Unexpected events can alter your life in unimaginable ways. It is impossible to get through life without having a few close calls. The people I am writing about this week were the lucky ones. They had only close calls.
A near-fall in the Tetons
Now that Rod Newcomb is retired, he looks back on 48 years as a Teton guide. The highs, for the guide, are the satisfaction of leading your client up a route and making an uneventful return to the valley. The lows are when something goes wrong on the climb: a client is injured, bad weather arrives and you have to retreat, or, in rare cases, something bad happens to the guide.
This is what happened in the early 1980s on the fourth pitch of the Owen Spaulding route at 13,500 feet. In late August or early September there was a dusting of snow on the route. The fourth pitch begins on a downsloping ledge at the bottom of the Owen Chimney and leads to the top of the difficult climbing. From here, several easy pitches take you to the summit.
Given the ability of Rod’s clients and marginal conditions on the route, he elected to take a variation to the right and take two easier pitches to get to the top of the difficult climb. He led up to the belay ledge and dropped a sling of 1-inch nylon webbing over a large block for an anchor. The block was a ledge about 1 foot wide and required a standing belay anchored to the sling.
In those days they were still using the water knot to tie the two ends of the webbing together. All guides knew to check the knots for slippage and to check that there were adequate tails of webbing sticking out of the knot. Rod neglected to check the tails. After placing the sling over the block, he clipped in and leaned out to test the anchor. The knot failed, and he nearly took a swan dive to the ledge 35 feet below. They continued to the summit without his clients knowing how close their guide came to serious or fatal injury.
Lloyd Funk, a lieutenant in the Teton County Sheriff’s Office, has many stories to pull from. Growing up in Jackson in the summer, you were always doing things like riding a bicycle round town, going to the A&W for a root beer float and floating Flat Creek on inner tubes. Another frequent pastime was going to Happy Joe’s Pizza for birthday parties and then having a sleepover at the birthday boy’s house.
That is how this story begins. Lloyd was between 10 and 12 years old. After getting a full belly of pizza, they set off for the birthday boy’s house, which was north of town in a remote area. They played games and jumped on the family trampoline. When evening approached they put their sleeping bags out on the trampoline and searched for something else to do. They devised a game much like lawn darts using a bow and arrow. The boys would shoot the arrow high in the air, and whoever recovered the arrow would be next to shoot. Many times the arrow would be shot so high into the air that they would lose sight of it. They’d rush in the direction where they believed the arrow would be coming down. On several occasions not all of them would see the arrow returning to the ground. They would only hear the thump. Once, Lloyd stopped and looked up. Without him seeing a thing, the arrow came with inches of his face and stuck in the ground between his feet.
“Wow, that was close,” he thought.
He will mention no names but will say the parents never would have condoned such actions had they been aware of what the boys were doing.
Playing with fire
Terry Roice grew up in the John Hall subdivision in East Jackson. His friend Bink lived just down the street in a house that had an attic accessed by a drop-down set of stairs. Bink had a spring-loaded toy cannon that would shoot whatever projectile you could fit into its breach. One day while in the attic, they had the idea of shooting a wooden match out of the cannon. It struck the wall, flashed into flame and ricocheted into the curtain on the one window in the space. It caught on fire and was burning big and fast. The boys used a rug to smother the flames. Terry has often wondered if Bink’s dad ever discovered that half-burnt curtain.
Guns and cobras
When I asked Benji Kaghan Sinclair if he had any close calls he said, “Just a few.” When he was 18, in Rhodesia, his remote research camp was surrounded by Angolan mercenaries in the night. It was sheer luck that he and his companions weren’t machine gunned.
There were close calls in Africa with angry elephants, one lioness, a puff adder and two spitting cobras, mostly when he was in the Peace Corps.
Then there were two near drownings while kayaking and one near fatal slip on a cliff in Montana. Benji said that nearly all of his adventures have been around wildlife especially venomous snakes. He realized at around age of 30 that his fascination with them would eventually kill him, so he took up guiding.