Accidents Happen

“Into each life a little rain must fall,” or so they say. And also, “it never rains but it pours,” so get out that big umbrella like the one wielded by the little girl on the Morton salt box. So who is (are) this “they?” Someone who wants something I would wager, if nothing else than to appear wise, knowledgeable. Best to take such “wisdom” with more than a grain of Morton’s salt. Except when coming from Ray (Charles), “They say, Ruby is like a dream . . . .” Who could doubt it? And Johnny Hartman seductively intoning, “They say that falling in love is wonderful, wonderful, so they say  . . .” But, hey! I digress.

Accidents in the mountains are often, but not always, connected to weather. A climber, cold, wet, in haste but cowering before the storm, scrambles over slippery terrain as Thor hurls bolts of lightning peakward.

The rain came early, seven thirty in the morning. No one asked for rain, unless it was the potato farmers over in Idaho. It was August 1976, and it had been a dry summer. But now it was raining, and we were not far from the Upper Saddle. Go back.

The day before, my wife, three kids, and I had breakfast at the Jenny Lake Lodge, an extravagance for our meager budget, but I would be making a pile of money in the next three days, and the kids liked the huckleberry syrup on their pancakes. After breakfast we drove back around the lake to guide’s hill where I changed into my climbing clothes, grabbed my pre-packed pack, kissed everyone good bye, and strolled over to the Exum Guide Service office. Inside, Glen Exum was giving his orientation speech to the ten aspiring, and soon to be perspiring, mountaineers. Many years ago, Glen had made the first ascent of a route on the Grand Teton subsequently named the Exum Ridge. He had climbed alone and wore football shoes, and he liked to tell the clients about it before talking about what they would soon be experiencing. His main lesson was: pay attention to the guide.

At length, he brought them outside to introduce them to me and the other guide, Rod Newcomb. He made us sound like heroes, but we were just young guys who liked climbing and who could use the money we would make from a summer of guiding. Soon we were on the trail, at first a stroll through the forest and then a long series of switchbacks that zigzagged up the hillside. Earlier in the summer the hillside was covered with multi-colored wild flowers, but now only a few remained, some ox eyes and some rayless cone flowers. We stopped for lunch by a stream at a place called the Platforms. From there the trail wound through meadows up to a steep section by a waterfall, then over talus to a short headwall where a rope had been fixed. At the top of the rope an easy stroll led to the hut near the Lower Saddle, easy except for the altitude. We were now at 11,600 feet and into thinner air.

The hut had sleeping bags and pads and a Coleman stove and was a tight fit for twelve. It was a mini Quonset hut with no bunks. The occupants laid their bags and pads in two rows like loaves of bread in a bakery. The clients had been instructed to bring a can of soup along with sandwiches and fruit and tea bags. While they were munching on their sandwiches, I started the stove, and Rod collected all the cans and opened them. Then they all went into the pot—tomato, chicken rice, split pea, vegetable, whatever. It was wet and it was hot. What else could these people ask for?

After dinner we took the short walk up to the top of the saddle, one of the country’s special places.  To the east, the shadows of the Grand and Middle Tetons and Mt. Moran and other peaks on the crest of the range slowly lengthened across Jackson Hole. To the west the sun gradually descended over the farms of Idaho. A few lights in Driggs winked on. After the sun set, a cold breeze drove us back to the hut and to bed. No campfire, no singing of songs up here.

At 4 AM the alarm went off. It was the practice of the Exum Guide Service to get a very early start in order to be off the main part of the mountain before afternoon storms might arrive. More sandwiches and tea for the clients, then out the door into the dark. The wind had picked up and no stars could be seen. In good weather the Grand can be a fun climb; in bad it was a matter of getting it over with. We marched our people up to the Black Dike. By then it was light enough to see some handholds. Up and up but slowly. The larger the group the more time everything takes. Before we got to the Upper Saddle it started raining, a drizzle at first and then more seriously. At the Upper Saddle we took refuge under a large overhang. Lightning was banging down on the upper sections of the peak, and a few of the clients who happened to be leaning against the rock got a bit of a charge as the current arced its way down the mountain.

The storm got worse, not better, and the rain turned to sleet then snow. After half an hour Rod and I agreed that this was not a day to be on the mountain. I led the way down. The wind whipped the snow into my face, so the only way I could see the route was by peeking under my armpit. The clients followed each other closely like elephants, tail to trunk, a vacated handhold becoming the next person’s foothold. At length we got everyone back to the hut. By then the storm had eased a bit, but we weren’t going back up. More sandwiches and soon Rod was leading the whole group down to the fixed rope. I was staying on the saddle because Will Bassett was bringing another large group up that afternoon, and I would be the second guide for the party.

I took a short nap and cleaned up the hut, putting everything back in place for the next group and then sweeping out. Outside, I checked on the weather—not snowing now but still threatening. And up by the Black Dike I saw a solitary figure slowly working his way down. One hand was on top of his head. “It must be windy up there,” I thought, “he’s holding his hat on.” But then, no, he’s hurt. Earlier, as our party was going up, I had noticed another party of two heading toward the Exum Ridge and had not seen them since. This must be one of them. I hiked up to meet him. He was young, a teenager. He said he and his guide had fallen while coming down. The guide was still up on the mountain, hurt and unable to move.

I brought the boy down to the hut, checked his injuries, and gave him some water. He was banged up from the fall but not badly hurt. I told him to go down and find the guide with the large party and tell him what had happened. “Be careful going down the fixed rope.”

I stuffed a sleeping bag into my pack along with a first aid kit and headed up the mountain. The snow swept in again, and the wind was blowing so strongly from the west that I had to hike twenty or thirty yards to the east of the crest leading to the Black Dike. Higher up I came to a slab that required hands as well as feet but normally wasn’t difficult. Now ice covered all the handholds and footholds. To the right I found a steep wall that was free of ice but exposed. I carefully climbed it and soon was on easier ground.

Where was he? I couldn’t see anyone up above, but I called and got an answer. A little higher I called again and got no answer. Not a good sign. And I still didn’t know where he was. I, we, were in a vast amphitheater of rock and snow. I climbed higher, and finally I spotted a blue parka huddled on the edge of a forty-foot cliff. I didn’t yell out again. I worked my way up until I was right next to him. “Hi,” I said, “How are you doing?” He lifted his head to look at me. His face under the parka’s hood was a mask of dried blood. Two white eyes peered up. “Not too good,” he said.

Head wounds bleed profusely, but the bleeding had stopped. He said his foot hurt a lot; it might be broken, but otherwise he was just bruised here and there. He was shivering so I eased him into the sleeping bag to keep him from going into shock. He was from the other guide service, not someone I knew. Before he got to the start of the Exum Ridge he also had decided to come down in the face of the storm. He had the boy go first down a series of slabs below the Upper Saddle. They were still roped together but not belaying, climbing in coils it’s called. Then the boy slipped, and when the rope paid out it pulled off the guide. As much as I could figure out, they tumbled down for a few hundred feet. Had the guide fallen off the ledge where he finally stopped he would have been killed.

The kid had tried to anchor his guide but clearly didn’t know anything about establishing anchors. I got some better anchors in and then all I could do was wait. After an hour or so I saw Rod working his way up to us. He had told his clients to contact the rangers as soon as they could (no cell phones in those days). There wasn’t a lot for us to do other than make sure the guide was as comfortable as possible. The wind howled, and from time to time it snowed.

After a few hours we heard a helicopter. It flew over the Lower Saddle and made several attempts to land, but the wind was too strong. The pilot would hover tentatively above the Saddle and then be blown away like a seagull riding an on-shore gale. Eventually he managed to drop a Stokes litter on the Saddle. Rod went down to get it, and when he got back we strapped the guide into it and waited for the climbing rangers to show up. The litter took up all of the ledge, so Rod and I had to stand, stomping our feet from time to time to drive away the cold. After another few hours the rangers huffed up to our aerie and took charge. Closer inspection revealed that the guide had a broken femur, not a broken foot.

Rod and I hiked down to the Saddle. He kept going, looking forward to a steak and some wine with his wife that evening, but Will and his party of ten had arrived. I was cold and exhausted and not such a good host. Will could take care of them, heat soup, tuck them in. Before we turned in the rangers passed by, carrying the guide. They would have to lower him over the fixed rope section. It would be a long journey for them, on into the night. Maybe the helicopter could land at the Platforms, saving them the last five miles.

The weather partially cleared by the next morning, so Will and I and our clients trudged back up the mountain. When we got to the Upper Saddle Will led out on the Belly Roll traverse but got stopped by ice on the holds. I gave it a try and managed to get across to a chimney that went up. The chimney was filled with snow. I floundered up it, almost swimming, but after about forty feet I decided the clients didn’t really want to do this. They wanted to stand on the summit, sure, but they were not prepared, by temperament or training, to suffer very much in order to do so. Above the chimney there would be ice, and I had seen enough of slipping clients. Down.

A few days later I went to see the guide (whose name I have obviously forgotten) in the hospital. He would heal in time, and we enjoyed some of the camaraderie that binds the community of guides. A number of years later I heard that he had been killed in a skiing accident. For myself, that was the last summer I worked as a guide.

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