On July 21, 2010, a sudden and vicious lightning storm trapped 17 climbers on the Grand Teton. As 911 calls came raining down on the National Park Service, more than 90 personnel from multiple federal, state, and local agencies sprung to action. It remains the largest rescue effort ever undertaken on the 13,776-foot peak.
As the scene unfolded, rescuers learned they were dealing with at least one fatality, and numerous climbers from three different parties who had debilitating injuries. Plus, the storm continued to rage on the mountain, pinning down helicopters and requiring a rugged ground response by the elite Jenny Lake climbing rangers and at least one Exum guide.
Nine years later, “The Fine Line” podcast dives into the rescue effort by interviewing Jenny Lake District Ranger Scott Guenther and Jenny Lake Climbing Ranger Jack McConnell along with climbers Matt Walker and Steve Tyler. Walker had been in a party of four who had been repeatedly struck by lightning just 100 feet below the summit. Tyler, who was 67 at the time, was with his two sons, Dan and Mike, son-in-law Troy Smith, and a friend, Henry Appleton, at the top of the Owen Chimney when they too sustained major lightning strikes.
“Dan was starting to ascend the rappel when a second bolt of lightning struck, and that one was by far the most intense,” Tyler told podcast host Rebecca Huntington. “That bolt of lightning knocked Dan and Troy unconscious, and I suspect Henry was momentarily unconscious, and I’m not even sure if I maintained consciousness myself. My arm was across Troy’s chest when I came to. It was sort of an out-of-body experience. My arm was there and I knew it was my arm, but I couldn’t move it. I had no control over my arm for in an instant. As some feeling started to return to that arm, I pulled it off of Troy and I crawled over on top of him. It seemed to me that he wasn’t breathing. I put my mouth over his mouth and started to blow into his mouth. That was the most terrifying moment of my life.”
For Walker, the studio interview was the first time since the accident that he’d spoken to any of the first responders who helped save his life.
“It was amazing to hear the whole thing from their side and the level of detail that they still remember,” Walker said. “So many of the little things have come and gone from my memory over the years. Everyone always said I needed to write it down but hopefully this podcast will be a great way to capture it in time. It was pretty emotional for me to go back and relive a lot of that.”
We reached out to a climber in the third party, but could not arrange an interview. Instead, Timothy Vogelaar sent us a tribute he had made for Brandon Oldenkamp, the 21-year-old climber who died after getting knocked off the mountain by a bolt of lightning.
We are thankful for everyone who gave their time to relive this harrowing event. “The Fine Line” is produced by the Teton County Search and Rescue Foundation, and each month tells real stories about adventure, risk, and rescue in the Jackson Hole backcountry.
This is Episode 23 of “The Fine Line.” It will be aired on KHOL 89.1 FM on Monday, August 19, at 6 p.m., through BackcountryZero via SoundCloud, and can be downloaded on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.