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October 30, 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.

(page 1 of 13)

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.

 
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