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Falling Rock, Wyoming, Grand Teton National Park, Grand Teton

FALLING ROCK

Wyoming, Grand Teton National Park, Grand Teton

Around 1900 on July 15, 2002, Teton County Sheriff’s Office (TCSO) received a 911 call from Richard Whipple reporting a climbing accident on the North Face of the Grand Teton. The TCSO transferred the call to Teton dispatch, who in turn transferred the call to me. Whipple told me that he was on the North Face about 100 feet below the First Ledge, and that his partner, David James, had been hit by a falling rock and knocked unconscious. James had been unconscious for approximately five minutes but was currently conscious and somewhat oriented. James could not remember the incident. I asked Whipple for his cell number but James could not remember the number. I told Whipple that we would get a rescue in progress and that he should call 911 again in thirty minutes so that we could get further information.

I then contacted dispatch and requested that the contract helicopter be dispatched to the Lupine Meadows Rescue Cache. I also asked dispatch to page the Jenny Lake staff. By radio, I requested that the Jenny Lake staff report to the Rescue Cache prepared for an overnight rescue on the North Face of the Grand Teton. The contract helicopter 2LM arrived at Lupine Meadows at 1921 and shut down. We briefed the pilot and rescuers and then sent Rangers McConnell and Springer for a reconnaissance flight of the accident scene. We also requested a spot weather forecast from Mountain Weather.

The recon flight reported that they had seen the injured party on the North Face below the Guano Chimney. They appeared to be between 600 and 800 feet above the Teton Glacier, in an area exposed to rockfall. Flying conditions at the accident site, were very good with calm winds. The decision was made to fly five people and rescue gear to a known landing zone on the glacier. If time allowed and flying conditions remained good, we would insert two rescuers via short-haul onto the North Face. All five rangers were delivered to the glacier and the helicopter was rigged for short-haul. Ranger Byerly was inserted to an area below the accident scene at 2058. Ranger Holm was inserted to the same location at 2104. The helicopter returned to Lupine Meadows and was soon released for the evening. Byerly and Holm began climbing to Whipple, reaching him at approximately 2145. They moved him to a bivy cave for the night.

At 0545, we obtained another weather forecast from Mountain Weather. The forecast called for decent morning conditions, but deteriorating weather in the afternoon. At 0620, I radioed the rescue party. We discussed extrication options. We determined that we would have to move the patient to the previous night’s insertion point for either a short-haul extraction or a continued lowering. Byerly and Holm would begin this process while we waited for helicopter 2LM to return to Lupine Meadows at 0830. The various extrication options were discussed at length. We considered extracting the patient, the patient and partner, and all four persons via short-haul. We considered a totally ground-based operation that would require lowering the entire party to the Teton Glacier. We also considered a combination of these techniques, perhaps short-hauling the patient only and the remaining three would self-extricate.

This was a very challenging decision making process. The risks involved with short-haul were weighed against those involved with a lengthy lowering operation. The ever-present possibility of rockfall forced us to judge exposing the helicopter, with a relatively large profile, to danger for a very short period of time vs. exposing the rescue party, with a smaller profile, to danger for a long period of time. An alternate short-haul extraction site was considered, but was abandoned when an episode of rockfall hit the area. At 0807, a second episode of rockfall in the area confirmed that the danger level was high. The rockfall passed through the area that the rescue party would need to descend to the glacier. At 0818, mountain operations chief Springer recommended that given the dangerous rockfall, all four persons be extracted via short-haul. It was confirmed that none of the rockfall occurred in the area in which the helicopter would have to hover to complete an extraction.

Helicopter 2LM arrived at Lupine Meadows at 0845, and Rangers Johnson and Jackson were flown to the accident site for recon. Flying conditions were considered good with calm winds. Particular attention was paid to potential exposure of the aircraft to rockfall during an extraction. A hover power check was performed at the accident site. The rescue party reported that they felt little rotor wash and no ground resonance from the helicopter. The decision was made to extract the patient and his partner in one load via short-haul. Byerly and Holm would then self-extricate from the scene. At 1013, helicopter 2LM left Lupine Meadows en route for short-haul. At this time, more rockfall was witnessed near the rescue party but they confirmed that it would not have threatened the helicopter. The patient and his partner were short-hauled from the rescue site at 1020 and were received by the rescuers on the glacier at 1023. The patient and partner were then loaded inside the aircraft and flown to Lupine Meadows. Medic 1 then transported the patient to St. John’s Hospital.

Given the continued rockfall in the descent path of the rescuers, the decision was made to extract Byerly and Holm via short-haul. Byerly and Holm were extracted at 1110 and were down on the Glacier at 1112. All members of the rescue party were then flown from the glacier in two flights and returned to Lupine Meadows. All personnel were back at Lupine Meadows at 1132. A rescue debriefing was concluded at 1300.

(Editor's Note: The lengthy description of the rescue operations is presented so readers can get a sense of the factors that must be taken into consideration and the level of commitment required by the rescuers. Following next are the narratives from 2003.)