Life, Death, and PTSD as a Ranger in the Tetons
For some climbing rangers in Wyoming's Grand Teton National Park, every ridgeline holds the memory of a rescue, every peak a body bag. It's more than they can handle alone.
“Rachel, where are you?” I yelled into the void above.
A fellow Grand Teton climbing ranger, who I’ll call Ben, and I were roped up in a wet and dirty chimney system on the east face of Teewinot, a 12,325-foot peak that rises more than 5,000 feet above the valley floor. And that was the problem. The standard east-face route up Teewinot is an easy scramble: it’s Grade Two, fourth class. We were looking for a woman who had wandered drastically off route and was now stranded on a rectangular-shaped ledge about the size of an Ensolite pad.
It was August 22, 2015. Three women in their mid-twenties—I’ll call them Kate, Rachel, and Tara—had planned to run up the east face of Teewinot. One of them had been up the face before and knew that, with an early start and some fitness and comfort with nonroped scrambling, they could pull it off. They all had experience hiking throughout the Tetons. But earlier that morning, we received a call about screams coming from just off the standard route. Ben and I were short-hauled by a helicopter to a ledge where we found two women without vital signs. Once we knew there was nothing we could do to save them, we began climbing up toward Rachel.
I looked back down at Ben and shook my head. Where was she? It didn’t make any sense—I couldn’t imagine anyone with a sense for route finding getting this off track. “Throw a pebble down if you can,” I called to her. I thought this would give us a sense of where she was stranded on the wall. “OK, but where are my friends?” I remember her asking. Her voice echoed across the face like a reflection in a fun house wall of mirrors.
“Your friends are down on the ledge below,” I lied. But it was only a white lie—they were still on that ledge 200 feet below.
A small pebble bounced 50 feet away to our left. Ben took the next pitch up a hundred feet and traversed 50 feet to the left. I soon joined him. We were now 40 feet above our stranded climber. A quick rappel brought me down to Rachel’s small perch. Physically, she was fine, but she was clearly shaken. We hardly spoke. I told her only what I was doing and how we would get off the mountain. I built an anchor, tied her a diaper harness with a sling, and clipped both of us in. Ben rappelled down beside us. Next came fitting her into the screamer suit, our cherry red Cordura diaper vest used to package a short-haul patient. The helicopter was inbound.
“Teewinot, this is helicopter Three Five Hotel Xray, how do you copy?”
“Loud and clear, how me?”
“I’ve got you the same.”
“Steve, winds are five knots from the south, we have two short-haulers at 310 pounds ready for you.”
“Copy, Drew, we’re inbound.”
A 150-foot rope dangled beneath the A-Star helicopter. Rachel and I were clipped together to a master point—the God ring—that we would need to clip into the rope. Steve maneuvered the ship toward the wall, the end of the rope now 50 feet above us.
“Five zero feet,” I spoke into the mic attached to my climbing helmet.
“Copy, five zero,” Steve slowly lowered the ship toward us.
“Four zero. Three zero. Two zero. One zero. Eye level. I have the rope.” It was mind-blowing what Steve could do with that helicopter.
I clipped our God ring into the end of the rope. Ben quickly unclipped us from the anchor.
“Hooked and ready.”
“Coming up.” Steve gently pulled us up and away from the wall, two marionettes held by one rope, firmly attached to the underbelly of the ship above. Within seconds we were moving east at 50 miles an hour, dangling in space 5,000 feet above Lupine Meadows and the Jenny Lake climbing rangers’ rescue cache, which served as both a headquarters for incident command as well as a landing zone for our helicopters. Rachel was silent, her face blank.
Steve set us down on the pad next to the rescue cache and departed back to Teewinot to retrieve the woman’s two friends. Her friends, however, would be making the flight in body bags. Rachel looked around and asked again, “Where are Kate and Tara?”
I could only look back at her and slowly shake my head.
That morning, around 11 A.M. on a bluebird day, the group, already off course, had been traversing south on the wall, moving out of a fissure system called the Black Chimney, about 600 feet from the summit.
The women realized they weren’t on route. All of them started to feel unsafe. Rachel sat down to reassess their situation. Tara, just ten feet away, tried to climb up and over a small ledge to get a better view of their surroundings. And then she slipped. Kate reached out to grab her, and they both fell, one and then two women hurtling through space, alternately bouncing off the just-shy-of-vertical walls and then free-falling before coming to a final resting place 200 feet down on the ledge below.
I still imagine the two screams in my waking hours.
I still see a sobbing woman in a heap, learning that her friends were gone.
That evening, I sat alone in the rescue cache in Lupine Meadows, poured a whiskey, and opened my battered and dog-eared copy of Leigh Ortenburger and Reynold Jackson’s A Climber’s Guide to the Teton Range. The Black Chimney route, the route we had found ourselves in, was probably first climbed in 1939 and later rated 5.6. “Abandon the crest of the ridge in order to get into the beginning of the Black Chimney,” read the description. “Above the two chockstones in the lower section… is a steep rotten section that often has black ice in it. After three or four rope-lengths, traverse south out of the chimney onto easier rock leading to the summit.” The route description ends with the comment, “At best, the Black Chimney is a treacherous place because of the rotten rock.”
“Are you fucked up?” asked another ranger, who I’ll call Jason, walking into the rescue cache. I hadn’t even finished my first drink, but that wasn’t what he was wondering. “No more than usual.” I poured him a glass. “You got a minute? I need to talk.”
He had been on his share of body recoveries. “Sure, man,” he said. “I get it, I’ve been there. We’ve all been there.”
“This one was different,” I said. “Two women on the ledge. It was obvious they had injuries incompatible with life. We had to climb up through blood in the chimney to find the last gal. I’ve picked up plenty of others—friends even—but this one felt … different.”
Karl Marlantes describes conversations like these in his 2011 book What It Is Like to Go to War. Marlantes was a young Marine lieutenant in Vietnam and noted that none of his men ever wanted to talk to the chaplain, because the chaplain had never seen what they had seen. But another soldier, the sergeant, was in his third tour in Vietnam. And one by one, the men would steal back to his tent to talk.
Jason didn’t say much as I spoke. He listened and nodded. I knew he would. This is what we do for one another. He finished his drink and said, “Let me know what you need, brother,” and walked out the front door into the darkness.
Two years after pulling Rachel from the ledge, I was sitting in the back of the room at the main lodge of Snowbird in Utah. In the winter I work as a forecaster at the Utah Avalanche Center, and each fall we have a Utah Snow and Avalanche Workshop. Dave Richards, head of Alta Ski Area’s snow safety and avalanche reduction team, stood on stage talking about mental health and post-traumatic stress disorder. He showed photo after photo of the anonymous frozen and mangled bodies he had recovered over the course of his career. Dave said he suffered greatly from all the recoveries and that, at one point, he had needed to take some time off. I was shocked, but not at his emotional trauma. Dave was talking openly about mental health and resiliency. He wasn’t sweeping it under the rug. Dave comes from a hardcore mountain family—his father is a longtime climber and now retired ski patroller from Alta, and his brother, Cory, is the center of Cold, a documentary about surviving an avalanche while descending Gasherbrum II in Pakistan. But this was a stroke of genius. By detailing his struggles in front of 700 snow and avalanche professionals, Dave kicked open the door for the rest of us to talk about mental health. Like many things, it wasn’t just the message but the messenger.
Mental health is like physical health. Both can suffer trauma. Each can take weeks, months, or years to recover from. Sometimes we never recover at all. Mental trauma can affect different people on the same rescue or recovery in very different ways. We may walk through terrain where we conducted a body recovery or see someone in a crowd who you’d swear was the person from the body bag. Bob Irvine, a Teton climbing ranger from 1963 to 1995, says he can’t walk through the range without seeing places where people have died. On the flip side, another climbing ranger, George Montopoli, who began his summer Teton climbing career in 1977, told me not long ago that for every place he sees a body recovery, he sees another place where we made a rescue. For a time, I too could only look at the mountains and see death and injury. I know countless widows around these mountains.
The alpinist Will Gadd recently told me: “If you only see death in the mountains, then you’ll never go there.” I know this is how we are wired. We embrace things that nourish us and give us joy, and we avoid things that cause pain and sadness. But the mountains bring about joy, and they bring about sadness. They remind us of the eternal link between life and death—we can’t have one without the other. Understanding this connection is fundamental to our own resiliency. So is talking with others who hold similar experiences. This is often referred to as peer-to-peer counseling. Another crucial part of the path is finally shedding the stigma of mental health and suffering. Thanks, Dave.
Marlantes, the former Marine lieutenant, advises what I would call Pre-Traumatic Stress Management, ways to understand and anticipate trauma before it happens. These may include sitting with others and talking about what it may be like while on the scene. Then, after the event, strive to communicate with vulnerability to friends and loved ones. Exercise. Sleep. Avoid the overconsumption of food, alcohol, and sex. Find time for quiet and reflection.
In the Tetons, at the end of a rescue or body recovery, we’d often wander over to the porch at the large cabin in the meadow just south of Jenny Lake. There’d be a bottle or two on the porch, but often it would go unopened. We’d look past one another, tell a joke about death, look up at Teewinot, listen to Cottonwood Creek and the rustle of wind through the leaves. Sometimes we’d tell stories. What was important was that each of us had been there; we all, in another way, had blood on our hands—we had all shared the same experiences. While always offered, we didn’t need the chaplain. We needed each other.
Drew Hardesty is a longtime forecaster at the Utah Avalanche Center and a climbing ranger in Grand Teton National Park.