With the weather starting to change from summer-like to fall-like this past weekend, and more cold storms rolling across the Western U.S. this week, I thought it might be a good time to remind people to be more weather-vigilant when planing excursions into the mountains.
Whenever I see that first cold weather system approaching on the weather maps and then that first bit of new snow high in the Tetons, I am reminded of September 1985.
Back then, I was working in Grand Teton National Park as a Climbing Ranger, when the call came in that multiple parties were overdue from their climbs of the Grand Teton the day before.
Grand Rescue September 1985
It was late morning on Thursday, September 12th, 1985 and still pouring rain in the valley and snowing hard above the 8,000-foot elevation in the mountains. I cringed at the thought of having to hike up Garnet Canyon in that kind of weather.
Fellow ranger Renny Jackson and I loaded our packs, steeling ourselves for full-on winter conditions, and headed up the trail. Just above the snowline, near the Platforms camp at around 9,000-feet, we switched to our winter mountaineering double-boots.
By the time we hit the Middle Teton Glacier moraine at just over 10,000-feet, we were plowing through snowdrifts that were two to three feet deep, and punching down to the rocks beneath the snow.
When we reached the Lower Saddle at 11,600-feet, we experienced winds that were hurricane force, in excess of 75 mph. On our approach to the start of the Exum Ridge, we were forced to the leeward side of the Saddle, to avoid being blown over, and several times we had to drop to our knees in a crawl. Visibility was horrible, as well, in the sideways driving snow.
Our shouts into this maelstrom probably traveled no further than a foot or two from our lips, in a futile attempt to make verbal contact with anyone that might still be alive on the mountain. It was getting dark, and we felt going higher would be futile, so we returned to the Saddle to wait for morning, and hopefully better weather.
Full-on Winter Conditions
The weather the previous day, Wednesday, September 11th dawned clear and temperatures were relatively warm. The storm began early that afternoon, catching several parties high on the Exum Ridge. One party, more familiar with the mountain, managed a quick escape from the wind and snow that quickly enveloped the mountain.
Two other parties, a party of three and a party of two, who were unfamiliar with their route, would spend the next two days trying to find their way down from near the summit of the Grand.
During the next two days, it snowed continuously and the wind on the mountain was incessant. Not the kind of weather you would want to be caught in for more than an hour, dressed in light summer mountain apparel, as these five individuals were. Let alone sit out two nights at 13,000-feet without any shelter.
Unfortunately, two of the five young men, would succumb to hypothermia. A third would slip on the icy rocks and plummet to his death over a cliff.
A Glimmer of Hope
After our failed attempt to get higher on the mountain during the height of the storm, Renny and I would be welcoming additional help from Rangers Leo Larson and Randy Harrington, who were hiking up in the dark to join us.
During a brief break in the clouds, well after nightfall, as Randy and Leo approached the Lower Saddle hut, I was standing outside looking up towards the mountain and thought I saw the light of a headlamp, high in the gully to the west of the Exum Ridge.
Leo, Randy, and Renny confirmed that I was wasn’t seeing things. Then it was game-on, as the four of us re-packed and headed back up the mountain that night with newly inspired energy, which came from knowing someone was still alive.
It was cold, it was dark, the wind made it miserable, and the mountain was completely iced over. But we were well equipped for the task ahead. As Renny put it, “It was more a discounting of personal comfort than it was personal safety”, for us.
For the two remaining survivors, we arrived at their location just in time, and spent the rest of the night trying to re-warm them, as best we could. Overnight, on what was now Friday, September 13th, the temperatures on the mountain dropped down to near 20-degrees, with the wind-chill factor it would feel like it was well below zero. In plastic double-boots that was tolerable. In summer hiking shoes, like the two remaining climbers had, their feet were like blocks of wood, from frostbite.
Whenever we have that same type of weather in September, I am reminded of that storm in 1985. I always look up at the mountains and hope no one is caught up there, unprepared.
In a way, it was that September storm that has driven me in my career as a meteorologist, to always try and get the forecast right. As if someone’s life might depend on it.
Jim is the chief meteorologist at mountainweather.com and has been forecasting the weather in the mountains for over 25 years.
Note: This story was chronicled in Sports Illustrated, December 15, 1986 issue and the full tale can be read on-line in the SI Vault, link below: