Rangers train for rescues in Grand Teton National Park. Teewinot — not the most popular climbing destination in the range, but one of the most dangerous — sits in the background. (National Park Service)

Jenny Lake Climbing Rangers recovered the body of Burak Akil on June 25. Akil, a New Jersey resident, was climbing Teewinot Mountain in Grand Teton National Park when — rangers believe — he fell on the descent and slid a long, long way on steep snow and over cliffs. He was climbing alone, wearing a helmet, carrying an ice axe and carrying but not wearing crampons.

He was the fifth person to die on Teewinot in the last four years.

Seven people died on Teewinot from 1997 to 2017. Four of those deaths occurred from 2014 to 2017. While the number of rescues and fatalities on Teewinot is much smaller than the more popular and demanding Grand Teton, which had 15 fatalities in the same 20-year period, the percentage of ranger missions that deal with death is higher on Teewinot. It had seven fatalities and 27 rescue missions compared to the 15 deaths and 96 missions on the Grand, according to Andrew White, spokesman for Grand Teton National Park.

But why?

“I wouldn’t say there is something specifically going on on Teewinot,” said Chris Bellino, a Jenny Lake supervisory climbing ranger.

More people in the mountains in general and the growth of serious ski mountaineering are certainly factors, but that’s true of the whole range and mountains across the state.

What happens on Teewinot, and similar “class 4” peaks everywhere, is less a function of shifting demographics and more a product of psychology, judgment and decision making — people underestimate “easier” routes.

The Yosemite Decimal System describes five classes of mountain terrain. Class 1 terrain can be navigated by simple hiking. You can think of it as a safe, well-maintained trail.

In class 2 terrain one can expect to encounter an occasional, quick four-limbed scramble but little chance of injury. Class 3 calls for regular scrambling i.e. carefully placing hands and feet to make your way, over lower angle, close-to-the ground obstacles where a slip and fall has minimal consequence. Travelers may want to use a rope or other protective equipment in class three terrain but it’s not usually necessary.

Class 4 is much like class 3, but with one important distinction — the consequence of a stumble, slip or fall can be catastrophic in fourth class terrain due to the high, steep or exposed nature of the surrounding mountainside. The ability to properly employ ropes, ice axes, crampons and other specialized gear becomes critical in class four terrain.

Class 5, by comparison, requires what most people think of as technical rock climbing — using hand and footholds to scale vertical cliffs with ropes and anchors set to catch a fall. Fifth-class climbing is further differentiated by difficulty from 5.1 up to 5.14 and beyond.

Climbers who want to stand atop a dramatic peak, but don’t necessarily have the experience or training necessary to manage fifth-class climbing often seek out and select fourth-class routes — like the East Face of Teewinot. Instead of hiring a guide service, or bringing and knowing how to use appropriate equipment, they confuse class-four climbing with hiking or a “walk-up” summit.

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John Gookin, Lander Search and Rescue commander, and an instructor at the National Outdoor Leadership School, is often asked if climbers or hikers typically get into more trouble in the mountains.

“It’s the hikers that go into technical terrain,” he said.

Sometimes they accidentally end up in terrain they aren’t equipped to handle. They try to take a short cut and suddenly find themselves somewhere they can’t move without risk of injury. Or, they read a mountain is fourth class, and misinterpret that as an easy scramble, not realizing that a misstep can have serious consequences.

One of the most common places Gookin’s seen people underestimate terrain is on 13,804-foot Gannett Peak, the state’s high point. Gookin didn’t have numbers for rescues on Gannett and the remoteness of the peak means it sees far fewer people than the temptingly accessible Tetons, so rescues aren’t as regular, he said. But in his 30 years with Lander Search and Rescue he’s responded to several calls involving people who think the summit ridge is “an easy walk in the snow,” only to find themselves in tight spots, high in the wilderness, without ropes, crampons or ice axes where a slip can be fatal, he said.

Too often people don’t understand the seriousness of a fall on steep and exposed mountain faces. Gookin read the journal of one man whose body he recovered in the Wind River Mountains while he was working as a deputy coroner. The man documented trips and accidents — almost daily — in fourth-class terrain.  

It seemed almost absurd that someone would keep at it after multiple accidents and injuries, he said.

“You just cannot slip in fourth-class terrain,” Gookin said.

That is apparent on Teewinot. Press releases for fatalities on the mountain read: “Fall on Teewinot results in fatality,” “Two climbers suffer fatal fall on Teewinot” and “Backcountry hiker falls to his death on Teewinot Mountain.”

Teewinot is far from the most formidable or popular mountain in the park. But its East Face, the “easy route” to its 12,326-foot summit, is considered class-four terrain.

The mountain also requires strong route-finding skills. The first time Bellino climbed Teewinot he found himself off course.

“I think it’s really an underestimation of the complexity of the route on Teewinot that is really getting people into trouble,” he said.

There’s a big difference between class 3 and class 4 terrain, Bellino said.

The 12,805-foot Middle Teton also has a popular route, but it’s class 3 terrain, considered scrambling where a rope might be carried.

The Middle is a more popular destination than Teewinot, but the numbers of search and rescues are comparable between the two peaks. Jenny Lake Climbing Rangers conducted 30 missions on the Middle between 1997 and 2017, but only three were fatalities, according to White.

The Middle’s third-class route is easier to navigate than Teewinot and rangers respond to a broader range of incidents on the peak, Bellino said.

“The Middle Teton incidents are less catastrophic,” he said. “When someone has a major incident on Teewinot, it often results in a fatality. On the Middle Teton, it’s usually someone sprains an ankle or breaks a leg.”

When Teewinot is covered in snow, a slip can mean a long, deadly slide. People need to carry and know how to use an ice ax to arrest a slide.  

“It’s essentially no-fall terrain when its snow-covered,” Bellino said. “A misstep on that terrain is going to be catastrophic.”

When the snow is melted, the mountainside is steep and rock-covered with lots of ledges to tumble over. Staying on route also becomes harder. As people work the ledge system down low, they often end up off route because there are so many options, Bellino said.

“On a mountain like Teewinot, you really need to slow down and make sure you are taking the path of least resistance,” he said.

Mountain rescues are rarely triggered by a single mistake, Gookin said. Rather, bad outcomes typically arise from a cascading series of seemingly innocuous bad decisions that build up. “If you look at the anatomy of an accident, there are all these factors,” he said.

Maybe the group started late, or didn’t eat a good breakfast. Perhaps they forgot their extra water bottle. Most of the bodies Gookin’s recovered came from people that became exhausted and dehydrated and made rash decisions.

The less experienced a person is in mountain travel, the more likely he or she is to make poor choices when tired, he said.

People might not realize — because they are in good cardiovascular shape or an experienced gym climber — the impact weather, altitude, snow and rockfalls can have on time and energy when navigating the mountains. People who don’t have the endurance for unexpected challenges make poor decisions as they become fatigued.

If people are new to navigating fourth-class terrain, they need to know how to properly assess and mitigate the risks. They need to be able to focus entirely on the task.

“You need to walk across the death-defying sidewalk and know that if someone asks you what time it is, you won’t even hear them,” he said.

It’s a skill that people can develop, but it can’t be taught by reading books or watching YouTube videos, he said. It takes practice, in the mountains, with careful planning, appropriate gear and the knowledge of what someone is getting into.”

Kelsey Dayton

Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide...

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  1. Nice article, especially when describing usually overlooked factors like fatigue in accident causation