FALL ON ROCK, CLIMBING ALONE, PROBABLE UNIQUE WEATHER EVENT
Wyoming, Grand Teton National Park, Grand Teton, Lower Exum
On July 19, George Gardner (58) fell to his death while solo climbing the Lower Exum Ridge of the Grand Teton. Gardner and other Exum Guides were guiding youths from Wilderness Ventures, intending to climb the
Grand Teton on July 20th. After his clients had eaten and bedded down, Gardner asked Christian Santelices to attend to his clients and stated that he “was going for a walk for about an hour.” Guides observed him walking toward the Lower Exum Ridge about 1700.
A major SAR operation ensued, involving about 20 rangers, three helitack crewmembers, and five of Gardner’s fellow guides who were at the Lower Saddle with him. While guides searched for Gardner, several rangers flew by helicopter to Tepee Glacier and the Lower Saddle, initially to search for Gardner and then to recover his body after it was determined that he was deceased. His body was evacuated via helicopter long-line operation from the accident scene to the Lupine Meadows SAR Cache and then turned over to Teton County Coroner Bob Campbell. Several additional rangers provided emotional support to family and friends well into the evening.
Although the exact circumstances of his accident never will be known, evidence suggests that he fell approximately 200 feet from the area just below the Black Face pitch at approximately 1800. His body was found in the gully to the west of the first pitch of the Lower Exum. A contributing factor may have been a sudden, near-60 mph wind gust that occurred at approximately 1745 and significantly exceeded the 40 mph winds that were prevalent at the Lower Saddle during the day.
George Gardner was an accomplished and seasoned mountaineer. He had been an Exum guide for 17 years and had climbed in the Teton Range for more than 20 years, holding certification as an AMGA Alpine Guide. His vast mountaineering experience included expeditions to the Southwest Face of Kanchenjunga in the Nepal Himalaya and the West Face of Hyani Potosi in Bolivia’s Cordillera Real; ski descents in the Alps and in Colorado; and extensive climbing in North America. He had been the faculty member who originated the Sterling College (Vermont) “Mountain Cultures Semester”.
It is common practice for Exum guides to hike or climb a nearby crag or peak while at the Lower Saddle after tending to their clients during Grand Teton guided trips. Whether or not a guide chooses to embark upon an early evening excursion is left entirely up to him/her.
The following points represent an outline of what is known about this particular accident:
George Gardner set off from the Lower Saddle about 1700 on July 19, 2008, with the probable intention of soloing the Lower Exum Ridge route on the Grand Teton
Based upon the physical evidence found on the body, he was wearing what one would be expected to have on for such an excursion; that is, light climbing clothing and very little in the way of additional equipment. He was wearing a climbing harness with a chalk bag, nearly-new 5.10 Gambit rock climbing shoes, and had with him two, double-length nylon runners that he was carrying over one shoulder. These slings were doubled over and each was clipped to a carabiner.
Gardner’s body was located on the west side of the Lower Exum Ridge on a ledge situated beneath the pedestal from which the crux Black Face pitch is climbed.
A blood smear/spatter was observed 20-30 feet up on the wall directly above the body. Gardner’s hat was found on a ledge located about 100 feet above the body. This hat was known to be of the same type/color that he was known to wear. It had a cut in the material and what appeared to be blood and tissue on the inside of it.
It appeared that Gardner had not moved after coming to rest on the ledge.
The fall was obviously sufficient to sustain fatal injuries, but did not appear to be a particularly long fall because of the condition of the body.
A noteworthy meteorological observation was logged by an NPS weather instrument that records data at a site located on the southern end of the Lower Saddle. The instrument logged winds of near-60 mph at about 1745 on the 19th.
The next statements/observations are speculative by nature. They are based upon a great deal of experience as well as the physical evidence:
Although the exact circumstances of his accident never will be known, evidence suggests that he may have fallen approximately 200 feet, from the notch located just below the belay for the Black Rock Face pitch. If he had fallen from other locations below that point or higher up on the climb, his final resting place would have been substantially more to the east or west (or even on the south side of the climb), and his body would likely have demonstrated far more physical trauma.
Additionally, it may have been Gardner’s intention to have used the two double-length runners as a means to clip in to several of the fixed pitons that are to be found on the crux Black Face pitch. The crux pitch of the climb contains the climbing moves that are technically the most difficult. Sometimes, climbers will girth-hitch two longer runners to their harness so that they can clip (with carabiners) to resident, fixed protection as they climb up a particular pitch. As they move upwards and when they are clipped in to a particular piece, they are protected from a fall to a certain degree. This seems to be the only logical reason why Gardner had a climbing harness on in the first place. It suggests that since the runners were not in place, he had not reached the crux pitch.
Because he left about 1700, it means that by 1745 he very likely could have been in the area of the notch at the base of the Black Rock Face. A contributing factor to his accident may have been a sudden near-60 mph wind gust that occurred about this time and which significantly exceeded the 40 mph winds that were prevalent at the Lower Saddle during the day. If the unexpected near-60 mph wind gust had occurred while he was making difficult climbing moves, it could have contributed to his fall. (Source: From a report prepared by George J. Montopoli, Seasonal Park Ranger and Incident Commander, and Reynold G. Jackson, Jenny Lake Sub-District Ranger)
(Editor’s Note: The Exum Mountain Guide Service is reviewing its policy regarding the level and kinds of activities guides can participate in when clients are under their care.)