Mountain climbing is surely one of the most dangerous of the extreme sports. It’s a trial of wills that takes a clear head, teamwork, and unflappable trust in your climbing partners. The challenge is magnified ten-fold when the climb is a rescue operation. On this Episode of America’s National Parks, a harrowing rescue of a climber at Grand Teton National Park.

August 21st, 1967. While climbing the 12,800 ft Mount Owen, two men heard an alarming distant call for help from the neighboring Grand Teton peak.

The men hurried their descent, and rushed to the Ranger’s cabin at Jenny Lake and knocked on the door.

It was one in the morning, and a lanky blonde boy answered. The men asked him if his ranger father was home. The boy informed them that he was the ranger — 22-year-old Ralph Tingey.

Tingey rushed to a scenic turnout with a line of sight to the north face of the mountain. He flashed his headlights in an S.O.S. — three short, three long, three short.

Faintly from high on the mountain, he saw a flashlight respond in kind.

Tingey informed other rangers and all agreed that nothing could be done until the morning. The stranded figures would be on their own for the night.

At the first light of dawn, Tingey returned to the pullout with a spotting scope. As the light increased, he spotted one climber walking around to keep warm and another in a sleeping bag, presumably injured and unable to walk.

In the 60s, climbing was in its infancy. Gear was hard to come by – much of it imported from Europe. There were no cell phones. There was no GPS. There weren’t as many established climbing routes. In fact, a rescue had never been attempted on the north face of Grand.

Lorraine Hough and Gaylord Campbell had nearly completed their climb the day before when their terrifying situation took hold. Campbell had taken the lead while Hough belayed 20 feet below him. Large rocks broke loose, striking him on the leg, and sending him tumbling below.

Hough rushed to tend to his injuries and made a make-shift splint with an ice pick and put him into a sleeping bag while she began to cry for help. She knew they would never make it down on their own.

Hours went by, and as night set in, lightning loomed in the distance. She began to click her flashlight in an S.O.S. She never saw Tingey’s headlights. He had just caught a glimpse of her signal, which she was sending less and less frequently as the batteries began to die out.

A helicopter had been called in, but it took most of the day to get there. When it finally arrived, the pilot flew rangers Rick Reese and Pete Sinclair up past the ledge, where Hough was waving frantically. By chance, Leigh Ortenburger, the world’s leading authority on climbing the Grand Tetons and author of a definitive guidebook, happened to be on the summit with Bob Irvine. Hearing cries for help, they looked down and spotted the stranded climbers. They were trying to figure out a way to notify rangers when the helicopter zoomed by.

Climbing rangers Sinclair, Reese, Irvine and Tingey, park employees Ted Wilson and Mike Ermarth, along with Ortenburger made up the rescue team. Tingey, Reese, Irvine and Wilson had grown up as young climbers together in Salt Lake City. They knew each other’s shorthand, having established some of the climbing routes together still in use today. The whole team was a group of some of the most experienced climbers in the US, but they were about to attempt something that many thought impossible.

Sent ahead to reach the injured climber, Reese used an inflatable splint to immobilize the leg. Had Campbell been suffering just a broken arm, they might have put him in a backpack-style carrier to evacuate him, but the badly broken leg presented the risk of a severed artery if it were jostled around. Reese radioed to the team that they’d need to remove him by basket.

An evacuation decision had to be made — whether to haul Campbell up to an easier route down the mountain or to lower the injured climber roughly 2,000 feet to the Teton Glacier. The team determined it would be too difficult to haul that much weight up the steep and loose-rock terrain and that Campbell might not survive it.

The North Face of Grand is tough and foreboding. In fact, no one had ever been up or down it. But the team decided their best option was to head straight down the North Face.  

First, they got Hough to safety, then radioed for more rope, a bolt kit and morphine. It was getting dark, and the supplies would have to wait until morning.

Wilson kept Campbell company throughout the night. They spoke of trips each had taken to Europe, routes they had climbed and climbers they knew.

At dawn, the helicopter delivered the rope and bolt kit and, hovering near the ledge, tossed a box of morphine to Ortenburger, who caught it.

The team set up a Austrian cable rig – just a quarter-inch-thick cable that would need to hold 500 pounds – Campbell, the litter that carried him, and a climber to keep it horizontal as they descended together, a few inches at a time.

Campbell was secured in the litter and a helmet was placed over his face to protect him from falling rocks. Numerous holes had to be hand-drilled more than four inches into the rock for security bolts to hold the winch, and a second system of belay ropes was set up as a safety backup.

They had 300 feet of cable, but weren’t sure if it was enough. Ortenburger and Irvine dropped rocks down the face and timed their fall, using the gravity velocity formula to calculate distance.

The math looked good, so Ortenburger went down first on a 300-foot rope. When he reached a large ledge big enough for everyone to stand, he yelled up, “It’ll reach.”

The rest went down, and they hauled Campbell down the ledge inch by inch as the steel cable jerked and made sounds as though it wanted to snap.

When everyone reached the ledge safely, they debated what to do next, and decided to go straight down again. They lowered Ortenburger down the 300-foot rope, which barely reached, and then they set up the rig again and tediously brought Campbell down again litter.

The rest of the climbers had to rappel down on a single strand of rope, across a knot joining two 150-foot ropes. They all made it, and prepared for a cold, hungry night on another ledge. There wasn’t enough room for them all to stay in the area, so they split up for Cambell’s third night on the mountain.

The team traveled 1,100 feet the first full day of the rescue, but were still a formidable 900 feet from their goal.

On the third day, they party reached Teton Glacier, where another team met them and all worked for hours to get the litter to a spot where a helicopter could finally pick it up at a level landing pad they had carved out of snow.

After a 20-minute helicopter ride, Campbell was in St. John’s Hospital in Jackson, where he recovered quickly.

When the helicopter brought the rescuers back down to the Jenny Lake cabin, they found the superintendent had left them a case of beer on ice.

None of the rescuers ever heard from Campbell again, until a 2016 documentary in which Campbell criticized the rescue, saying they should have carried him out backpack style, getting him to a hospital on the first day.

“The Impossible Rescue” made national headlines, and Vice President Hubert Humphrey wrote the rescuers a letter praising their courage. Stewart Udall, the Interior secretary, had the rangers flown to Washington, D.C. to receive gold medals for valor.

Several of the rescuers went on to become professors, Wilson would be elected mayor of Salt Lake City, and the lanky Ralph Tingey later became the superintendent of Grand Teton National Park. Looking back, he says there are still times he wakes in the middle of the night clutching his pillow over how dangerous the rescue was over forty years ago.

Few landscapes in the world are as striking as that of Grand Teton National Park. Rising above pristine lakes teeming with wildlife, the Grand Tetons offer over two hundred miles of trails, a float down the Snake River, magnificent vistas, wildflowers, forests, and, of course, mountain climbing. The park also has a rich cultural history with old homesteads and cattle ranches to explore and photograph.

The park is open 24-hours a day, year-round. Most roads, facilities and services are all open or available during the summer, but may be closed at other times of the year.

Six campgrounds operate within the park and parkway during the summer. Most are available on a first-come, first-served basis, although reservations can be made for group camping, the Colter Bay RV Park and the Headwaters Campground and RV Sites at Flagg Ranch. Lodges and cabins are also available, along with restaurants and stores for provisions.

The park experiences long, cold winters, and snow and frost are possible any month.

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Music for this week’s episode is provided through the generosity of the artists under a creative commons license.