On the Fourth of July, 2020, two men stumbled past my partner and I’s camp in the upper south fork of Grand Teton National Park’s Garnet Canyon. They were seemingly disoriented or at least highly fatigued, walking just far enough from our tent to be out of earshot. Despite the low light, we identified them as a pair of young San Francisco tourists we’d met hours earlier while climbing the South Teton’s Northwest Couloir. Though only rated Class 3, the otherwise easy scramble has one problematic crux, a steep, 45 degree, unavoidable snowfield just before the entrance to the couloir. In order to summit, one must kick steps into the steep face, ice axe at the ready, usually assisted by crampons. We met the pair at this exact moment, and it didn’t take long for red flags to be raised.
As a local mountaineer who’s spent the better part of six years exploring Grand Teton National Park both summer and winter, it doesn’t take much for me to spot a fish out of water. With matching ice axes, climbing harnesses, crampons and helmets, it was clear the duo was donned in rental gear. A devilish looking storm was building, and the window for a safe summit was closing rapidly. Just as we were preparing to pass them and proceed onto the snow, one man in the party asked “hey man, how do you feel about glissading?” Glissading refers to the highly controversial and in my opinion, very dangerous practice of sliding down a snowfield while dragging the spike of your ice axe like a boat rudder to meter your speed. While totally acceptable on low angle terrain, to glissade a steep snowfield could carry grave consequences. Below my left foot was hundreds of feet of convex rolling snow terminating in an unforgiving smorgasbord of scree and Volkswagen sized boulders. “They must be kidding me” I thought to myself, instead opting to respond with a stern statement of disapproval and a short explanation of my logic. Having voiced my concerns, we carried on.
My partner and I reached the summit successfully, narrowly dodging the storm and scrambling off the fifth highest peak in the Teton Range just as rain droplets began to fall from the sky. The San Francisco duo was trailing close behind, but as we dropped lower to the saddle between the Middle and South Teton, they were nowhere to be seen. Not long after we spotted them at the base of the unforgiving snowfield. Baffled and slightly agitated, mostly because if they’d fallen we’d have been the newly appointed search and rescue crew, we shook our heads and took solace in their safety. Unfortunately, their luck would soon turn for the worst.
“Help! Help! Someone has fallen and I need your help!” I heard someone shouting from the North, just as I was getting ready to crawl into my tent. The time was approximately 11:00 PM. Immediately my heart jumped into overdrive. The man introduced himself as Vortek, an unaffiliated Polish climber who ascended the south fork of Garnet Canyon in search of two men stuck on the Middle Teton with presumptuously life threatening injuries. Because of a severe language barrier, getting precise information from the man was very difficult, but I began lacing my soggy boots regardless. My partner stayed behind, for it was her first multi-day mountaineering trip and between tired legs and a lack of experience, we both agreed I’d be better off alone. By headlamp, I spent the next two hours climbing and descending the re-frozen snowfields of Garnet Canyon armed with first aid supplies, food and solar blankets for the injured party. After three 911 calls and a long text messaging string with first responders via my Garmin satellite tracking device, it became clear Vortek was confused. The climbers were actually far beneath us, not on the Middle Teton but the Cave Couloir, a steep, glaciated and narrowly walled snowfield emptying directly into Lupine Meadows. Even worse, by Teton County Search and Rescue’s description of two “Asian-American climbers in their mid twenties” I knew exactly who the injured party was. It was the pair from the South Teton, the same ones who stumbled past our tent hours earlier.
Fortunately I had skied “The Cave” several times and knew exactly where to find the couple, guiding Vortek and I to the mouth of the couloir where we spotted headlamps several hundred feet below. Hauntingly, right next to my feet was a trail of skid marks bisected by a defined, deep line indicating the spike of an ice axe and ultimately a glissade. My heart sank. I couldn’t believe it. They had lost control.
For fear of not being able to re-ascend the freezing snow and wary of my sleep deprived decision making, I opted to send Vortek down with an axe and emergency supplies so I could return to my partner above. First responders were less than thirty minutes out, and a few headlamps were quickly approaching the climbers from below. A broken leg was the injury, a result of an un-arrested slide into an island of rocks on the north side of the couloir. The two spent the night in the canyon, the injured in probably the most agonizing pain of his life. We awoke to the sound of helicopter blades, and watched as a gurney was airlifted high into the sky, sucked into the cabin and whisked away over the dawn of a new day. Fortunately, the man lived.
From a Local’s Perspective
Every year, both summer and winter, I am witness to very poor and reckless decision making in Grand Teton National Park. The morning following the rescue, I encountered a trio of climbers without axes or crampons asking for route info on the “South Teton” while pointing at Cloudveil Dome, a more technical peak to the east. Had they not ran into us, they would’ve made an uninformed and ill-prepared ascent, potentially joining Andre on the long list of 2020 GTNP rescues. At least a half dozen times I have given route information to climbers without maps and even forcefully guided parties off peaks when I noticed poor decision making. I have preformed gear checks on inexperienced climbers and warned several tourists of the dangers involved with high-country thunderstorms. My goal by telling this story is not to stand on a soap box or pit myself above anyone, as I have made my very fair share of questionable mountaineering decisions as well. Instead, I present this account as evidence of an ever increasing problem facing Grand Teton National Park and the sport of mountaineering as a whole, especially as tourism rates continue to skyrocket and gear becomes more affordable and widespread. Not only did Andre’s decision to glissade the Cave Couloir threaten his life and the life of his partner, but also mine, my partner’s, another visitor’s and those of the responding rescue personnel. To close this article, I offer all the warning signs and poor choices I observed in Garnet Canyon that day, and an opinion on how they could’ve been safely avoided, in hopes that whoever reads this post can take at least one nugget with them next time they enter the wilderness, including myself.
- Rental Shops – I am not sure where Andre and his partner obtained their equipment, but whoever outfitted them should’ve, in my opinion, done a more thorough analysis of mountaineering preparedness and education. This step could be a crucial component to saving the lives of unprepared tourists.
- Weather – As inexperienced climbers, the pair decided to race the storm to the top of the South Teton, forcing a hasty descent. My partner and I did the same, but we knew the route and had the fitness to efficiently down-climb on slick rock. The two men didn’t move as quickly, getting stuck in the couloir and ultimately opting for the quicker but much more dangerous decision to glissade. Weather awareness is a crucial component to mountain safety, and had they not been rushed by the storm, they may have opted for the safer but slower way down
- Technique – Educate and practice! With adequate experience Andre and his partner could have moved faster down the mountain and crossed the snowfield with ease.
- Situational Awareness and Risk Assessment – When other parties are nearby, the decision to attempt high risk maneuvers such as glissading a steep snowfield no longer implicates only your well-being. In this case, one poorly thought out choice called many lives into question. Had their fall happened on the first glissade, we would have, as the responding party, been sitting ducks for a rapidly approaching electrical storm.
- Know Your Limits – Based on their pace when wondering past our camp, the pair was well beyond their fitness threshold. Learning to identify the signs of altitude induced fatigue and general exhaustion comes with time, and is crucial to a safe day in the mountains. Tired muscles and minds do not preform optimally.
- Fear the Dark – Approaching and after nightfall, conservative choices become even more essential. Third party foot traffic is reduced, minimizing the likelihood of being found by other hikers. Also, per the story above, helicopters and other rescue services cannot operate at night. Had Andre been critically injured, his eight hours in the canyon bottom could’ve proved lethal.
- Don’t Compound the Problem – Though not mentioned above, Vortek decided to ascend the steep snowfields of Garnet Canyon in tennis shoes, in a short sleeved shirt and without an ice axe or crampons. I suspect he left his camp in a panic state, eager to begin a search for the climbers, negleting his own personal safety. He also tried to coerce me into climbing the Ellingwood and Southwest Couloirs of the Middle Teton in search of the injured climbers, despite both routes being highly technical and extremely dangerous to climb by night. Though his intentions were pure and valiant, Search and Rescue personnel will always advise responding parties against putting themselves at greater risk to avoid complicating the existing rescue. Had he or I fallen in our attempt to locate Andre, SAR operations would be hindered and more complex, reducing the likelihood of the original party, or us, receiving timely extraction or surviving at all.
- A Map is a Must! – This pertains to the group I found the following morning. Had they been carrying a map and known how to use it, they wouldn’t have mistaken Cloudveil Dome, a much more technical peak, for the South Teton.
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