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After the fall

Lightning sparks the most harrowing rescue attempt anyone can recall at Grand Teton National Park. As Steven Barrie-Anthony and Rebecca Huntington report, the elite crew of climbing rangers summons brain, brawn and machinery to come out on top.

September 23, 2003|Steven Barrie-Anthony and Rebecca Huntington

THE CHOPPER LIFTED OFF, YANKING the thick cord attached to its belly until only six feet lay slack on the ground.

Under the thwack and blur of blades, climbing ranger Leo Larson snapped his harness onto a loop at the end of the rope.

"Clipped and ready," he said into his flight helmet mike.

"Coming up," the pilot answered.

The ground fell away and Larson trailed the bird through the air above Grand Teton National Park, dangling, nylon shell flapping hard. Twisting slowly on his 100-foot tether, he faced the distant town of Jackson, Wyo., and then the broad river valley nicknamed Jackson Hole and, still rotating, the 13,770-foot Grand Teton itself. With his long blond hair tucked into his helmet, the 6-foot-5 ranger stretched out his legs and arms to brake the spin and looked for a landing pad.

"How about letting me off on that large flat rock?" Larson said.

Lowered and unclipped, helicopter backing away through steep clouds, he saw the dead woman and the dazed climbers -- her husband and friends -- huddled atop the Friction Pitch of Exum Ridge. Everyone except the guy who had disappeared off the ledge around 3:45 p.m.

The call

A few hours earlier on this Saturday in July, Larson was shuffling paperwork in the subdistrict rescue cache -- a small cabin and a few picnic tables in Lupine Meadows -- when his radio spit. "Lightning strike on the Grand," came the familiar voice of the park dispatcher. "One person not breathing. One person critically injured."

The on-duty search-and-rescue coordinator, Brandon Torres, tripped the high-alert tone, signaling all rangers to swarm the meadow. Larson, 47, a La Jolla-based map publisher in the off-season, bolted to his own tiny cabin 200 yards east of the cache. Wrestling off Levi's and a T-shirt, he pulled on the two-piece Nomex fire-retardant flight suit kept on his front porch. His wife of 24 years, Helen, a backcountry biotechnician and experienced rescue cache coordinator, jogged through the tufts of sagebrush to help.

Rushing back to the cache, Larson scanned the sky, spotting the cumulus domes that tend to toy with helicopters. If the threat of downdrafts didn't shutter the operation, sundown might. The blobs on the Doppler radar soon confirmed his gut feeling. Even for an old hand at short-haul rescues, in which a helicopter "inserts" rangers hanging on a rope to hasten response in extremely rugged spots, this would register in the park's Jenny Lake subdistrict annals as the most harrowing day.

Much later, at "the critical incident stress debriefing," the details would come out. Thirteen climbers, mostly work colleagues in their 20s from the information technology department of an Idaho Falls company, had headed up the Grand's popular south-facing Upper Exam Ridge route at 8 a.m., well after the recommended dawn start.

The route typically begins as a scramble from a part of the ridge called the Lower Saddle and eventually traverses an exhilarating and technically challenging stretch. Once climbers reach Wall Street, a fat ledge, they usually rope up before maneuvering across little more than air to a nearby boulder ledge. From there, the only way off the peak is up. After climbing the Golden Staircase, a yellow slab known for its large, knobby holds, they make their way across broken ground to the 120-foot Friction Pitch. A pitch is any distance climbed using a standard rope and, with a 5.5 rating, this is the most difficult pitch on the route. Its smooth, unbroken rock offers thin holds and few cracks in which to wedge the aluminum chocks or mechanical camming devices that roped climbers count on to arrest a fall.

In summer the valley floor acts like a burner under a pan of water, sending warm, moist air into a lid of cold. But the drought had rung the atmosphere dry in recent weeks, and the roughly 70 people a day attempting to top the Grand had sweated beneath either clear skies or clouds no more menacing than cotton balls. Then, in the week leading up to July 26, true to seasonal form, the billowing afternoon thunderheads returned from the south. Inside the clouds, water droplets rose and fell, like a shoe rubbing on carpet, generating static electricity.

Seeing the suspect clouds, the Idahoans ditched their summit bid -- just 700 feet short of the top. Divvied into four rope teams, they planned instead to cross the Friction Pitch and traverse to a rappel, several hundred feet below the summit. Rain came, slickening the rock, but they weren't alarmed.

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