During the summer there are 16 seasonal rangers on the crew at
Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. They rotate through a wide
range of duties every two weeks, some days answering questions for
tourists, fishermen and climbers, on others patrolling the trails,
rehabilitating impacted areas and familiarizing themselves with every
part of the park. They haul out litter. They advise and sometimes
arrest anyone who is loud, drunk or armed. And from time to time they
go up the Grand Teton and save someone's life.
In the 1985 summer season there were 20 major rescues on the
mountain. (A major rescue is one that costs more than $500.) But the
rescue most talked about in Jackson Hole was the last of the season,
one involving the last two parties on the mountain on Sept. 11.
Party No. 1, the Findley party, consisted of Greg Findley, Nils
Green and John Atthowe, all in their early 20s. Findley and Atthowe
had met at a National Outdoor Leadership School course in Lander,
Wyo., in l98l and met Green that summer in Jackson Hole. They decided
to climb the Grand Teton: Green would be making his final climb
before getting married. Party No. 2, the Johnson party, included Paul
Johnson, 40, and his climbing partner of 15 years, Ken Webb, 37. They
had driven down from Seattle to climb the peak. The Johnson party
signed in at the information center, as required, and on the
afternoon of Sept. 10 packed up to the Moraine area, a common staging
site for the one-day ascent of the Grand Teton's 13,776-foot summit.
The Findley party started later the same afternoon; they had
intended to camp at the Lower Saddle but opted instead for the less
windy Caves area, about two hours below.
Summer weather in the park tends to follow a repeated pattern of
sunny days with afternoon thundershowers, though bad weather, with
snow, can hit without warning. When the climbers who went up the
mountain on Sept. 10 asked about the weather, they were told as much
as anybody knew: windy, cold, a possibility of afternoon storms.
A rescue is not initiated in any national park until there is
clear and obvious reason for concern. Concern for the Findley and
Johnson parties began the next day.
It started to rain heavily in Jackson Hole at about 3 p.m. that
day. ''We couldn't see the mountain for the storm,'' said climbing
ranger Jim Woodmencey, 27. ''We knew it was bad, but we thought
they'd be all right if they had their gear. It's not unusual for
groups new to the mountain to take longer than they signed up for.''
It was still raining hard the next morning. Woodmencey called Rod
Newcomb, co-owner of the Exum Mountain Guides, to see if the tent
that the park service maintained all season at the 11,600-foot Lower
Saddle was still standing. It would be necessary in case of a rescue.
Newcomb told him that the tent was up, but more importantly he
revealed that he had been on the Grand Teton himself the day before
and on his descent had seen two parties on the Exum Ridge near the
Friction Pitch at about 1:30 or 2:00 in the afternoon. Woodmencey
knew that the Friction Pitch was high on the mountain for so late in
Woodmencey and fellow ranger Renny Jackson, 33, a world-class
climber, consulted, and after calling their supervisor, Pete
Armington, they initiated a rescue at about 9:45 a.m. Thursday, Sept.
12. It was too windy higher on the mountain for a helicopter, so
Jackson and Woodmencey marched off with their 50-pound packs toward
the Grand Teton.
Early that afternoon they met a two-man climbing party that was
coming down the mountain; the climbers had spent Wednesday night on
the Lower Saddle, maintaining a lantern to guide anyone else coming
down. No one did. The rangers realized they had people on the
mountain who had spent the night in terrible weather. The call went
out to all off-duty rangers still in the Jackson area. There were at
this time three parties unaccounted for.
While searching the Caves area, Jackson and Woodmencey found the
Findley party's tent under about 10 inches of snow, and what they saw
inside scared them -- wool hats, gloves, three sleeping bags, three
heavy down jackets. The weather remained fierce: thick snow and
50-mile-an-hour winds, gusting above 70.
Continuing upward, the two rangers met one of the three missing
Glenn Martin, a naturalist, and three climbers had retreated from
the summit the day before -- just in time: One member of the group
thought that his feet were frostbitten. They reported hearing voices
near the bottom of the Grand Rappel. It meant the remaining two
parties were probably off the summit.
Now the rangers knew who was on the mountain: the three members of
the Findley party and the two climbers from Seattle, Johnson and
Wednesday, Sept. 11 dawned a beautiful day. It was windy, but the
skies were bright blue and clear. The Findley party slept in, not
rising until after six. Then, feeling the pressure of time, the three
decided -- after laying out all their gear -- to travel light and
hit it fast. ''We're really late, so let's make up some time,'' was
the argument. They started up, leaving behind their headlamp, the
bivvy sacs, the down jackets and an extra pack. Atthowe wore only
an uninsulated Gore-tex rain shell and the three carried two day
packs among them.
''We expected it to be nice,'' Findley said later. ''The forecast
was good. It looked good. I had my walking shorts under my pants,
planning to climb in shorts and a T-shirt later in the day.'' He wore
running shoes. ''We planned to go to the Lower Saddle and then
decide whether we should go for it.''
At the Lower Saddle Findley stopped and talked with the Martin
party, which included some climbing rangers from another park. With
those climbers in front of them, Findley, Green and Atthowe decided
to press on at least to Wall Street, a narrowing ledge across the
Exum Ridge at about l2,000 feet, which is the real commitment to the
Teton summit. It was windy and cold but clear, and the climbing
rangers also on the route gave the three men confidence.
Once they rounded the awkward corner on Wall Street they were
committed to the mountain. A Climber's Guide to the Teton Range is
explicit in its advice that once past Wall Street, the best escape
route is up and across to the Owen-Spalding Rappel. In the early
afternoon, when they arrived at the Friction Pitch, it began to snow.
At first it was just a dusting, and the three, roped, scrambled up.
The Johnson party was below the Findley party at this time. Five
pitches (a ! pitch is a rope length, about l50 feet) below the
Friction Pitch they stood in clear weather. Sixty-five minutes later,
when Johnson and Webb reached the top of the Friction Pitch, the snow
was thick, the wind heavy. Visibility was 50 feet. The prevailing
winds on the Grand Teton are from the southwest, but this storm
approached from the east. None of the climbers saw it coming.
Findley and his partners, now above 13,000 feet, found shelter in
an overhang on the west side of the mountain. They crouched there,
waiting for the storm to pass. The snow and wind increased. Climbing
farther was impossible. They huddled in the shelter for four hours.
Then they heard voices. It was Johnson and Webb.
Seeing two more climbers heartened the Findley group, although
Webb and Johnson were also unsure of their position. The five
climbers sat another hour reading and rereading the guidebook aloud.
Atthowe had scouted a possible rappel (ascent or descent of a cliff
by means of a rope), but it was blind.
''I did it,'' Findley said later of the rappel. ''I didn't want to
do it. No one wanted to do it. When I got down about 150 feet I
looked around, thought it was possible to do another rappel and
hollered up to Paul (Johnson), who came down with two more ropes.
Everything was icy, so we roped places which otherwise we'd have
scrambled. But I made a second rappel, just kind of guessing where to
go, and by luck somehow I found the main rappel that everyone uses to
get off the mountain.''
For the first time in four frigid hours the climbers knew where
they were: the top of the Owen-Spalding Rappel. Findley hollered to
Johnson, who called to the others. At the top the three cold
climbers emerged from their shelter into the brutal weather and began
Findley's next rappel really excited the group. He dropped 120
more feet, to the Upper Saddle, and found footprints in the snow.
He thought, We got it made! We're down!
The footprints were those of the Martin party, just ahead of them.
However, daylight was failing. The men rappelled to join Findley
under the overhang. It was after 8 p.m. The five had but one working
headlamp, Johnson's, so they reluctantly decided to bivouac for the
night. They found a small alcove on the Upper Saddle, not fully out
of the wind, and sat down. At first they sat in a line, backs to the
wall, sharing what food they had: a few lemon drops, some granola and
bits of dried fruit. Soon, however, it became too cold for
sitting, and they decided to lie in a tight pile, rotating from time
At 4 a.m. Thursday the weather turned markedly colder, and the
group stirred, knowing they had to get out of there or perish.
Atthowe said that he was sure his feet were frozen. At first light
Webb set up a short rappel, and they began their last full day on the
The mistake the climbers then made was not an uncommon one on the
Grand Teton, particularly in bad weather. They descended the wrong
couloir (gorge). Instead of reaching the Owen Couloir and dropping
onto the Lower Saddle, they turned down its look-alike, the Wall
Slowly the day turned into a nightmare as the men tried to find
the proper descent route, wading, scrambling, falling in the high
wind, sometimes in waist-deep snow. When they discovered that the
bottom of the couloir was ''cliffed out'' (impassable because of
cliffs), they became divided as to what to do. Worse, Webb, Green
and Atthowe began to show overt signs of hypothermia.
Atthowe and Webb were unable to climb out of the couloir. Findley
and Green separated to scout possible routes. When Findley next saw
Green he found him sitting on a rock with his mittens off. They
attempted to open the guidebook; it was frozen shut. On the way to
join the others, Green sat down, too cold to go on. When he tried to
stand, he fell over.
Late in the day, near the bottom of the couloir, Atthowe slipped
and began falling. Unable to stop himself he fell over the edge of
the cliff band and disappeared. Meanwhile Webb began to lose muscle
control and become incoherent.
Johnson and Findley, the last two members of the group moving,
spent more than an hour trying to get Webb and Green closer together.
It was impossible. They had to abandon the effort, and decided to go
for help by rappelling the cliffs at the bottom of the gulch. It was
dark on Thursday night.
The conditions on the Grand Teton on Thursday were worse than
winter: fierce temperature and wind, too much snow to walk easily yet
not enough to ski. Rangers Woodmencey and Jackson carefully climbed
to the boulder field of the Lower Saddle, elevation 11,600 feet. They
reached the Exum Hut, as the fixed tent is called, at about 5:30 p.m.
The official report notes wind speed at close to 90 miles per hour.
December 10, 1986
The rangers were not hopeful. The chances were growing that the
outing was going to be a recovery of ''10-100s,'' the radio code for
Jackson began melting snow for water and hot drinks. Both men were
tired, wet and hungry. They fired down a quick cup of instant soup
and some hot chocolate, and Jackson suggested they use the remaining
daylight to make one final sortie. ''We were pretty hammered by the
weather,'' Woodmencey said. ''But Renny's an ace. And there was still
So they regrouped, filling two bottles with hot water, taking
their emergency gear and hiking up the Lower Saddle in the fading
light. Calling ''Yo!'' and ''Hello!'' the two men climbed about half
a mile and 800 vertical feet before dark. Their calls hadn't gone 10
feet in the rushing wind and snow. ''We didn't find a clue,''
Woodmencey said. ''We were beat, and it was dark, so we turned on our
headlamps and climbed back down to the Exum tent.''
Meanwhile two other rangers, Leo Larson and Randy Harrington, who
had been dispatched earlier, radioed that they would press on to the
Lower Saddle camp to join Woodmencey and Jackson.
Woodmencey says, ''I thought I'd go to the top of the fixed rope
and greet Randy and Leo, shine my light down to help them. On my way
down the clouds were kind of blowing in and out, and I could see a
few stars; it looked like the storm might be slowing down. And then,
looking up at the Grand, I thought I saw a faint orange glow like a
headlamp. My heart took off. I thought, It can't be a light; I'm
going nuts. So I turned my headlamp off and then flashed it three
times and turned it off again. I waited, and there came three flashes
Woodmencey restrained himself from blurting his sighting over the
radio, still wondering if it was fatigue tricking him. He greeted
Larson and Harrington quietly and then asked them to stop on the
trail, turn off their lamps and look up. He flashed his light again,
and in return there were three flashes.
Since Jackson and Woodmencey were fresher than the two climbers
who had just finished their hike they repacked their stuff and struck
out, hoping to get to the stranded climbers quickly. An adrenaline
rush swept over them, and spirits were high. It was just a minute or
two after 10 p.m.
They reached an area known as the Black Dike. The wind was still
fierce, but the snow had abated. Larson and Harrington climbed back
down the Lower Saddle to where they could see both parties' lights
and coordinated the search by radio. Their appraisal was that
Woodmencey and Jackson were 300 feet below the stranded climbers,
placing the light at the bottom of the Wall Street Couloir. They
were separated by several dangerous bands of cliffs.
Those cliffs would be steep, iced up and technical, and it was not
a climb to do in the dark. The only way to reach the light was to go
back up the Owen- Spalding route, through the Eye of the Needle,
cross over the ridge into the Wall Street Couloir and approach from
above. Larson and Harrington filled two huge packs from the cache of
emergency supplies maintained by the rangers at the Lower Saddle and
radioed up to the other rangers: ''We're on our way. Santa has his
The four met and redistributed the gear. At this point they heard
from two more rangers, John Carr and Paul Gagner, who had set up camp
in Findley's tent at the Caves. Since it was now clearly a rescue,
the two had decided to continue to the Lower Saddle as backup
support, though by this time it was almost 11 p.m.
Because of the severity of the conditions the four stayed
together, helping each other up through the Eye of the Needle, fixing
a line across the exposed rock face. They reached the Wall Street
Couloir and began to descend, hollering and shining their lights.
They couldn't find anything and immediately radioed Carr and Gagner
to spot lights for them. Carr could see little except the four
rangers' headlamps. However, there was one feeble glow.
Moving cautiously down the couloir the rescuers could see or hear
nothing. Finally Harrington and Jackson stood side by side and on the
count of three screamed, ''Hello!'' down the gully. A voice came back
from below. The rangers fixed another line and rappelled down the
snowy rock slope, and found Johnson lying in the snow. Larson gave
the man his down parka, and they packed him into a sleeping bag.
Jackson followed the ropes that Findley had run through Johnson's
rappel gear, shone his light 150 feet down the cliff and saw Findley,
wrapped in frozen rope and weakly anchored, trying to set up an
anchor from which to rappel again. Jackson rappelled to Findley and
took over. The rangers belayed Findley up to Johnson and put him in a
sleeping bag. Findley was conscious and coherent.
There was no place level enough to set up the tent, so Findley and
Johnson were placed side by side in their bags, while a ranger lay
on the outside of each and the third bag was used to cover all of
them. It took nearly an hour to light the stove and keep it going in
the wind, but finally hot drinks were brewed and served all around.
Johnson was suffering from hypothermia and would spend four days
in a hospital in Jackson Hole with third-degree frostbite on his
fingers and toes. Findley would spend a month in the hospital. He
would lose all of the toes on his right foot and one on his left.
From the information Findley gave about the locations of the other
climbers, the rangers radioed down a report: ''Two survivors. Three
It was 3 a.m. at the 12,300-foot level of Grand Teton on Friday,
Sept. 13, 1985.
Rangers Larson, Woodmencey, Jackson and Harrington received the
Department of the Interior's prestigious Medal of Valor Award in
September of this year. It was presented to them in Washington by
Secretary of the Interior Donald P. Hodel.
Findley said later, ''I know it's their job. But they care.'' And
Johnson says of his rescuers, ''It takes somebody extraordinary to
want to head up a mountain at night in a storm to rescue a
''This is a tight crew,'' Armington says. ''There is a degree of
professional and personal sharing which I have rarely seen. It's
outright friendship. And they are dedicated to the backcountry.'' He
smiles. ''I love these guys. There isn't one of them that is even
''Were their lives in danger? No. We never risk a rescuer. It's
like Renny said to the papers, the rescue was more a discounting of
personal comfort than any risk of personal safety. These guys have
judgment, skill, experience and a strong desire not to die.'' END