By the time the rangers had a better grip on how many people they were looking for, a few of them, including McConnell and Helen Bowers, were already airborne in a chopper flown by a 30-year-old ace named Matt Heart. Though he'd been the head of the Climbing Rangers only one month, 34-year-old Scott Guenther had made the bold decision to launch a search-and-rescue operation even though rain had begun to fall in the valley, thunder rumbled not from far the Cache and the Grand Teton itself had vanished under a low ceiling of dark clouds.
Heart flew a yellow AStar B3 with the doors off. That high on the Grand, there was no place for a helicopter to land, so the rangers would have to pull people off using a procedure called the short-haul. First introduced in the Tetons in 1986, short-hauling involves attaching a cable to a helicopter with either a litter or a so-called screamer suit, which isn't a suit, really, but a full-body harness that works well for anyone who hasn't suffered spinal injuries. The injured party has his or her arms and legs put through sewn holes and is then clipped into the cable and whisked away. "It's like a jacket-diaper configuration," McConnell explains, "but it's the best ride in the Tetons: a Tilt-a-Whirl on steroids."
Every summer the Climbing Rangers rehearse this technique, because it takes nail-biting precision by the pilot to hold his airship steady, and the rangers can't make a false move as they clip in the patient or they'll kill the person they came to save. A number of the Climbing Rangers had done short-hauls before; once, in 2005, the rangers had short-hauled 13 climbers, also lightning struck, from just below the Exum ridge. (Until last July 21 that had been the largest rescue they'd ever completed.) The 2005 rescue had been another long day, but that storm had swiftly blown out. The rangers simply raced against nightfall, when it's no longer safe to fly the chopper.
This time was different: Heart and the rangers were going into the teeth of the storm. Guenther tapped Woodmencey for "spot weather"—to track individual storm cells on-screen like fractal video-game enemies and warn his rangers when they had to retreat.
Heart's first destination was the Lower Saddle, one of the two main base camps for those climbing the Grand. Exum Mountain Guides, one of two commercial services with permits to guide the Grand, maintains a hut there from June to September. The service volunteered the hut as a M*A*S*H tent.
As soon as they touched down on the Lower Saddle, McConnell and Bowers recruited Exum guide Dan Corn to go up the mountain with them. A sunny, highly accomplished alpinist who climbs and guides year-round, Corn, 27, had been among those who'd left for the summit at 3:30 a.m. and, with two fit clients, been to the top and returned to the Lower Saddle base camp before the lightning strikes. (A few others also made it to the top that morning, but at least one other guided party turned back.) McConnell, 50, a wry, squared-jawed ox of a man, can do laps around most climbers on the Grand, but he was glad to have Corn on the search party, so he could give the younger man the heaviest gear and medical kits.
Within a half hour, before reaching the steepest rock faces, McConnell, Bowers and Corn encountered Mike Tyler and a couple of members of the Sparks party on their way down. Mike had lost his gloves, so Corn gave him his. Bowers stayed with the climbers; McConnell and Corn continued on up. Luckily they came within view of three other members of the Sparks group, including Vogelaar, just in time. The shell-shocked trio was about to make a common but life-threatening mistake and head toward the so-called Idaho Express, a cliff that drops several thousand feet off the Grand's west face. "Don't go down that way. It's a death trap!" Corn yelled into the wind. Hearing them, Vogelaar and the others stopped and made their way to the Black Rock Chimneys, the right way down.
The storm had let up a bit, and Heart made a quick pass around the base of the summit pyramid. He soon had a bead on all the stricken climbers, but it would still be an hour or more before the rangers could reach them and begin the short-hauls. In the meantime a second helicopter brought more rangers to the Lower Saddle. They, too, started up.
McConnell and Corn met up with the last of the Sparks group and helped them down to the hut on their own steam, and then returned to climbing in earnest. It was difficult, with water gushing down the rock and pouring from chutes in flash waterfalls. The faces they saw as they poked up out of the Owen Chimney still haunt Corn. All the climbers could answer him on topic, but they were not all there: They looked like zombies. Steven Tyler and Troy Smith were especially ghoulish—bluish with cold, blood streaked down their faces. A slush of snow and small hailstones lined the seams of their parkas. Steven told Corn he thought he'd gone hypothermic. They had a winter layer on, but they'd been in the storm for more than three hours without being able to move. In the mountains, especially, motion is heat, and heat is life.
Larson, from the Kline group, had been trying to find help and had reached rangers who had gathered the lightning victims and huddled with them under a slight overhang to await the helicopter. The storm had picked up force again, and they all ditched their metal. McConnell had begun to pull a tarp over one side of the overhang for a bit of extra shelter when electricity snapped at his elbow. Not more lightning! The morale of the group, which had greatly improved when the helicopter passed over and the rangers arrived, sank. But McConnell's reaction to thunder detonating directly overhead —"It's getting sporty!"—made even the coldest of them grin a little.