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Lightning, Poor Position—Late Start, Wyoming, Grand Teton National Park, Grand Teton

LIGHTNING, POOR POSITION-LATE START

Wyoming, Grand Teton National Park, Grand Teton

On July 26 at 1535, lightning struck and fatally injured Erica Summers (27) while climbing the Exum Ridge of the Grand Teton. This single lightning strike traveled down the Exum Ridge injuring seven climbers, five seriously. The initial 911 cell phone call at 1546 reported that CPR was in progress, one climber was hanging unresponsive from a rope, multiple people were injured and at least three climbers were unaccounted for.

The response to this incident included two Type-3 interagency contract helicopters with two full helitack crews, one air ambulance, three ground ambulances, and almost all members of the Jenny Lake Sub-District staff. Rangers flown into the Lower Saddle climbed or were short-hauled to two accident scenes. Rangers worked diligently in steep technical terrain to evacuate all the seriously injured patients and the fatality before nightfall.

Analysis

Several members of this group commented about the weather cell that produced the lightning for this incident. What many said was, “It didn’t look that bad,” or “We’ve been in way-worse weather.” The group had little warning lightning was about to strike. The fatal strike was reportedly the first lightning produced from the storm cell, with no audible thunder as the cell approached. Witnesses reported only one other lightning strike produced from the storm cell, hitting a nearby peak. The characteristic warnings of hair standing up on the back of one’s neck or buzzing metal were almost instantaneous with the initial strike. Given the group’s position on the mountain, the time of day, and the skill level of those in the group, it is doubtful that had the storm cell approached with thunder 20-40 minutes before hitting the Grand Teton, the group would have been able to move off the mountain fast enough to get to a safer location.

Forecasts and recent weather observations should have indicated to this group that thunderstorms were likely to develop on the afternoon of the 26th. During the two days prior to this incident, afternoon thunderstorms developed and moved over the Tetons. When the initial incident report was broadcast, I looked up into the mountains at a significant storm cell. I wondered if we were going to be able to fly a helicopter at all, and I wondered why these people were on the Exum Ridge at 1546 in the afternoon.

The Exum Ridge is undoubtedly the most popular route on the Grand Teton and thus on a Saturday during the middle of summer, one is bound to encounter other climbers. It is very difficult for a group of 13 people to climb quickly. Getting to the base of Wall Street around 1100 with 13 climbers, many with no climbing experience, would surely have put at least some members of the group near the summit very late in the afternoon, even if other climbing parties had not been encountered.

Fortunately all members of the group wore helmets and their cell phone worked to initiate a rescue response. The group was lucky, however, that a couple of other climbing practices did not result in a greater tragedy. The anchor C. Summers was utilizing at the top of the Friction Pitch was not equalized. All of Rodrigo Liberal’s (27) weight and much of Clinton Summers’ (27) weight relied on a single .75 Camalot after the strike. Given Team 4’s anchor failure, had they fallen farther and weighted their rope, which was tied to Liberal’s harness, the anchor at the top of the Friction Pitch would have sustained a significant force.

Had the lightning strike occurred when Clinton Summers was passing the knot of the middle climber, Erica Summers, it may have resulted in a much longer fall for Liberal. This potential problem could have been mitigated had E. Summers clipped into the anchor at the top of Friction Pitch and Liberal been tied off short prior to passing the knot.

Fortunately a successful rescue was instrumental in saving lives following this lightning strike. Had weather conditions not improved and rescue resources not been so readily available, more life certainly would have been lost. (Source: Brandon Torres, Grand Teton National Park)

(Editor’s Note: The front cover for this years ANAM provides a visual glimpse into the complexity of this rescue. For a full story on the rescue, get a copy of the Jackson Hole News and Guide, July 30, 2003. Two quotes summarize the situation and the expertise of pilots and rangers. First, from Ranger Renny Jackson: “It was something you would expect to see back in the old days—horror stories from the Alps. ” And from 30-year veteran Ranger Tom Kimbrough, “This might be the most spectacular rescue in the history of American mountaineering in terms of numbers of people being extricated and the way the helicopters worked and how fast the boys did it. ”)