The rangers were running out of time if they were to get everyone off by dark, and the urgency grew now with the intensifying storm. Heart banked the helicopter in toward the rock and dropped the cable. The screamer suit slid down the cable; McConnell detached it and tried to throw it to another ranger, but it fell short. They scrambled for a minute while Heart tried to hold his position in the AStar, the wind and rain whipping in his face as he flew. His copilot kept an eye on the tail rotor to make sure it didn't swing into the rock. That would be deadly. A stripped-down version of the AStar had made it all the way to the summit of Everest on a 2005 stunt flight, so the aircraft had no problem with the thin air. But holding a chopper steady in those conditions takes a rare, Zenlike skill.
Finally the rangers got the harness set between Troy Smith's legs and under his arms and hooked him to the cable with two big carabiners. The rangers took a step back and waved to Heart, and the chopper whisked Smith right off the rock and out into the void. Still not comprehending that he'd been struck by lightning, Smith found the ride, as McConnell promised, awesome. He didn't scream; he gave a hoarse whoop of joy.
Over the next two hours all of the climbers but Dan Tyler were evacuated at least as far down as the Lower Saddle, where the second helicopter had begun ferrying injured climbers to the valley. For the Climbing Rangers in the Cache, the operation had become a logistical drama as they coordinated 70-plus people in what had become the most complex rescue in the park's 82-year history. And it wasn't over. Weatherman Woody had checked in: He advised pulling the chopper out to see what the next storm cell had in store before attempting another short-haul.
"It was like an F-16 ripping open the sky," McConnell said of that squall. It was decided that he'd head down while rangers Drew Hardesty and Marty Vidak stayed with Dan. Some feeling had returned to Dan's arm and legs, and he could wiggle his toes a little, but he was terribly cold. McConnell told them he really hated to be going so soon. Dan appreciated the humor, but he really wanted off that mountain. He couldn't face the prospect of being out overnight, and it was starting to get dim. For Dan the helicopter hadn't just represented hope, it was hope, and now it was leaving.
His despair didn't last long. Within the hour Heart had taken advantage of another short window in the storm to return and pluck Dan off. Dan did not enjoy the short-haul ride nearly as much as his brother-in-law had. Out in the vast space over all that rock and snow of the Tetons, he had trouble breathing. He shivered and closed his eyes until it was over—it was just too much.
Dan only spent 15 minutes in the M*A*S*H hut, just long enough to be stuffed into a sleeping bag and given a cup of hot chocolate. He still couldn't walk, but he was feeling like he would eventually. Once in the valley, the EMTs ran an IV into him and had him wait in an ambulance. It's a 30-minute drive to the hospital, so the rangers had to take more than one at a time.
Dan spent those minutes wishing he knew more—anything, really—about the rest of his family. He'd talked to Heidi, but she too had been unable to find out what happened to the others. For six hours, since Mike had left to get help, Dan had been separated from the rest. He didn't even know if they were all alive. He tried not to think about it.
A few minutes passed and a volunteer stuck her head in to say that someone else would be joining Dan. They opened up the back of the ambulance, and his dad entered. The old man was roughed up—split lip, dried blood on his nose, some loss of hearing—but he'd made it. Dan broke down. He had never been more happy to see his dad in his life.
The following morning Heart started up the AStar again for the grim trip out to Valhalla Canyon to recover Brandon Oldenkamp's body. Like all the Climbing Rangers, Heart knew well that adventures in the mountains could carry fateful consequences, but he was in this job because mountains had, time and again, filled him with a profound sense of well-being. He imagined that Oldenkamp had just been discovering that too.
The park averages one to three deaths per year—statistically not bad, perhaps, given the four million visitors. But Heart found Oldenkamp's death profoundly sad. At least he and the other rangers had been able to save the lives of a handful more: Hypothermia and other injuries could have proved fatal to several of the lightning victims had there not been a helicopter to get them down fast.