Saturday, July 25, 2009



The Rescue Begins

A helicopter was ordered to facilitate ferrying the rescue team to the Lower Saddle between the Grand Teton and the Middle Teton. But enormous fires were burning in the West. Our supervisor and Jenny Lake Sub-district Ranger, Dunbar Susong, had been called to fight the fires in Glacier National Park. All the helicopters were fighting fires, so it wasn't until after noon that a three-place supercharged Hiller UH-12 helicopter piloted by Dan Hawkins came down to ferry the rangers up.

Rick and Pete were the first helicoptered to the Lower Saddle, the broad divide between the Middle and Grand Tetons. They were carrying the emergency first aid pack and light gear, so they made good time climbing up the Owen-Spaulding route, across the 'Belly Roll' and the 'Crawl' where they stepped over the Great West Chimney and descended to the 'Second Ledge' of the North Face to find Gaylord Campbell and Lorrie Hough at the accident site.

Standing at the Lower Saddle, a broad scree slope separating the Middle and Grand Teton peaks. The helicopter landing is just in front of the photographer. The Upper Saddle is the large notch straight ahead

Gaylord had a compound fracture of the lower leg, with bones sticking out. He had splinted it with his ice ax and some rope, so Rick and Pete replaced it with a plastic inflatable splint and made him as comfortable as possible. Ted and Mike were partners on the next flight and made a second rope team heading to the accident site.

But an amazing and serendipitous coincidence was unfolding at the same time: Bob Irvine was climbing the Grand Teton with Leigh Ortenburger, the legendary Sylvania mathematician and Teton historian who had written "The Climbers Guide to the Tetons". (I still treasure my copy.) As they were descending from the summit they heard the crys and commotion on the North Face and made their way down the ledges and cliffs to the accident site. No one knew the mountain, and particularly the North Face like Ortenburger, and although not a park service employee, he spent every summer in the Tetons and was the key to the routefinding on the rescue. Irvine was the only one who knew how to use the Austrian winch. Two essential members of the team just happened to drop in on the rescue at the exact moment they were needed.

In the Lupine Meadows housing area which became the logistics and helicopter pad, one of the wives brought sandwiches for the team. However they were declined as too heavy. We though we'd be back by dark or in the morning. That would come to haunt us!

Support to the Upper Saddle

The support team was next ferried to the Lower Saddle in multiple loads with all of the supplies and gear the rescue team would need to execute the rescue. This included a number of 120' and 150' braided nylon ropes, some Goldline, some Columbia white nylon, and some military surplus ropes dyed olive drab, all coiled in 'mountaineer's coils'. The main lowering device was an Austrian winch and lowering cable with two 300' spools of 1/4" steel cable and a friction drum. The crew carried ropes, pitons, carabiners, packs, more first aid gear, parkas, the short 15'-7/16" slings that Dunbar Susong had prepared for the litter, and the steel and wire Stokes litter on two Kelty pack frames. More stuff, I'm sure, but that is what I remember. My job was to lead the Support Team from the Lower Saddle to the Upper Saddle, which rises another two thousand feet up the mountain and separates the Enclosure peak from the Grand Teton. We were all humping extremely heavy loads: just the steel cables weighed 40 pounds each, plus each member carried personal gear. It was way more than any of us had carried at this altitude.

Ted and Mike remained to attend to Campbell while Pete and Rick climbed back up the route to the Upper Saddle with Lorrie and delivered her to the Support Team who escorted her back down to the Lower Saddle and the waiting helicopter. One down, one to go. Most of the support team, after an exhausting day of dragging the heavy loads up the mountain, returned to the Lower Saddle for the night. I stayed with the Scott brothers and Ted; we bivouaced at 13,000' on a small ledge of the dizzying West Face, waiting to ferry the loads down the difficult and treacherous terrain of the North Face to the accident site.

Yellowstone National Park officials had requested that the Hiller 'copter return to Cody, Wyoming, before dark on August 22 and said they would send "their helicopter" for the rest of the evacuation. The second helicopter, piloted by Don Schellinger, (nicknamed "Crash"), left West Yellowstone that evening in order to be ready first thing on the morning of August 23. The ship would remain till the end.

Carrying Loads Down the North Face

We spent the better part of the morning carrying the awkward loads on our backs down the North Face. All climbers rope together and place protection with pitons and carabiners in case of a fall, but for some reason, probably because we were very familiar with the terrain and were hurrying, we opted not to tie into the ropes. I remember Pete and I carried the Stokes litter, a pipe and wire basket that we had sawed in half. They were military surplus, used to ferry injured sailors between ships. Each cumbersome half was about three feet high and was lashed to a Kelty Pack Frame, not the ideal mountain climbing load. I calling to Pete telling him how nice it would be to have a rope; he replied, "Yeah, sure would be!", and we continued on. The exposure here was a vertical 3'000 feet and the rock was loose. I remember I was wearing my park ranger shirt and badge, corduroy nickers, Norwegian wool socks, and Lowa climbing boots with Vibram soles. We picked our way down the granite cliff with the loads, talking our way through the obstacles, placing our feet so very carefully to avoid dislodging a rock on a buddy. By afternoon we were all assembled with the gear. Forty two years later, I still wake in the middle of the night wondering and worrying how we all survived.


While writing this I'm preparing to reunite with the aging members of the rescue team in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, next week. Everyone has been very excited at the prospect of getting us back to Jenny Lake to celebrate and relive those memories of yesteryear. The amount of detail a gaggle of AARP members can conjure up from those senior brains is staggering! But, as I read the past six-months of email traffic I became concerned. I didn't remember the tiny details, but instead had conveniently replaced them with greater truth. Thus, I sent this email few days ago:

Dear Friends,

I have been giving the little project a lot of thought. In trying to remember the many factoids, narratives, conversations, and sequences, I constantly return to the more comfortable, although admittedly slightly less reliable, but arguably more heroic myths and tales that have supplanted the dry, distant, and rapidly dimming reality of the past.

I am concerned that the tremendous attention to detail on the part of the other 5 members will lead to a devaluation of the growing body of mythology which has continued to transform the story. In particular, Rick's detailed notes and his historian's objectivity could prove fatal to the supremely stylized annotations I've evolved in retelling the tale over the past 42 years. And Bob's razor-sharp photographic mathematician's memory and rational thought could possibly threaten the highly evolved myths, ceremonies, and religious ecstasy of the experience. Mike is a historian at one of the most prestigious institutions in America, and he seems to constantly fill in details that have escaped the rest of the crew. And Pete has frozen the nascent myths in time by writing it all down in a book, thus preventing
mythologizing process.

So, this gives me a little task. It will be my particular job to stand in front of the camera and tell the new and improved truth. I will need to improvise a tiny bit in order to add to the already impressive database of fiction, exaggeration, and myth, and thereby retain our current and rightful place in the halls of mountain heroes.

And so, my fellow travelers, you can count on me to do my part to keep our honor and heroic stature not only untarnished, but suitably enhanced. See you in a couple of weeks!

Your faithful friend,

Each member emailed back, with an understanding and patronizing tone, reminding me I'm just old, and I remember only the myths.
From Bob:
To all, and especially Ralph:

Here is the final, self-evident truth:

I am leaving for a river trip and will not return until July 30th. My failure to respond to email is due to absence, not rudeness.

Ted Commented:

You are assigned to Head Mythologist. Keep it pure!


Rick Replied:

I loved your mail entitled "The Truth," and especially liked "religious ecstasy."
Don't let our "objectivity and attention to detail" interfere with the story-telling. Indeed, most viewers of this film won't care about the "certifiable truth," and it should not get in the way of the real truth in all of this which is: The older we get, the better we were.
On another matter. Where were you in September,1964, the date of that wonderful photo taken at the Alpenbock climbing seminar in Little Cottonwood. I was still in the Tetons that year, and Irvine may have been there too. But where were you? Finland or ???

And Peter Pilafian, the photographer who filmed Clint Eastwood in "The Eiger Sanction", and will document our reunion, wrote this wonderful reply:

Dear Ralph -

I am in complete sympathy with your insightful and penetrating observations regarding the nature of what has given this incredible story its true power. We in the mythologizing business have long recognized that the intrusion of an excessive density of factual material, and its junior offspring, known as ‘factoids’, more often than not has an erosive effect on the propagation of what the late Joseph Campbell has called ‘ the Mythic Realm.’

In order to protect this project from any further such degradation, we will be providing each of you with a novel device known as the “Mythosphere” upon arrival in or near the Source of Origin. This easy-to-wear transparent bubble has the unique quality of allowing story-telling and other sounds to pass outward from the person wearing the device, but does not allow any spoken verbiage to come inward through the membrane. Thus we will decisively prevent the pollution of all exaggerations, hyperbole, witty anecdotes, tales of heroism, Olympian references, mathematical prowess under duress, number of ropes being carried up overhanging rock without protection, etc. etc.

Once the wind has gone out of the Mythosphere, it will automatically deflate, and the film cameras will then turn off, so that the court reporters and stenographers can get to work setting the record straight. Meanwhile the film crew will be floating down the Snake with a case of Microbrew, digitizing P2 memory storage cards under the full moon.

I hope this plan will stave off your concerns, Ralph, and yet at the same time offer an obscure but potentially reliable method for honoring the alleged importance of what some would call ‘historical accuracy.’ These carefully crafted, factual transcriptions, will be held in the strictest confidence at a museum of your choice, until such time as the parties all agree they should go on public display.

Thank you for bringing this to our attention.

Onward and Upward,




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