I shook my head. “Let’s go!”
We leapt up and moved together as a unit. I whispered a mantra through gritted teeth. “Down. Down. Get the fuck down!” Over and over.
Soon we passed through a notch and came to the top of the Black Rock Chimneys. Here we tied a rope onto Jennifer and then Miles belayed her as Scott and Dave manhandled her down the chute. Miles followed once they reached the bottom of the chimney.
For a moment I considered letting Rob follow the others without a belay but I changed my mind. Maybe it was something that Miles had said to me before he had departed down the slot—I can’t remember—but I tied onto Rob and belayed him down the chimney. Near the bottom of the rift the chimney opens before dropping onto a ledge. It was at this point, during a flash of lightning, that Rob fell.
For an instant his body was illuminated, suspended over the void. I could literally see the others between Robs body and the rock filled chimney. Then I landed him like a beached whale and lowered him to the ledge. It was a close call. From that moment on, until we reached the huts, I kept Rob on a rope.
By the time that we arrived at the Briggs Slabs the temperatures had dropped and the rain had almost entirely turned to snow. The friction slab hangs twenty to thirty feet over a jagged chimney system and is mostly devoid of large holds. I belayed Rob down the slab and then followed him. I brushed wet snow off sloping divots, pasted the balls of my feet against the shallow indentions and climbed down until I finally was standing on the bottom edge of the slab that hangs empty space. Here there are better holds and I made the last few moves up and left to the ledge.
We slogged past the Needle and arrived at the Exum hut 45 minutes later. We had done it. We had brought Jennifer down to the Lower Saddle. She was tucked away in the NPS hut to await chopper transit to the valley floor in the morning. I remember crawling into my sleeping bag at 2:30 a.m. in wet clothes.
At 3:30 a.m. the light in the hut was lit and the guides rose to heat water for the clients. I took care of my two boys, fed them and plied them with hot chocolate, and helped them prepare for the climb. Outside the wind had died down and someone said the stars were out—it was bloody cold, maybe below freezing.
I stepped outside the hut into a frozen world. My breath roiled in icy clouds illuminated by the light of the head lamps. I shouldered my pack and coiled the rope around my shoulder and tied it off to the boys. I would short rope them from the hut—from this point on until we returned to the hut the boys would be tied in.
The entire Exum crew started up the mountain as one unit. As I plodded up the crest toward the Needle my nose and fingers were numb. I listened to my clients labored breath and slowed somewhat to accommodate their shorter stride. As we reached the Black Dike I saw that the rock was glazed with ice that reflected silver in the light of my head lamp—smooth water ice covered everything like black ice on asphalt. I planted my foot on an ice covered slab and slipped. It was like walking on an ice rink.
We moved as a group up the gully to the Briggs Slab. The high walls around us, the gullies, the slabs glistened in silver ice—the place was a fucking tomb. An ice palace straight out of hell. Wes called a huddle and made the decision to turn around. No one from Exum would summit the Grand Teton that day.
On the hike down the mountain I thought of Jennifer’s father. I thought of my daughter and my wife. I thought of the two boys who were my clients. I explained to them that they could always come back another time when the weather was more settled. I think they got it.
A few years later I was again at the saddle with clients. The weather was poor and there had been nonstop thunderstorms for nearly a week at random times all day long. A wedding party of thirteen had started the Exum Ridge from Wall Street at 11:00 a.m. They strung themselves up the ridge like beads on a string and they were struck by lightning.
Like before, Exum got the call to go but the weather held long enough to shuttle the rescue rangers to the Lower Saddle and then short haul them above thirteen thousand feet to the victims. The survivors were shuttled to the Lower Saddle and then to the valley floor by a second chopper. The deceased were hauled off the Exum Ridge in a cargo net as the day faded to night.
Dedication: This story is dedicated to the Exum guides, NPS rescue rangers, pilots, and other professionals who enter the dangerous realm of the Tetons and risk their lives to service those in need of help.