American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fall on Rock, Climbing Alone and Unroped, Wyoming, Grand Teton National Park, The Grand Traverse

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  • Publication Year: 2005

FALL ON ROCK, CLIMBING ALONE AND UNROPED

Wyoming, Grand Teton National Park, The Grand Traverse

On July 19 about 1030,1 received a call from Fred of Butte, Montana. Fred voiced concern for a friend and climbing partner of his, Dwight Bishop (49), whom he believed was overdue from a climb of the Grand Traverse.

Fred was concerned because he thought that his friend had left on July 16 and that he thought that Bishop had intended to accomplish the traverse in one day. After confirming that Bishop’s car was still at the Lupine Meadows trailhead, I initiated what was to become a very sizable search effort.

I began an interview with Fred Donich at about 1030. Donich noted that he thought that Bishop had left for the Traverse as early as some time Thursday morning (7/15) as he knew that the climber had contacted his mother by cell phone at that time. Donich believed that he could have left after that and that he might have taken bivouac equipment. He also thought that Bishop had probably taken a rope with him. Donich felt that the rope, however, would only be used to rappel certain sections of the climb that are easier to descend that way as opposed to the down-climbing alternative. Donich felt that Bishop would not use the rope to belay more difficult portions of the route such as the North Ridge or the Italian Cracks. It was Donich’s strong feeling that Bishop would simply free-solo these difficult sections, relying more on his technical abilities, and preferring speed over the slower, yet perhaps safer technique of roped soloing. Bishop’s technical climbing abilities were considerable, however. Donich had climbed with him as recently as the week before when they had rock climbed in the Humbug Spires of Montana. Donich stated that Bishop’s sport climbing prowess included a red point ability of 5.12+, using the Yosemite Decimal Scale of rating climbs. Bishop was an accomplished alpinist, having climbed some of the great north faces in the Alps including that of the north face of the Eiger and Walker Spur. He had extensive climbing experience in the Teton Range, having done many of the most difficult climbs, sometimes in winter. Bishop had apparently climbed the Grand Traverse ten or twelve years earlier and was planning a winter attempt on the route at some future date. Bishop was also a very fit individual having competed in the bicycle road race, Race Across America, in 1993 and in 2000.

The Grand Traverse. The Grand Teton and the peaks that comprise the heart of the range are linked together in a great 11-mile arc that forms the upper boundary of the north and south forks of Garnet Canyon. The climb of this great arc has come to be known among climbers as The Grand Traverse. Eleven summits are found along the way with ten of them rising above the 12,000 foot elevation. Over 25,000 feet of elevation is gained and lost during the course of the Traverse. The successful first traverse, accomplished by Richard Long, John Evans, and Allen Steck was completed on August 12, 1963. Since that time the climb has evolved in that climbers usually begin at the east face of Teewinot and proceed from north to south along the ridge crest to Nez Perce. This is more difficult in that it involves an ascent of the North Ridge of the Grand Teton, one of the classic alpine routes in the United States. The two well-known pitches on the climb, the Chockstone Chimney and the Slab Pitch, are considered to be the cruxesof the route and can be very difficult indeed if wet or icy. The Chockstone Chimney is rated 5.8 on the Yosemite Decimal scale and the Slab Pitch is rated 5.7. The Grand Traverse is a highly sought-after climbing objective. Popularized and made famous by the speedy, summertime exploits of Alex Lowe and Rolando Garibotti, as well as having received some attention lately in the climbing magazines, the Grand Traverse has a good deal of traffic on it during the main climbing season.

A significant search effort was begun, involving many people. On the second day, the search team comprised of rangers Bywater and Byerly were assigned the search segment that included the north side of the Grand Teton as well as the upper portions of the Grandstand. Their assignment was to climb from the Lower Saddle to the Upper Saddle, traverse out along the Owen-Spalding route to the Second Ledge of the north face and descend to the Grandstand by rappelling the Italian Cracks route on the north face. Once on the Grandstand they were to investigate the east and west sides of the Grandstand and then climb back up the North Ridge route, looking for clues along the way. During the day this assignment changed slightly in that we requested that they try and make their way down to the Camelback and other items that we had investigated from the air during the previous day. This proved too hazardous, both for them as well as for another team who was working up the east face of the Grandstand from the bottom. Therefore, we requested that Bywater and Byerly instead work their way over to the Gunsight Notch in order to try and take a look at the West Ledges route on Mount Owen as well as perhaps the west side of the Grandstand.

This proved to be the key to success for the entire search operation. While descending from Gunsight Notch down the couloir on the west side, they made voice contact with a climbing party at 1750 who were in the process of making their way up the west side of the Grandstand as an approach for a climb of the North Ridge of the Grand. They indicated that they had discovered a pack and that they had left it marked with a cairn. Items contained within the pack indicated that whomever it belonged to had quite possibly been on the Grand Traverse route. Bywater and Byerly climbed up to and located the pack at 1807. A short time later, at 1822, Dwight Bishop’s body was spotted simultaneously from the air and by the climbing team on the ground.

Analysis

Dwight Bishop was an accomplished alpinist and strong rock climber who had many years of experience climbing not only in the Tetons but in other great ranges of the world. Bishop was also a very fit individual having participated in a number of significant bicycle road races during his lifetime. Sometime during July 16, Bishop fell to his death while climbing on the Grand Teton. The Grand Traverse, which was the climbing route that he was on when he died, was certainly within his capabilities and, in fact, had been ascended by Bishop years before. He was committed to the climb of that particular route in his mind, at least, as evidenced by Fred Donich, his climbing partner of many years, as well as that of a Jenny Lake climbing ranger, with whom he had had a discussion a few days before in the Blacktail Butte climbing area parking lot. Donich indicated to me that he thought that Bishop would have likely been free-soloing as opposed to roped soloing. Donich also felt that he would have likely taken a rope to facilitate certain portions of the route, such as the descent of Peak 11,840+, the first obstacle between the plateau to the west of Teewinot and the traverse over to Mount Owen. It was presumably Bishop’s intention to get a very early start on the 16th, as evidenced by the fact that his alarm clock, which was found in his vehicle, was set for 2:00 a.m. Also found in the vehicle were a pair of crampons that Bishop had presumably left behind on the day of the climb.

Based on all of the information, it is likely that Bishop was free-soloing when he fell. Derived from photographs obtained during an aerial reconnaissance conducted the day after the recovery operation, it is also likely that Bishop fell from somewhere on the North Ridge route of the Grand Teton. The North Ridge route, as opposed to the “Italian Cracks,” is the classic route of ascent of the Grand Teton during the course of a Grand Traverse climb. If Bishop fell from anywhere above the top of the normal second pitch of the North Ridge route, it is highly probably that he would end up on the west side of the Grandstand, which was indeed where he was found.

The free-soloist sacrifices the safety that is normally afforded the climber who is belaying or who is being belayed by a partner, for a lighter-weight and swifter style of climbing that has its own set of unique advantages. However, if anything goes wrong, the results are usually catastrophic. A momentary distraction, a hand or foot hold breaking, a slip on an unnoticed wet or icy spot, or an objective hazard such as rockfall, can all contribute to a loss of the all important focus that the free-soloist relies upon for success. (Source: Renny Jackson, SAR Incident Commander)

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