Podcast Episodes

A Rescue in the Grand Tetons

Mountain climbing is surely one of the most dangerous of the extreme sports. It’s a trial of wills that takes a clear head, teamwork, and unflappable trust in your climbing partners. The challenge is magnified ten-fold when the climb is a rescue operation. On this Episode of America’s National Parks, a harrowing rescue of a climber at Grand Teton National Park.

August 21st, 1967. While climbing the 12,800 ft Mount Owen, two men heard an alarming distant call for help from the neighboring Grand Teton peak.

The men hurried their descent, and rushed to the Ranger’s cabin at Jenny Lake and knocked on the door.

It was one in the morning, and a lanky blonde boy answered. The men asked him if his ranger father was home. The boy informed them that he was the ranger — 22-year-old Ralph Tingey.

Tingey rushed to a scenic turnout with a line of sight to the north face of the mountain. He flashed his headlights in an S.O.S. — three short, three long, three short.

Faintly from high on the mountain, he saw a flashlight respond in kind.

Tingey informed other rangers and all agreed that nothing could be done until the morning. The stranded figures would be on their own for the night.

At the first light of dawn, Tingey returned to the pullout with a spotting scope. As the light increased, he spotted one climber walking around to keep warm and another in a sleeping bag, presumably injured and unable to walk.


In the 60s, climbing was in its infancy. Gear was hard to come by – much of it imported from Europe. There were no cell phones. There was no GPS. There weren’t as many established climbing routes. In fact, a rescue had never been attempted on the north face of Grand.

Lorraine Hough and Gaylord Campbell had nearly completed their climb the day before when their terrifying situation took hold. Campbell had taken the lead while Hough belayed 20 feet below him. Large rocks broke loose, striking him on the leg, and sending him tumbling below.

Hough rushed to tend to his injuries and made a make-shift splint with an ice pick and put him into a sleeping bag while she began to cry for help. She knew they would never make it down on their own.

Hours went by, and as night set in, lightning loomed in the distance. She began to click her flashlight in an S.O.S. She never saw Tingey’s headlights. He had just caught a glimpse of her signal, which she was sending less and less frequently as the batteries began to die out.


A helicopter had been called in, but it took most of the day to get there. When it finally arrived, the pilot flew rangers Rick Reese and Pete Sinclair up past the ledge, where Hough was waving frantically. By chance, Leigh Ortenburger, the world’s leading authority on climbing the Grand Tetons and author of a definitive guidebook, happened to be on the summit with Bob Irvine. Hearing cries for help, they looked down and spotted the stranded climbers. They were trying to figure out a way to notify rangers when the helicopter zoomed by.

Climbing rangers Sinclair, Reese, Irvine and Tingey, park employees Ted Wilson and Mike Ermarth, along with Ortenburger made up the rescue team. Tingey, Reese, Irvine and Wilson had grown up as young climbers together in Salt Lake City. They knew each other’s shorthand, having established some of the climbing routes together still in use today. The whole team was a group of some of the most experienced climbers in the US, but they were about to attempt something that many thought impossible.

Sent ahead to reach the injured climber, Reese used an inflatable splint to immobilize the leg. Had Campbell been suffering just a broken arm, they might have put him in a backpack-style carrier to evacuate him, but the badly broken leg presented the risk of a severed artery if it were jostled around. Reese radioed to the team that they’d need to remove him by basket.

An evacuation decision had to be made — whether to haul Campbell 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 Campbell might not survive it.

The North Face of Grand is tough and foreboding. In fact, no one had ever been up or down it. But the team decided their best option was to head straight down the North Face.  

First, they got Hough to safety, then radioed for more rope, a bolt kit and morphine. It was getting dark, and the supplies would have to wait until morning.

Wilson kept Campbell company throughout the night. They spoke of trips each had taken to Europe, routes they had climbed and climbers they knew.


At dawn, the helicopter delivered the rope and bolt kit and, hovering near the ledge, tossed a box of morphine to Ortenburger, who caught it.

The team set up a Austrian cable rig – just a quarter-inch-thick cable that would need to hold 500 pounds – Campbell, the litter that carried him, and a climber to keep it horizontal as they descended together, a few inches at a time.

Campbell was secured in the litter and a helmet was placed over his face to protect him from falling rocks. Numerous holes had to be hand-drilled more than four inches into the rock for security bolts to hold the winch, and a second system of belay ropes was set up as a safety backup.

They had 300 feet of cable, but weren’t sure if it was enough. Ortenburger and Irvine dropped rocks down the face and timed their fall, using the gravity velocity formula to calculate distance.

The math looked good, so Ortenburger went down first on a 300-foot rope. When he reached a large ledge big enough for everyone to stand, he yelled up, “It’ll reach.”

The rest went down, and they hauled Campbell down the ledge inch by inch as the steel cable jerked and made sounds as though it wanted to snap.

When everyone reached the ledge safely, they debated what to do next, and decided to go straight down again. They lowered Ortenburger down the 300-foot rope, which barely reached, and then they set up the rig again and tediously brought Campbell down again litter.

The rest of the climbers had to rappel down on a single strand of rope, across a knot joining two 150-foot ropes. They all made it, and prepared for a cold, hungry night on another ledge. There wasn’t enough room for them all to stay in the area, so they split up for Cambell’s third night on the mountain.

The team traveled 1,100 feet the first full day of the rescue, but were still a formidable 900 feet from their goal.


On the third day, they party reached Teton Glacier, where another team met them and all worked for hours to get the litter to a spot where a helicopter could finally pick it up at a level landing pad they had carved out of snow.

After a 20-minute helicopter ride, Campbell was in St. John’s Hospital in Jackson, where he recovered quickly.

When the helicopter brought the rescuers back down to the Jenny Lake cabin, they found the superintendent had left them a case of beer on ice.

None of the rescuers ever heard from Campbell again, until a 2016 documentary in which Campbell criticized the rescue, saying they should have carried him out backpack style, getting him to a hospital on the first day.

“The Impossible Rescue” made national headlines, and Vice President Hubert Humphrey wrote the rescuers a letter praising their courage. Stewart Udall, the Interior secretary, had the rangers flown to Washington, D.C. to receive gold medals for valor.

Several of the rescuers went on to become professors, Wilson would be elected mayor of Salt Lake City, and the lanky Ralph Tingey later became the superintendent of Grand Teton National Park. Looking back, he says there are still times he wakes in the middle of the night clutching his pillow over how dangerous the rescue was over forty years ago.


Few landscapes in the world are as striking as that of Grand Teton National Park. Rising above pristine lakes teeming with wildlife, the Grand Tetons offer over two hundred miles of trails, a float down the Snake River, magnificent vistas, wildflowers, forests, and, of course, mountain climbing. The park also has a rich cultural history with old homesteads and cattle ranches to explore and photograph.

The park is open 24-hours a day, year-round. Most roads, facilities and services are all open or available during the summer, but may be closed at other times of the year.

Six campgrounds operate within the park and parkway during the summer. Most are available on a first-come, first-served basis, although reservations can be made for group camping, the Colter Bay RV Park and the Headwaters Campground and RV Sites at Flagg Ranch. Lodges and cabins are also available, along with restaurants and stores for provisions.

The park experiences long, cold winters, and snow and frost are possible any month.


Connect & Subscribe

You can find America’s National Parks Podcast on FacebookInstagram and Twitter, and make sure to subscribe on Apple or wherever you get your podcasts, so you’ll never miss an episode.

Join the America’s National Parks Facebook Group here.


Music

Music for this week’s episode is provided through the generosity of the artists under a creative commons license.


Podcast Episodes

An Impossible Climb

In July of 1982, 5 men set out to conquer the highest peak in Texas, Guadalupe Peak at Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Every day, many people take the 8.5-mile trip that summits the 8,749′ peak, but this party was different—they were all in wheelchairs. For the next 5 days, they climbed their way to the top, building ramps from rocks and crawling up slopes, dragging their wheelchairs behind them. 


Listen

Listen in the player below, or on any podcast app. 


Connect & Subscribe

You can find America’s National Parks Podcast on FacebookInstagram and Twitter, and make sure to subscribe on Apple or wherever you get your podcasts, so you’ll never miss an episode.

Join the America’s National Parks Facebook Group here.


Learn More

Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode.

Three paraplegic climbers whooped and hollered and doused themselves…: Newspaper Article

Guadalupe Mountains Administrative History – NPS Publication


Transcript

Guadalupe Mountains National Park in far West Texas is a wild, withdrawn place. Set near the middle of nowhere, 100 miles from El Paso, it’s often forgotten.

There are no roads leading into the park, no gas stations, motels, or walmarts nearby…nothing. Visitation to the park broke the 200,000 mark for the first time last year, placing it consistently on the list of the 10 least visited parks. That’s all fine with me, as it’s one of my favorite places to escape from the toils of day-to-day life. There are no tour buses, traffic jams, packed trails. It’s a place for solitude and reflection.

Wallace Pratt, an Oil geologist, donated over 5000 acres of his McKittrick Canyon ranch to the U.S. government with the stipulation that the canyon remain as wild as possible. The park opened in 1972, and has endured nearly undeveloped since. McKittrick Canyon is open to visitors only during the day. A small campground has no services. There’s not even a shower in the park, for dozens of miles any direction.

But the last thing that it is is a barren wasteland. The park is comprised of the front wedge of an uplifted range created by an underwater limestone reef 250 million years ago. Six peaks over 8000 feet rise from the desert floor, including the flat-faced crown of El Capitan, not nearly as famous as it’s same-named sister at Yosemite, but an important signpost for centuries of travelers.

The park is home to stunning canyons, hiding away microclimates that birth woodlands where they have no right to be. Even deciduous trees defy the desert here, displaying their bright warm colors every fall. Wind gusts can exceed 120 miles per hour, and the temperature can make drastic swings at the drop of a hat.

And the park is home to Texas’ tallest mountain, the namesake Guadalupe Peak. At 8,749 feet above sea level it doesn’t stack up well to mountains further north and west, but it is higher than anything east of it, and it rises a mile above the surrounding terrain.

The hike up Guadalupe Peak is a strenuous 8 ½ mile round trip with a 3,000
foot elevation gain. It takes most people 6 to 8 hours to complete the round trip hike. The steepest part of the hike is the first mile and a half, as the trail switchbacks up. Then, it passes a cliff and turns around to the
north-facing slope. Here, hikers will pass through a small forest of pinion pine, white pine, and douglas fir. The shade of the mountain protects the vegetation from the harsh sunlight, allowing the pines to survive.

After nearly three miles the trail tops out at a false summit, one mile short of the actual one. It flattens out for a short distance as it passes through a sparse forest of ponderosa pine, which hosts a back backcountry campsite.
From here, the trail descends slightly and crosses a wooden bridge before beginning a final ascent to the summit. The angle of the slope is now very steep. 35 to 45 degrees.

The top of El Capitan rises in the view to the south as you near the summit, which is marked with a small monument commemorating overland stage and air travel. On a clear day you will be rewarded with a majestic panorama of the encircling mountains and desert.

One year, Guadalupe Peak was host to a special climb, one that took 5 days instead of the standard 6-8 hours.

Here’s Abigail Trabue.


In July of 1982, six men set out to reach the summit of Guadalupe Peak at Guadalupe Mountains National park. The trail is a challenge for most hikers, but for this group, it would be a monumental climb. The hikers were all members of a Dallas-based organization known as POINT — Paraplegics on Independent Nature Trails, and they would climb the tallest peak in Texas in wheelchairs. Jack Grimm concocted the idea only a week before it happened, as a part of a fund drive for the West Texas Rehabilitation Center in Abilene.

The hikers would use specially constructed, lightweight wheelchairs outfitted with inflatable tires with deep tread, and no brakes. Park rangers were notified, and expressed deep concern. On a windy day, it’s a challenge for anyone to fight the gusts up the trail, and along with an advance scout for the group who examined the route, they laid out a host of reasons that it shouldn’t be done. For one, the journey would take 5 days, and carrying enough water for that length of a trip was impractical. There are no suitable places along the trail for overnight camping until near the summit. And it was July, when severe electrical storms regularly occur in the high country. Finally, the 15- to 30-percent grades seemed impossible for a wheelchair, and park personnel recommended a less challenging route to a different destination. But that wouldn’t have been the highest peak in Texas. The men refused.

Illness reduced the originally planned group of six men to five: Michael Powers, Robert Leyes, Donny Rodgers, Joe Moss, and Dave Kiley. They set out along the rocky path from the Visitor Center on a Monday morning. They weren’t new to hiking by any means, in fact they were very good at it. Part of the reason for the 5-day time period was that the hikers would have to constantly arrange rocks into rudimentary ramps to pass obstructions.

On the first day, Mike Powers began to experience muscle spasms, and was forced to abandon the climb. By the third day Robert Leyes had to turn back due to physical difficulties. The remaining three systematically proceeded up the mountain. The two “grounded” climbers stayed in radio contact with their comrades, offering moral support until the last day of the climb, when the trail took the climbers behind a ridge that blocked radio reception.

The news media began to report about the group’s impossible journey. Park personnel checked in with the climbers regularly to obtain information for progress reports to relay to reporters. Park Ranger Jon Jarvis joined the group for the last two days of the journey, accompanying them for the final mile. The men had hoped to end their climb shortly after midday on Friday, but were hindered by intense temperatures nearing 100 degrees. The last few hundred yards were a near-impossible stretch of steep grades and loose boulders. The men had to exit their wheelchairs and push or drag them as they crawled to the summit.

It had been feared that a sore hip might keep Dave Kiley from making the final ascent. But he persevered, and the three men reached the top at 7:21 p.m. the evening of July 16. Officials watching through a telescope said the climbers waited and then touched the monument that marks the summit together in front of a magnificent sunset. They doused themselves with champagne, and, now in range again, Keiley called down on the radio: “If you’ve ever done anything unimaginable, this is twice that.”

The men spent the night of July 16 on the peak and were lifted off the following morning by three U.S. Army helicopters from Fort Bliss. For safety reasons, the climbers did not try to make the descent in their wheelchairs. Later that day they were honored guests at a press conference and public reception at the Civic Center in Carlsbad, where they recieved a congratulatory phone call from the governors of New Mexico and Texas, as well as President Ronald Reagan.

‘It took me five days to get to the top of the mountain,’ Rodgers said. ‘Now I can do anything I want for the rest of my life.’ Moss, a double amputee, said, ‘It’s been 13 years since I’ve worked with a team like this, and if everybody would work together like this, the world would be a better place.’


Guadalupe National Park receives only a third of the visitors that Carlsbad Caverns receives, only 40 miles away in New Mexico. It’s easier to get to from New Mexico than from Texas. As I mentioned before, there are no services near the park, nor roads leading in – and not a bar of cell service to be found. This is a hiker’s park, but there’s still plenty to see if you can only walk short nature trails. There’s a primitive campground that can accommodate small tents in secluded sites amongst thick thornbushes. The $8 a night RV campground is little more than a parking lot. And the trail into the stunning McKitrich Canyon is only open until 5pm daily. Hikers heading to summits should be prepared for heavy winds – hiking poles are a must.

This episode of America’s National Parks was hosted by me, Jason Epperson, and narrated by Abigail Trabue. If you enjoyed the show, we’d love a 5-star review wherever you listen to podcasts. Don’t forget to subscribe, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Just search “National Park Podcast.” You can also join our new America’s National Parks Facebook group. We’ll link to all of our social media, as well as National Park Service resources, music credits, and more in the show notes at National Park Podcast dot com.

If you are interested in RV travel, give us a listen over at the RV Miles Podcast. You can also follow Abigail and I as we travel the country in our converted school bus with our three boys at Our Wandering Family dot com.

Today’s show was sponsored by L.L.Bean, follow the hashtag #BeanOutsider, and visit LLBean.com to find great gear for exploring the National Parks.


Music

Provided through the generosity of the artists under a creative commons license.

Scroll Up