North Face Grand Teton: The ultimate rescue
Grand Teton National Park Ranger Ted Wilson got his first look at the two bones sticking through the skin on Gaylord Campbell's lower leg and felt a pit in his stomach. He wasn't queasy: The busted bones just made it clear what lay ahead for the rescue team.
It was Aug. 22, 1967. Wilson and his six fellow rescuers were on the north face of the Grand Teton - 2,000 feet above the Teton Glacier and more than 1,000 feet from the summit. There was no chance of a helicopter rescue and Campbell's injuries meant he had to be lowered on a litter to the glacier below, where a level landing pad had been carved in the snow.
"This was the ultimate Tetons rescue," said Wilson, who would later become mayor of Salt Lake City. "The rescue we all feared, but always knew would come, was here. And now that it was, we didn't even think about it. We all just went about our jobs to make sure we all made it down to safety."
There is nothing more valuable than trust when it comes to mountain climbing. Knowing that your partners have your back, no matter what, is key to the confidence required for a sport as much mental as physical. Add the intensity and chaos of a rescue attempt and things can easily go from bad to worse, jeopardizing not only the victim but the rescuers.
On that weekend 42 years ago, seven men pulled off a technical rescue that, at the time, was remarkable not only for its technique, but its flawless outcome. Grand Teton is notoriously difficult to climb: In the past 17 years, 10 climbers have died there, according to the National Park Service. And as many as 30 "major" search and rescues (defined as costing more than $500) are conducted along the Teton Range in a single year.
Among the rescuers were four men from Salt Lake City who had honed their skills while climbing together along the Wasatch Front in the Alpenbock Climbing Club in the early '60s, when they fired off numerous first ascents and established routes still used today.
The trust and comfort developed during their teenage years at East and South high schools helped Ralph Tingey, Rick Reese, Bob Irvine and Ted Wilson, along with three others, complete the three-day rescue few thought possible.
"We knew each other very well. We had kind of grown up together from our late teens," said Reese from his home in Bozeman, Mont. "We had climbed together extensively and not only in Utah. The Wasatch was, and is, one of the best training grounds in the country for young climbers."
The Tetons attracted the best climbers on the continent in the '60s, and many of them decided to make a living as rangers so they could live in or near the park. The four Utahns had also been on trips with the others involved in the north-face rescue: Pete Sinclair, Leigh Ortenburger and Mike Ermarth.
The time these men had spent together on cliff faces and ice fields ended not only with lives saved, but with the team earning the Valor Award from the Department of the Interior. Now, the "immaculate rescue" is being immortalized in a movie.
"I can't stress how critical that time we spent together before the rescue was," said Wilson, who was preparing for his second year of teaching economics at Skyline High School that summer. "We established similar bonds with the other three in the Tetons. Those bonds and that knowledge of each other's strengths helped us be extremely efficient and save a lot of time, which is so important when you are dealing with injuries."
When then 22-year-old Ralph Tingey opened the door of the Jenny Lake ranger's cabin late on Aug. 21, 1967, two men asked if his dad was home; they needed to talk to the ranger. Tingey let them know he was the ranger, and was told that while climbing Mount Owen (12,800 feet) next to the Grand Teton (13,770) earlier that day, the pair had heard cries for help from the Grand's north face.
Tingey drove to a scenic turnout with a direct view of the north face. He flashed the headlights -- three dots, three dashes and three dots -- Morse code for SOS. A faint response came in kind from the face.
Tingey alerted Jenny Lake ranger Pete Sinclair. The men agreed nothing could be done until dawn. Tingey returned to the pullout in the morning and scanned the north face. As light improved, he picked out two figures.
"They were on the Second Ledge. One was walking around and one was in a sleeping bag," Tingey said. "We knew we were dealing with two climbers, one hurt and one able to walk."
The climber walking around trying to stay warm that cool morning of Aug. 22 was 21-year-old Lorraine Hough. The climber in the sleeping bag was Gaylord Campbell.
Hough had no idea she was being spied on or even that her pleas for help the previous afternoon had been heard. She had not seen the truck headlights the night before, but had been sending her own signals.
"I knew as soon as I saw the extent of his injuries that we were not going to get down without help," Lorraine Hough McCoy said from her home in Denver. "I just had to hope that somebody heard me or saw the light signal."
Tingey reported to Sinclair that there were two climbers, one of whom appeared to be injured. The late arrival of a helicopter meant it took most of the day to reach the climbers.
"It was the most overwhelming sense of relief you can imagine," Hough McCoy said of the rangers' arrival around 4 p.m. on Aug. 22. "I knew [Gaylord] would not make it unless we got him down as soon as possible. It was a huge relief."
The rangers addressed Campbell's gory injuries and decided to get Hough McCoy off the mountain by foot.
"They were completely professional and everything went so smoothly while I was there," she said. "So I really did not feel afraid to leave my companion with them. I just knew we were both in good hands now."
Reese remembers removing the makeshift ice axe splint on Campbell's leg to find "two bones sticking out through the skin nearly two inches." He placed an inflatable splint on the leg and reported to Sinclair that Campbell needed morphine.
Daylight was fading fast and members of the team were still bringing down equipment left by a helicopter in the Upper Saddle. A decision was made to stay put and start the tedious process of getting Campbell down the mountain the next morning.
Winching by inches
Wilson ended up talking throughout the night with Campbell, who couldn't sleep. They spoke of trips each had taken to Europe, routes they had climbed and with whom. Wilson helped Campbell change his body position from time to time as he grew sore from being strapped into the litter, a special stretcher in which he would be lowered.
Meanwhile, a plan for getting the injured climber off the mountain was being formed by the team.
The question was whether to haul him up to an easier route down the mountain or to lower the injured climber roughly 2,000 feet to the Teton Glacier. The team determined it would be too difficult to haul that much weight up the steep and loose-rock terrain and that the trip would be too jarring for Campbell.
They set about figuring out how to lower Campbell, an arduous and painstaking process.
He was secured in the litter and a helmet placed over his face to protect him from falling rocks and debris. Each man would take a turn descending with the litter to keep it from wandering and attend to Campbell.
The work was tedious - numerous holes had to be hand-drilled more than four inches into the rock for security bolts to hold the winch through which 300-foot lengths of 1/4 inch steel cable were looped to lower the litter. A second system of belay ropes was used for security. The team had trained on this system before, but had never used cable; there were moments of apprehension as the steel jerked as if it were breaking.
At one point, Ortenburger and Irvine dropped rocks to gauge if they had enough rope and cable to reach an area known as the Grandstand. The team traveled an estimated back-breaking 1,100 feet the first full day of the rescue, but were still a daunting 900 feet from their goal.
There wasn't enough room for them all to stay in the area reached by dusk, so the team split up and spent their second night -- Campbell's third -- on the face.
Campbell in his litter finally landed on the Teton Glacier at 4 p.m. on Aug. 24. After a 20-minute helicopter ride, he was in St. John's Hospital in Jackson. Wilson and five of the other rescuers were still on the face when the helicopter left. None ever heard again from Campbell, who recovered from his injuries.
The North Face team members subsequently participated in multiple rescues throughout their careers, but each remembers 1967 in his own way.
Tingey, who went on to serve as superintendent of Grane Teton, often found himself looking at the north face with a sense of pride. He said he has tried to practice the lesson he learned then by putting people who trust each other together in demanding situations, but says he has never seen a team work as well.
Wilson recognized the moment he dropped off the face that he was changed.
"When I came down and put my feet on the glacier I said to myself 'I can do anything now. I will never run into another as scary, as difficult, as overwhelming event in my life as this rescue," he said. "My life was sprung open."
Rick Reese » He reached the climbers first and provided initial care to the compound factures suffered by Gaylord Campbell. Reese graduated from East High School and the University of Utah. He worked in community relations at the University of Utah, was a professor at Carroll College and founded the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.
Ralph Tingey » He was working as a ranger at Grand Teton at the time of the rescue. Tingey graduated from East High and the University of Utah. He stayed with the National Park Service and went on to become superintendent of Grand Teton National Park.
Ted Wilson » He spent a night on the ledge trying to keep the injured climber from going into shock. Wilson, a South High School and University of Utah graduate, went on to become the mayor of Salt Lake City.
Bob Irvine » Ranger Irvine was on a personal climb on his day off with Leigh Ortenburger when he heard the cries for help. They positioned themselves to help in the rescue effort they knew would be coming. Irvine has two medals of Valor, both for his involvement in rescues on the north face of the Grand Teton. One of three East High School graduates on the rescue team, Irvine is a retired Weber State University mathematics professor.
Pete Sinclair » Sinclair was the rescue team leader. Recognizing that he had experienced climbers who had spent time on the mountain together, Sinclair provided the basics of the rescue plan, but allowed the men to play to their strengths. A chapter of Sinclair's book about the rescue, We Aspired: The Last Innocent Americans, will serve as narration of the film about the event. Sinclair became an English professor at Evergreen College in Washington after working in the Tetons.
Leigh Ortenburger » While not a ranger, Ortenburger was widely recognized as one of the most knowledgeable people on the Tetons so Sinclair asked him to join the team. At dawn on Day 2 of the rescue, Ortenburger, standing a thin ledge on the North Face, caught a small package containing morphine hurled more than 30 feet from a helicopter. Ortenburger was the oldest member of the rescue team and the "unofficial" leader. Co-author of A Climber's Guide to the Teton Range, he died as a civilian after being caught in the California wildfires of 1991.
Mike Ermarth » Working as a fire aide in the Tetons that summer, Ermarth was asked to join the rescue team because he had climbed the north face and had climbed with the other rescuers. Ermarth now teaches history at Dartmouth College.
Gaylord Campbell » Campbell told rescuers a rock fall caused the two compound fractures he suffered on the north face of the Grand Teton on Aug. 22, 1967. But the breaks were more suggestive of a fall. The rescue team members said Campbell complained little about the pain during the rescue, but often tried to control the rescue from his position on the litter. He showed little appreciation for the efforts of the rescue team and was, in fact, critical of some of the strategies used to save his life. He has ignored all attempts at contact by his rescuers.
Lorraine Hough McCoy » Lorraine was not injured, but stayed with Campbell overnight on the ledge, caring for him, yelling repeatedly for help and flashing an SOS with a flashlight. She was led down the mountain on Aug. 23 and had not talked to the rescue team until this month during filming.
The idea for a movie about the rescue came when Jenny Wilson, Ted's daughter (named after Jenny Lake in Grand Teton National Park), visited the Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Center in the park last year. Part of the exhibit includes information about climbing in the Tetons and the north face rescue of 1967. Wilson talked with her husband during the drive back to Salt Lake City about the story she knew so well from her father. "I told her 'Jenny Dear, nobody wants to hear about a bunch of old farts doing something more than 40 years ago'," Ted Wilson told his daughter. "But when we gathered in the Tetons to do some filming, it was obvious that it was an amazing rescue and that people in today's world do care. If nothing else, it let a bunch of old friends get together and appreciate something we are all so very proud of."
Filming started earlier this month as the six surviving rescuers gathered in the Tetons to recall the event.
Meredith Lavitt, producer and director of the film, says she plans a documentary first and a feature film if she finds financing.
"It was really clear to me after seeing these men together this is more than a story about a rescue," she said. "It is about a band of brothers, how they did it and what became of them. There is so much humanity here."