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October 20, 2014
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Terror in the Tetons

Amid tragedy and horror, a rescue of Grand proportions

Injured climbers are assisted from the helicopter at Lupine Meadows.

Injured climbers are assisted from the helicopter at Lupine Meadows.

The stirring started early on the morning of Wednesday, July 21, 2010.

It began a few thousand feet below the 13,770-foot summit of the Grand Teton as mountaineers’ headlamps flickered to life. Climbers swallowed their breakfasts with the nervous anticipation of a big day. Guides led their clients from the shelter of the fabric-covered Exum hut at the Lower Saddle, keen to make the summit on what looked like a fine morning.

Camped around the hut, three independent parties—seventeen climbers in all—set off, even before the sun’s rays struck the top of the peak. All shared a simple creed. Starting early would cut the danger of exposure to thunderstorms and lightning, known to blossom as the day matures. Being early increased the chances of claiming the peak. By setting off early, they would have more daylight if something went wrong.

So they scrambled, each step into thinner air, up steeper ground, into a warmer day. As the sun’s rays broke over the horizon and splashed the Grand, they radiated past the Tetons and west into Idaho, on south to Utah, warming, beckoning. Beckoning to the things that forged the mountaineer’s creed. The rays beckoned the monsoon, a warm, humid air mass flowing north from oceans far away. And they beckoned to a low pressure swirl slipping in from Idaho. All of them—sun, climbers, monsoon, Grand Teton—had one thing in common. In four hours they would meet.

Violently.

The clash would endure for hours. It would rain, hail, snow. Winds would drive chill into the bones of anyone outdoors. Lightning would strike the peak six or seven times. It would shock all seventeen, burning some, knocking others down, opening the doors of hell for a look inside. Only after more than eight hours, with the help of ninety-two rescue and emergency workers and two helicopters, would they make it down alive. All but one.

 
 

When the strongest bolt electrified the summit block at the peak of the storm, it blew twenty-one-year-old Brandon Oldenkamp off the mountain. A partner next to him, pounded by lightning to his knees on a narrow ledge, saw the young man for an instant, six feet out. And then, gone. Three thousand feet down the precipitous West Face.

How? Why? What about the rope? The anchor? The knot? The locking carabiner?

Oldenkamp woke that morning at 5 a.m. just below the Lower Saddle with his party of seven other climbers. One of them, fifty-two-year old Barry Sparks of Newton, Iowa, and his brother, Greg, a fifty-five-year-old town manager from Mountain Village, Colorado, often enjoyed summer climbing trips with a group of friends. Mostly from the Midwest and in their forties and fifties, they were sharing their adventure this year with a new generation. Oldenkamp was a basketball player at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, the boyfriend of a friend of Sparks, and the youngest of the group.

Nearby that morning, Steve Tyler, sixty-seven, a Utah resident working a seasonal job at Signal Mountain Lodge in Grand Teton National Park, woke with his group of five, including his forty-year-old son Dan, who lived in Florida. These two groups would head up the Owen-Spalding route, considered the easiest way up the peak but still a challenge.

While they were scrambling to the beginning of the roped climbing, a third party that also camped nearby was on its way up a slightly harder climb. Alan Klein, twenty-seven, was likely the most experienced in this four-person group, a certified mountain guide from Montana. All in their twenties, they were a fit lot, set to go light and fast as two teams of two, to be off the mountain by just after noon to avoid thunderstorms.

Pacesetters that day would be six Exum mountain guides, who woke from their hut-like tent on the 11,650-foot Lower Saddle, each with a pair of clients. They, too, were bound for the Exum Ridge, a granite buttress offering a clean, sunny line. As the guides moved up from the Lower Saddle, they passed the familiar landmarks that have seen the soles of thousands of mountaineering boots: the Briggs Slab, the Eye of the Needle. Out came the rope and across Wall Street they went to the exposed gap at the end. One by one the guided teams passed the mountain’s defenses—the Golden Staircase, with its perfect hand- and footholds; a windy chimney; the Friction Pitch—until they reached the summit block, the last seven hundred or so feet of the peak. With businesslike purpose they tagged the summit, rigged rappels, slid down their ropes, and were on the Owen-Spalding route descending.

 

Few climbers move with the efficiency of mountain guides. They are in shape, acclimatized, skilled. They know every cranny of the Exum Ridge. Most have guided the ridge dozens, or hundreds, of times. Even with clients in tow, they are experts at getting up and off the mountain quickly. So it was no surprise that on June 21 six of them were first on the mountain and first off, delivering a dozen clients to its top and returning them to the Lower Saddle before the trouble.

For the rest, the Sparks, Tyler, and Klein parties, the day would bring a different story. None knew the mountain as well as the guides, none likely started as early in the day. The size of two groups made them less flexible, more prone to delays. Yet there still was time for all to top out and get down before dark. If the weather would hold.

Jackson meteorologist Jim Woodmencey had his eye westward all week. A longtime valley resident, he has worked as a Jenny Lake climbing ranger in Grand Teton National Park. He has been a ski guide and takes particular interest in forecasting mountain weather. He broadcasts his daily predictions on local radio and operates mountainweather.com. In Jackson Hole, outdoors men and women visit the site religiously for the best backcountry forecast.

As early as Monday, Woodmencey saw potential trouble. A low-pressure system was moving to the western doorstep of the Tetons. Meantime, a separate cold front was stalling over Jackson Hole. Monsoon moisture, from oceans half a continent away, was moving over the desert Southwest toward the Wyoming Rockies. The Tetons would add orographic uplift and potency.

“I was already talking [on Monday] about all this coming together, Wednesday looking like the day we’d get the most thunderstorms,” Woodmencey said. “These four features were going to converge on that Wednesday. You had everything going at the same time.”

 

Woodmencey had advantages—satellite views, pressure readings, jet stream charts. In the mountains, a day divorced from any forecasts, climbers woke July 21 to benign skies. There was no immediate warning of the carnage to come; the seventeen ventured up, up into the warming day. But when the six Exum guides were descending, the other climbers heading up began to notice changes.

“Little concerned about the morning clouds,” Greg Sparks wrote in a post-accident report. “It was partly cloudy when we left camp...” at 5:30 a.m., another in Sparks’ and Oldenkamp’s party said. A third member noticed the weather “midway through the climb.”

By mid-morning, all seventeen were committed to the peak. They had climbed to the summit pyramid, and roped up on terrain where a slip could be fatal. Now they had to decide in deteriorating weather to advance or retreat. What would guides do? Six were already on their way down. Two others who were behind the pacesetters turned around with their clients and retreated. Why didn’t the three independent parties follow suit?

On the Exum Ridge, Klein’s group was somewhat boxed in. Because of a tricky traverse at the start, the first opportunity for escape comes close to the summit. High on the peak, they said the weather moved in quickly—an unusual, but not unique, morning development. A hundred feet from the summit, the storm “takes us by surprise,” one wrote.

On the Owen-Spalding, there was a different attitude. Steve Tyler remembers the time he first tried to climb the mountain in 1966, retreating in the face of weather. That day, however, another group made it and their success stuck in Tyler’s mind for more than three decades. “They waited it out and we didn’t,” Tyler said. “They got it [the summit] and we didn’t.”

 

Waiting it out was a theme among the parties on July 21. “The weather started getting bad, but we thought it would move out,” a member of the Sparks party wrote in his account to rangers.

Regardless of the reasons and causes, as noon approached the seventeen mountaineers were in the grip of an initial squall. The first storm cell hit Klein’s group, highest on the mountain. They sought shelter individually, then grouped up under a little overhang. On the Owen-Spalding, the two other groups headed down. They began to rig ropes for retreat, lowering one another or rappelling. The mountain began to buzz, crackle. Then came the blasts.

“It was extremely jolting, extremely painful,” twenty-one-year-old Matt Walker, one of Klein’s Exum Ridge party, said a few days later from his hospital bed. “You just kind of lost momentary use of your limbs.”

Walker and his group huddled together, discarding their metal gear and standing or crouching on their ropes in an effort to insulate themselves from the mountain. Then came a big blast, what one climber called “the granddaddy of them all.” Bolts burned a hole in the metal handle of an ice axe. They melted and fused metal climbing gear.

“I just remember screaming in pain,” Walker said. “It was extremely loud, like you were in an explosion. One of the images burned in my brain is looking at my friends and seeing the anguish in their faces. It was like being in the lightning. Nobody could figure out what to do.”

In the group just below, Steve Tyler was watching his son, Dan, slide down a rope when a big blast knocked him down.

 

“I remember the bright light, mostly,” he said. And paralysis: “I couldn’t move any part of my body.”

He rolled over to see his son-in-law, Troy Smith, seemingly dead.

“His eyes were rolled back and he wasn’t breathing,” Steve Tyler said. Numbed by the lightning, all he could do was roll over and blow into Smith’s mouth.

“It must have been six breaths when he started to breathe on his own,” he said.

On the rope below, the blast left Dan Tyler dangling upside down, unconscious. When he came to he had no feeling in his legs. There was nobody nearby to help. In a strange and scary moment, he tried to right himself with little feeling of or control over his own body.

“The strange sensation I had while turning over was that my leg was bending in such a way that the bone might break even though I couldn’t feel anything,” he wrote later in an account. “I remember worrying mostly that I was forcing [my] leg/knee into an unnatural position even though I could not feel anything. Then there was the third strike of lightning.”

Just below the Tyler party, Sparks, Oldenkamp, and their team of eight also were in mid retreat. Team members lowered Greg Sparks to a small traverse ledge that led back to easier and safer ground at the Upper Saddle, perhaps a hundred feet away. At the ledge, he found a sling anchor, tested it, and secured himself to it. He tied an extra figure-eight knot in a loop of climbing rope as an anchor for the next person down—Brandon Oldenkamp.

In the teeth of the storm, Oldenkamp alighted on the ledge next to Greg Sparks, lowered from above with a rope clipped into a locking carabiner on his harness. The ledge is big enough for two, but it’s perilously exposed, with three thousand feet of air between it and Valhalla Canyon below. Sparks warned Oldenkamp not to unclip; that he had to remain anchored somehow, either to the lowering rope or the figure-eight knot Sparks had prepared as part of the anchor on the ledge. Then a lightning bolt knocked Sparks down and—horror.

 

“I was falling to my right,” he said. “I looked at Brandon and saw him coming off, not just falling off—the force of the lightning taking him off. It just seems like there aren’t any words that can describe it. The force that took him off I knew he had no chance of surviving.”

Greg Sparks yelled into the storm; “Brandon’s dead!”

Then again: “The lightning swept him off the ledge, knocked him off the ledge!”

Their companions reeled in anguish.

“I heard the loud cry from above me,” Sparks said. “I think it was my brother,” Barry. “The next lightning hit, then the next. We were all just praying.”

Burned, stunned, crippled, and dazed, the sixteen remaining climbers regrouped. The lightning wounded Klein’s group, highest on the mountain, severely injuring Elizabeth Smith and Walker. Andrew Larson, the “only one able to walk,” stood up among his stunned, burned, and paralyzed companions. All realized they had to fight back, so Larson, twenty-three, grabbed a rope and went down for help.

“He took off in the middle of the storm, which I think is courageous,” Walker said.

In the next group down, Steve Tyler breathed into Troy Smith’s mouth and grabbed companion Henry Appleton, who looked like he might slide off the peak. Tyler and Appleton were both half paralyzed, but they wormed Appleton up to a safer spot as another bolt shocked them.

“All I can do is all I can do,” Tyler told himself. “They’ve got to stop sometime.” He clawed out a cell phone and called 911.

 

Dan Tyler, just below, got himself down to a ledge. Alone, he unclipped from the rope, freeing it in case a companion wanted to slide down it, too. Shivering and jittering, he balanced himself there for hours, with no backup anchor, a slip away from oblivion. “Time moves slowly,” he later wrote, “and I was very cold.”

Just below the tangle of Tylers, Sparks’ party—one man down—inched its way back across The Crawl and Belly Roll traverse and to the Upper Saddle, the base of the summit pyramid. There was no reason to look for Oldenkamp further. Below where he fell, the West Face of the Grand plummeted two thousand feet into a steep scree and talus field.

At the park’s radio center, a dispatcher picked up the telephone at 12:24 p.m. to take a call from a Driggs, Idaho, colleague reporting trouble. Five people in a party “on top of Tetons” may need a rescue. Three have been struck by lightning and paralyzed at the Owen Chimney. Jenny Lake rangers got a page-out two minutes later. Other calls poured in. In sixteen minutes, park superintendent Mary Gibson Scott grilled her dispatcher for information. Jenny Lake ranger Jim Springer, a tall climber with a bushy moustache who would oversee therescue and conduct the subsequent investigation, took over from the rescue cache near his log cabin summer quarters at Lupine Meadows.

Reports were flowing in; “Seven individuals climbing the Grand, one individual fell down the other side.” Springer added it up—thirteen in distress. Soon enough he would learn of another four—Klein and his group near the summit.

“There were people all over the mountain,” Springer said. “I had to basically stop and take a deep breath.”

He summoned helicopters. First, pilot Matt Heart, whose day began grimly enough with the evacuation of the body of twenty-one-year-old University of Michigan student Jillian Drow. She died after sliding over a cliff on the Middle Teton the day before.

Heart, flying toward a wildfire fire assignment south of Jackson, was over the National Elk Refuge when he got Springer’s summons. He turned his Eurocopter AStar 305 B-3 toward Lupine Meadows. Rangers, too, were on their way. Springer searched for more air support.

 

“Swan Valley ship is not available,” the dispatcher jotted down. “Rawlins is ordering Pocatello ship for a fire. Air Idaho is down and parked in Jackson, wouldn’t start—finding out about Portneuf.”

Springer eventually got a ship from Yellowstone National Park, and ambulances from Jackson and Teton County. He put the hospital on alert. Finally, “There was nobody else to call,” he said.

At the Lower Saddle, as other guides and clients hiked down to the valley just before the storm, Exum guide Dan Corn, twenty-seven,stayed behind to clean up. He weathered the booming storm in the hut, then strode out for the trail when a window in the weather opened.

But a cell phone call turned him around. He went back to the hut and prepared to help. Before long, Heart was circling the peak, then landing his helicopter at the Lower Saddle where rangers Jack McConnell and Helen Bowers popped out.

Because of their fly-by over the peak, the rangers knew the approximate location of the distressed climbers. Enlisting Corn, McConnell and Bowers headed up from the Lower Saddle, scrambling through the landmark obstacles until they came upon Sparks and his party. What they found was worrisome—the group was headed down the wrong way, rappelling into a slippery gully known as the Idaho Express. It got its name from an unfortunate slip a climber took years before, one that led to a tumble and his death on the Idaho side of the Grand.

“They were a little out of it because their buddy had died,” Corn said of the group. “They were all pretty cold. None of them had additional layers [of clothing] or anything to eat.”

Corn had seen the signs before—at altitude on Denali, and in the White Mountains when people had overextended themselves.

 

“All were at least moderately hypothermic, not sure-footed,” Corn said. It was clear some people were taking care of others. To be wet, cold, and hungry, that’s leading to other issues in my experience.”

Corn and the rangers got the group back on route and told them to stay put until other rangers or guides arrived to help them down. Bowers stayed in a large cave/overhang at the Upper Saddle to coordinate, as Corn and McConnell climbed on. They passed the Belly Roll boulder, crossed The Crawl ledge, and climbed a chimney to find the teetering, unroped Dan Tyler.

“He was quite hypothermic, pale faced, blue in the lips,” Corn said. “He couldn’t tell us quite what happened. He definitely wasn’t with it.

“The rope was right next to him, but he wasn’t clipped into it or holding on to it,” Corn added. “It was a safety precaution that was easily at hand but above his mental level at the time.”

McConnell and Corn anchored Dan Tyler to the mountain. Corn put him in a puffy jacket and moved on. The two rescuers got to Steve Tyler, Smith—now revived by rescue breathing—and Appleton. “They were also very cold but didn’t have any additional layers to try to keep them warm,” Corn said. “They were in a zombie-like state. The response time to a question you would ask them was much slower.”

At this point, McConnell and Corn were ready to help evacuate two of the wounded with the helicopter. Even as more weather was moving in, Heart shuttled harnesses and gear to the site, lowering the helicopter until a line below delivered the rescue gear. In short order, Troy Smith and Appleton were buckled into “screamer suits” and Heart was back, hovering above with his line. McConnell and Corn hooked the two in and Heart lifted them off the peak. In what rangers describe as “the best ride in the Tetons,” the two injured climbers dangled beneath the airship as Heart flew them to the Lower Saddle and lowered them into the hands of waiting rangers.

With another thunder cell closing in, McConnell knew a second extrication from the summit pyramid wouldn’t happen immediately. He and Corn moved Steve Tyler about a hundred feet across the face to a rappel anchor just above the Upper Saddle. They would lower Tyler down, then rappel to the relative safety of the overhang that somewhat sheltered Bowers below.

 

Meantime, rangers Marty Vidak and Drew Hardesty had followed the first two rescuers across The Crawl and reached Dan Tyler. But as the next storm cell moved in, all they could do was hunker down and take it.

Klein and his partners—Smith and Walker—were taking care of themselves, in spite of serious wounds. Klein, the certified Montana guide, began lowering Smith down. She couldn’t use her hands, as they were severely burned (she would eventually lose a finger). Walker rappelled after her—he could only hop, one foot so ravaged by lightning doctors would have to slice it open to relieve pressure from swelling. He slipped once, swung across the face, and crashed into a rock. In a tortuous journey, they hobbled, clawed, and lowered themselves to a rappel anchor and slid down ropes to Bowers and the Upper Saddle cave.

For the first time since the storms started, Walker heard a reassuring voice—that of Bowers. “At that point, all my emotions washed over me and I broke down,” Walker said. “I was so relieved. I thought we might actually get off this thing.”

Huddled under the overhang, rangers grouped Walker, Klein, Smith, and Steve Tyler together into a thermal heap, covering them with tarps and a sleeping bag to get them warm. “We were freezing,” Walker said. “We were just praying we wouldn’t get struck again.”

Corn, Bowers, and McConnell took shelter as the clear window closed and lightning boomed again, even shocking McConnell slightly. Just a few hundred feet away, separated by The Crawl ledge, rangers Vidak and Hardesty gutted it out with Dan Tyler—in the open and thrashed by another round of lightning, wind, and graupel.

At the Lupine Rescue Cache, seven thousand feet below, the latest thunder cell shut down both helicopters. Woodmencey was in touch, giving updated spot weather forecasts. Another clear window might be coming up. Rescuers geared up for the last extractions. Now, fading daylight would be their last obstacle and concern.

When skies cleared for the second time, Heart was back above the peak. In short order he plucked the victims from the Upper Saddle, two at a time, and landed them in the hands of medics almost two thousand feet below. Dan Tyler, too, was laced into a screamer suit, hooked to the cable, and flown down.

 

At the Lower Saddle, rangers took over the Exum Hut, a doctor setting up a triage system. The Yellowstone helicopter would land and rangers and guides, now on the saddle in force, would load it with the most seriously injured. Load after load went down until all sixteen were safe on the valley floor. They arrived to an effervescent world of green grass, warm temperatures.

The sun was setting as the last shuttles landed. It was more than seven hours after the drama began. Heart took off for one last flight. He flew to the west side of the Grand and over Valhalla Canyon for a twilight search. He and rangers scanned the cliffs, ledges, scree, and talus slopes, with as much hope as they could muster, looking for a sign of Brandon Oldenkamp. In the fading light, they returned, unsuccessful.

Doctors checked out the climbers. Some were admitted to St. Johns Hospital in Jackson. Others were transferred to the larger hospital in Idaho Falls, Idaho. Still others were released. Officially, rangers would list nine injured, seven “saves”—and one fatality tallied in the subsequent investigative report. Rangers found Oldenkamp’s body the next day, about three thousand feet below where Sparks had last seen him. Ultimately, Springer couldn’t discount Sparks’ eyewitness conviction. His report lays out the scenario without reaching a firm conclusion on how Oldenkamp became detached. Listing the causes of the fatality, Springer marked lightning as the primary contributing factor. A second contributing factor was “error in judgment.” Third, insufficient clothing, equipment, and experience.

“Seasoned climbers will retreat in the face of deteriorating weather,” Springer said right after the accident. All three parties “were going up in the face of deteriorating weather,” he said. Mountain guides served as a reference point. Six got up and off with clients. Two others, who were behind the pacesetters for various reasons, retreated safely with their clients.

One more expert will weigh in. Jed Williamson, editor of the American Alpine Club’s annual publication Accidents in North American Mountaineering, will review the events and rangers’ report and publish his opinion. After learning most of the salient points, he agreed that not all the questions may be answered.

 

“It was a cataclysmic event that can’t be easily explained,” he said. “I defy anybody to come up with a definitive ‘this is what happened in this case.’ It’s one of those cases we may not know what the precise method of failure was. We have to live with that from time to time.”

At Dordt College in Iowa, a legion of youth returned to school last fall and began to live with a real-life lesson. The basketball team wore patches with Brandon Oldenkamp’s initials and number. The school framed his jersey, No. 45, and hung it in the gym lobby. Team members presented it to his parents at the last regular-season home game. The Dordt Defenders fought their way to the Great Plains Athletic Conference finals, beating rivals in the semifinals before losing the championship. Oldenkamp’s name is etched on a memorial plaque in the campus center, just north of the recreation center. Friends planted a State Street maple tree.

The maple will mature, reminding friends and family of a life cut short. It will shade new students, bring color as the seasons change. It will grow higher, and some day students may climb into its branches for fun, for a fresh view, for a challenge.

A thousand miles to the west, the Grand Teton will continue to draw mountaineers bent on testing themselves. They will come to its base, ascend its slopes, marvel at the dramatic view from the summit. Most will climb and descend without incident and revel in their success on the valley floor. They will go home stronger and wiser for their journeys, infused with a bit of self confidence, yet understanding that their time in the rare air was borrowed—that nobody lives on the mountain permanently. And that at times, the forces of nature make it a place nobody belongs.

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