mountain climb turns from adventure to disaster it becomes a twofold drama.
There is the travail of the imperiled group high on the peak, and at the same
time there develops in a far distant setting the plot's other thread, the
rescue. Like the action on the mountain, the rescue, too, is a human thing of
bravery, endurance, danger, folly and luck—both good luck and bad. Eventually
the two scenes join, rescuer meets rescued and the fate of all is linked at
last. But much goes before. The rescue on the Grand Teton, one of the most
difficult in U.S. climbing history, was no exception to the pattern.
By the morning of
July 28, 1962 the 10 stranded climbers of the Appalachian Mountain Club
party—now separated into two groups—had been climbing the 13,766-foot Grand
Teton for 53 hours. They had left a base camp at Petzoldt's Caves before dawn
on July 26 and should have been back to it by 5 p.m. the same day. Instead, 40
hours later, they were all but immobile, roped to the face of the mountain as a
storm raged. And in the meantime, on a glacier far below, the first tentative
attempt of rescuers to establish contact with them already had failed. George
Kelly, a student at the University of Michigan and a climbing ranger in the
Grand Teton National Park during the summer, had set out on the morning of July
27 from Jenny Lake Ranger Station shortly after receiving the first report of
the overdue group. He had reached the Petzoldt's Caves camp area at 12:15 p.m.
None of the climbers sheltered there from the bad weather had heard or seen the
missing group since the preceding day.
two search parties—one to go up toward the western slopes of the mountain, the
other to try Teepe's Glacier directly above. By 3 p.m. those on Teepe's had
seen what they thought were three climbers apparently stranded near a snowfield
called the Otter Body. Kelly reported this information by walkie-talkie to
ranger headquarters and was told to start up.
unexpectedly, an extraordinarily powerful reinforcement. Barry Corbet, a
professional guide and one of the great climbers of North America, had come
loping up the trail. Corbet had climbed in most of the ranges of the U.S. and
Canada. He had helped open up a new route on the south face of Mount McKinley
in Alaska and had already been chosen for the 1963 Everest Expedition. He was
going to meet a party that he was scheduled to lead up the Grand Teton on the
following day. Normally he would have climbed to the base camp area with his
party, but he had been involved the night before in the rescue of a young
schoolteacher with a broken ankle, and this delayed him.
He joined Kelly
and they set out to make a reconnaissance of Teepe's Glacier. They followed the
tracks of Ellis Blade, leader of the AMC group, and his party across the
glacier to a large couloir. It seemed a most unlikely route for Blade to have
selected, but they started up. As the sun set, the storm that had begun in the
afternoon increased in violence, and Corbet found a dead bird, apparently
killed by the cold. In six years in the Tetons he had never seen that before.
Part way up the couloir, Kelly and Corbet halted to talk. By then they knew
that they could not possibly reach the climbers before dark and, inexplicably,
Kelly had left his down-filled jacket behind and had no way to keep warm. He
and Corbet turned back.
Knowing what he
does now, Corbet is not easy on himself for that decision. "I am sure we
have both regretted it since," he says. "It is hard to separate
rationalization from fact, hard to decide whether we were thinking more of our
own comfort or of the difficulties of continuing. We would not have made it up
the couloir before dark, yet we would have been a great help had we arrived
early the next day. But faced by a bivouac in that rockfall couloir, soaked as
we were and knowing only that they were overdue, which happens all the time, we
decided to go back." The first rescue effort had ended.
On the afternoon
of July 27, shortly after Ellis Blade had separated his struggling party into
two groups in order to seek help, Douglas McLaren, district ranger for the
national park in Moose, Wyo., began to fear that he faced the possibility of a
major mountain disaster. Kelly had reported the sighting of three climbers on
the Otter Body snowfield. This meant the Blade party had split, and that seven
others must be stranded elsewhere. The worst midsummer storm in 20 years was
roaring around the peaks, and McLaren knew that the Appalachian Mountain Club
climbers, who had already spent one freezing night on the peak, could not be
reached in the night to come or perhaps even found the following day. He
decided then that only an extraordinarily tough and large rescue operation
could save the group. He knew, too, that trying to save the climbers in the
storm might cost the lives of some of the rescuers he would send.
McLaren ordered a
pack team dispatched to Petzoldt's Caves with enough tents, food and sleeping
bags for rescuers and rescued. He decided that four climbers, himself included,
would constitute an advance party ready to move at first light the next
morning. Luckily, he could call upon a group of America's finest mountaineers
for help. With him in the advance party would be:
26, an English major at the University of Wyoming who had been a "climbing
bum" for years before settling down to finish college. Tall, with the spare
build that does well in the mountains, he had helped discover the new route up
Mount McKinley with Corbet and had climbed all over the U.S. and Canada. He had
also been on dozens of rescues, so many that, as he sometimes said, no corpse
would ever bother him again.
23, who had guided professionally for two years. He had started climbing at
Dartmouth. "I had to take physical education," he said, "and I
could not stand team sports like football and basketball, so I tried climbing.
By the second quarter I was teaching climbing, and the third quarter I quit
school to climb for a year."