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In a Flash, Trek Turns to Terror in Tetons

The rock climbers had looked forward to an adventure, but when the weather changed they knew they had to turn back. Then lightning hit.

October 19, 2003|Sharon Cohen | Associated Press Writer

GRAND TETON NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. -- It started with a strange hum, a soft fluttering as if grasshoppers had suddenly gathered on the mountain. This wasn't a symphony of nature, but a prelude to disaster.

The sunny morning had given way to afternoon rain. The granite walls of the Grand, the highest peak of the majestic Tetons, had turned slick.

The climbers were disappointed as they looked toward the soaring, 13,770-foot summit -- so close now -- and realized that they wouldn't quite make it.

The 13 climbers, mostly co-workers and family members, had planned this trip for a year. But now, with some first-timers in the group, they could take no chances.

They had to get down. Soon.

Rob Thomas had just scaled Friction Pitch, a sheer, 100-foot wall that rises to within 800 feet of the mountaintop, and was scrambling up to another spot.

That's when he noticed the hum.

"Honey, did you hear that?" he asked his wife, Sherika, standing below.

His words were barely out when a jolt of electricity ripped through his body. It squeezed every muscle like a death grip.

Thomas spun around.

He began sliding down ragged rock on his back.

Five feet. Ten. Twelve.

"Rob!" his frantic wife screamed, reaching for him. "Don't you fall!"


The lightning took everyone by surprise.

Just moments earlier, Rob Thomas had been snapping photos of his family in their magnificent surroundings. They were far above the lush curtains of fir and pine trees with an eagle's-eye view of the snowcapped Tetons, glaciers and their home state, Idaho, to the west.

But with a storm moving in, it was time to go.

It was going to be a long descent. Rob radioed to the climbers below and told them the plan.

They were in four teams, spread across several hundred feet of mountain -- some ahead, some below, one about to start up the face of Friction Pitch.

The split-second flash from the clouds set in motion a harrowing day of grit and courage, a day that would test both the resilience of the climbers and the skills of a brotherhood of rangers who would drop from the skies in a desperate race against time.

Rod Liberal, the climber ascending Friction Pitch, was having a hard time finding holes to grip as he moved up the moist, smooth wall. Even when the rock is dry, climbers must rely on the friction of their hands and feet.

He was about halfway up when the lightning struck.

It blew him off the rock and swung him about 30 feet around the wall.

Suddenly, he was dangling by his rope, almost 13,000 feet up.

His body was twisted in a ghastly upside-down V, his stomach toward the sky. His head and shoulders hung backward. His left side grazed the rock.

When he opened his eyes, he saw his feet.


The jolt hit the three climbers below Friction Pitch like dynamite, hurling them into space.

In an instant, Reagan Lembke's body stiffened. Pain coursed through him, as if he were being electrocuted.

For a brief moment, he couldn't see or hear. Then he knew that he was falling. His backpack and helmet clanked and scraped against the jagged rocks. His arms and legs flailed.

He was going to die; he was sure of that. The next bounce would be his last. He thought of his wife and two infant children. What will they do without me? he wondered.

Then, THUD.

He was on his back, legs snarled in a nest of climbing gear.

The ropes attached to his harness had wrapped around a boulder twice, swooped down to his two climbing partners -- Jacob Bancroft and Justin Thomas, Rob's younger brother -- then back up again. Amazingly, that had stopped their fall.

Lembke heard moaning below.

"Is Justin there?" he called. "Is Jake there?"

More moans.

"We need a cellphone!" he shouted. "We need helicopters!"

There was nothing but silence.

Above Friction Pitch, Sherika Thomas managed to stop her husband's slide.

She pressed her hands on Rob's chest and pushed him against the wall. One slip could have sent him tumbling off the ledge, down hundreds of feet.

It took a second for it all to sink in -- lightning.

Would another jolt follow?

Although dazed, Rob pulled aluminum trekking poles off his back. He feared that they could act as lightning rods. Through glazed eyes, he saw his wife's look of disbelief.

Then came a scream -- the loudest, longest one he had ever heard.

He knew the voice: It was his best friend, Clinton Summers. But where?

Rob crept past an outcropping, then moved along a ledge about 20 feet toward the anguished cries.

There was Clinton, with his wife, Erica.

Clinton, who had blacked out, was now sitting, unable to move his legs. Erica was leaning into him, unresponsive. Clinton turned and grabbed his wife's face. There was no sign of life.

Rob Thomas smelled an acrid, burning odor. Dropping to his knees, he pulled off Erica's climbing helmet and saw that it was melted and scorched inside.

Her lips were swollen, black and blue. Her neck and chest had burn marks. Her clothes looked as if they had exploded from the inside out in some places, melted in others.

She had no pulse.

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