Struck by Lightning on Grand Teton: Behind the Rescue

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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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