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Struck by Lightning on Grand Teton: Behind the Rescue

Jerry Beilinson
National Geographic Adventure
September 17, 2003
 
In Grand Teton National Park, July 26 dawned cool, with temperatures in
the 50s, but as the day progressed, the heat built. By noon it was
73° Fahrenheit (23° Celsius) at low elevations, and warm air
was rising past the Jenny Lake Ranger Station, past the Grand Teton's
Lower Saddle, at 11,600 feet (3,500 meters), and past 13 climbers making
their way up the mountain's popular Exum Ridge Route. The warm, moist
Wyoming air ascending from the valley collided with cooler currents
flowing in from the southwest. As happens on many summer afternoons in
the Tetons, a storm cell developed. A massive electrical charge began to
build. Shortly after 3:30 p.m., the energy was released in a colossal
lightning strike.

The bolt hit Exum Ridge as the climbers were scaling the Friction Pitch, a 120-foot (37-meter) section of smooth granite near the top of the peak. Moments later, at 3:45 p.m., the local 911 dispatcher received a cell phone call from a frantic climber who said he was at 13,000 feet (3,960 meters). The lightning had struck his party, killing at least one person and injuring half a dozen more.


Within a minute, the call was transferred to the headquarters of the park's search and rescue team, one of the most experienced SAR squads in the country. The ensuing recovery, involving two high-altitude helicopters and close to 50 rescuers, would be the most complex operation the rangers had ever attempted. The climbers, high on Exum Ridge, were mainly work buddies from the IT department of an alternative health care company in Idaho Falls, Idaho, along with various spouses, parents, and siblings. The 13 had broken up into four rope teams, distributing the most experienced climbers among them. While professionally guided groups usually leave the peak's Lower Saddle for the summit by 4 a.m. to avoid the frequent afternoon storms, the Idaho Falls climbers got off to a relatively late start at 8 a.m. The Exum Ridge on the 13,770-foot (4,197-meter) peak is one of America's most famous—and crowded—alpine rock climbs, and the group often had to wait as other parties ascended ahead of them. They reached the Friction Pitch, the 5.5-rated crux of the climb, by early afternoon. But by then rain was blowing in, and the leaders decided to skip the summit. The quickest way to retreat from that spot is to ascend to the top of Friction Pitch, then scramble and traverse to a fixed rappel anchor on the Owen-Spalding Route to the west.

By the time the lightning struck, the group's first rope team had already climbed the Friction Pitch and begun to rappel. The second team, including Rob and Sherika Thomas, was also past the crux pitch and was headed toward the rappel point. "I noticed an odd hum and asked my wife down below me if she'd heard it," Rob recalls. Before she could answer, the bolt pounded through Rob's feet and hands, making every muscle convulse and propelling him back down the slope.

Behind the Thomases, Clinton and Erica Summers, a young married couple with two children, were sitting on a ledge at the top of the Friction Pitch. Clinton, who was belaying a climber below, was briefly knocked unconscious by the shock. The lightning blasted Rod Liberal, the third member of their rope team, off the granite and out into space, where he hung in his harness, belly to the sky. Below Liberal, the final team of three cartwheeled 60 feet (18 meters) down the mountain, until their rope snagged in the rocks.

Rob and Sherika Thomas recovered quickly, and Rob hurried back down to the ledge to check on their friends. There, a seemingly uninjured Erica Summers sat leaning against her husband—who was inexplicably screaming. "I slid in next to Erica, and Clinton let go of her, and she just fell across my lap," says Rob Thomas. "The right side of her face and body were burned horrifically." He and Clinton began administering CPR.

Within minutes of the lightning strike, climbing rangers were converging on the SAR team's rescue operations base in Lupine Meadows, seven miles (eleven kilometers) from the Grand Teton. One of the two Bell 206-L4 helicopters available to the team was engaged in the Wind River Range, while the second was working a small fire south of the nearby town of Jackson. Both dipped their rotors toward the horizon and sped to Lupine Meadows.

The first helicopter to arrive, nicknamed Two-Lima-Mike for its call letters, whisked rangers Leo Larson and Dan Burgette toward Exum Ridge for a fly-by assessment. It was now 45 minutes since the 911 call. The men spotted the semiconscious Rod Liberal suspended from the rope, then landed 1,400 feet (430 meters) below at the Lower Saddle, where the team maintains a rudimentary helipad. This was to become a second staging area for the rescue. From there, Two-Lima-Mike would insert rangers directly onto the scene, then transfer the wounded to the second helicopter, which would shuttle them to Lupine Meadows.

Both Larson and Burgette have been on the team since it started using helicopters in 1985. Early on, Teton rangers practiced rappelling from the open door of the aircraft, but now they prefer a technique known as short-hauling, in which a ranger is flown to an accident scene hanging by a 100-foot-long (30-meter-long), 11-millimeter (0.4-inch) static line. The method, which is also used to extract casualties, minimizes a helicopter's hover time in the thin air but exposes the rescuer to considerable risk.

Once the men and supplies had been ferried to the Lower Saddle, Larson got ready to be short-hauled to the top of the Friction Pitch. Ranger Renny Jackson sat in the doorless helicopter as his teammate dangled far below. "The winds were pretty strong as we circled to gain elevation," Jackson says. "A cloud seemed to be forming on the west side of the mountain and wrapping its way over the Exum Ridge." With the landing area obscured, the attempt was aborted. If the weather continued to deteriorate, the short-haul option would have to be abandoned. Two rangers, each carrying 40 pounds (18 kilograms) of rescue gear, were dispatched to start the long climb to the victims.

Then, quickly, the weather cleared. Within minutes, Two-Lima-Mike was airborne again, and Larson became the first rescuer inserted, onto the scene. It was 6:09 p.m. The lightning had struck two and a half hours before. Nightfall was less than three hours away.

Up on the mountain, Rob Thomas huddled with Clinton Summers, trying to keep his injured friend from slipping into hypothermia. Twice Thomas had seen a helicopter hover nearby then apparently give up and fly away. "That was extremely tough to watch," he says. "We were told they were bringing in sleeping bags for us to spend the night."

By the time Larson finally reached the group, Clinton had told his friends to cease CPR on his wife. Larson quickly confirmed Erica Summers's death, then turned his attention to Rod Liberal, who was hanging motionless in his harness. "I thought the ranger was going to decide that he was too far gone to save," recalls Thomas. "We just screamed and screamed at Rod. Finally he moved his head and moaned." Two-Lima-Mike continued placing rangers onto the rock, now two at a time. By 6:30 p.m. the last of six rescuers had been inserted.

One of the climbers who had already rappelled off the upper mountain had climbed back up to assist his friends. He was instructed to lead the mobile survivors to the Lower Saddle. An emergency medical technician rappelled to Liberal. And the rangers got Clinton Summers—whose left leg was covered in second-degree burns—into an evacuation suit, essentially a supportive harness. He was whisked off the mountain at 7:24 p.m.

To reach the lowest group of climbers, the team whose rope had snagged in the rocks, Dan Burgette had rappelled 200 feet (60 meters) down the ridge, arriving at nearly the same instant as the rangers climbing up from the Lower Saddle. In their tumbling fall, the three victims had suffered broken bones, lacerations, and head injuries. One of the men was briefly blinded and made deaf by the electrical charge, and his limbs were temporarily paralyzed. The casualties were flown off the mountain one by one.

Finally, only Liberal remained to be evacuated. Rangers had worked for two hours to transfer him to a litter. Now barely responsive, he seemed unlikely to survive a frigid night at 13,000 feet (3,960 meters)—yet daylight was fading and, with it, the hope of short-hauling him to safety. Larson and the other rangers slowly hoisted him up the cliff. From there, Liberal was flown directly to an air ambulance waiting at Lupine Meadows to transport him to a hospital in Idaho Falls. The time was 8:57 p.m., and darkness was coming on fast; pilot Laurence Perry had given the rescuers a cutoff time of 9:23 p.m. All of the victims had been evacuated save one. The body of Erica Summers was flown off the mountain at 9:08.

All that was left for the rangers to do was to break down their anchor systems in the fading light, then descend by headlamp. Waiting their turns to rappel through the cold night air, scrambling past the familiar landmarks of their mountain, the men alternated between silence, chatter, and the occasional whoop of triumph. They arrived at the Lower Saddle at midnight and tried to sleep.

A total of 13 people had been flown on and off the upper reaches of the mountain in the span of three hours. The rangers had proved just how good the search and rescue safety net can get when a highly competent, well-supported staff stands by waiting to save lives. Unfortunately, as crowding increases in America's iconic landscapes, such emergencies inevitably become more common. The rangers worry that successful missions like this one may encourage climbers and hikers to take unnecessary risks. "I wonder sometimes how much we play into people's calculations," says Dan Burgette.

Even this perfectly executed mission is partly a testament to good luck. Saturday, July 26, would have turned out very differently if the cloud cover had thickened or a second storm cell spotted to the west had moved in. Instead of being airlifted to safety, Rod Liberal would have spent the night in open air—and likely died. The rest of the injured would have overnighted in the subfreezing temperatures, too; it's not clear that they would have survived. Throughout most recreational areas in the United States, there is no helicopter waiting to swoop in at a moment's notice, and, as recent accidents on the Northwest's Mount Hood and Mount Rainier and in California's Yosemite Valley have shown, such rescues are highly risky.

At press time, the survivors were gradually recovering. Clinton Summers had attended his wife's funeral in a wheelchair and was undergoing painful treatments to remove damaged skin. Other climbers had suffered broken bones, facial injuries, and charred skin with small holes where the current entered and left their bodies. Liberal was the most severely injured. Flown to a burn unit in Salt Lake City, he required dialysis as a result of damaged internal tissues and contracted pneumonia within a week. Yet he, too, seemed likely to recover. The climbers already plan to return to Exum Ridge. If they receive permission from the Park Service, they'll afix a permanent tribute to Erica Summers.
 

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