Thursday, October 23, 2003

After the fall


Tuesday September 23, 2003

After the fall
* Lightning sparks the most harrowing rescue attempt anyone can recall at Grand Teton National Park. As Steven Barrie-Anthony and Rebecca Huntington report, the elite crew of climbing rangers summons brain, brawn and machinery to come out on top.

By Steven Barrie-Anthony and Rebecca Huntington, Special to the Times

THE CHOPPER LIFTED OFF, YANKING the thick cord attached to its belly until only six feet lay slack on the ground.

Under the thwack and blur of blades, climbing ranger Leo Larson snapped his harness onto a loop at the end of the rope.

"Clipped and ready," he said into his flight helmet mike.

"Coming up," the pilot answered.

The ground fell away and Larson trailed the bird through the air above Grand Teton National Park, dangling, nylon shell flapping hard. Twisting slowly on his 100-foot tether, he faced the distant town of Jackson, Wyo., and then the broad river valley nicknamed Jackson Hole and, still rotating, the 13,770-foot Grand Teton itself. With his long blond hair tucked into his helmet, the 6-foot-5 ranger stretched out his legs and arms to brake the spin and looked for a landing pad.

"How about letting me off on that large flat rock?" Larson said.

Lowered and unclipped, helicopter backing away through steep clouds, he saw the dead woman and the dazed climbers -- her husband and friends -- huddled atop the Friction Pitch of Exum Ridge. Everyone except the guy who had disappeared off the ledge around 3:45 p.m.

The call

A few hours earlier on this Saturday in July, Larson was shuffling paperwork in the subdistrict rescue cache -- a small cabin and a few picnic tables in Lupine Meadows -- when his radio spit. "Lightning strike on the Grand," came the familiar voice of the park dispatcher. "One person not breathing. One person critically injured."

The on-duty search-and-rescue coordinator, Brandon Torres, tripped the high-alert tone, signaling all rangers to swarm the meadow. Larson, 47, a La Jolla-based map publisher in the off-season, bolted to his own tiny cabin 200 yards east of the cache. Wrestling off Levi's and a T-shirt, he pulled on the two-piece Nomex fire-retardant flight suit kept on his front porch. His wife of 24 years, Helen, a backcountry biotechnician and experienced rescue cache coordinator, jogged through the tufts of sagebrush to help.

Rushing back to the cache, Larson scanned the sky, spotting the cumulus domes that tend to toy with helicopters. If the threat of downdrafts didn't shutter the operation, sundown might. The blobs on the Doppler radar soon confirmed his gut feeling. Even for an old hand at short-haul rescues, in which a helicopter "inserts" rangers hanging on a rope to hasten response in extremely rugged spots, this would register in the park's Jenny Lake subdistrict annals as the most harrowing day.

Much later, at "the critical incident stress debriefing," the details would come out. Thirteen climbers, mostly work colleagues in their 20s from the information technology department of an Idaho Falls company, had headed up the Grand's popular south-facing Upper Exam Ridge route at 8 a.m., well after the recommended dawn start.

The route typically begins as a scramble from a part of the ridge called the Lower Saddle and eventually traverses an exhilarating and technically challenging stretch. Once climbers reach Wall Street, a fat ledge, they usually rope up before maneuvering across little more than air to a nearby boulder ledge. From there, the only way off the peak is up. After climbing the Golden Staircase, a yellow slab known for its large, knobby holds, they make their way across broken ground to the 120-foot Friction Pitch. A pitch is any distance climbed using a standard rope and, with a 5.5 rating, this is the most difficult pitch on the route. Its smooth, unbroken rock offers thin holds and few cracks in which to wedge the aluminum chocks or mechanical camming devices that roped climbers count on to arrest a fall.

In summer the valley floor acts like a burner under a pan of water, sending warm, moist air into a lid of cold. But the drought had rung the atmosphere dry in recent weeks, and the roughly 70 people a day attempting to top the Grand had sweated beneath either clear skies or clouds no more menacing than cotton balls. Then, in the week leading up to July 26, true to seasonal form, the billowing afternoon thunderheads returned from the south. Inside the clouds, water droplets rose and fell, like a shoe rubbing on carpet, generating static electricity.

Seeing the suspect clouds, the Idahoans ditched their summit bid -- just 700 feet short of the top. Divvied into four rope teams, they planned instead to cross the Friction Pitch and traverse to a rappel, several hundred feet below the summit. Rain came, slickening the rock, but they weren't alarmed.

Erica and Clint Summers were sitting hip-to-hip, carefully paying out rope as Rodrigo Liberal climbed, when lightning struck. The bolt hit Erica, its electric wallop killing her on contact. Unspent, it scorched her husband's leg, then ricocheted off rock and slammed Liberal to the end of his rope. Just below, the charge blasted three others on a separate rope. Tumbling 60 feet, one climber bounced off boulders until a rope that had twisted around his legs snared on a rock. His two partners, incapacitated and confused, kept asking their buddy, sprawled on the ledge above, "What happened?"

The plan

Scattered across the front and backcountry, rangers arrived by car and on foot. Circling the picnic tables, they paged through binders filled with black-and-white aerial photos of the Grand. Talking fast, in search-and-rescue speak, they floated potential routes and strategies. Coordinator Torres, still linked to the climbers' cellphone, tossed into the equation a new factor: Liberal, 27, was limp in his harness, unconscious or dead, from a rope anchored to rock 40 feet below the closest stable ledge. And with thunder echoing through the canyons, lightning was itching to strike the mineral-laden ridges again.

Torres radioed for the helicopter, a Bell 206L-4 with a big tail rotor for better performance at high altitude. Located 30 miles south in Hoback Junction, it would ferry Larson and batches of rangers from the helipad beyond the cache's weathered buck-and-rail fence to a staging area at 11,650 feet and then short-haul them one by one to the Friction Pitch. To achieve and maintain lift under its main rotor in this storm -- 50-degree air, 24 mph-wind, low visibility -- the Bell could carry no more than 500 pounds.

Inside the rescue cache cabin, Larson and seven others scrawled their flight weights on a white board, lumping in clothing, headlamps, rescue kits and food and water for one night. Moving to a computer, Larson double-clicked on Heli Load Calc, a program customized by a fellow Teton ranger to account for the quirks of the Bell 206L-4. Larson punched in the atmospheric variables and hit "enter."

With the weight cap, only the pilot, two rangers and a modicum of gear could fly. Larson quickly got the nod from Torres to run the rescue on the mountain. Dan Burgette, a ranger with medical training, would go in the first drop too. And they were good to go. Except the storm had pinned the helicopter down on its pad.

Fifteen minutes ticked by, 20, 30. In less than four hours, the sun would dip below the ridgeline, casting the accident site into purple-gray shadow. Even if he got to the climbers at dusk, Larson thought, they would all have to bivouac on the sheer rock. Not everyone would survive till first light.

Finally, Larson heard the first of the two birds and watched it drop. He and Burgette tugged on their helmets and gloves. Ducking under the rotor, they high-stepped aboard.

The execution

Before dangling a ranger on a rope, reconnaissance would be needed. At 13,000 feet, wind gusting, the pilot edged within 150 feet of the wall where Liberal hung taut on his rope. "Just hanging, belly-up, limp," Larson said later. "Completely bent into a U-shape, much further than you could possibly bend." The rangers snapped digital pictures of him and of the others on the upper ledge. Then the helicopter whipped around and offloaded Larson and Burgette at a staging area on the Lower Saddle, about 1,500 feet below the climbers, where the Park Service keeps an 8-by-10 hut and gear stash.

As the pilot shuttled the images down to the gathering rescue crews, Larson began preparing for his open-air ride. A veteran of 11 major rescue operations so far that summer, he knew the drill back at the cache. The rangers would pop the doors off the Bell and hook a 100-foot short-haul rope to its belly. Next, they would snake the backup "belly band" -- two additional ropes -- through the doorways on either side and tether it to a metal plate inside. Lighter now, having spent some fuel, the helicopter would ferry three more rangers to the staging area. But first, they would again fly by the accident site, assessing air temperature, barometric pressure and, the most critical chopper gauge, torque -- all measures of whether the chopper could stay aloft in the thin air at 13,000 feet.

At the gear hut, Larson changed into snug synthetic undergarments and a fleece jacket under a nylon shell. He stuffed a soft backpack with climbing gear: an anchor kit, including a full set of pins, wedges and camming units designed to fit in cracks, and extra ropes. Thrusting sticky rubber-soled Nike Air Exums through the leg holes of a climbing harness, Larson waited, twitchy for his E-ticket ride.

The first sortie to insert him near the Friction Pitch failed when black clouds shrouded the peak. The helicopter plopped Larson back at the hut, where another chopper had dropped more rangers. While it returned to the cache for additional reinforcements, Larson, Burgette and the others talked, agreeing they couldn't wait for the weather to clear. As two rangers began the climb, tracing the Idahoans' route, the clouds shifted. Here we go, Larson thought.

Traveling on the end of the short-haul rope at 30 miles per hour, it took minutes to reach the rock where Larson touched down. A stray shoelace could incite a fall of a couple hundred feet, but he didn't slow to set an anchor. With hands and feet for balance and sticky soles for traction, he moved among the climbers to assess their injuries. He knew from the relayed chatter of their cellphone that the young woman could not be revived, so he focused quickly on the worst case: the man suspended 40 feet below the ledge on the vertical face, his anchor intact despite the lightning blast.

"The climbers told me that they thought he was still alive," Larson said. "That if you yell, he'll moan."

"Rodrigo!" they all shouted. And back came a moan.

By now two more climbing rangers -- Craig Holmes and George Montopli -- had been short-hauled up. They set anchors and rappelled down to Liberal. Using the helicopter as their pack mule, they anchored a litter a few feet west of Liberal's anchor, lowered it along the face, and tied it off. As the rangers struggled to hoist Liberal's dead weight into the litter, he grunted incoherently.

Larson looked at his watch, studied the sky. He figured they had only 35 minutes of flying light left, not enough to airlift every climber, one at a time. If darkness descended midrescue, anyone left would spend the night on the mountain. And Liberal would likely die.

In a harried conference with the other rangers and ground crew, Larson reluctantly agreed to let one of the unhurt Idahoans lead the walking wounded up the Friction Pitch and off the mountain. The second Bell helped shuttle the few too hurt to hike to the cache -- and later, in a dangling net, the single body bag.

Now, with 30 minutes to go, four rangers remained on the ledge. Montopli and Holmes strapped Liberal into the litter. Marty Vidak and Larson debated how to get him onto solid ground -- either lower him onto the rocks below or raise him onto the ledge. Up, they decided, and then fly him off of there.

They attached two lines to the litter, in case one failed, and configured "a three-pulley, five-to-one system," Larson said. "For every 50 pounds we pulled, the pulleys pulled 250."

Holmes attached himself to Liberal to help keep the litter from bashing into sharp outcroppings. But Vidak and Larson could not hoist the 400-plus-pound load of two men and the litter. Montopli climbed his rope and, horizon fading, tugged with the others.

Gradually, the litter ratcheted up the wall and swung onto the upper ledge. With 10 minutes of sky, too few to "repackage" -- flip Liberal on his side to prevent choking -- Larson radioed the helicopter. Grabbing the short-haul rope that he had swooped in on, he attached the litter and cued the pilot.

Larson watched twilight swallow the litter. What he couldn't see from atop Exum Ridge were the life-flight paramedics waiting at the rescue cache, or the burn specialists standing by at the University of Utah Medical Center in Salt Lake City, or the young man's face when, 36 days later, he finally left the hospital.


Freelance writer Steven Barrie-Anthony is a student at Occidental College in Los Angeles. Rebecca Huntington is a staff writer for the Jackson Hole News & Guide in Jackson, Wyo.

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