Grand Teton tragedy: Answers may never come

Greg Sparks, right, checks in with medical personel after he and other members of his climbing party were brought by helicopter from the Lower Saddle of the Grand Teton to the valley floor July 21. Sparks was next to Brandon Oldenkampon the Owen-Spalding route when they were struck by lightning, which threw Oldenkamp from the mountain and to his death more than 2,000 feet below. BRADLY J. BONER / NEWS&GUIDE

The climber who was standing next to 21-year-old Brandon Oldenkamp when lightning knocked the young man off the Grand Teton and to his death July 21 is convinced Oldenkamp was well-secured.

Greg Sparks, a 55-year-old town manager from Mountain Village, Colo., a resort above Telluride, said he warned Oldenkamp to anchor himself properly to the mountain moments before lightning hit the Grand. A blast of electricity propelled Oldenkamp off a ledge and down 3,000 feet to his fate.

How and why the system that included a webbing anchor, a rope, figure eight knot, carabiners and climbing harness failed, Sparks said he will never know.

“Without warning, we got hit by that blast,” Sparks said in a telephone interview from Colorado, recalling one strike in the fierce and sudden lightning storm. The system hit 17 climbers around noon on the summit pyramid of the 13,770-foot peak, prompting the largest rescue in Grand Teton National Park’s history.

“I was falling to my right,” Sparks said. “I looked at Brandon and saw him coming off, not just falling off — the force of the lightning taking him off.”

“I can’t understand what failed in the system,” he said. “I know I will never be able to figure that out.”

Last week, Jenny Lake climbing rangers said they were focusing their investigation on the link between Oldenkamp’s harness and a rope Sparks had set up as part of an anchor. They said they were particularly interested in the possibility that Oldenkamp might have tried to secure himself to the anchor rope by attaching a carabiner — a metal chain link with a spring-loaded gate — to a gear loop on his harness rather than a point designed to hold body weight and more.

After conducting more interviews, including one with Sparks, ranger Jim Springer said Monday that his conclusions may be less clear cut. The report will lay out the physical and anecdotal evidence and could probe the possibility and probability of several scenarios, perhaps without reaching a definitive answer.

“What really happened, I don’t think we’ll ever know,” Springer said.

Teton County Coroner Bob Campbell said Monday that Oldenkamp died of blunt-force trauma.

Unlike the other two groups that were struck on the mountain, survivors on Sparks’ team of eight were not seriously burned or injured from the lightning. Their party was the lowest of the three and in retreat had only to descend a feature known as the double chimney plus a 100-foot traverse of The Crawl and Belly Roll boulder. After passing those landmarks on the Owen-Spalding Route, they would reach the relative safety of the Lower Saddle and a scrambling route down.

“There was certainly lightning in the area,” Sparks said of the group’s climb toward the summit. “We had concerns about the weather. We spent a lot of time [contemplating retreat]. With the second system moving in, we decided it was time to get out of there.”

Sparks went down the double chimney first, arriving at a comfortable belay ledge at the north end of the exposed traverse that connects it to the Upper Saddle. Below him, the West Face of the mountain pitched off at a precipitous angle.

“It was raining, cold, wet,” he said. “I clipped into a piece of webbing” left on the mountain as a permanent anchor. “It seemed solid.”

His teammates above next used a rope to lower Oldenkamp to Sparks’ side.

“You think you’re on a nice, big ledge,” Sparks said of the belay nook that is large enough for two people to stand comfortably. “[Oldenkamp’s] soft shell [parka] was starting to get wet. He was moving up and down to keep warm.”

Oldenkamp began to detach himself from the lowering rope before first securing himself to the webbing anchor.

“I told him not to unclip,” Sparks said, recalling his instructions: “No, you need to stay clipped in.”

Sparks had made an extension of the anchor with more climbing rope and had prepared a figure eight knot on it for Oldenkamp’s arrival. Oldenkamp clipped himself into the figure eight loop, Sparks said.

“I know I had him on a figure eight on a bight,” Sparks said. “I think he had it into his [harness’s] main carabiner. I know he wasn’t tied into his gear loop.”

Last week, rangers were concentrating on the possibility Oldenkamp had anchored to his harness gear loop, not his two tie-in points.

Oldenkamp was attached to the main points of the harness, Sparks said.

“I absolutely know he was,” he said.

From the beginning of the trip to Jackson Hole, which included a climb of the South and Middle Tetons, Sparks’ partner, Bob Miller, 54, had taught novice members of the team the difference between the harness tie-in points and gear loops, Sparks said. Rangers said the harness was made by REI and had two tie-in points in the front. Gear loops are on the sides and back.

“Gear loops are meant for gear,” Sparks said, quoting Miller. “He was definitely [connected] in the middle,” he said of Oldenkamp. “He wasn’t on the side.”

At the moment of the lightning strike, Sparks wondered about his own fate. “Is this going to kill me?” he recalled thinking.

And then the horrible sight.

“It just seems like there aren’t any words that can describe it,” he said of his partner’s ejection off the face. “The force that took him off. I knew he had no chance of surviving.”

Sparks was so certain, he said, that he yelled up to the others in his climbing party, “Brandon’s dead.”

“I yelled again, ‘The lightning swept him off the ledge, knocked him off the ledge,’” he said. “I heard the loud cry from above me. I think it was my brother [Barry].”

“The next lightning hit, then the next,” he said. “We were all just praying.”

Sparks said he looked into the abyss for Oldenkamp and saw no sign. Two others looked as well when they got to the ledge.

“Nobody could see anything,” Sparks said. “I knew it was a long way down.”

Using a cell phone, a member of the party called 911.

“We just started down,” Sparks said. “We all just got pretty focused about getting down.”

Oldenkamp’s harness will be a focal point in Springer and the rangers’ investigation.

“That used to be my harness,” Sparks said. “I gave it to Bob.”

Bob Miller used it as a loaner when he invited others into the mountains for excursions. This summer, Miller passed the harness on to the boyfriend of Sparks’ niece. That boyfriend was Brandon Oldenkamp.

REI, a Seattle-based outdoors co-op, constructed the harness in a style that’s no longer used, Springer said. The design incorporates a waist belt with two tie-in loops at the climber’s belly button. With such harnesses, climbers typically pass their rope through both loops when tying in, he said.

In recent years, the design has been largely abandoned by the climbing community, Springer said. While the mechanics of such harnesses are sound, the two tie-in loops offer the potential for confusion among inexperienced or inattentive users.

One example would be securing the two tie-in loops with a carabiner instead of a rope, Springer said. Climbers are taught to reduce the number of links in their safety chain to minimize potential failure points. Using a carabiner to connect the two tie-in points would violate that principle.

Today, it is common to use two carabiners in climbing anchor systems, even two carabiners whose gates are oriented in opposite directions and which can be locked shut.

Oldenkamp used a carabiner to connect the two tie-in loops at least in some situations, Sparks said. Oldenkamp had a carabiner connecting the two tie-in loops at the time of the accident.

“Brandon always had that [carabiner] going through two loops,” Sparks said.

Having a carabiner across the naval creates potential problems, Springer said. In such an orientation, forces from a fall would be exerted across the carabiner’s short axis, contrary to its design.

“It was never intended that you clip, as a secure tie-in, a carabiner,” Springer said. “You would cross-load the ’biner. That’s one of the reasons that style of harness is disused.”

Contemporary harnesses have a single tie-in point, he said. Nevertheless, even a cross-loaded carabiner should have held Oldenkamp, Springer said.

Further, the carabiner on Oldenkamp’s harness was a locking one. When recovered on his body after the fall, however, it was not in the locked position, Springer said.

“The locking mechanism was loose,” he said.

That’s not proof it was loose at the time of the lightning strike, he cautioned.

“Who knows if that could have loosened up in the fall,” he said.

Rangers detected no damage from lightning to the carabiner, Springer said.

A ripped gear sling on the harness might also present a clue. Last week, rangers wondered whether Oldenkamp might have clipped the figure eight anchor knot into the gear sling rather than to his harness tie-in points.

During the rescue, a ranger found and recovered a plastic tube at the site where Oldenkamp fell. It was similar to other tubes on the harness recovered with the body. They believed some force ripped it from the gear loop at the site of the fall.

“They do match,” Springer said of the harness and tube. “Something had to kind of strip that off the gear loop.”

“That’s kind of the clincher,” that the gear loop was attached to something, possibly an anchor, Springer said.

Last week rangers also had information that a second carabiner and belay/rappel device remained on the figure eight anchor knot that Sparks prepared for Oldenkamp. That would add more credence to a theory that the gear loop was Oldenkamp’s connection with the anchor.

Subsequent interviews with the climbers provided a different story this week, Springer said. Two in the Sparks party said the second carabiner was found on the ledge, not on the knot. Instead of a belay/rappel device, two skinny rope loops — used to climb up a rope in an emergency when tied with a Prusik knot — were on the second carabiner.

Rangers will have to weigh the physical evidence and interviews as they seek to come to a conclusion. Springer said the report is not an exercise in pointing fingers or assigning blame. The party was under duress, he observed.

“They were cold,” he said. “There was lightning. They had been shocked and were near hypothermic. Those were all contributing factors.”

Regarding the locking carabiner connecting the tie-in loops, Springer  said, “It’s almost irrelevant that it was used the way it was. If that carabiner had been locked ... if he was clipped into [the anchor] ... he would be with us. Even if that’s not the way to use the harness.

“The take-home points are ‘know your harness’ and ‘hook in correctly,’” he said.

The rangers’ report should be completed this week, Springer said. It will be reviewed by other Grand Teton National Park officials and subject to Freedom of Information Act scrutiny before it would be released, spokeswoman Jackie Skaggs said.

For Sparks and his surviving companions, the trip off the mountain to St. John’s Medical Center was wrenching, he said. Rangers didn’t find Oldenkamp’s body until the next morning.

“Barry, I think he still held out 1 percent of hope,” Greg Sparks said of his brother.

It was Barry Sparks’ daughter who was Oldenkamp’s girlfriend. That night Barry Sparks faced his grim duty.

“My brother had the difficult call to make to his wife and daughter,” Greg Sparks said.

“We pulled together emotionally and spiritually,” Sparks said. The team looked at photographs of Oldenkamp and remembered the success they had on the other Teton peaks.

When Oldenkamp’s parents arrived in Jackson Hole, the circle of grief and support grew.

“We prayed together,” Sparks said. “We pulled together.”

Over his years of climbing, Sparks said, he has read numerous reports in the American Alpine Club annual publication Accidents in North American Mountaineering. He said he’s never felt immune and understood an accident might happen to him or his party.

Yet the July 21 storm and its results were unimaginable, he said.

“To lose a team member with his whole life before him, that was the tragic part of this trip,” he said.

Mountains will still hold allure, he said.

“I can’t say I want to be up on a mountain in a thunderstorm,” Sparks said. He will venture out and enjoy the freedom of the hills, “with all its rights and responsibilities,” he said.

“It’s a life-changing experience,” he said. “I don’t know what it all means. I think there’s a number of chapters to be written before this is over.”

“We got to see a lot of good people,” Sparks said, including rangers, hospital staff and counselors. “It makes you appreciate life.”

He has new mantras:

“Keep the important things important. Keep the unimportant things unimportant. Thank God for each day.”

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