Fire in the Sky


Oct 25, 2010
Outside Magazine
Grand Teton

Wyoming's Grand Teton   

On July 21, just after noon, 17 climbers were caught in a lightning storm as they descended from Wyoming's 13,770-foot Grand Teton. The ensuing epic required a record 83 rescuers. This is how one group of five unguided climbers, the Tyler party, was saved.

1. Summit, 9:15 A.M. The last of seven Exum Mountain Guides and their 15 clients top out. "There were big black clouds and lightning on the horizon," says Exum co-owner Nat Patridge. By 10:30, all guided groups have descended.

2. 200 to 600 feet from the summit, 12:15 P.M. A series of strikes pummels the three unguided groups still on the mountain: the Tyler party, spread along the Owen Chimney; the Kline party, on the Exum Ridge route; and the Sparks party, at the Belly Roll, on the Owen-Spaulding route. Brandon Oldenkamp, a 21-year-old in the Sparks party, falls 2,500 feet to his death.

3. Owen Chimney,12:18 Steven Tyler, the leader of his group, resuscitates his son-in-law, Troy Smith, who hasn't been breathing for 30 seconds. Meanwhile, Tyler's younger son, Dan, is dangling unconscious in his harness 50 feet below. When he comes to, his legs don't work, but he manages to rappel to the bottom of the chimney. Steven calls 911.

4. Lupine Meadows, 12:27 A page goes out to Grand Teton National Park rangers at Jenny Lake. They gear up for the rescue.

5. Lower Saddle, 11,650 feet, 2:02 The first rangers arrive at the Lower Saddle by helicopter. Ranger Jack McConnell and Exum guide Dan Corn begin their 100-minute ascent. "There were people all over that mountain," says pilot Matthew Heart, who would fly rescue runs and recon flights for the next eight hours.

6. Bottom of the Owen Chimney, 3:40 McConnell and Corn reach Dan Tyler. He still has no use of his legs, his fellow climber Henry Appleton has no use of his right leg, and Troy Smith has regained consciousness. All are flown off the mountain in "screamer suits," body harnesses that dangle by a rope beneath the chopper.

5:06 Another storm moves in. More lightning, snow. "The first bolt hit with this tremendous scream and roar," says ranger Marty Vidak. Only Jack McConnell is zapped, when he touches a charged rock.

7:15 Steven Tyler is short-hauled to the Lower Saddle and flown to Lupine Meadow, where he joins his son Dan in an ambulance. "It's not a terrible experience to ride on the end of a rope," says Steven.

7:56 All 17 climbers are off the mountain. Seven are short-hauled out, while the rest are escorted to the Lower Saddle and flown to Lupine Meadow. Every climber bears the classic entry and exit wounds of a direct lightning strike. Five are admitted to St. John's Medical Center in Jackson, and one is taken to Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center. Climber Betsy Smith loses a finger in surgery.