In 1925, climbers were just beginning to discover the lure of the Teton Range. The record for ascents of the Grand Teton belonged to a young Paul Petzoldt, who the previous year climbed the mountain four times.
The Grand’s East Ridge called to him as a challenge. Petzoldt convinced Ralph Herron, Harold Criger and Melvin Whitehead to join him on an attempt.
As they tried to move around the Molar Tooth, the first tower on the ridge, Herron fell about 120 feet. He bounced off rocks before coming to rest. His companions found him unconscious with a broken shoulder and knee and cracked ribs.
They carried him, mostly by piggyback, sliding him on the snow when they could. The group spent the night in the backcountry and the next morning took Herron to a nearby ranch where a medical student gave him first aid before he eventually made it to a hospital.
A week later Theodore Teepe, of Portland, Ore., and W.D. Young, of Seattle, hired packer Gibb Scott to guide them to the top of the Grand. Hail littered the ground, making progress slow, but eventually the group reached the summit. They added their names to the register as “the first party to make the ascent in 1925.” It was the 13th ascent of the peak.
As they descended, they paused to take in a view. A distant storm created a black backdrop to a red pillar in front of them, which glowed in the last rays of the setting sun.
As they moved down a steep snow slope, Teepe slipped. He slid safely, sitting at first, his alpenstock acting as a brake. After about 100 yards, however, he cartwheeled and began rolling down the snow head first, gaining speed. Within seconds he hit a jagged rock in the middle of the snowfield. He died instantly.
Scott left for help. A small rescue team assembled, reaching the accident site at 9 a.m. the next day. Rescuers wrapped Teepe’s body in canvas, dragged it down the snowfield that now bears his name, lowered it over steep rocks and then carried it to where horses waited.
“Grand Teton Claims Victim Tuesday,” read a Jackson’s Hole Courier headline. The paper called the 13,770-foot Grand “America’s Most Difficult Peak.”
The 1925 events are two of the Tetons’ earliest climbing accidents. Grand Teton was not yet a national park. Jenny Lake climbing rangers didn’t exist.
Today, the evacuation of injured climbers is done with far more finesse than sliding their broken bodies down snowfields. In July, when lightning struck 17 climbers on the Grand, they called for help via cell phone, received treatment on the mountain from an emergency doctor and flew by rescue helicopter to the valley floor. The operation was the culmination of rescue improvements that started with the unfortunate slips of Teepe and Herron.
The history of climbing rangers in Grand Teton National Park began in 1926 when Fritiof Fryxell, a wiry man weighing about 110 pounds, arrived in Jackson Hole planning to spend the summer working on his doctorate in glacial geology. He fell in love with the Tetons and began researching and exploring the mountains.
Fryxell returned the next year to finish his studies and climb with his friend Phil Smith.
The duo became the first seasonal rangers in Grand Teton National Park when it formed in 1929.
The park opened with only four staff members, spokeswoman Jackie Skaggs said. There was little tourism, and it wasn’t until after World War II that visitation picked up. By then, people had time, money and cars to travel, Skaggs said. Before 1950, park officials recorded few accidents, and visitors engaged in few remote recreational activities.
The record contains little on how many accidents Fryxell and Smith responded to. Between their official park duties, the two spent their days making the first ascents of many of the park’s peaks and ridges.
While Fryxell and Smith weren’t designated “climbing rangers,” their mountaineering skills and love of the area would set a standard for those who would eventually work at the ranger station at Jenny Lake.
Doug McLaren, Ernie Field and Dick Emerson, “10th Mountain Boys,” formed the Grand Teton Rescue Team at the log cabin station in 1948.
They came from an Army division of skiers and climbers who trained in the Colorado Rockies and on Mount Rainier before heading into combat in the Italian mountains. After the war, they often ran into each other in the mountains in America.
The team established climbing regulations, requiring mountaineers to register for trips. The rules required adventurers to sign in before and after each climb.
Rangers could deny permission for a climb, but instead they used persuasion to steer people toward climbs suiting their abilities. Emerson often used the phrase “Let the mountains teach them,” something passed down through generations of Jenny Lake rangers.
The park eliminated the sign-in system in 1994 after a lawsuit was filed in a death on Buck Mountain in 1987, Skaggs said. The family of a man who died after getting off route and falling sued the National Park Service, saying rangers should have looked for him as soon as he was overdue. The park was exonerated, Skaggs said, but still got rid of the policy, worrying about liability.
Occasionally rangers track backcountry users who have no one to check with when they return from a trip. But most travelers arrange a system with friends and call a loved one as soon as they reach the car, usually by cell phone, a new tool that has changed mountain rescue. Cell phones facilitate rescues
Sitting at 13,770 feet, the Grand Teton is the centerpiece of the Teton Range’s signature skyline. It attracts an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 climbers each year from around the world.
Whether they are seasoned mountaineers, or novices claiming one of their first summits with the aid of a guide, there is something people love to do when they reach the top.
They make a phone call.
The calls report success. Phone service in the backcountry has changed more than just how people celebrate reaching a summit. Cell phones now also help facilitate rescues.
Companions of injured climbers used to have to run down the mountain or yell to initiate a rescue. It could take hours for word to reach rangers.
Then came cell phones. It started slowly, said Renny Jackson, a seasoned climbing ranger who retired this year.
Park rangers believe the first call that came from a mountain was on Aug. 18, 1994, Skaggs said.
Little is known about the accident. A report says it happened on the Exum Ridge of the Grand, a rappel anchor failed, and a person fell 200 feet. In the margin is a note: “C phone.”
Only a few people carried phones into the backcountry at first. Service wasn’t reliable, and the phones were bulky and heavy.
About 10 years ago, that changed, Jackson said.
People seem to think they can rely less on basic mountaineering skills if they have a cell phone with them to use as backup, Jackson said. In his 35 years as a climbing ranger, he fielded all sorts of calls from people in the mountains, even from some asking for route information.
“Cell phones have been the two-edge sword. If I have my cell phone, I don’t need much of anything else, including my judgment,” he said, outlining a too-familiar attitude.
Former ranger Bob Irvine remembers hearing about a call from climbers on the Exum Ridge. They were lost and reported they were near a green sling.
“As if that was some sort of landmark,” Irvine said.
Scott Guenther, who now leads the Jenny Lake rangers, started with the Park Service in 1992. He became a climbing ranger in 1997. The way rescues are reported via cell phone is the biggest change he has seen since taking the job.
An increase in accidents can’t be correlated to the availability of cell phones because of other factors, Guenther said. But anecdotal evidence reveals that some climbers use cell phones as a “security blanket,” he said.
Guenther himself admits he is more likely to try a harder climb when he knows he has his park radio with him and is only a call away from help.
An even newer tool is a spot locator — a small device that uses a satellite global positioning system to track a person’s coordinates. It allows people to check in with family by sending in coordinates and also has an emergency button.
In the summer of 2009, Jenny Lake rangers responded to their first spot locator. The “call,” which is routed to the nearest 911 dispatch, came in to Fremont County. All that emergency workers received was a GPS location for an emergency on Grasshopper Glacier in the Wind River Range. Not knowing what to expect, they asked the Jenny Lake rangers to respond.
When rangers respond to a spot call-out, they prepare for the worst, Guenther said. They pack rescue supplies. They don’t know whether someone cracked his or her head open or accidentally hit the emergency button.
“Like cell phones, they can be good or bad,” Guenther said.
When rangers arrived at Grasshopper Glacier, they found a boulder had rolled over a man’s ankle and sprained it. He was unable to hike what would have been more than a dozen miles out to the trailhead.
Last summer, Guenther had two calls from family members of backcountry travelers who didn’t check in by spot as they said they would. Rangers didn’t respond to one of the calls because the man last checked in from a road.
The other call came from the worried mother of an 18-year-old out to hike the popular Teton Crest Trail. Guenther didn’t immediately launch a search. The boy turned up fine, having forgotten to spot call home as promised.
Even if cell phones and spot systems create a false sense of security and annoyances, they have become lifesaving tools, Jackson said.
Injured backcountry users used to lie for hours before friends reached a place they could call for help. Now, with rangers reaching patients faster, they are arriving more often within the “golden hour,” when medical aid is critical.
The “golden hour” is the time after an accident in which a patient will either live with medical treatment or die without it.
Rangers used to arrive at accident sites knowing that if a victim was alive, he or she would likely remain so. When cell phones started getting rangers to accident sites quickly, they had the opportunity to save lives through emergency medicine, Guenther said.
That created a need for medical training and support for climbing rangers. Medical care enters picture
When emergency medicine doctor A.J. Wheeler arrived at the Lower Saddle of the Grand last July, it was “eerily quiet.” The place was nearly deserted save for the crew Wheeler arrived with in the helicopter and a few rangers.
Guenther directed Wheeler to the Exum Mountain Guides hut that would serve as a makeshift emergency room.
Hours earlier, Wheeler was eating lunch with his family at Cafe Boheme in Jackson when his phone rang. Lightning had hit five climbers in the Owen Chimney of the Grand. The strike paralyzed some members of the party.
Wheeler, the medical advisor for Grand Teton National Park, took his family home and called Will Smith, the other medical advisor, before he started toward the park.
His phone rang again. Now rescuers believed lightning had hit 17 climbers.
Wheeler and Smith have worked with the Park Service for about five years. Usually they advise, talking to rangers in the backcountry, relaying medical advice and instruction by radio or phone.
When lightning hit the three groups on the Grand last summer, a helicopter took Wheeler to the Lower Saddle to perform triage and treat patients. The quiet that greeted Wheeler was short lived.
Soon a helicopter brought down the first patients. Within five minutes the first of the “walking wounded” — those who could descend on their own — limped down to the Lower Saddle.
Wheeler took vitals signs to track patients’ status, bandaged and treated those in need and helped coordinate evacuations. Some of the Jenny Lake rangers have trained as advance-life responders, meaning they can put in IVs, administer medication and provide oxygen to patients, Wheeler said.
All of the rangers have at least the equivalent of first responder training, which enables them to provide basic medical care in the backcountry, Wheeler said.
Wheeler and Smith train with the Park Service and help create protocol for times they can’t be reached and rangers must administer medical care on their own, Smith said.
They weren’t always trained to do that.
Ralph Tingey, a longtime climbing ranger who retired from the Park Service in 2006, took the first emergency medical technical training course the agency offered in 1975, he said. Before then, rangers had only basic training and didn’t carry pain medication or even a “C collar” to stabilize a possibly fractured neck.
In the famous 1967 rescue on the North Face of the Grand, rangers took three days to get a climber who had several protruding broken bones off the mountain. On the first night, a helicopter flew by and a passenger threw out a package of morphine to ease the man’s pain.
Today, anybody can buy blood-clotting gauze at a grocery store, Wheeler said. Medication can be sprayed in through the nose, or dissolved by placing it on the tongue, Smith said.
Many recent advancements were pioneered to help soldiers fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“Because they are developed for soldiers, they are appropriate to use in the field,” Wheeler said. “Those techniques are being applied from the battlefield to the backcountry.” New gear, new mistakes
Each year, New Hampshire climber Jed Williamson writes the journal “Accidents in North American Mountaineering,” a publication of the American Alpine Club. In the 2010 edition, he reported accidents caused by the usual assortment of mistakes, such as sliding off a rope because the end wasn’t knotted.
“It is hard to understand why we are still seeing these errors when so much basic information is to be found in ‘how to’ books, catalogues, on the Web and at frequently visited climbing sites,” he wrote in his prologue.
While Williamson sees many of the repeated mistakes, he also sees new ones.
He started compiling the journal in 1974, gathering his information from the national parks, people who sent in newspaper clippings, word of mouth and now websites. Over the years he has seen the nature of rescues change with technology.
He also sees problems resulting from advancements in gear. Climbers, for example, will use a too-thin rope in new belay devices like the Grigri, to their detriment.
When climbers switched from pitons to artificial chockstones and then spring-loaded camming devices, Williamson saw more accidents as a result of that protection coming out of the wall. It wasn’t that the pieces failed, it was that people worried about jamming their $45 piece of gear into the rock too tightly and not being able to remove it, he said.
Over the years the number of accidents and fatalities remained constant, but there are more people climbing, Williamson said. That means accident and fatality rates per capita have gone down.
Today it is mostly experienced climbers who have accidents, he said. The standard of climbing continues to increase as people push the limits and try to challenge themselves. Rescue principles evolve
The principles of search and rescue are locate, access, stabilize and transport. All four facets have changed over the years, Jackson said, from helicopters to park medical coordinators to cell phones.
“It’s a pretty incredible package, really,” Jackson said of current Teton rescues. “How we got there has been a long learning process.”
It is a package that made possible the rescue of 16 people, the largest mission undertaken in Grand Teton National Park, this past summer and will undoubtedly be used again in the future even as it continues to evolve.
The Jenny Lake climbing rangers now have a staff of 14 in the summer, four of whom work year round.
Since 2002, rescues have been on the decline, Guenther said. There were 60 this year, with only 14 considered major, meaning they cost more than $500. In previous years, there might be more than 30 major rescues, Guenther said.
No one is sure why the numbers are going down, Guenther said. People used to camp out at the ranger station to be first in line for a backcountry permit. Fewer people spend the night in the backcountry now. Climbing gear is lighter, allowing more people to bag routes in a day, Guenther said.
The rangers also emphasize preventative rescue work. The team takes turns on climbing patrols, not only learning the routes, but also reporting conditions. Rangers work to direct visitors to climbs compatible with their skill levels and help ensure they know and understand routes and risks before they leave the valley floor.
When accidents do happen, the rangers are better equipped.
“It is an incredible feat we could actually pull something like that off,” Guenther said of the July lightning rescue.
Everything came together: the helicopters and pilots, emergency medicine, cell phones for communication and the Jenny Lake climbing rangers.
“Each one of these [rescues] — it’s funny how it prepares you for the next,” Jackson said. “All of us are standing on the shoulders of those before us.”
Additional sources: “The Grand Controversy” by Orrin H. Bonney and Lorraine G. Bonney and “We Aspired: The Last Innocent Americans” by Pete Sinclair