Heroism is just a newspaper word. What we have in our rangers is an advanced state of professionalism.
Supervisory Park Ranger
Jenny Lake Subdistrict
Grand Teton National Park
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 1981 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.
December 15, 1986
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. New-comb 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 the day.
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 parties.
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 Webb.
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 12,000 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 150 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 descending.
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 to 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 mountain.
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 Street Couloir.
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.
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 bodies.
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 some light."
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 back."
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 bag packed."
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 10-100s."
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 stranger."
"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 average.
"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."
Route taken by Findley & Johnson Parties
Route taken by Rangers
Wall Street Couloir
Eye of the Needle
Ron Carlson is a fisherman and writer whose third book will be published in January.