Thursday, August 27, 2009



You never know when and how the past will come alive again. Last fall in Salt Lake City, Jenny Wilson, our friend Ted's Wilson's daughter, read her father's account of the 'Impossible Rescue' on the North Face of the Grand Teton in 1967. Rick Reese and I were at Ted's home, so Jenny asked if we would be willing to get together in the summer of 2009 in the Tetons and make a documentary movie of a reunion for the rescue. We naively agreed. For us six, it would become a grand get-together 42 years later. I won't spoil the movie. You'll have to wait a good amount of time to see it, but I'll let you all know when it comes out!

However much a film might appeal to my ego, the prospect of seeing the greatest bunch of friends together again was the force that drove me for the next eight months. The moment I arrived at Lupine Meadows in the Tetons my heart started to pound. We hadn't been together for 16 years, and although we were a bit gray, I was so excited I could hardly stand it. One by one I put my arms around my old friends, hugged, shook hands and felt the warmest of emotions surge.

Mike, Bob, and Rick reunite at Lupine Meadows in Grand Teton National Park


Pete Sinclair

Bob Irvine

Rick Reese

Mike Ermarth

Ted Wilson

Yours Truly again under the North Face of the Grand Teton!
(I never photograph myself, so I must credit my friend and cinematographer par excellance, Peter Pilafian)

The only missing member was our old friend Leigh Ortenburger who had died in 1991 in the Oakland fires. However, Irene Beardsley, who had been Leigh's wife in the 60's, lives in Jackson Hole and came to our reunion. She has been a friend to all of us for likely 50 years, so it was a wonderful treat to see her again. When I was a young man, she was one of the best women climbers in the country and the one who first climbed the most beautiful rock climb in the Tetons, Irene's Arete.

Irene Beardsley - Married to Leigh Ortenburger at the time of the rescue

The Jenny Lake Sub-district Ranger in 1967 was Dunbar Susong. He and his wife Alice showed up; they are still hale and hearty, and seeing them again was such a wonderful treat.

Irene's husband, Dan Goodman and Dunbar Susong - our supervisor and Jenny Lake Sub-district Ranger in 1967

The team in original order:
Ted Wilson, Pete Sinclair, Ralph Tingey, Mike Ermarth, Rick Reese, Bob Irvine

Half way through shooting the reunion, we were treated to a big surprise: Lorraine Hough McCoy, who had been climbing the North Face with Gaylord Campbell, and who called for help, bandaged and cared for him the first day, suddenly appeared. Hugs all around, tears, emotion, and love flowed better than in any Hollywood film. None of us had seen Lorrie for 42 years!

Lorraine Hough McCoy

I knew we were making a movie, but I did not understand that the press would still be interested in our story. During the filming, two fine men arrived: Reporter Lee Benson and photographer Ravell Call from the Deseret News in Salt Lake City. They followed us around, interviewed and photographed us for the next few days. The ensuing story continued to solidify the myths and ferret out the truths of the past 42 years.

Director Meredith Lavitt
Producer Jenny Wilson
Lunch at Amphitheater Lake

Jenny Wilson, a Salt Lake County councilwoman, had previously worked at Sundance, so she engaged the services of director Meredith Lavitt, a former colleague. The two of them and a crew they hired took over our every move. Each day was tightly scheduled. After we had gone through our initial greetings and small talk, the film crew was assembled on the front porch of the old cabin where Pete and Connie lived in the 60's and where Bob and Marie lived for almost 30 years afterwards.

The team and Lorraine on the porch of Pete's cabin in the 60's:
Rick, Pete, Ralph, Lorraine, Mike, Bob, Ted

Jenny and Meredith had found our old friend Peter Pilafian, now a famous cinematographer to film the event for the next week. It seemed that for every step I took, Peter took two, following us around, interviewing us individually, and setting up the scenes as we hiked and talked.

Cinematographer Peter Pilafian at lunch

The final day of shooting the entire crew of rescuers, family, cinematographers, directors and producers hiked up to the Teton Glacier at the base of the North Face of the Grand Teton. It was a fitting finale to a the most enjoyable week I can remember.

The entire crew on the Teton Glacier at the base of the North Face of the Grand Teton

For the Deseret News story see:

And for the Salt Lake Tribune coverage:

Wednesday, August 12, 2009



Press Coverage

It was in the aftermath of the North Face rescue on the Grand Teton that I discovered how valuable the press can be. I knew there was media interest, but I really didn't know, at age 24, that it meant reporters from all over the country would fly to Jackson Hole to report on the story as it unfolded. By the time I got down off the mountain, two hangers-on who wanted more in-depth coverage were still there. E. D. Fales, Jr. was representing "Popular Mechanics", likely because of the the helicopter, gear, and technical lowering equipment, I had guessed. But the story turned out to be the best written and most quoted of all. He checked his facts, had artists draw pictures of the mountain and the rescue, and put together a logical, coherent tale, unlike the melange of memories I'm conjuring up today. Dixie Scott of the Washington Post was very attractive, slightly older (to me...probably 30) and had a knack for getting the human interest side. She also wrote a story for the National Parks magazine, 'Outdoor World'. In the fall my wife and I migrated east to Baltimore and graduate school at The Johns Hopkins University. Even the Baltimore Sun had heard of the rescue, and I was interviewed at length for the front page. It was humbling and flattering.

The National Valor Award

It was a big deal! We didn't know how big. But by the end of the year, our District Ranger, Doug McLaren, and the Park Superintendent, Jack Anderson, had nominated us to the Seceretary of the Interior for the department's National Valor Award. The next year, 1968, we were all flown to Washington, D.C. to receive it. I remember the tan paper miniskirt uniforms the stewardesses wore on the PanAm flight, and walking past the White House at 10 pm talking with the guards who told us it was safer inside than out. Secretary Stuart Udall himself presented us with gold medals. My mother kept mine in a drawer for 35 years before I saw it again; she was so proud. Mom and Dad had come to the ceremony and had wanted to see the sights. Mom was wearing expensive clothes, and as she walked through the area around the Washington Monument, she was attacked by a cutpurse; a fight ensued, and Mom on the ground kicking, fighting, and hanging on to her purse with dear life. I get the story from Dad, because we six were running up the stairway in our fine clothes to the top of the Washington Monument on a bet.

At The National Valor Award Ceremony - Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C. 1968
Ted Wilson, Ralph Tingey, Pete Sinclair, Stewart Udall, Rick Reese, Bob Irvine, Mike Ermarth

My Citation For Valor which I've kept all these years.

Unit Citation of Merit

Because the Support Team did such a wonderful job under dangerous conditions, they were also presented with a Unit Award for Excellence of Service.

Irvin L. Mortenson, Jr.
David G. Stevenson
Harold A. (Woody) Woodham
Hugh W. Scott, III
William L. Mekell
Lawrence T. Scott
Richard L. Black
John M. Morehead

And the Secretary gave a Letter of Commendation to the two non-park service participants:
Leigh N. Ortenburger
Robert K. Schellinger

The Legacy


Leon R. "Pete" Sinclair
Pete decided to stay in Washington state that next year. The rest of us felt we had lost an institution. After graduate school Pete went on to become a professor of English at Evergreen College from 1971 until he retired in 2000. He was always a great story teller, so it was no surprise when he wrote a book of the people and events that shaped his life, We aspired : the last innocent Americans. In it he tells the best account of the great North Face rescue, and a dozen other similar adventures and inspirational stories. It was published by Utah State University Press, Logan, Utah, in 1993. He and Connie still live in Olymmpia, Washington, in a beautiful old home. Their three kids live nearby. Three years ago, Rick, Bob, and I flew to Olympia and visited them.

Robert W. "Bob" Irvine

After Pete left the park position, Bob became the lead Jenny Lake Ranger and continued to return to the summer job at for 33 years, likely a record for a seasonal ranger in the Tetons. Even though is my senior, I eventually became his official supervisor in 1978 when I became the Jenny Lake Sub-district ranger. Bob is one of the finest competitive athletes I have known, from golf, to archery, climbing, cross-country skiing, and downhill skiing. As a masters skier he constantly placed in the top circle. For many years he was a ski patrolman at Park City - West. In the winter, Bob taught mathematics at Weber State College in Ogden, Utah, but he is now retired as Assistant Professor Emeritus of Mathematics. He and Marie still live in Ogden.

Richard N. "Rick" Reese
While Rick was in the Tetons, he spent his winters studying for a Ph.D. in international relations at Denver University. After graduate school he and Mary Lee moved to Helena, Montana, where he worked in state government and also served on the board of directors of the Northern Rockies Foundation. Yellowstone Superintendent, John Townsley, hired Rick to create the Yellowstone Institute; he was the first director. He was also a creator of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, a group of disparate state and conservation organizations that work together on major projects such as the reintroduction of the wolf in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. Fifteen years ago, Rick, then community affairs director for the University of Utah, was running along this natural pathway called the Bonnevile shoreline above Salt Lake City. Concerned that the trail would soon disappear under the cities that were rapidly growing into the foothills, Rick helped form the Bonneville Shoreline Trail Committee, bringing together a coalition of partners to create a permanent trail along the foothills of the Wasatch mountains. He retired in 2006, and moved to Bozeman, Montana. He has recently stepped back in as Interim Executive Director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.

Ted L. Wilson

Ted and Rick have been life-long friends. Both were activated to full time status in the Army National Guard during the Berlin Crisis. He continued climbing and teaching. In 1969 he bought the nascent Jackson Hole Mountain Guides for a year. After running Wayne Owens US Senate campaign, he entered politics and won three elections as mayor of Salt Lake City from 1976 until July, 1985. Ted resigned during his third term to become the director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah where he held an adjunct assistant professorship of Political Science. He has traveled extensively in India, working with students there. Ted is married to former Salt Lake Tribune columnist Holly Mullen. He has five children from his first marriage and From his previous marriageand is step dad to Mullen’s two children.

Hans Michael "Mike" Ermarth
Mike worked at the North District Fire Cache in Teton park, and I saw less of him than my companions at Jenny Lake. However we climbed the dreaded Jensen Ridge on Symmetry Spire together the next year. Mike continued his studies and became a professor of modern history at Dartmouth where he still lives and teaches. The last time I saw Mike was in 1993 when we were all together at Black Diamond Equipment Company in Salt Lake City for the release of Pete Sinclair's book, "We Aspired". He is married to Barbara Wall, a professor of English at Dartmouth University. Mike and Barbara have three sons.

Ralph H. Tingey. That's me! After the rescue season I headed to the Johns Hopkins University to continued my studies of the languages of the Near East. At one time I knew most of them. But it was not to last. At the end of graduate school, Janet left, and I was devastated. It was the end of the Viet Nam war, and the country was similarly in a fiscal crisis. Colleges and universities were not hiring Arabic teachers, so after sending out 200 letters, I received only one reply, telling me how interesting my resume looked...nothing more. I returned to the Tetons for my summer job, and when winter came, the Chief Ranger asked if I'd like to stay on, and I agreed. That decision changed my life again and started my permanent career in the national park service. I stayed another ten years in the Tetons climbing mountains, remarrying, and starting a family. In 1981 we sought a new life in Alaska where I accepted a job as Assistant Superintendent at Denali National Park. Alaska would remain my home through several more superintendent positions; I retired three years ago as the Associate Regional Director for all the parks in Alaska, and now I've reverted to my former status as a climbing bum. I have a son, Thor, and daughter, Daphne.

Leigh N. Ortenburger (1929 - 1991) had a degree in mathematics from his native Oklahoma...he still retained the accent! A brilliant and detail-oriented guy, he migrated to Palo Alto and eventually got an M.A. from Stanford and was working on a Ph.D. He worked for Sylvania as a statistician, although I never noticed him working...only photographing, climbing, and writing. He was famous to us for writing A Climbers Guide to the Teton Range, which came out first in 1956. He updated it once, and was in the process of a third edition with the head Jenny Lake Ranger, Renny Jackson. His great passion was photography, and during the years I knew him, he always carried a Linhof Technika III 4x5 camera that could take plates or roll film. I know, because in 1973, he gave me the camera when Jane Hunter, a wild, leggy blond friend, and I were off to climb Table Mountain on the west side of the range. William H. Jackson had taken a photograph of the Teton Range from that spot, and Leigh wanted to duplicate it three quarters of a century later. He took many trips to South America, climbed and photographed the Andes. Every Christmas I would receive a beautiful card with a cover of one of his favorite mountains. In 1956 Leigh married Irene Beardsley, a beautiful and fun loving climber, one of the only women climbers from that era. They had two girls, Carolyn and Teresa, who with Irene have kept his memory alive with a new book Leigh Ortenburger in the Thin, Cold Air, commemorating the gift of Ortenburger's papers to the Stanford University Libraries in 2005. Leigh died in the Oakland Fires in 1991, visiting his old friend Baxter, for whom Baxter's Pinnacle in the Tetons is named.