Climbing the Grand Teton

I’ve just returned from climbing the Grand Teton, and have run into a pile of messages from friends and relatives, asking about the massive rescue operation that occurred in the area two days ago (July 21, 2010), which was the largest climber rescue in North American history (16 rescued and one dead). So, here’s what happened.

The weather report in the area was for a consecutive series of zero-percent chances of rain for most of this week, with a 30 percent chance of “isolated thunderstorms” on Wednesday, July 21st.

About 2,000 people attempt the Grand Teton every year, mostly during the period of June through August, which works out to about 20 people per day through that period. I’m sure everyone saw the forecast, decided that the weather risk was minor, and hiked in on Tuesday, to climb the peak on Wednesday.

The forecast for that day was dead wrong, since it was generally raining throughout the Jackson Hole area as of early in the morning, and conditions worsened throughout the day. In addition, because the Grand Teton and its surrounding peaks stand so high (13,770 feet elevation) above the surrounding area, weather events tend to be exaggerated in its vicinity, resulting in a really impressive thunderstorm.

Point #1: A faulty weather report probably suckered a lot of climbers into being very high up on the mountain when the weather hit.

On Wednesday the 21st, I picked up my guide, Nate, from Jackson Hole Mountain Guides (JHMG), and we reached the trailhead at about 10 a.m. A rescue helicopter was already going by us as we pulled in, but we had no idea what was going on. Nate thought there might be training exercises in the area.

The Lupine Meadows trailhead is at 6,700 feet, and we were hiking to the Corbet High Camp at 11,200 feet which JHMG maintains near the base of the mountain. It began raining almost immediately, and eventually dropped about two inches of rain on us while we hiked in (actually rather pleasant) through heavy fog. The trouble is that we could hear an immense amount of thunder, which appeared to be originating close to the Grand Teton. This was the serious kind of thunder, with a deep bass reverberation that echoes across the valley, and makes your teeth vibrate. I am not talking about one blast of thunder; maybe more like a hundred of them, all day long. Even while the thunder was reverberating in the area, we could hear rescue helicopters passing close overhead.

When we reached the high camp, we had a good view of the east face of the Grand Teton, which was enshrouded in fog and chain lightning. Whenever the lightning stopped for even a few minutes, a rescue helicopter appeared briefly from down the valley, passed us, and disappeared around the left side of the Grand, where the stranded climbers were located. The helicopter was plucking them off the upper reaches of the Grand in a rescue basket, dropping them off at a saddle between the Middle and Grand Tetons, and going back up for more rescue work. Then another helicopter landed at the saddle, picked up the rescued climbers, and shuttled them down to ambulances at the trailhead.

None of this is as easy as it sounds. Wind speeds were extremely high, and the helicopters were constantly having to break off operations to back off and wait for the winds to die down (we could see them bouncing around). Also, the lightning did not completely stop until about 8 p.m., so they were in continual danger of lightning strikes.

All of the injured climbers were above 13,200 feet, which means that the helicopter pilots had to operate within the top 500 feet of the peak. The climbers were in three groups:

  1. One party of eight was on the Owen-Spaulding route, of which seven were evacuated and one was killed from a 1,000 foot fall. They were in an area called the Belly Roll, where you have to drag your stomach across a convex rock while traversing over the peak's west face.
  2. A party of five was above the Belly Roll and also on the Owen-Spaulding route.
  3. A party of four was on the Exum Ridge, within 100 feet of the summit.

Point #2: The bravery of the rescuers was unbelievable. While I certainly feel for the family of the person who died, it’s incredible that everyone else lived.

There were two climbers already in the permanent camp when we arrived there. One was Knutt, an Austrian climber, and Phil, his guide (also with JHMG). They had climbed to within twenty minutes of thesummit that morning, right after completing three pitches of technical climbing, when Phil decided that the weather was too bad to continue, and called an end to the climb. They rappelled off, climbed down safely, and were none the worse for the experience. It is always difficult to call off a climb, especially when you are that close, but Phil very likely saved both of their lives by doing so.

The other accredited guiding organization allowed on the Grand Teton is Exum Mountain Guides, which has a permanent base at the saddle where the helicopter transfers were taking place. The two guide services guide about half of the people who attempt the Grand. Not one of the people requiring rescue were associated with Exum or JHMG. Both organizations are run on conservative guidelines, and they evacuated all of their clients from the upper mountain before the weather struck.

Point #3: Without the guide services, the injury and death toll would probably have been significantly higher.

As is frequently the case with such severe storms, it cleared rather quickly. The wind that blew out the storm howled all night, which was good – the winds effectively blow-dried the upper stretches of the mountain, so there was much less new ice on the rock the next morning than you would normally expect following a large dump of rain.

We got up at 3 a.m. the next morning and could still see lightning on the eastern horizon, where the storm had pushed into central Wyoming. We hiked up to the saddle where all of the helicopter activity had been the day before, turned right, and went up the south side of the Grand at a brisk pace. The winds were still strong, and fog was filling up the valley below us. We climbed through a complex series of ledges, commenting on how incredibly dry (and therefore safe) the climbing was.

This brought us to the technical portion of the climb, which was the Pownall-Gilkey route. This is three pitches long, rated 5.5, then 5.8, and finally 5.6. The fog moved in behind us as we roped up, and we started up the route, getting sand blasted by the wind. The second pitch, rated 5.8, was quite interesting. This was the only spot where we encountered left-over effects from the storm. The crux section was covered in verglas, which is a thin layer of ice. Nate led and I followed, pulling out and racking the protection as I went. The crux was awful. The verglas completely eliminated any possibility of a foothold. I can climb much higher-rated routes in the sterile environment of a rock gym, but when you throw in ice, freezing temperatures, high winds, and at an elevation of about 13,000 feet, while wearing four layers of clothes and doing it all with gloves, the situation is a trifle different. I finally abandoned all dignity, cravenly grabbed a pair of twenty year-old pitons driven into the rock nearby, and lurched over the crux in the worst possible form. Ugh.

There were no other issues. We then went through a series of ledges and reached the summit a half-hour later, at 8:50 a.m. There were broken clouds on top, with limited views.

The area between the top of the technical climbing and the summit is where most of the lightning strikes occurred the day before, with some climbers being struck as many as five times (!).  Clearly, the problem for an incapacitated person on the Grand is that there is no easy escape route if you are near the top, since you have to be sufficiently mobile to rappel down to the lower part of the mountain.

Point #4: Severe weather conditions on large peaks can clear up so rapidly that you can safely negotiate a route within 24 hours of a major rescue effort. It was only 23 hours between the lightning strikes the day before that injured so many people, and safely summiting the following morning.

We down climbed to a rappel point, did an outrageously excellent, overhanging 100 foot rappel, and got out safely. The weather improved rapidly from that point onward, and the summit area was completely clear of clouds by the time we reached the trailhead later that afternoon.