Buried Weak Layer

Joy and Sorrow in the Mountains

 

Part I

“Rachel…Where are you?” I yelled up into the void above. Case Martin, another Grand Teton climbing ranger, and I were roped up in a wet and dirty chimney system on the east face of Teewinot, five thousand feet above the valley floor. And that was the problem. The standard east face route up Teewinot is Grade Two, Fourth class. We were looking for a woman who had wandered terribly, even tragically, off route and was now stranded on a rectangular-shaped ledge about the size of a standard issue ensolite pad.

That evening, I sat alone in the rescue cache in Lupine Meadows, poured a whiskey and opened my battered and dog-eared copy of the Ortenberger/Jackson guide to the Teton Range. The Black Chimney route, the route we had found ourselves in, was first climbed in 1939 and later rated 5.6 in the Yosemite Decimal System.  Leigh Ortenberger’s description of the route: “Abandon the crest of the ridge in order to get into the beginning of the Black Chimney…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 that “At best, the Black Chimney is a treacherous place because of the rotten rock.”

It was August 23, 2015.  Three women in their mid-twenties had planned to “run up” the east face of Teewinot and be back before a friend’s wedding in Jackson Hole that afternoon.  One of them had been up the east face before and knew that with an early start and some fitness and comfort with non-roped scrambling, they could pull it off.

I looked back down at Case and shook my head.  Where wasshe?  It didn’t make any sense – she wasn’t where I would go or imagine others would go with any sense of route finding (even in the Black Chimney).  “Throw a pebble down if you can,” I thought this would give us a sense of where she was stranded on the wall.  “Okay, but where are my friends?” she asked.  Her voice echoed across the face like a reflection in a wall of mirrors in a funhouse. But this was no funhouse.

“Your friends are down on the great ledge below,” I lied.  But it was only a white lie – Indeed they wereon the ledge far below. A small pebble bounced 50’ away to climber’s left.  Case took the next pitch up a hundred feet and traversed 50 feet to the south.  I soon joined him, now 40’ above our stranded climber.  A quick rappel brought me down to her small perch where I built an anchor, tied her a diaper harness, and clipped both of us in.  Case rapped down beside us. Next came fitting her into the screamer suit, our cherry red cordura diaper-vest used to package a short-haul patient.  We hardly spoke.  I told her only what I was doing and how we would get off the mountain.  The helicopter was inbound.

“Teewinot, this is helicopter Three-Five Hotel X-Ray, how do you copy?”“Loud and clear, how me?”“I’ve got you the same”“Steve, winds are 5 knots from the south, we have two short-haulers at 310 pounds ready for you.”

“Copy, Drew, we’re inbound.”

The 150’ shorthaul rope beneath the A-Star helicopter was connected to both the cargo hook and a secondary attachment for redundancy in the event of an inadvertent release.  On the short-hauler’s end of the rope, the captive eye connected to a ring with a double carabiner package. Rachel and I were now clipped together with our lanyards to a master point – the God Ring – that would soon clip into the double carabiner package on the short-haul rope.  Steve maneuvered the ship toward the wall, the end of the rope now fifty feet above us.

“Five-zero-feet”, I said into the mike attached to my climbing helmet.

“Copy, five-zero”.  Steve slowly lowered the ship and thus the rope 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.

“Hook up.”

I clipped our God Ring into the double carabiner package dangling on the end of the rope.  Case quickly unclipped us from the anchor (it’s generally best not to have a helicopter anchored to the wall).

“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, one hundred and fifty feet above.  Within seconds we were moving east at 50 miles an hour, dangling in space over five thousand feet above Lupine Meadows and the rescue cache.  I tried not to think of my fighter pilot friend rolling his eyes when describing his distaste for helicopters – “Nah, not for me.  Too many moving parts. It’s a miracle they get off the ground at all.”

Steve set us down on the pad next to the rescue cache and departed back to Teewinot to retrieve the 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.

830am that morning. Bluebird. Rachel was traversing south on the wall, moving out of the Black Chimney.

“Rachel”, called Kate, “this doesn’t seem right.”  Rachel nodded, her eyes filled with fear and uncertainty.  Kate grasped a small hold on the rock and slowly put her weight on a small, sloped foothold, Tara just below.  And then she slipped.  One and then two women falling through space, alternately bouncing off the just-shy-of-vertical walls and thenfree-falling before coming to a final resting place two hundred feet down on the great ledge below.

I still imagine the two screams in my waking hours.

I still see a crumpled and emotionally broken woman in a heap next to the rescue cache.

Part II

“Are you fucked up?”  Chris asked as he walked into the rescue cache.  I hadn’t even finished my first drink, but that wasn’t what he was asking. “No more than usual,” I poured him a drink.  “You got a minute?  I need to talk about what it was like climbing up through blood in the chimney?”  Karl Marlantes describes these important conversations in his book What It’s 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.  One by one, they would steal back to the sergeant’s tent to talk.  The sergeant was in his third tour in Vietnam.

Two years later I was sitting in the back of the room at Snowbird at our annual fall Utah Snow and Avalanche Workshop. Dave Richards, head of Alta ski area snow safety and avalanche reduction, stood on stage talking about mental health and post-traumatic-stress-disorder (PTSD).  He showed photo after photo of anonymous frozen and mangled bodies he had recovered over the course of his career.  Dave said he suffered greatly from all the recoveries and at one point needed to take some time off.  I was shocked.  But not at his emotional trauma.  What Dave was doing for our community was making mental health and resiliency something that could be talked about and acknowledged and not swept under the rug.  Dave comes from a hard-core mountain family – his father a long time climber and now-retired ski patroller from Alta, his brother Cory the center of a documentary, Cold, that tells of his winter ascent of Gasherbrum II in sometimes minus-fifty degree temperatures.  And therein lies the genius of it all for opening the basement door to mental health with public safety: It was not just the message, but the messenger.

Mental health is like physical health in many respects insofar as our mental and physical selves can suffer trauma.  Each can take weeks…months….years to recover.  Sometimes we never recover at all.  Mental trauma can affect us in different ways, even long after theevent.  And it may 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 1963-1995 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 that he sees a body recovery, he sees another place where we made a save or rescue.  For a time, I too could only look at the mountains and see death and injury and I’m not alone.   I know countless widows in both valleys of the Tetons.  My now-girlfriend struggled with her own relationship with the mountains when her then-partner fell over 500 feet to his death.  They were scrambling un-roped on the Cathedral Traverse in terrain between Teewinot and Mt. Owen.  This was in July 2012.

When I first heard the term “resiliency,” I imagined the boxer in the ring, face down on the mat.  In the smoke and fog of his brain, he hears his father’s words, “It’s not whether you get knocked down.  It’s whether you get back up.”  The American Psychological Association describes resilience as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress.  It means ‘bouncing back’ from difficult experiences.” But it may be more than just having a “glass-is-full” view of life (and death).

The acclaimed alpinist/adventurer Will Gadd recently told me that “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: that death is a part of life and that life is a part of death – we can’t have one without the other.  Understanding this 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.

The author Marlantes puts something out there that I would call “Pre-TraumaticStress Management” (PTSM): ways to understand and anticipate trauma beforeit happens.  This may include sitting with others and talking about what it may be like while on scene…or ways to create short-term “separation” with the other (read: death) in order to do what needs to get done.  Strive to communicate with vulnerability to friends and loved ones where you’ll be received with openness and non-judgment.  Maintain a positive outlook on life where problems are opportunities to overcome.  Exercise.  Sleep. Avoid the overconsumption of food, alcohol, and sex.  Find time for quiet and reflection.

For us in the Tetons, at the end of a rescue or body recovery, we’d often wander over to the porch at the Sinclair/Irvine/Kimbrough/Jernigan cabin.  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, and 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 all shared the same experiences.  While always offered, we didn’t need the chaplain or the CISD (critical incident stress debrief).  We just needed each other.

Drew Hardesty is a long time forecaster at the Utah Avalanche Center and climbing ranger in Grand Teton National Park.  He was an intel officer during Desert Storm.  Karl Marlantes’ What It’s Like to Go To War,Laurence Gonzales’ Surviving Survival, and the Book of Job in the Old Testament, as always, provided great insight into these questions.   

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Drew Hardesty

Drew Hardesty

What trends have you noticed in the backcountry community?

Trends- See that avalanche fatalities have remained flat- or even declined a touch over the past 20 years- particularly as use has skyrocketed in the same timeframe. Utah is now at 3.3 fatalities per year.

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