American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Wyoming, Tetons, Grand Teton

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1963

Wyoming, Tetons, Grand Teton. On July 26 at 4:00 A.M. a party of ten Appalachian Mountain Club members began an ascent of the Grand Teton via what was supposed to be the Petzoldt-Loomis route. The party included Ellis Blade (leader), Mary Blade, Stephen Smith (21 — assistant leader), Griffith and Lydia June, John Fenniman, Charles Kellogg (22), Charles Joyce, Lester Germer (65), and Janet Buckingham. The age range of the group was 18 to 65.

The progress of the party was very slow from the start, and it did not reach the top of Teepe’s Glacier until noon, which normally is a three to four hour climb from their base camp. During this part of the climb, Janet Buckingham slipped shortly after starting up the Glacier but was held by a belay. Kellogg and Joyce were hit by some large snow blocks while eating lunch on a rock outcropping near the top of the Glacier; they were not seriously injured, but an ice axe and a pair of crampons were lost. The party moved up to the moat at the top of the Glacier where they weathered an electrical storm accompanied with some rain and snow.

The party’s progress up the couloir was even slower than before, and they encountered continual waterfall and frequent rock fall in the ascent of the couloir. Kelloggs pack was hit by falling rock that drove the points of his crampons into his back causing him a considerable amount of pain; and on at least one occasion, members of the party felt shocks from nearby lightning. By nightfall the party reached two small, sloping ledges about halfway up the couloir. Blade made an exploratory climb up the couloir to a point about one rope length above the rest. In this position the party spent the night.

The next morning (Friday, the 27th) after several attempts, Blade brought the party up to his position. This operation took most of the morning. During this operation, Griffith June fell and pendulumed back to the ledge, but was not seriously injured. Blade then led another pitch and set up a fixed rope to bring the rest of the party up. During this climb Germer began to weaken physically, and after the remainder of the party was brought up to this position, it was determined that because of Germer’s condition, a three man party should attempt to get out to get help. Blade asked Smith and Joyce to go with him in an attempt to find a route off the peak to get help for the party. The route Blade chose was up the Otter Body snowfield with the idea of reaching either the

Exum Ridge or the Owen Route for an easier descent. The main part of the group was to remain where they were until help came.

Blade, Smith, and Joyce crossed the Otter Body snowfield and started up the rock face above the snowfield. As Blade was leading a pitch, he slipped and fell about 40 feet but was uninjured. This group was benighted at this position.

The next morning (Saturday, the 28th) Smith was in a weakened condition from exposure and hunger. When Blade attempted to get him moving, there was little response. Blade started exploring the route in an attempt to get the party moving. After some time, Joyce called Blade to tell him he thought Smith had died. Blade came back to Smith’s position and applied mouth to mouth artificial respiration, but there was no response. Blade and Joyce tied Smith to the rocks and made another attempt to climb the upper snowfields, but found their progress too difficult. They began to retrace their steps to join the rest of the party.

Rescue Operations: About 8:00 A.M. on July 27 it was reported to the Jenny Lake Ranger Station that a party of ten climbers from the AMC had not returned from a climb on the Grand. At this time, it was the general thought that the party had probably been weathered in by the storm that hit about noon on the 26th and would be making their descent this morning when the storm showed no indication of letting up. Because of the weather conditions and the fact that the party was not equipped for bad weather, one man was sent to the AMC high camp with a radio to intercept any word from the overdue party in an effort to speed up any assistance that might be needed to bring the party down.

At 3:00 P.M. word was received that a party of three had been spotted on the Otter Body snowfield and that they appeared to be uninjured but were not able to move from their position. With another climber the ranger left the high camp to investigate the party seen on the Otter Body. At 4:45 P.M. near the top of Teepe’s Glacier the rescue party encountered poor visibility and extremely wet and cold conditions; however, they continued on with their attempt to contact the missing party. About 8:00 P.M. they had to retreat because of the severe weather conditions. At this point they could hear shouts from the party but could not tell what they were saying.

At 7:00 P.M. on the 27th a full scale rescue unit was moved to a base camp in Garnet Canyon in preparation for an all out search of the area in the vicinity of Teepe’s Glacier and the Otter Body snowfield. At 4:00 A.M. on the 28th, the rescue team left base camp and proceeded to Teepe’s Glacier; from there they began searching the various possible routes the party might have taken. At 10:00 A.M. the rescue party heard shouts from above that indicated the party was directly up the couloir and that seven members of the party were together there, and three members were somewhere above them. With this information, the rescue team sent a two-man party up a couloir that had considerable rock and water fall coming down it, as this appeared to be the route the above party had taken. When it was definitely established that the party could be reached from below another rescue party was called for to bring up the necessary rescue equipment and food supplies to complete the evacuation.

At about 1:00 P.M. the two-man rescue team reached the stranded party. The party had literally given up hope and all were suffering from exposure and hunger and were in an extremely weakened condition. With a considerable amount of effort the two rescue men were able to get all seven members of the party on their feet and moving. In order to keep up the hopes of the members of the party, a fixed rope was set up, and the evacuation was started. Because of the large amount of loose rock in the couloir that was being knocked down as the evacuation started, it was impossible to get any additional manpower up to assist in the evacuation. For nearly seven hours the two rescue men worked in setting up fixed ropes and belays to get the members of the stranded party to a point where additional help could come up from below. During this time Blade and Joyce joined the group. As soon as the other members of the rescue team could, they relieved the two that had worked so long without rest. The evacuation continued throughout the night of the 28th and well into the morning of the 29th before all nine members of the party were on safe ground. From the Garnet Canyon meadows two of the more critically injured members were evacuated by helicopter to the hospital in Jackson.

Source: F. Douglas McLaren, District Ranger.

Analysis: The party did not register for this climb at the Jenny Lake Ranger Station. Had any contact been made with the registration station, an alternate route would have been recommended for several reasons: (1) the use of this route is not advisable during early season or years when there is considerable snow, as the amounts of rock fall increase at these times, and the couloir has large amounts of waterfall that cannot be avoided; (2) the size of the party was too large to make the necessary progress for a climb to be completed in one day; (3) more than half of the route is across snowfields, and the majority of the party had little or no snow and ice experience; and (4) the fact that only the leaders of the party had time to become acclimatized to take on the physical hardship that must be endured on this route.

It cannot be understood why Mr. Blade did not turn back at the top of Teepe’s Glacier when the storm first hit, and the party was progressing so slowly. According to his time schedule, the party had spent more time just to get to the top of the Glacier than he had allotted for the entire ascent. In Blade’s own words he said that he decided to continue the ascent because of the lack of snow and ice experience; however, if he had studied the route beforehand, he would have been able to see that the amount of snow climbing above him was almost twice what the party had encountered on Teepe’s Glacier. It is thought that Blade’s qualifications as a leader for a climb of this magnitude were not sufficient to cope with all the unforeseen problems that are involved in this type of climbing. Had Blade been a competent leader, he would have considered the wishes of the party when several of them suggested turning back at the top of the Glacier rather than continuing the ascent in face of the oncoming storm. Nearly all storms in the Tetons leave the rock either ice-covered or wet and change most grade 3 climbs to grade 5 or 6 and also increase the amount of rockfall.

Additional Comment (editor): The difficulties associated with this route do not make it attractive. Dr. J. Gordon Edwards tried to locate this route in 1961 and in the process found another easier route, that will be described in the new edition of Ortenberger’s guide. The Otter Body route has been closed by the park for at least a year in memory of Smith.

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