Friday, July 24, 2009



The Teton Range in Grand Teton National Park. The Grand Teton in the center, the Lower Saddle to it's left. Mount Owen to the right, (north), then Teewinot. The Teton Glacier sits in the bowl between them, with the unseen North Face on the opposite side of the photo.

The Visit

The ranger residence at Jenny Lake Campground was our home in the Summer of 1967. The little one-room log cabin sat behind the Jenny Lake Store, and about 50 yards from the Jenny Lake Ranger Station. My wife, Janet, and I were enjoying a late evening at home when a knock on the door changed my life. The man asked, "Is your father at home?" I was a young looking 22 years old but married; my father was a physician in Salt Lake City, so I said, "No, he's in Salt Lake." Taken aback he replied, "I'm looking for a ranger"; I told him I was the ranger, so he came in and told me his tale.

Fritz Frohner and his companion, Leo Slaggie, had climbed Mount Owen, the 12,800' peak north of and across the Teton Glacier from the North Face of the 13,770' Grand Teton. As they were descending, they heard cries for help coming from the North Face of the Grand. Light was beginning to fade, so they could not pinpoint the location of the calls. Because of the distance the men were from the face, I asked if they were sure they heard calls for help and not just climbing calls. They were sure they heard "help".

I got into the Ranger truck, and the two men drove their car behind me to the Glacier Gulch scenic turnout, about three miles south on the Teton Park road where there is a direct view of the North Face of the Grand. I positioned the truck directly facing the mountain and flashed a Morse code SOS with the headlight, then looked at the face for any reply. Immediately three dots, three dashes, and three dots from a flashlight came from high up on the face. I flashed the car lights again to let the party know we had seen them. They flashed the SOS again...and again.

Report to Pete

I thanked the two men and let them go to their campground; they had been climbing all day and had a fast hike down the mountain. The thought of a rescue on the North Face started my heart racing. It was late, but I really needed to get into action and involve my supervisor.

Pete Sinclair was the lead Jenny Lake Ranger; he and his wife Connie, two children, Kurt and Melanie, and dog, Jenny, lived in the old main lodge of the former Kimmel Cabins at Jenny Lake. I drove over, knocked on the door; he and Connie were still up, because he had been on a float trip on the Snake River with the legendary John Cooke. The three of us stood in the kitchen around the beautiful old cast iron range, and Connie made coffee while I filled them in on the situation. We decided that we had identified that there was a party in distress; they were alive; we had pinpointed their location; and that we could do little in the middle of the night. I was to go back to Glacier Gulch at first light, check the North Face with the spotting scope and try to make contact again. Pete would go to the station and begin the preparations for a rescue. I'm sure it was a daunting challenge.

The Sighting

All climbers were required to register at the Jenny Lake Ranger Station before attempting a climb. A ranger would interview the climbers, obtain vital information such as name, address, age, weight (so we would know how many rescuers to send to carry them out!), climbing experience, and next of kin. This information was recorded on 4" x 5" climbing cards. Each time a climber signed out for a climb, a paper slip was thumb-tacked to a large beaver-board behind the desk; the slips were arranged by peak and by due-date indicating the mountain, route climbed, the members of the party, and the time expected out. When climbers returned, they checked back in at the station; after closing, there was a box on the front porch where the climber signed back in with the party name, the time returned, and how long it had taken to climb the route. Each morning, first thing, we checked the box, checked in late-returning climbers, and pulled the slips off the board.

Before I headed out the door that morning I walked over to the Ranger Station, opened the door with my P1 key and checked the board. The only party on the North Face consisted of Gaylord Campbell and Lorrie Hough. They were quite experienced and certainly capable of climbing the North Face. Now I knew who was on the face.

Back at Glacier Gulch at first light I set up the Bausch and Lomb 15 - 60 power spotting scope on the tripod. We had bought the scope for the possibility of looking for victims on the mountain, but to my knowledge we had never used it. I scanned the first ledge, then the second ledge on the face under low power and immediately saw two people: one standing, moving and walking around, the second in a sleeping bag. I turned up the power to 60 and could make out the colors of the clothing. I could see both were alive, one injured, the other apparently uninjured. I flashed the lights on the truck again to give them hope that help was on the way. Then I drove back to Jenny Lake to help organize the gear and get the rescue underway.

The North Face of the Grand Teton, about 4,000' of vertical relief. The Second Ledge is the tiny snow patch in the center, directly below the summit.

The Plan

The park superintendent was Jack Anderson. Claude (Mac) McClain was the Chief Ranger. The South District was run by Doug McLaren. The Jenny Lake Sub-district Ranger, Dunbar Susong, was our immediate permanent supervisor. Unfortunately, Dunbar had been called away to fight fires in Glacier National Park for a month and was not available when the rescue began.

Pete phoned Doug McLaren; McClaren called McClain; McClain rang up the Superintendent. That's how it works in the park service. The chain of command put all of their procedures into action: coordination with Yellowstone Park, Regional Office in Omaha, and the Forest Service; preparations for the media; notification of relatives; and support for the rescue.

But the responsibility for planning and implementing the rescue on the mountain was ours, and Pete Sinclair was our boss. We met at the ranger station and outlined roles and responsibilities.

The first response rescue team on the mountain would be led by Pete and consist of Rick Reese, Ted Wilson, and Mike Ermarth. Bob Irvine was with Leigh Ortenburger on top of the Grand Teton. A helicopter from Yellowstone National Park would ferry the first response team to the Lower Saddle of the Grand, from where they would climb to the Upper Saddle, traverse across the West Face, and down to the Second Ledge on the North Face. A support team would be ferried to the Lower Saddle. The support team would bring ropes, a stokes litter, the lowering cable, and all the extra gear we might need. This team would stage the gear at the Upper Saddle, and the rescue team would then ferry it down to the rescue site on the face. Initially, I would lead that team.

The Rescue Team

The Jenny Lake rangers in 1967 consisted of Pete Sinclair, Bob Irvine, Rick Reese, and myself. The park rangers lived in a set of beautiful log cabins on the shore of Cottonwood Creek, formerly theKimmel Cabins, now owned by the National Park Service. On the west side of the creek were the Jenny Lake Rangers. On the east side were the road patrol rangers and the park naturalists. Leon R. (Pete) Sinclair lived in the beautiful main lodge with a granite cobble fireplace and a huge cast iron wood stove. Bob, his wife Marie, daughter Stacy, and son Craig lived in the end cabin. Rick and MaryLee Reese lived next door in the tiny cabin. I and my wife Janet lived in the ranger cabin in the Jenny Lake Campground, next to the ranger station.

Pete Sinclair had been a ranger in the Tetons since the early 60's and was the head Jenny Lake ranger. He was our hero: in 1959 he and friends had made the first ascent of the famous West Rib on Mount McKinley; he had also climbed the north face of Mount Moran, "hollow like a dead man's chest", was how he had described it. Pete was working on aPh.D. in English from the University of Washington. Each summer he, his family, with German shepard , Jenny (named after Jenny Lake), would drive in their little Volkswagen down from Seattle and set up house in the big cabin. He would become professor of English at the newly built Evergreen University in Olympia, Washington.

At the time of the accident, Bob Irvine was climbing the Grand Teton with Leigh Ortenberger, the famous Palo Alto climber. I had known Bob since I was a young climber; he was the first of our Alpenbock Climbing Club to get a job in the Tetons. I had always looked up to Bob as being a superb athlete, having great common sense, and a brilliant mind; he was working on a Ph.D. in mathematics at the University of Utah. Bob later became professor of mathematics at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah.

Rick Reese was also from Salt Lake City, one of my favorite climbing partners in the Alpenbock club. He was tall, funny, smart, and handsome. He had gotten a job the year before me after getting out of 2 years in the National Guard during the Bay of Pigs fiasco. I remember when we went to the Jenny Lake Store in 1961: we had a milkshake, and he read the paper where the headlines were that his National Guard unit was called into active duty. I remember him standing in the rain with his Levi jacket, cut off levis, and his thumb out hitching a ride back to Salt Lake City to join his unit. Rick was working on a Ph .D. in International Studies from Denver University. He went on to organize the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, be first director of the YellowstoneInstutite, and conceive and implement the Bonneville Shoreline trail around Salt Lake City.

That summer Ted Wilson and his wife Cathy were living at Colter Bay; he was a road patrol ranger in the north district. I had climbed the East Ridge route on Mount Owen with Ted in 1959. Ted had eloped with Cathy a few years before, and they married in the Chapel of Transfiguration in the Tetons. He was a high school economics teacher, who had also dragged Cathy to Europe to teach skiing and climbing to the Swiss in Lausanne in 1964 with the International School of Mountaineering, run by John Harlin, who shortly thereafter died falling off the North Face of the Eiger . All the great climbers of the day worked at that school. Ted would go on to be mayor of Salt Lake City for three terms and run against Orrin Hatch for the United States Senate in 1989. Later he became director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah. We were back together, all married, all in graduate school, all Jenny Lake Rangers.

In 1962, one of the most terrible tragedies occurred on the Otter Body route on the Grand Teton. Members of the Appalachian Mountain Club were caught in a snowstorm, and the rescue is part of climbing lore. Mike Ermarth and Pete Sinclair were on that rescue, so Mike was a seasoned veteran of big rescues. He worked at the Fire Cache at Colter Bay in the North District of the Park. He and I had climbed the dreaded Jensen Ridge on Symmetry Spire together, and I though of him as about the best climber I had known. He was working on a Ph.D. in modern history and went on to become a professor at Dartmouth.

Yours Truly was the youngest member; it was my third year in the park. Janet worked at the Jenny Lake Store, I walked another 50 feet to the Ranger Station. This had been my dream summer job as a young climber: paid to climb mountains, rescue folks, hunt, fish, trap, have a bronze body, and live in a log cabin in the pines with a beautiful blond. After serving a Mormon mission in Finland, I had just graduated from the University of Utah with the somewhat esoteric and impractical B.A. in Classical Greek and had been accepted into aPh.D. program at the Johns Hopkins University in Near Eastern Languages, principally Arabic, for the fall.

And by the luckiest of coincidences we will meet Leigh Ortenburger, the legendary climber, historian and writer, married to Irene, for whom Irene's Arete, the most beautiful climb in the Tetons is named. Irene was a professor at Stanford, Leigh a statistician at Sylvania in Palo Alto. Leigh and Irene spent every summer in the Tetons, a lot of it climbing with us. I asked once how he took the time off? "I have all the statistics in my head; they can't fire me!" he replied.

The Support Team

The support team was made up of excellent climbers with other jobs in the park: rangers, ranger naturalists, and maintenance workers. Irvin L. Mortenson , Jr., a park ranger who would go on to become Superintendent of Badlands National Park. David G. Stevenson, a fine climber and all-around nice guy. Harold A. (Woody)Woodham , a fire control aid who would later move to Alaska near me and give me a beautiful Labrador Retriever, 'Lightning', my favorite dog ever. The Scott brothers, Hugh W. Scott, III, and Lawrence T. Scott. Hugh would go on to be postmaster in Jackson; Larry and I did a bunch of climbing together; he was married to Carolyn, and was a dear personal friend. He would wind up as professor of chemistry at Boston College. William L. Mekell was an engineer from the Denver Service Center who was full of energy. Years later I met his lovely daughter when she came to work in the Tetons! And Richard L. Black, the smoke jumper from Yellowstone and our helicopter expert.

Background - Two Weeks Before...

I had always wanted to climb the North Face of the Grand; it was one of the great prizes in the American mountaineering, and all of the Jenny Lake Rangers had done it. So, in July I found a kindred spirit in the Climbers Campground, John Storjohann . He had been climbing with Peter Cleveland and had done a pile of hard sustained climbs that summer. Don had a great reputation as competent and very strong, an Iowa farm guy, long and lanky, with a cheerful smile. We would be a fine team: we were the same age, both pretty good rock climbers, with a fair amount of experience.

I had a day off, Don was off for the summer, so we headed out in the morning hiking the 6-mile Amphitheater Lake trail. From the lake we scrambled up through the notch and around the corner onto the Teton Glacier moraine and glacier, and crossed over the bergschrund , the giant crack where the glacier separates from the rock face. The lower part of the route is smooth and doesn't look climbable, but some rotten cracks lead up higher onto the face. The climbing was great and we were in good form. The bat guano chimney was the only real obstacle, because it was my lead, and my pack got stuck a bit as I tried to 'chimney' with it on. We were on a stroll without a care in the world, and we'd given oursleves two days for the climb, so we bivouac-ed on the large First Ledge in our down coats with our feet in our packs. We were half-way up the face, so we were in no hurry in the morning to complete the route, got up at sunrise, and cooked a breakfast with the stove. The rock was warm as we continued up the climb, past the "pendulum swing" and back into the "traverse in to the V". It was a beautiful, warm day, so we basked in the sun on the summit for a while. Eventually we wandered down the mountain to our wives and dinner: me to Janet, Jon toChristy.

Don Storjohann took this photo of me leading up the first ledge of the North Face, no ice ax, no crampons, no protection; just a rope. The Second Ledge looms at the top of the photo.
It was a wild time!

My companion Don was an important part of the whole North Face story; without him, I wouldn't have been nearly the person I came to be on the rescue. And, I never thought I'd be back that summer, but the experience of having been up the face just the previous month was a tremendous support to me on the rescue. I wasn't nervous about the difficulties, because I knew the layout of the face, including the escape routes. I also had the confidence of knowing I could climb unassisted on the sloping ledges, in spite of the huge exposure.

Don sent me this photo holding the large camera he took on the North Face climb in 1967
He would go on to become one of the photographic pioneers of the process to make computer chips.



alaskacase said...

WOW Ralph! This is an awesome adventure from which you all must be thankful to still be alive! What a wonderful character building experience to draw from in the years that followed. This is true valor! I hope the injured were suitably grateful.


Ralph said...

Don't think they had a clue!