Dan Tyler had made it only a few feet back up the rope when lightning struck again—so close that he was showered with small rocks kicked loose by the blast—followed immediately by a deafening boom. Dan, though, wasn't conscious to hear it. "It knocked me into oblivion," he said of the lightning. "When I came to I was hanging upside down, and for a few seconds I wasn't sure where I was. I was completely disoriented. I then realized I was hanging on the rope. The next thing I noticed was that my legs were heavy. I couldn't feel them." His right arm was dead too. "I was unsure what to do and somewhat panicked, but I eventually realized I needed to get myself off that rope. So I fed some slack into the belaying device and was able to turn myself so my legs were below me."
As Dan tried to navigate the narrow passage with a single arm, his legs were snagged against the wall and bent back unnaturally. It occurred to him that if he pressed too hard, he might break his own legs and not feel it. Maybe five minutes later another lightning strike knocked some rocks loose above him. The rocks were small, but as they scattered down the chute they added to a growing sense that the climbers were under siege.
Above Mike and Dan, out of their sight, the charge had leveled Troy Smith too. He fell, gashed his head and stopped breathing. Steven Tyler had collapsed right next to him, and he saw Smith's eyes roll back, but he couldn't lift his own arms or move his legs. With an effort he rolled Smith, who had fallen across his arm, and gave him mouth-to-mouth. After a half dozen exhalations Smith inhaled on his own, but he still wasn't all there. The ensuing three hours still do not exist in his memory.
Mike couldn't see Dan, much less his dad, his brother-in-law and Appleton, and he yelled to them over the noise of the storm, asking if they were O.K. Dan and the party above yelled to each other, but neither could hear what the other said. Dan and Mike had better luck communicating and agreed that Mike should go for help. The only problem with that was that it left Dan alone and without any information about what had happened to his dad or the others.
Like Mike and Dan Tyler, Greg Sparks had used the time since the first strike to lower himself and Brandon Oldenkamp down to a ledge, the very one that runs into the Belly Roll. Their group had decided that since Brandon was new to climbing, Greg should go down first and be there to see that Oldenkamp gained the ledge safely. Both did.
Then the second bolt hit. Unlike the first one, it not only buckled their legs but also packed a concussive punch. From three feet away Greg watched helplessly as the force of the jolt propelled Oldenkamp off the ledge and over the side. To Greg's greater horror, the young man's rope did not catch and go taut. Instead Greg could see the end of the rope on the wet stone, the rope Greg swore was slipped through Oldenkamp's harness loop and knotted at the end to prevent him from falling more than a few feet. Desperate, Greg craned over the cliff, but he knew it was hopeless. Below him, 800 feet down, lay the Black Ice Couloir, a glaciated 50-degree ramp that drained over a 3,000-foot series of cliffs into Valhalla Canyon. No surviving that.
"It just took him off," Greg said months later, still with a trace of disbelief. He swore Oldenkamp was tied into the rope, which would make the fall impossible—unless, that is, his harness failed, or the carabiner through which the rope passed had popped open, releasing the rope. Even then the knot could have saved him. "He couldn't have unclipped," Greg said. "I'd have seen him. I was right there." He couldn't understand how it happened. He still can't.
With the hand that worked best, Steven Tyler fished in his pack for his cellphone. He couldn't close his grip, and he had split his lip, so things got a little clumsy and bloody. Under different circumstances, he thought, it might have been slapstick. Eventually he toggled to the most-recent-calls list and clicked on the last one he'd placed, which, he seemed to remember, had been to a ranger station for a weather update. He'd forgotten that Dan had since used the phone to check in with his wife, Heidi. So Steven's daughter-in-law, at a lodge with several of his grandchildren, picked up. He had one bar of wireless connectivity; no way could he risk dropping the call. As evenly as he could, he told her their situation. He did not volunteer details about Dan; he wouldn't have known what to say. Heidi's call to 911 was relayed to the Jenny Lake Rangers at 12:24 p.m.
The Jenny Lake Rangers, or simply the Climbing Rangers, have evolved into one of the elite rescue teams in the world. A haven for dirt-ball climbers looking to get paid to hang out in the Tetons, the group has plenty of loners and mountain men, but it also has people who've done law-enforcement training—a mix of type A's and poets that works. As physically fit as professional athletes, they exhibit the bonhomie of a championship ball club, rarely missing a chance to rib one another. In all there are four full-timers and 14 seasonal rangers. Among them the Climbing Rangers have amassed 230 years of experience in the Tetons.
Soon after Steven's SOS, more calls came in. Were they from different members of the same party or from different parties? It was hard for the rangers to tell. In the office of the Rescue Cache, their headquarters at the base of Teewinot Mountain, northeast of the Grand Teton, the Climbing Rangers tried to make sense of what they were hearing. There were 12 climbers, five dead.... No, that was wrong. There were 13 climbers, all alive but one missing.... "It was five, then eight, then 13, then 17," ranger Jack McConnell remembers with head-shaking astonishment. "That's a bus wreck on a mountain!"