SI Vault
James Lipscomb
June 21, 1965
A vacationing party of eastern climbers, anticipating nothing more than a fast, simple ascent of a western mountain, is trapped on the storm-lashed face of Wyoming's Grand Teton. Their will to survive gives way to madness and death, while rangers battle rockfalls and glass-slick glaciers in a gigantic rescue
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June 21, 1965

Night Of The One-eyed Devils

A vacationing party of eastern climbers, anticipating nothing more than a fast, simple ascent of a western mountain, is trapped on the storm-lashed face of Wyoming's Grand Teton. Their will to survive gives way to madness and death, while rangers battle rockfalls and glass-slick glaciers in a gigantic rescue

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Whenever a 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.

Kelly organized 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.

He had, 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:

Pete Sinclair, 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.

Sterling Neale, 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."

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