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Last Climber's Prayer: Get Me Off the Mountain

Injured by lightning in the Tetons, Rod Liberal focuses on his family. Rescuers had saved his companions; could they reach him in time?

November 02, 2003|Sharon Cohen | Associated Press Writer


High on a peak in the Tetons, rescuers on foot and in helicopters reach a group of climbers injured by lightning. One is already dead. The survivors are helped to safety below, except for one man whose precarious position dangling from the mountainside makes him hardest to reach.


GRAND TETON NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. -- "Down and comfortable," Craig Holm coolly radioed to the pilot above as he unhooked the rope that had tethered him to the helicopter and lowered him onto the 10-foot-wide mountain ledge.

Winds kicked up from the chopper's rotors. But Holm had stabilized himself under the weight of his 60-pound backpack that was loaded with rescue gear.

He peered over the edge, 50 feet down to where Rod Liberal was dangling off Friction Pitch in a ghastly upside-down V. He had been twisted that way for more than 2 1/2 hours.

Holm figured that Rod's back was broken; his spine might even be severed.

"Rod!" he yelled. He heard moans from below.

Holm rappelled down a thin rope and soon was hanging near Rod's waist. They were about 13,000 feet up.

Holm attached a tether from his harness to Rod in case the climber's rope was damaged by the lightning.

"I'm Craig," Holm gently began. "We're here to get you out of here.... How ya doing? Talk to me."

Rod mumbled incoherently.

"Rod, do you know where you're at?"

"I think I'm in Grand Teton," he replied in almost a whisper.

"Do you know what happened to you?"


Rod was too weak to tell Holm how much pain he was in, how hard it was to breathe, how relieved he was to see him. He had willed himself to keep going by thinking about his wife, Jody, and their baby son. He kept praying that someone would get him off the mountain.

"Whoever gave me life," he said to himself, "please help me keep it."

It was past 6 p.m. The sun was now lowering over the peaks. The two men were suspended side by side next to jagged, steeply sloping rock, with layers of ledges below. Holm was in a sitting position in his harness, his feet against the wall.

Rod was bent backward, belly toward the sky. His face was flushed and swollen. His clothing was tattered under his left arm and across the left side of his chest, melted behind his right knee. The path of the lightning, Holm suspected.

He unzipped Rod's jacket and pulled up his T-shirt, looking for possible fractures and bleeding. Under Rod's left arm, expanding across part of his chest was a purplish, spidery 6-inch mark that appeared to be a lightning burn.

Rod's breathing sounded like a snore, and that worried Holm.

He needed to straighten his body. Holm fashioned a chest harness from tubular nylon slings, wrapped it under Rod's arms and around his back, lifted him and placed him on his lap.

Now both faced the wall, and Rod's breathing improved.

At 5-foot-10 and a wiry 140 pounds, Holm was only about 10 pounds lighter than Rod. But the injured climber felt much heavier -- he was dead weight.

Holm continued his medical check.

"Does this hurt?" he asked, pressing Rod's ribs.

"Owww," he moaned.

Rod winced when Holm pressed his lower back, hips and left side -- his chest, arm and shoulder. Rod could squeeze Holm's fingers with his right hand, but not his left. He wiggled the toes on his left leg when asked.

"Good," Holm said. "Wiggle your toes on your right leg for me."

"I can't," Rod muttered.

Next for Holm was getting Rod oxygen. But the tank was stuffed in Holm's backpack along with needles, medicine, a blood pressure gauge and other things.

Cradling Rod's head in one hand, he couldn't safely pull the tank out. If his grip slipped, it could fall on a rescuer below.

"George!" Holm yelled up the mountain. "I'm going to need an extra hand down here."

Ranger George Montopoli, who had been setting anchors above, is one of many Teton veterans, an experienced climber who has scaled peaks in Ecuador, Chile and Argentina. An amiable man with a curly mop of salt-and-pepper hair, he also is a former Peace Corps volunteer, a bald eagle researcher and, during the off season, a math professor in Arizona. He has used his PhD in statistics to analyze accidents at the park.

As Montopoli descended, Holm kept talking with Rod.

"Am I going to be OK?" Rod asked. "I've got a 3-month-old son."

"What's his name?" Holm asked.


Holm figured that Rod had a 50-50 chance, but he wasn't about to tell him that.

"We're going to do everything we can," he said.

Clouds were coming in, but the wind had subsided. It was eerily calm. When it seemed too quiet, Holm called out Rod's name or asked him to open his eyes. He regularly checked his pulse and breathing.

Montopoli reached them and pulled out the oxygen tank. Holm placed the mask on Rod's face. Though more stable now, Rod was in no shape to be plucked from the mountain the way others were -- in a seat-like harness ferried beneath a helicopter. For Rod, the best way off was a basket-like litter suspended from the chopper.

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