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Off Route—Unfamiliar with Descent, Weather, Wyoming, Grand Teton National Park, Grand Teton

OFF ROUTE–UNFAMILIAR WITH DESCENT, WEATHER

Wyoming, Grand Teton National Park, Grand Teton

On June 11 around 0100, Swis Stockton and Michael Feldman left the Lupine Meadows trailhead with the intention of climbing the Exum Ridge on the Grand Teton in a one-day effort in an attempt to beat a predicted storm. They had just arrived in Jackson Hole from the east coast and left at 0100 after an hour’s sleep. They moved slower than expected and discussed turning around at the Lower Saddle and again at Wallstreet—but didn’t. They started their descent of the Owen-Spalding Route from the top of the Open Book pitch in the last of the daylight. As they began the rappels, a severe storm engulfed them. With high winds, blowing snow, and limited visibility, at 0100 hours they decided to bivouac for the night in snow caves in the Wall Street Gully. They started moving at 0500 and assumed they were not on the standard descent. They went back to the Upper Saddle and started following cairns until they became cliffed-out. They went back to the Upper Saddle to get reoriented and started down the Idaho Express gully. They reached a drop-off with a rappel station and realized that they were disoriented. They started to climb back to the Upper Saddle, the last point on the mountain they were sure of. If they couldn’t find the right descent route, they intended to start rappelling.

Stockton and Feldman had left gear in their cabin at the AAC Climbers Ranch. This was reported to Grand Teton National Park by another person who was lodging there on the morning of June 12. The weather was deteriorating, with a low cloud cover. The park contract helicopter was able to fly seven park rangers to the Lower Saddle on the Grand Teton before conditions worsened. Six of the rangers began a search of the Owen-Spalding route. At 1409, Rangers McConnell and Jackson made contact with Stockton and Feldman as they climbed toward the Upper Saddle. They were in good condition. Stockton and Feldman were assisted to the Lower Saddle, where their condition was assessed. They were able to descend to the valley by themselves. The rescue team also descended, reaching the trailhead at about 2000.

Analysis

Stockton and Feldman felt they were in control of their situation. They had heard the helicopter, but they didn’t think it was associated with them. They didn’t want to follow the rangers because they had already gone down that way, and it didn’t work. This party had good gear and extra food. They didn’t feel there was any reason to get excited over their late return.

It’s important to realize that when a party doesn’t return when there is severe weather in the mountains, people worry about the party’s safety. When the rescue team is called, we are obligated to investigate. In this case, a call to the Exum guides on the Lower Saddle said that the mountain was in bad condition, and they had to turn back that morning. Past parties caught out in storms with snow and high winds have shown us that there is cause for concern. That is the reason that we accepted the costs and risks of flying to the Lower Saddle and searching in marginal conditions. Sometimes conditions in the mountains are the reason we should do a rock climb down low. Sometimes it’s our physical limitations due to lack of acclimatization or our need for rest that should cause us to choose less-ambitious goals. Setting out on a major undertaking like a day climb of the Grand Teton when not at the top of your game, especially knowing that a storm cycle is predicted, should result in being more conservative. When the party is not progressing as rapidly as anticipated, there is good cause to lower the goals or turn around. (Source: Dan Burgette, SAR Ranger, Grand Teton National Park)