Jenny Lake rangers honored for rescues
Five receive valor awards for work in Alaska, Yosemite.
By Michael Pearlman, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
May 14, 2008
Five Jenny Lake Rangers from Grand Teton National Park and a former seasonal ranger received Department of the Interior Valor awards on Tuesday at a ceremony in Washington, D.C.
Renny Jackson, Chris Harder, Jack McConnell, Dave Bywater and Steve Rickert received the award for their efforts during a life-saving rescue operation on Alaska’s Mount McKinley in 2004. Ranger Ed Visnovske was presented the award for his role in the 2002 rescue of an injured climber in Yosemite National Park, before he joined the Jenny Lake rangers. The award is given to public servants whose actions have been judged by the Department of Interior to be truly heroic.
“We’re pretty proud of them,” said Grand Teton National Park spokeswoman Jackie Skaggs. “It shows how important the skills the Jenny Lake rangers have are to our sister parks and other agencies.”
Jackson, Harder, McConnell, Bywater and Rickert, a nurse at St. John’s Medical Center, had volunteered as members of the first ranger patrol of the season on Mount McKinley – also known as Denali – in May 2004, with a goal of learning from the experience. Only Jackson had prior experience working as a ranger on Denali, notorious as one of the most unforgiving mountains in the world.
“It’s great to be recognized,” Jackson said last week before traveling to Washington, D.C., to receive the award from Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne. “It came as quite a surprise and an incredible honor.”
Tuesday was the third time Jackson had received the Valor Award and the second time for Harder, McConnell and Rickert had received. Jackson was honored for his role in rescues on the Grand Teton in 1981 and 1985, while Harder and McConnell were two of eight recipients of the honor after plucking five injured climbers from the Friction Pitch of the Grand Teton on July 26, 2003. Rickert previously received the award in 1991.
On May 20, 2004, Korean climber Ho Cho sustained severe head injuries in a fall on Mount McKinley’s West Buttress, enduring an exposed night at 18,200 feet while his companions descended for help. Park rangers at the 14,200-foot camp mobilized a rescue team that included Bywater, Harder, Jackson, McConnell and Rickert, as well as two British climbers who volunteered to assist the operation. The team climbed to the 17,200-foot high camp in just more than three hours, where Rickert and Bywater initially remained to erect dome tents and construct snow walls for protection from wind. The rest of the team climbed to Cho, who they found semi-conscious and frostbitten.
The rangers and the two British climbers packaged Cho in a rescue sled and began a series of time-consuming technical rope lowerings to the 17,200-foot camp in gale-force winds, arctic temperatures and driving snow. Jackson placed a single ice axe as an initial anchor while Harder and McConnell attended the litter and the British volunteers established the next anchor system. Ho was carefully lowered down a steep gully and then transferred to the next system, a leap-frogging method the team repeated for several hours.
Soon after the lowering started, Bywater and Rickert rejoined the team, providing relief for their exhausted teammates. Visibility during the rescue was often less than 100 feet, and the avalanche hazard steadily increased.
After 18 hours of grueling lowering, the team reached the 17,200-foot camp where Rickert and Harder provided medical care. Continuing bad weather the following day forced the team to complete a 3,000-foot technical rope lowering to the 14,200-foot camp, from where Cho was evacuated by helicopter a day later.
Recalling the rescue
In a June 2004 interview for a story on the rescue that appeared in the Jackson Hole News&Guide, McConnell said the experience was unlike any rescue he’d been involved in before.
“It certainly was the high-water mark and pushed the envelope of my technical rescue skills,” McConnell said. “If I was a sailor, it would be the Cape Horn of my rescue career. It was stormy seas.”
The five men were recommended for valor awards by Denali National Park Chief Ranger Peter Armington, who said few rescues in his 35 years of experience required the physical endurance and team effort that Ho’s did.
“What the Grand Teton patrol accomplished, without any air support and under the most extreme environmental conditions, stands out as a truly amazing and life-saving achievement,” Armington said in a statement.
Visnovske was working as a Yosemite Valley ranger on June 2, 2002, when rangers responded to a report of a climber that had been caught in rockfall, injuring his neck, shoulder and fracturing his elbow at 1,700 feet above the valley floor. The next morning, Visnovske, three other rangers and two firefighters rappelled from the park’s helicopter to a small ledge 300 feet above the injured climber. Visnovske was part of a the rescue team handling the technical rope system above the injured climber, where they were constantly exposed to rockfall. The rescue team was able to haul the injured climber from the area, where they were short-hauled by helicopter to safety.
“This was a difficult, technical rescue that demanded a high level of skill, caution and proficiency to execute,” Yosemite Emergency Services Manager Keith Lober said in a release. “Ed was instrumental to the rescue operation.”