Saturday, September 10, 2011

Filming "THE GRAND RESCUE" in the Tetons

The Teton Range from Blacktail Butte, 6:00 am

"The Grand Rescue: A True Story of the 1967 Teton Rangers" recreates three days in August, 1967, we spent on the North Face of the Grand Teton rescuing Gaylord Campbell and Lorraine Hough. The story has been told many times, but the best was by Pete Sinclair in his book "We Aspired: The Last Innocent Americans".

Jenny Wilson, the daughter of our fellow rescue ranger, Ted Wilson, approached three of us one winter evening at Ted's home in Salt Lake City, and proposed making a film of the North Face rescue. Not understanding that it would take a lot of money, we greeted this new adventure with the enthusiasm only geezers can muster. Jenny and her husband Trell jumped in with both feet. Somehow I envisioned an amateur photographer making home movies of us getting together some 40 odd years later. It turned out to be so much more.

That next summer of 2009, all of the remaining rescuers met at Lupine meadows for a rendezvous. Jenny had procured a photographer, our good friend, Peter Pilafian, who lives in Wilso, and was set to make a movie. What a treat for me. We arrived at Lupine Meadows where Jenny surprised us by bringing Lorrie Hough back. None of us had seen her since the rescue, so we hugged and talked while the cameras rolled. Over the next few days Peter filmed away as the director, Meredith Lavett interviewed each of us. The last day we hiked to the Teton Glacier, stared up at the face, and reminisced while Peter filmed. Each of these days merits its own story, but since I've written it previously, this is just a thumbnail.

Skip forward two years... It takes a lot of money to make a film, and Jenny had been working to find enough funding to do some re-enactments of the rescue. I flew down from Alaska to Salt Lake, met Bob Irvine, and the two of us drove to Jenny Lake for a week of camping. Bob and I had known each other since we were young and had worked together for years at Jenny Lake. Now we were re-living the rescue.

Day 1: The crew met at 5:20 am for the first day of filming at Blacktail Butte. It was a long way from the North Face, but it provided a great venue for setting up the rescue system as it would have been in 1967, working out the bugs, and getting the close-ups of the rigging, actors, and details. John Logan Pierson, the Line Producer, had breakfast, gear, and support personnel already at the scene; over the week, he was the main go-to guy for any question I had. Renny Jackson met us; the recently retired Jenny Lake ranger took charge of the rigging and safety.
Bill Kerig, Jenny Wilson, John Logan Pierson

I hiked up the cliff with him to help set up the Stokes litter and rescue rigging the way it would have been in 1967 for the shoot. Bill Kerig, the new writer/director met us and explained what he wanted to accomplish for the day. He had hand-drawn every scene of the shoot, so we could all see his vision. I'd never worked on a film before and was impressed by the level of detail Bill had drawn. Everything was new to me, except the rescue rigging; I'd done that hundreds of times.
Peter Pilafian drops over the edge as the crew prepares the stokes litter

Peter Pilafian and Ken Saul, the cinematographers, arrived with cameras and gear; a small team helped them carry the gear up the hill. Peter lowered over the cliff, hanging from ropes next to the litter for the close-ups. The hot sun made it a long day for an Alaskan.
Renny Jackson and Bob Irvine bemused at the anchor site

Days 2 & 3: We head for the North Face of the Grand Teton. This was the hook that got me going: the chance to be out on the North Face again. The crew hiked up from Lupine Meadows to the Lower Saddle; it was a hot day, and being from the north, I suffered from the heat. Forrest McCarthy, an Exum guide, actor, and Jack-of-all-trades hiked up the trail with me. We have been great friends for years, so it was a special treat for me. Peter and I are similar in age, so we traveled at about the same rate. At the saddle, the crew rallied. Jane Jackson an Catherine Cullinane, Renny's family, had come to climb the Exum route, and Jane cooked the most excellent burritos and handed me one as I arrived. I couldn't be happier. All along the trail I had run into old friends, guides, and new folks. Here at the saddle, I knew most of the guides and it seemed like old home week. Among the folks there was Peter Metcalf, his son Hunter, and friend Ruth. Peter is the CEO of Black Diamond, Inc and had hosted the first gathering of the North Face gang when Pete Sinclair's book was published. What a treat!
Peter Metcalf, Hunter, Ruth at the Lower Saddle

Sunset and the shadow of the Tetons on Jackson Hole

We headed out at first light. Peter's photo crew climbed to the Enclosure which looks over at the West Face and North Faces; he could photograph the actors re-enacting the support team's gear carry across "the Belly Roll" on the Owen-Spaulding route, then across the West Face and onto the Second Ledge of the North Face, the site of the rescue.
Peter and crew on the Enclosure

We did a hundred takes on the belly roll, getting footage of the vintage gear that Rick, Bob, and I had brought from our basement of memories. Then Renny and Andy Barden climbed across the Belly Roll, down the ledges, and set up a handline for me and Ken Sauls. Climbing across those ledges brought back a million memories: some of former rescues, some of great climbs with friends, like the day Don Storjohann and I climbed the North Face, just two weeks before the rescue. It was coming back to life in my mind while Peter and Ken were recreating it for the future.Ken Sauls photograph's Andy Bardon soloing the 'Belly Roll'

Looking down the Second Ledge of the North Face brought back the gut-turning of 44 years ago when Pete Sinclair and I carried the two parts of the Stoke litter lashed to Kelty packframes on our backs solo down the ledge. I remember it scraping and being top-heavy; I called down to Pete, "It would be great to have a rope right now!". Two thirds of the way down the ledge lay Gaylord Campbell with his shattered leg. I had led the support team from the Lower Saddle up to this point where the Scott brothers, Larry and Hugh, Ed Mortensen, Dave Black, and Bill McKeel had brought up all the supplies. Now it had been left to the seven of us on the face to ferry the gear down to the accident site and lower Gaylord down the face.
Ken and his camera on the Second Ledge of the North Face

The memories came rushing back. At the ledge, Ken positioned me and filmed while Renny asked me questions about that day 44 years ago and the work of the rescue team on the ledge. I gazed at the panorama: the North Face fell vertically below me; Mount Owen straight across; Teewinot far below and across the glacier. The day was clear and warm, and I was in my element.

Looking down the Second Ledge of the North Face

Days 4 & 5: Renny had scouted out a location for the re-enactment of the actual lowering: the vertical north face of Disappointment Peak, almost a continuation of the North Face of the Grand Teton. It had a relatively easy access for the cameras and crew, and looked just like the real thing. It was an ingenious solution. Peter loved it and seemed to relish the idea of hanging out on the sheer wall shooting the action

Rick Reese, my life-long friend, climbing partner, and fellow rescuer drove down from Bozeman to join Bob and myself at Jenny Lake. In the morning, Rick and I hiked up to with the entourage to Amphitheater Lake at the base of Disappointment Peak for camp-out and photo shoot.

Rick and I on about the zillionth switchback of the Amphitheater Lake trail

At the lake, Renny and the crew set up the director's camp: a giant green tarp that sheltered the planning during a rain and hail storm during the afternoon. Rick and I huddled in under the fly of his new light-weight tent. In the evening, Renny gave a little talk on proper behavior at the lake, including the use of the RestStop 2 poop bag.

Peter, John, Renny, and Rick: The poop bag talk

Alan and Renny had fixed ropes up to the shooting location overlooking the face, so all the crew had a safe ascent and descent route. Rick spent the morning climbing to the top of Disappointment Peak, then down to join his wife Mary Lee for the evening. I headed up to the action. Worried that I would be in the way, I tried to stay clear of the crew, but to my delight, the crew asked me questions all day about exact details of the rescue. Then, Renny asked me to lower the actual litter for the shoot. Well...I could do that! The first shots were of "Bob Irvine" dropping a rock over the face and timing the returning sound as it hit a ledge, a true scene from the actual rescue. We gathered rock after rock from my ledge to give to Forrest as he tossed the rocks for Peter and Ken.

Sunrise on the Grand from Amphitheater Lake

Andy Bardon, dressed in my original ranger shirt and Bob Irvine's original helmet, and wearing Rick Reese's original boots would play the part of Pete Sinclair. Jenny would ride the litter in the sleeping bag as the injured Gaylord Campbell. Forrest would belay the load. Alan Oram was the safety engineer. Renny supervised the entire affair. He had his hands full.

Renny & Jenny look over the edge as Andy prepares the litter

Finally in mid-afternoon, Andy took Jenny over the edge. Peter and Ken hung from ropes secured at the anchor and filmed as the litter lowered down the face. Radios went silent and the action started. Inch by inch, the load slipped through my fingers and down the face.

Jenny strapped in the Stokes litter; Andy as rescuer; Alan & Forrest advise

It was a success! Bill, Jenny, Peter, and Ken were pleased as I could hear from the radio traffic. I was worried they would want a second take, which would take hours. The next day Jenny had a fundraising event at the Center for the Arts in Jackson, so I hiked down in the late evening, called Bob who picked me up and fed me a baked chicken dinner from his dutch oven at Jenny Lake.

The next evening was special: Rick, Bob, Ted, and I spent the evening socializing at the fundraiser and meeting some of our favorite friends:
The Fundraiser at the Arts Center
Ted Wilson, Rick Reese, Ralph Tingey, Al Read, Yvon Chouinard, Mary Lee Reese, Bob Irvine

Day 6: The Helicopter scenes. Dr. Rich Sugden and Teton Aviation agreed to furnish a period helicopter, the Bell 47 for the shoot. How Jenny persuaded them, I'll never know, but it was the finale for the filming. Dr. Sugden had been a medical adviser to the rangers when I worked at Jenny Lake in the 70's. What a nice gesture! Bill and Jenny had a crew of actors who would play the wives and families of the returning rescue rangers as they returned from the mountain. Particularly, Pete, Connie, and Melanie Sinclair were in the spotlight.
Chris gives the young actors their cues

A short rehearsal and we were ready. The kids were the stars this time. We heard the thumping beat of the helicopter in the distance, and I couldn't wait to see it.

The Bell 47 Helicopter arrives

Peter Kline of Teton Aviation at the controls landed in the field and the action started. Lots of waving, lots of hugs, lots of action and kids ran everywhere. A cooler of beer for the returning rescuers was the only other prop. Peter filmed from the helicopter, and also had cameras set up on the perimeter to capture the joy. The heat cooked me, wearing my old 60's vintage shirt and Levis.
Trell Rohovit and Peter Kline confer

The next scene was a recreation of the "Morphine Toss" when District Ranger Doug McLaren tossed a package of the drug right into Leigh Ortenberger's lap while he was sitting in his sleeping bag on the Second Ledge, the second morning of the rescue.

"Doug McLaren" tosses the morphine package from the helicopter

A third member of the original team arrived: Ted Wilson, Jenny's father and inspiration for the film. We all dressed in our old uniforms and now played character actors as the "Superintendent" and "Chief Ranger". Peter, filming from the helicopter, also donned a uniform shirt to play Doug McLaren.

It had been quite a reunion and a memory movie for me. I'd had a week camping trip with Bob Irvine, a hike and camping trip up to Disappointment Peak with Rick Reese, and now a day with Ted Wilson.

Ted Wilson, "Pete Sinclair's double", Peter Pilafian, Ralph Tingey
In costume!

Director: Bill Kerig, Producer: Jenny Wilson, Director/Producer:Meredith Lavitt

A note from Producer, Jenny Wilson

We're halfway there. We still need to edit and produce the movie. The film has signed up for a KICKSTARTER grant. Pledges are pooled and if we reach our goal of $ 20,000 by mid October, your pledge will become a reality and the film will receive a huge boost. There are also some great rewards related to the film! Please take a look and see if this is something that might fit into your giving plans.

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