Climbing rangers from Grand Teton National Park and guides from Exum Mountain Guides have been recognized for their valor in connection with a search-and-rescue operation in the Tetons when 17 climbers were caught up in a lightning storm.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar last week handed out to seven park rangers the prestigious Department of the Interior Valor Award for their heroic actions during a July 2010 SAR on the Grand Teton.
During the ceremony, one of the park’s co-medical directors along with the primary helicopter pilot, one Teton Interagency helitack member, and three Exum Mountain Guides were presented with the Department’s Citizen’s Award for Bravery for their actions during the same rescue.
Valor Award recipients are Park Rangers Ryan Schuster, Jack McConnell, Marty Vidak, Ed Visnovske, Nicholas Armitage, Drew Hardesty, and Helen Bowers.
St. John’s Medical Center Doctor AJ Wheeler, Pilot Matt Heart of Helicopter Express, Teton Interagency helitack member John Filardo, and Exum Mountain Guides Dan Corn, Anneka Door, and Brenton Reagan each received the Citizen’s Award for Bravery for their critical roles and assistance during the challenging rescue operation.
Many lives were saved by the professionalism, skill and courage of the combined rescuers; sadly, one climber died when he fell more than 2,000 feet during the brunt of the storm.
Valor awards are presented to DOI employees who have demonstrated unusual courage involving a high degree of personal risk in the face of danger. The act of heroism is not required to be related to official duties, or to have occurred at the official duty station. Recipients receive a special certificate and citation signed by the Secretary, and an engraved gold Valor Award medal.
The Citizen’s Award for Bravery is granted to private citizens for heroic acts or unusual bravery in the face of danger. Honorees receive a special certificate and citation signed by the Secretary for risking their lives to save the life of a DOI employee or the life of any person while on property owned by or entrusted to the Interior Department.
The following account describes the Owen-Spalding Lightning SAR mission:
About noon on July 21, 2010, a fast- moving and active lightning storm caught 17 climbers near the summit of the 13,770-foot Grand Teton. The climbers, from three unassociated parties, were attempting to summit the high peak via two separate climbing routes when the storm unleashed a barrage of lightning, rain, and hail on the Grand Teton: all 17 were caught above the 13,200 foot elevation on exposed ridges and rocky cliffs.
Upon receiving a call for help at 12:23 p.m., rangers initiated a rescue response that increased in size, scope and complexity with the mounting knowledge that multiple climbers were physically incapacitated by the severe storm. Rescuers were flown to the Lower Saddle of the Grand Teton at 11,650 feet. This high mountain saddle became an intermediate staging area for emergency medical care and final evacuation off the mountain to the Lupine Meadows rescue cache at 6,700 feet where ambulances waited to transport the injured climbers to a local hospital.
Park Rangers Bowers and McConnell, and Exum guide Corn, first reached seven of the climbers who were making a potentially grave error, rappelling down the wrong way into a steep couloir known as the Idaho Express. The rescuers stopped the climbers, got them to a safer location, and told them to wait for more help. Exum guides Door and Reagan escorted the seven climbers and two others to the Lower Saddle where they waited for evacuation via helicopter to the valley floor.
More rangers made their way up the rugged Teton peak to assist with the rescue of other climbers, while Bowers stayed at the 13,200 foot Upper Saddle to coordinate operations on the mountain and communicate with other rescuers at the Lower Saddle and on the valley floor.
Rescue operations were hampered by deteriorating weather; additional storm cells grounded the aerial evacuation for over one hour, putting rescuers and injured climbers—who were still high on the mountain—at the mercy of the elements and at further risk. Aviation operations began again at 6:45 p.m. when the thunderstorms passed. Ultimately 16 climbers, ranging in age from 21 to 67, were flown from the Lower Saddle of the Grand Teton to the Lupine Meadows rescue cache in several rotations, with the final flight occurring just before nightfall.
In all, 15 climbers were transported to the local hospital. Nine climbers were admitted to the emergency room: five were hospitalized with injuries ranging from burns associated with lightning strikes to trauma from the sheer force and concussion of multiple hits; three were treated and released; and one patient was flown to an acute care hospital in Idaho Falls, Idaho. One climber was missing and reported to have fallen off the Grand Teton when several bolts of lightning struck the mountain. A search for this 17th climber had to be called off due to darkness.
Rangers resumed the search for the missing climber at daybreak on Thursday, July 22. During an aerial reconnaissance flight, they located the body of Brandon Oldenkamp, age 21 of Sanborn, Iowa, in Valhalla Canyon. He had fallen down a steep couloir approximately 3,000 feet below the summit of the Grand Teton. Oldenkamp’s body was subsequently recovered from the mountain.
A Teton Interagency contract helicopter and 83 personnel from Grand Teton National Park, Bridger-Teton National Forest, Teton Interagency Fire, Jackson Hole Fire/EMS, Teton County Sheriff's Office, Exum Mountain Guides, and St. John’s Medical Center, plus a helicopter and staff from Yellowstone National Park, assisted with this rescue: named the O-S Lightning SAR for its primary location on the Owen-Spalding route of the Grand Teton. This multifaceted incident turned into the largest rescue mission in the history of Grand Teton National Park.
“Although the mission was complex, it was efficiently conducted with no injuries to rescuers or other personnel: a real tribute to the men and women who risked their lives to bring others to safety in the face of a violent summer storm,” said Grand Teton National Park Chief Ranger Michael Nash. “The rescue’s true success resulted from the local community's ability to come together as a combined, multi-agency rescue force. We appreciate everyone’s contribution in making this rescue such an effective mission and one for the history books.”