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Rescuers Race Darkness, Brave Elements in Bid to Save Tetons Climbers

THE STORY SO FAR A group of mountain climbers has been struck by lightning in the Tetons. Some are badly injured and one may be dead. Rescuers have been mobilized and a helicopter has scouted their scattered locations.

October 26, 2003|Sharon Cohen | Associated Press Writer

GRAND TETON NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. — Late-afternoon shadows were growing on the Tetons when Laurence Perry scanned the looming rock walls.

The helicopter pilot had already been up there, facing fickle winds while checking whether he could hover at 13,000 feet -- the altitude where the climbers had been hit by lightning a few hours earlier.

Next up was "short-hauling" -- rangers soaring through the skies, suspended by two finger-thin strands of 100-foot nylon rope attached beneath the helicopter. It's the closest thing to flying, the rescuers say.

The chopper's engine revved in a staging area called the Lower Saddle, elevation 11,600 feet, with Perry in the cockpit and ranger Renny Jackson in back, as his spotter. No one knows these mountains better then Jackson, co-author of a 416-page Teton climbing guide.

Leo Larson, a 27-year Teton ranger who cuts a distinctive figure at 6-foot-5 with a long blond ponytail, stood in front of the helicopter, the hauling rope laid out in an elongated "S" at his feet.

"Hook up," Perry called over his microphone as the chopper hovered.

Larson secured the rope to a nylon harness he was wearing.

"Hooked and ready," he replied.

Winds gusted at more than 25 miles an hour and, as Perry climbed, he felt as if he was on an invisible surfboard.

"It's going to be a little bumpy," he said.

The chilly mountain air stung Larson's face. His clothes flapped as he whisked along at up to 50 mph.

Perry watched the granite walls getting nearer. But, as usual, the British-born pilot showed equal measures of confidence and cool.

His life has been the stuff of a Hemingway novel: diving for coral in the Mediterranean, piloting a helicopter to ferry oilmen through the deserts of Yemen and police into the jungles of New Guinea.

Perry has even pulled people out of jams as rescue pilot for Eco-Challenge, a race that attracts adventure athletes to remote regions of the world.

There's a motto in his business: "It's not our emergency."

If it sounds callous, it's not. It means: Don't rush; take one step at a time.

The rangers share the philosophy. Too fast can spell disaster.

The chopper approached Friction Pitch, the steep incline where the climbers had been struck.

"Bloody hell," Perry said to himself, peering out.

Clouds were forming fast below. Perry was worried that he'd lose sight of the ground, like a skier in a whiteout. He'd have no idea how close he was to the mountain.

A momentary break in the clouds gave him a glimpse of Rod Liberal, the lone dangling climber. Then he was obscured again.

Any risky move could get them all killed.

"Leo, we're going to have to abort," Jackson radioed to the ranger below. "This isn't going to work."

Perry lowered the lever that decreases the pitch on the blades and began a slow, spiraling descent.

He had lost sight of Rod.

"Poor guy," he thought.

As soon as the helicopter settled back on the Lower Saddle at 5:21 p.m., Jackson hopped out. He knew that the clouds might not break for another flight.

"We've got to get people started up the hill," he told the gathering rangers.

That meant on foot.

At 5:36 p.m., Jim Springer took off. Springer, 48, had been doing search-and-rescue work since he was a teenage Explorer Scout.

Fifteen minutes later, Jack McConnell got his orders.

"You've got to catch Springer," Jackson told him.

"Cool," McConnell replied.

McConnell is known as Jack Hammer or Hydraulic Jack, the guy with pistons for legs. His personal best for the 2,170-foot climb from the Lower Saddle to the summit is 55 minutes -- a trip that might take a novice eight hours or more.

This time, he had to go about 1,200 feet, but it's a tough, steep climb hauling a 40-pound backpack past boulders and through gullies.

McConnell headed out running. He soon caught Springer.

*

At the same time, things were bustling at the Lower Saddle.

Friction Pitch was visible again. Perry could go back up.

At 6:04 p.m., Brandon Torres, the rescue coordinator, got a cell phone call from Sherika Thomas, Rob's wife.

"We really need your help," she said, sounding exhausted. "We've stopped CPR. Erica's dead."

Torres tried to reassure her, even as he absorbed the news that Erica Summers was gone.

"We're going to get someone to you soon," Torres said.

On top, the climbers started to build a rock enclosure to block the cold wind as the temperatures dropped to near freezing. They covered a shivering Clinton Summers, Erica's husband, with extra clothes. His left leg was bloody and purple. Lightning had entered his thigh and exited behind his knee, shredding his running shorts.

Now Clinton just wanted to get down the mountain. He needed to be with his two children, ages 2 and 4.

How could they absorb the news? How could he?

And yet it had been Clinton who had told his friends to stop CPR.

"We need to get help to Rod," he said. "We need to focus on the people down below."

*

Torres was watching the clock.

The rescuers had slightly more than three hours before their deadline for flying -- 30 minutes past sunset.

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