Rangers save 16 from Grand

July 23, 2010 by  
Filed under Trail Boss News

Grand Teton National Park rangers rescued 16 climbers injured in a lightning storm on the 13,770-foot Grand Teton on Wednesday but had to call off the search for a 17th at dark.

The 17 were caught in the storm, which reached a crescendo between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Jenny Lake climbing rangers used two helicopters to evacuate the 16, all of whom were injured by lightning strikes. All were higher than 13,200 feet.

The event was likely the largest search and rescue operation in Grand Teton since the early 1960s. Rangers accomplished the rescue after being dropped on the mountain’s summit pyramid from a rope dangling beneath a helicopter, then plucking nine of the injured off the peak using the same dangling “short haul” technique.

Park officials did not release the name of the missing climber. He was one of a party of eight climbing the peak via the Owen-Spalding route, the easiest on the mountain.

The missing climber had been with seven companions in the area of the Belly Roll when the storm hit, park spokeswoman Jackie Skaggs said. The feature is so named because climbers must drag their stomachs across the bulging rock as they cling to hand holds and traverse above the precipitous West Face.

“He went over a cliff,” Skaggs said. “I don’t know what made him go down, the concussion [from lightning] or a lightning strike. They just lost sight of him.”

“They will look for him at first light,” Skaggs said of the rangers. “Given the circumstances, they wouldn’t attempt this at night.”

In addition to the group at the Belly Roll, another team of five climbers was above that feature on the Owen-Spalding route and a third team of four was 100 feet from the summit on the Exum Ridge.

Skaggs said a lightning map showed at least six or seven strikes in the area. A professional Exum mountain guide aided the party from the Belly Roll down to the 11,650-foot high Lower Saddle.

“Multiple patients reported being struck three, four, five times,” physician A.J. Wheeler, co-medical advisor for Grand Teton National Park said. “We saw a whole range of injuries from bumps and bruises to lightning burns and electrical injuries to secondary trauma from being thrown,” by lightning strikes.

Climbers rescued from the summit pyramid were flown, dangling below the rescue airship, to the Lower Saddle. From there many, if not all, of the victims got inside a Yellowstone National Park helicopter and were shuttled to the Lupine Meadows rescue cache at 6,700 feet on the valley floor.

“I wouldn’t classify anyone as critical, but we did see the whole range of injuries,” Wheeler said.

Skaggs said at least one of the groups included Teton area residents. The other parties were made up of climbers who were not permanent denizens of Teton County, she said.

Nine patients arrived at St. John’s Hospital, one of them a woman, spokeswoman Karen Connelly said. One was admitted to the intensive care unit and another flown to Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center in Idaho Falls.

Four were expected to be admitted to the primary care unit in fair condition suffering from injuries resulting from lightning strikes. Those amounted to minor trauma and burns.

Three were discharged.

Among those who were unloaded from the helicopter at Lupine Meadows and into ambulances were a man and a woman who were bandaged. The man was carried or limping and had a bandaged foot. The woman had a field dressing on her hand.

Several of those who got off the rescue ship were unsteady. One woman appeared in wide-eyed shock.

Rangers had to help several of the victims. Others walked off without signs of distress.

The rescue got underway at about 2 p.m., but was suspended just after 5 p.m. by another storm that sent still more lightning down on the highest peaks in the Teton Range. Some rescue workers and victims took shelter in the Exum Hut and Park Service ranger hut on the Lower Saddle during the second storm.

At 6:30 p.m., both helicopters again departed from Lupine Meadows in the rain to continue rescue operations. All but the missing climber were on the valley floor by about 9 p.m. At least one helicopter then flew again to see if the missing climber could be found.

“It was so dark by then it would be difficult to locate that climber,” Skaggs said.

The operation included 18 rescue workers on the mountain, the helicopter crews, and numerous support staff.

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