The Largest Rescue in Grand Teton National Park History

In all my time spent in National Parks I haven’t had to deal with too much rain. I’ve never been a big fan of hiking in the rain unless I was already out on a trail and didn’t have a choice. It’s funny when a storm hits though, because you really have to think about what you can do to keep busy, while staying dry. You normally can’t tell how long the rain will last either, so it can be difficult to schedule around it. Personally, I think it’s a great time to explore the park buildings that I might normally avoid. It’s not that I don’t like the park lodges and visitor centers, because there are some that I love to visit and spend time in, but I normally prefer to stay outside and enjoy the natural landscape. That and they are usually swarming with crowds. The way the forecast was looking this day, I was pretty sure I’d become well acquainted with all of Grand Teton’s lodges, stores, and visitor centers.

At first, I tried to combat the rain. While driving north along Teton Park Road I stopped at several of the scenic turnouts. It wasn’t raining too hard at the moment, so I would roll down my car window to take pictures of the colossal Teton mountains shrouded in clouds. The harder the rain fell, the farther I’d lean back in my car.

One advantage to a storm is that there is fantastic potential for someone who enjoys landscape photography, like me. Dark clouds amidst a menacing sky can greatly amplify any photo. Oftentimes after rainfall the sky may light up with bright colors or give birth to a glorious rainbow.

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As the morning storm dragged on, lightning streaked through the faded sky and thunder shook the ground. After driving around for a while I returned to the Jenny Lake visitor center. The rain persisted, but did not pour down like a waterfall anymore, so I sat down on a bench on the visitor center’s covered porch. I found it relaxing to sit there by myself paging through guide books with the rain falling just in front of me. I was trying to narrow down my hiking options for the day. And if the storm didn’t stop then I would have a plan for the next day. I stayed there a while, but eventually a very loud family sat beside me. Since I could no longer comfortably relax I decided to move on to Jackson Lake Lodge.

I spent some time in the lodge’s crowded lobby, ate an expensive bison burger for lunch, and also explored the Colter Bay Store and Visitor Center. I decided to head back to the southern area of the park in hopes that the weather would finally let up.

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I was starting to give up hope on doing any hiking. However, I was still undecided on what hike I wanted to do the next day. I was deciding between hiking into Cascade Canyon, up to Amphitheater Lake, to the Lake of the Crags, or down to Phelps Lake. I returned to the Jenny Lake Visitor Center to read more about the hikes and kill some time.

There was a fire going in the fireplace there, which was great because it was still cool out. I sat in a cozy chair next to the fire and relaxed for a while. There were two park rangers answering visitors’ questions behind a long desk with maps and pamphlets on it. I asked one of the rangers about the hikes I was considering and to see what he might recommend.

The ranger told me that Amphitheater Lake, Phelps Lake, and Cascade Canyon were all great hikes, but that he hadn’t been to the Lake of the Crags (a more secluded hike). He told me that I should walk across to the Ranger Station and inquire about the hike there. Although he said I should wait to do that, because there was currently an emergency rescue happening high up on the Grand Teton. He said he didn’t know much about it yet, besides the fact that many of the park rangers in the area were on their way up the mountain to help in a very large rescue mission. It was a mystery at the time, but I would later find out all about the most complex rescue mission in the history of Grand Teton National Park.

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In the meantime the rain finally let up. However, dark clouds still clung to the Cathedral Group. Still, it was a very welcome respite from the rain and I had to take advantage of it.

I threw my guide book in my car, grabbed my camera and walked down to Jenny Lake. The serene lake reflected the gloomy sky. The Tetons were especially photogenic amidst the slowly parting storm clouds. I took some pictures of the mountains and the lake and then decided I needed to get to some other viewpoints.

I returned to my car and drove along the park road, stopping at a few turnouts for photos. The jagged peaks of the Teton Range pierced a long string of gray clouds. A larger, all-encompassing charcoal-colored mass of clouds filled the sky high above.

I then drove the short distance to Schwabacher Landing adjacent to the curving Snake River. I left my car in the small parking area and started down a thin dirt trail. It was only a few minutes’ walk to arrive at the desired viewpoint. A tiny tributary of the Snake River flawlessly reflected the Cathedral Group (Mt Owen, Teewinot, and the Grand). The perfectly still mirror-like water, stunning mountains, and the stormy sky combined to form a truly memorable sight. This was one of the greatest views I had seen in all my trips to National Parks.

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My final stop on that rain-soaked day was the Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Center in Moose, about ten miles south of Jenny Lake. It was a brand new state-of-the-art Visitor Center. I basically stumbled upon the place. I can easily say that it is my favorite Visitor Center I’ve ever been to. There were great interactive exhibits and wildlife displays. The best part was the huge 3-D map of the park. It had great recommendations and facts along the outsides of the display. Among them were suggestions for the best places to hike, see wildlife, and other sights to see. It showed where to find them on the large map. There were also huge floor-to-ceiling panoramic windows looking out on the iconic Teton Range.

The following morning I saw a helicopter circling the Grand Teton. I assumed it had something to do with the rescue mission the ranger had told me about. I didn’t learn much more about the events that occurred on the mountain until reading about it in the Jackson Hole Daily the next morning. I sat on the covered porch of the Jenny Lake Visitor Center again as I drank a hot chocolate and read the newspaper.

That’s when I learned about the magnitude of that day-long storm and the havoc it wreaked atop the Grand, the largest mountain in the Teton Range. The most complex rescue mission in Teton history began with a cell phone call. The call came in at 12:25 p.m. It was a distress call from a climbing party high up on the Grand Teton. The caller said their party had been struck by lightning. Grand Teton National Park rangers immediately began to organize a rescue mission for the injured party. An interagency helicopter was summoned to the Jenny Lake area to assist in the rescue effort.

Approximately an hour later a second call came in from the mountain. It was a separate group of mountain climbers also struck by lightning, on a different part of the mountain. Then a little later, a third climbing party called for help. Three different climbing parties, a total of seventeen mountaineers, were struck by lightning on The Grand. All were within 1,000 feet of the summit of the 13,700 foot peak.

Park rangers and other rescue personnel were flown to the Lower Saddle of the Grand to begin the high altitude rescue. The Lower Saddle is 11,600 feet above sea level. Rangers were still between 1,500 and 2,000 feet below the climbers in need. Once the staging area was established the rangers began climbing to the different areas of the mountain where the injured climbers waited.

When the rangers reached the ailing climbers they provided emergency first-aid and readied them for evacuation off the mountain. Sixteen climbers received care for different types of lightning related injuries. They had varying degrees of electrical burns and neurological issues. The climbers were believed to be affected by indirect electrical charges radiating from the multiple bolts of lightning that struck the mountain. That meant that most, if not all, climbers on the Grand weren’t actually struck by lightning, but they were close enough to it to receive moderate to severe injuries.

Two climbers were able to descend to the Lower Saddle by themselves. Several others were led down to the rescue staging area by Exum Mountain Guides who were already high up on the mountain. Exum is a local guide company that regularly leads tourists up the Tetons. Several Exum guides that had already reached the summit were already below the Lower Saddle when they got word of the people in danger higher up The Grand. They courageously turned back into the storm and imminent danger. Once the professional guides reached the injured climbers they were able to successfully assist in their descent to the Lower Saddle.

The remaining climbers in need were reached by park rangers via the dangerous “short-haul” method. That consisted of a ranger dangling from a rope attached to a small helicopter’s underbelly. The helicopter would lift the rangers off the Lower Saddle and deliver them to the higher portion of the mountain where the other climbers were. There was no place for the helicopter to land so the hanging rangers would unclip from their lines once they reached the ground. The helicopter then transported the injured climbers using the same “short-haul” method down to the Lower Saddle. Once on the ground the injured parties were treated by an emergency room doctor and two paramedics who had been flown up.

A larger helicopter then began to transport a few wounded climbers at a time down to the Lupine Meadows rescue cache on the valley floor, at an elevation of 6,700 feet, not far from Jenny Lake.

What made the already complicated rescue mission far more dangerous and difficult was that the storm persisted to varying degrees throughout most of the mission. While rangers and guides were high on the mountain assisting the ailing climbers they had to deal with strong winds and intense rain showers. Dark, dense clouds greatly reduced visibility on The Grand. Eventually, in the late afternoon, a strong thunderstorm put the rescue efforts on hold when it forced the helicopter to remain on the valley floor to wait out the storm.

When the weather improved the helicopter reemerged on the mountain to pick up the remaining climbers. Waiting ambulances in the valley took most of the injured climbers to a nearby hospital.

By 8:30 p.m. darkness had almost completely descended on the park. Sixteen climbers and nearly all of the rescue personnel had successfully come off the mountain in the helicopter. One final climber, however, was still unaccounted for. Rangers searched the mountainside and the helicopter provided eyes from above. By nightfall the last man was still missing. Three park rangers stayed overnight on the Lower Saddle in a small rescue hut, to continue the search and rescue at first light.

The search resumed early the following day amid thick morning fog. At 10:00 a.m. the search concluded with sad results. The body of a 21-year old climber from Iowa was spotted from the helicopter below the Black Ice Couloir. He was wearing a climbing harness, and most climbers near the top of the mountain are normally roped together, so it is believed that his rope may have been severed by lightning. As a result, the climber fell approximately 2,000 feet down the northwest face of the mountain to his death.

The rescue mission may have had a tragic ending, but as a whole it had to be seen as a success considering sixteen climbers were effectively extracted from the mountain. A total of 83 people collaborated on the daring mission. The rescue was especially difficult due to the number of injured people, the harsh weather conditions, and the near vertical terrain on the tallest mountain in the park.

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6 thoughts on “The Largest Rescue in Grand Teton National Park History

Add yours

  1. I would never consider hiking in the rain only because I cannot imagine negotiating slippery rocks and trails. But what a story those mountaineers would have had! To be struck by lightning. I cannot even begin to imagine the situation they found themselves in. Your photographs and account of it all snags the attention.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for sharing the story of the rescue mission. My heart goes out to all who were involved and family of the climber who lost his life. The story is a great reminder for us who love spending time outdoor and in nature of a real danger of lightning, especially in high mountains.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh I know, those rangers really risk their lives for little pay or recognition. If I knew the extent of the rescue mission I would have stuck close to rangers just so I could hear what was going on from their radios.

      Liked by 1 person

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