Saturday, July 25, 2009



The Second Day - Lowering Down the Face

The North Face of the Grand Teton from Mount Teewinot

At first light the helicopter fired the engine and rose up the heavier cool air on the morning currents, floating near the face. Shellinger was at the controls, and Doug McClaren held a little cardboard box full of morphine and syringes. Doug, son of a park ranger from Rocky Mountain National Park, and veteran of the 10Th Mountain Division in WWII, was a real climber and the first climbing ranger in the Tetons. In 1952 he had transferred here and was the guy who started the Jenny Lake Rescue Team. He and his seasonal ranger, Dick Emerson, were the tough guys. Doug had written the mountain rescue handbook, and we all admired him. I can still see his dark, gaunt, sun-baked face, a cigarette hanging from his lips, moving quickly from task to task. As a young boy he, his father and brothers arrested a murderer. One boy stood in the Entrance Kiosk, acting like a ranger, while the dad hid with a gun as the killer approached. Their dad had one of them hold the gun while he handcuffed the criminal. Doug could do anything: pack a horse, shoot a gun, climb a mountain. He was the ranger's ranger; he was our hero. The ship flew close to the rock and Doug gave the medicine a toss: Perfect! From high in the air and subject to the wild prop wash of the helicopter, it miraculously landed in Pete's lap. The day was off to a great start.

Pete was serious. He always had a wry dry sense of New England humor in his voice, but here he was more somber. I'm sure the additional years of experience had the effect bringing a touch of mortality to our situation. So was Bob. I was young and optimistic, another big adventure, but that didn't mean I wasn't afraid at times. The unroped trip down the mountain had put me in a protective mood, and I thoroughly checked every knot we tied, every carabiner snap, every foot and handhold. I understood with a Zen consciousness the minute details of the rock.

Pete had discussed with the team whether we should try to use the winch and haul Campbell in the litter back up the rock to the Upper Saddle, then down to the Lower Saddle for a ride out in the helicopter, or whether to lower him nearly 2,000' down the overhanging face to the Teton Glacier. We couldn't contemplate such a raising, trying to crank up the heavy litter, one or two litter attendants, and Campbell over loose, dangerous, and steep terrain. Later called 'The Impossible Rescue', this would become the most complex and difficult rescue in North America either way. Pete was a philosopher, a lover of Wittgenstein, and so after consulting the crew, mainly Ortenburger and Irvine, we opted for the lowering.

My mind is foggy on who did exactly what every minute for the next two days, so if I get a bit of it wrong after 42 years, please cut me a bit of slack, as we would say in the mountains. We all took turns doing everything. It is likely the greatest bit of coordinated teamwork I've ever done, and over the past 50 years, I've done hundreds of rescues. The joy of working together as a team had the most profound effect on the rest of my life; on every task I looked for a team approach, hoping to duplicate our spirit and success.

We strapped Campbell inside the Stokes litter with a helmet over his face to protect him from falling rocks. He and his bloody splint and bandages were tucked inside a goose down-filled military surplus sleeping bag. A 7/16" nylon rope on each end of the litter tied with bowline knots made a self-equalizing system, so Campbell wouldn't dump out going over the edge. Pete had him packaged so that he could constantly check the wound and make sure he had feeling in the leg. It was a terrible wound.

I believe on that first day, Irvine hand-drilled 4-1/4" holes in the rock, pounded in expansion bolts on hangers with holes drilled in them. We must have all taken turns, because this was hard work. Bob wrapped the 1/4" steel cable around the grooves in the wooden belay drum for friction, and held onto the cable with his gloved hands to lower the litter down the cliff. This was the great anchor that the winch was tied to and from which all of our lives depended. An aluminum raising crank was set up, too, in case we needed to transfer the load and raise it up.

A second system of belay ropes was set up for security and tied onto the litter next to the cable. Rick tied a carabiner-break bar friction system, invented by Dunbar, onto the anchor and wrapped the rope through it, then placed the rope around his waist for additional security in case the cable were to fail. We had practiced and used this rope technique a hundred times, but the cable was new, and we had never used it.

Ted volunteered to take the first lowering. I have a photo of him with a grim face, two-day old beard, wearing his hard hat ready to drop. The space program had begun to make our lives easier. Just recently we had graduated from huge battery-powered radios carried by a horse to the new Motorola hand-held sets with rechargeable NiCad batteries. Ted carried a radio for communications, and we kept a second one on the belay ledge. As Bob and Rick lowered him and Campbell over the lip the steel cable jumped hard scaring all of us. It appeared that it had snapped. But it was just the way the cable ran, in jumps and fits. For the next two days, each pop and jump of the cable frayed my nerves as they themselves were the cable.

This procedure, setting up a bomb-proof anchor, changing the ropes and cable, and lowering down the face was repeated over and over, with all of us taking turns at every station. In my mind I can see Irvine heading over the cliff, Ted peering over the edge for communications, Rick and Ermarth holding onto the ropes and cables, their waists tied to the rock, their feet braced against a lip or crack, letting the precious package down an inch at time. Gravity pulls straight down, making traverses across the mountain difficult. The litter attendant needs to scrape across the rock, pulling the heavy Stokes and its packaged victim, and if there is a slip, risks a dangerous rock-pounding pendulum swing backwards. We had dropped a hundred or so feet down from the Second Ledge to the First Ledge, then we dragged the litter sideways down that ledge another full 300'. Another short lowering brought us near the end of the ledge. We either needed to continue down the climbing route full of difficult traverses and dangerous rock-fall or drop straight over the overhanging edge of the North Face.

We had only a maximum of 300' of cable and rope to reach the next ledge; there appeared to be nothing between our position and the rock Grandstand below, which we hoped was no more than 600 feet. We needed to find an intermediate ledge at 300 feet. The Grandstand intersects the North Face at a right angle from the west, with the glacier well below. The wall overhung terribly, so there would be no way to crank Campbell back up if we misjudged the distance. Ortenburger the statistician and Irvine the mathematician put their heads together, tossed a rock over the edge and timed the return of the sound hitting the rock Grandstand. Recently, Irvine, our great friend, professor, retired, sent us this explanation:

Apparently no one has ever written down the details about measuring the distance from the First Ledge to the Grandstand. I have seen many vague references about counting seconds waiting for the return of the sound of the impact of a dropped rock. There is even talk about mathematicians using those seconds to calculate the distance the rock fell. Despite much fuzziness about some of the details, the calculations remain clear in my mind.

If an object falls in a vacuum under the influence of a constant acceleration, in this case due to gravity, the calculations are straightforward. In just two steps, unfortunately involving calculus, we arrive at the formula

s =(½)gt²,

where s is the distance fallen, g is the acceleration and t is the time. If we remember that the force of gravity increases the velocity of a falling object by about 32 feet per second for every second fallen and we measure the time in seconds, s will be in feet. Hence

s= 16 t².

Unfortunately, the problem is more complicated than this because air resistance will have a significant effect on the falling time. The air resistance is approximately proportional to the square of the velocity, and this fact changes the differential equation into a rather intractable form.

Our only recourse up on the mountain was to make an estimate, hopefully based on common sense. The simplest thing to do was to calculate how long it would take the rock to fall a distance greater than 600 feet in a vacuum, thereby compensating for the time needed for the rock, slowed by air resistance, to fall just 600 feet. We used 640 feet for the estimate. Putting this in the formula, we immediately arrive at

40 = t²,

so the time for the rock to fall is about 6.3 seconds. Since sound travels about 1100 feet per second, the sound will take just a bit over half a second to return after a fall of 600 feet. Adding in the half second for the sound to return meant that we wanted the total time to be just under 7 seconds.

When we first dropped a rock, I believe that the time was in the neighborhood of 7.8 seconds. Unfortunately, I did not write down the numbers. In any case, there was a good chance that we were significantly more than 600 feet above the grandstand.

We then proceeded quite a ways down the first ledge and then cut back to the west on another ledge, thus arriving at a point below our first measuring point. It is worth noting that simply going down the first ledge meant traveling more or less parallel to the Grandstand and not getting much closer.

When we dropped rocks from our second vantage point, the sound returned in just about 7 seconds. The use of "in the neighborhood" and "just about" is due to my fuzzy memory, not bad accounting practices. I had a stopwatch and times were measured to the nearest fifth of a second (maybe Rolex could have used this in an ad).

We know that the estimate turned out to be better than we could have expected. We made two 150-foot rappels down to the second bivouac ledge. Continuing the next morning, I remember disengaging from the 300 foot rappel and noting that the unweighted rope retreated to a position just above my head. I also remember noticing that for about 250 feet of that rappel, we were hanging free of the rock, descending over a significant overhang. We were pleased that the litter was not left dangling somewhere on the overhanging part of the face.

Some weeks later...

Well, here we go again. The vexing problem of the falling rock has once again invaded my curiosity. The "rather intractable" differential equation which describes the motion of a rock falling in the atmosphere is only intractable in the sense that its solution is complicated enough to want the solver to have access to pencil and paper. More difficulties arise because the solution involves some esoteric functions which cannot be evaluated without recourse to some sort of electronic device (or a slide rule, for the old folks). Also, a key element is missing. If the air resistance is proportional to the square of the velocity, what is the constant of proportionality?

The rock will continue to accelerate until the resisting force is equal to the weight of the rock, that is to say, the rock has reached terminal velocity. For example, if you fall out of an airplane, your terminal velocity will probably be a bit less than 200 feet per second. A small meteor that reaches the earth does so at about 350 feet per second. If we know the terminal velocity for a rock, we can calculate how far it will fall in a given time, even without knowing that elusive constant of proportionality.

If 1/k is the terminal velocity, g is the acceleration due to gravity, t is the time, and s is the distance fallen,

s = (1/(gk2) )LN(COSH(gkt)).

In this absurd expression LN is the logarithm function and COSH is the hyperbolic cosine function (related to a hyperbola in a manner similar to the relationship of the cosine function to a circle).

To arrive at this formula requires significant floundering in some messy calculus and if you believe this result, I have some lake-bottom property to sell you (complete with a bridge that I picked up in Brooklyn a few years back).

However, it is surprising to view the results for various terminal velocities. It is rather likely that the terminal velocity of a rock is somewhere between that of a human and a meteor. Please ignore the differences among granite and schist and odd shapes. One further admonition - these subjects are not usually discussed in polite company. You do so at your own risk.

It is hard not to notice the fact that if our rock had the good sense to have a terminal velocity of 300 feet per second, it would have fallen 597 feet during its allotted time.

I am now retiring to the woodpile to sip a gin and tonic.


I insert this almost in its entirety to show Irvine's Martini-dry sense of humor, and the type of people with whom I have spent most of my life. It has been an honor.

We trusted Bob and Leigh. They had been so very accurate so far, and we were all still alive and intact, Campbell was doing well, although in pain and grumpy. We set up the anchors for the next lowering, and Leigh hopped off like an elf to find a route and a ledge. He had kept his optimism and sense of humor totally intact, as if this was the terrain he was born to. I know we were nervous about this section; none of us but Leigh had been near it, hanging hollow, cold, dark and wet beneath us. He called back that he had found a ledge, barely at the correct height, and with rope-stretch, the litter would reach. If memory is correct, Pete lowered off with Gaylord on the first 300 feet to a small slanting ledge. I remember him hanging backwards onto the stokes litter, his too-short knickers baring his thin climbers' legs, as he pushed off backwards over the brink, guiding the litter over the lip of rock and disappearing down the cliff. Although I was still on the First Ledge, I remember from the radio traffic that Pete was having an epic. The litter was swinging, and Leigh managed to pull it to safety on a minuscule slanting shelf.

Now began the first of two 300' rappels, sliding descents down the rope so we could join the others below. The first rappel over the edge, we could do with a brake bar, saving our clothes and skin by letting the friction heat be absorbed by the aluminum. The five of us one by one slid down the rope to our new home, cozy as though it was. We again set up an anchor, Leigh and Mike descended to scout the next 300 feet and to set up the next anchor. The rope reached the Grandstand! Time to move; Pete and Gaylord in the rapidly fading light headed off into the abyss. The gray granite, the dirty summer snow, and the steel blue sky reinforced that we were in a somber situation. We caught some gritty water seeping down the granite walls. Each of us rummaged in our packs and pockets for any morsel of food. We hadn't eaten anything since yesterday; those sandwiches left in Lupine Meadows now seemed so far away. The lack of food was slowing our bodies, but we were young and tough, and no one complained. That evening as we sat tied to the ledge we searched for anything to eat. There is a slight difference of opinion here, with some remembering part of a candy bar. I can only remember a few jelly beans from a pants' pocket to divide between the four of us on the ledge. It is the most vivid memory of the entire adventure.

The Third Day - Lowering Onto the Glacier

We were down to the final lowerings. Meanwhile at the Teton Glacier, the helicopter with Shellinger and Jack Morehead, the North District Ranger and members of the support team arrived for the carry-out. I remember at the first sign of dawn, Jack with his humorous voice got on the park radio and said, "This is the Frosty Flats Ranger Station calling the North Face Rescue Team...Good Morning!" He had dug a small trench up the steep side of the glacier near the Grandstand so that the helicopter could land higher up and slide its skid into the trench, preventing it from slipping back down the ice. This would save valuable time in carrying Gaylord across the long glacier, a slow process always. However if the helicopter slipped, we would lose it down the mountain.

Mike, Pete, and Leigh had the anchors built on the Grandstand for the next 300' section, however it wasn't overhanging, and they made great time. It leaned back easily, and a descent to the glacier from here was a piece of cake compared to what we had been through. They were as good as gone, but we were isolated and alone, with only two short ropes to reach them.

We had lowered the litter, and now I installed a separate rappel anchor. I picked a bong-bong, a large aluminum angle-shaped piton that I pounded behind a large flake of rock on the wall. Given the angle, we couldn't have pulled it out, so I attached a long sling over the rock, and we trusted this free rappel to one piece of protection. Pete, Mike, and Leigh were going great guns, but we had given them the two 300' ropes, so we tied two 150' ropes together to reach the grandstand. I passed the single strand of goldline rope over my shoulder and under my crotch in a Dulfersitz, the friction of the rope on my body slowing my speed of descent downward. It hurt, cutting into my shoulder and crotch, but we were getting Campbell off the mountain today.

We spent the rest of the day lowering the litter down the Grandstand to the Glacier. I remember watching from above as they finally reached the glacier's ice, and the support team carried it to the waiting helicopter. The sound of the blades cutting the silent air into a roar was music to my ears. Campbell was off.

Celebration at Lupine Meadow

Rick, Bob, Ted, and I continued our rappel down the Grandstand to the glacier. I remember taking long strides on firm snow for the first time in several days, stretching my legs out straight; it felt great. We sauntered down to the toe of the glacier and waited for the helicopter to return and ferry us out two by two. When I stepped off the singing ship onto the ground at Lupine Meadows, Janet was waiting for me, wearing a red and white striped shirt, red pedal pushers, and a huge blond smile. A hug and a kiss, then off to a box of sandwiches where I totally wolfed one down. In 42 years I have never again been without food in the mountains. The Superintendent had bought us a case of beer, but these were still my Mormon days, and I refrained, stupidly in retrospect! Nothing but smiles. Doug was running around, a cigarette hanging from his lip, with his Crown Graphic press camera taking photos of us getting off the helicopter. I don't know where they ever went to. We have only this one group photo:

The Rescue Team
L. to R., Ted Wilson, Pete Sinclair, Ralph Tingey, Mike Ermarth, Rick Reese, Bob Irvine
Leigh Ortenburger was not in the photo.


1 comment:

alaskacase said...

This was the scariest yet! Holy Cow! You guys are made of steel and more nerve than the human body. This is the most amazing account.

Worth every hour you sacrificed then and now.