Ted Wilson, Pete Sinclair, Ralph Tingey, Mike Ermarth, Rick Reese, Bob Irvine together after the 1967 North Face rescue. (Courtesy of the National Park Service)

New film tells the story of The Grand Rescue

By Kelsey Dayton
— July 8, 2014

Rockfall in the mountains emits a distinctive sound.

Lorraine McCoy, then 21, was belaying her climbing partner Gaylord Campbell on the North Face of the Grand Teton on Aug. 22, 1967, when she heard an explosion — a loud bang of rock bouncing off rock. She was situated beneath an overhang and unable to see her partner. She tightened the rope he was attached to above, expecting a fall. But instead of feeling the rope go taut with the loading of body weight, it came back empty, the rope severed.

Kelsey Dayton

Thus began one of the most famous rescues in Grand Teton National Park, the first to happen on the 13,775-foot Grand Teton’s famous North Face.

It was a rescue that would take three days as rangers worked in unknown territory, only for the victim to criticize their efforts and abilities in the media. It is a story that Jenny Wilson grew up hearing from her dad Ted Wilson and his friends, the rangers on that mission. It became a Teton legend and part of the legacy of the famous Jenny Lake Climbing Rangers. After years of hearing the story Jenny Wilson thought it needed to be documented. She co-directed and co-produced “The Grand Rescue,” which will play in Jackson for the first time Wednesday night.

The film has already screened in Salt Lake City and at the Mountainfilm in Telluride film festival in Colorado, but has yet to screen where the story happened and where the re-enactments were filmed.

“This is a Teton story,” Jenny Wilson said. “This is a true story. This is the legacy of the Jenny Lake Rangers.”

The Grand Teton’s North Face is not an especially difficult technical climb by today’s standards, with at least one route never exceeding a 5.8  rating — a moderate grade. Often there is snow and ice in the chimneys — a particular challenge considering the old mountain boots climbers wore in the 1960s, said Ralph Tingey one of the rangers on the 1967 rescue.

The Grand Rescue uses re-enactments of the famous 1967 rescue to tell the story. (photo by Andy Bardon – click to enlarge)
The Grand Rescue uses re-enactments of the famous 1967 rescue to tell the story. (photo by Andy Bardon – click to enlarge)

But when you are on the face you can’t see the weather moving in from the southwest, where it often does in the Tetons. Storms can move in and trap climbers on the exposed face.

Then there is the rockfall. The cold chimneys and ledges of the North Face gather snow and ice that holds in fallen rocks. As the sun warms the face, the snow releases the rocks that rain down gathering speed as they bounce off the mountain.

It was rockfall that Campbell said severed the rope and threw him off the mountain.

McCoy met Campbell as part of an outdoor club at the University of Illinois where she learned to climb. They arrived in the Tetons earlier in the summer and successfully climbed the Grand Teton by the Owen-Spalding Route, one of the most popular and easiest ways to the top, as well as Mt. Moran, then traveled to Canada where they climbed several peaks before returning to the Tetons. Campbell wanted to climb the North Face in winter, so the summer ascent was a way for him to check out the route.

When the rope came back to McCoy empty she started shouting. Hearing him respond, she made her way to the ledge where he called from and found him lying with bone sticking out of his lower leg. Using ice axes and webbing she stabilized the leg.

Then she tried to get help.

She waved and yelled at climbers she spotted on a snowfield on a neighboring peak. She thought, and hoped, they saw her. Then they settled in for the night. In the distance she watched lightning flash and feared they’d be caught in a storm, exposed on the ledge unable to move.

Once it was dark she used her flashlight to blink SOS and thought, before the batteries died, that lights flashed back in response.

That night Tingey, who lived at a small ranger cabin at Jenny Lake, answered a knock at the door at about 11 p.m. A knock that late at night almost always meant something was wrong. The climbers at the door said they heard calls for help from the North Face that day.

Tingey drove to a scenic turnout that looked straight on at the Grand and in the distance he saw the blinking SOS. He flashed his truck lights back in response to let them know help was on the way.

At first light Tingey used a spotting scope and saw one person up and walking around and the other lying in a sleeping bag on the second ledge of the face. No one knew yet the extent of the injuries on the mountain, but the location meant it was serious.

That summer there were four Jenny Lake Climbing Rangers: Tingey, Bob Irvine, Rick Reese and head ranger Pete Sinclair. For big jobs the rangers sometimes called in reinforcements. Ted Wilson and Mike Ermarth both worked in the North District of the park. Both were exceptional climbers and regular partners with the climbing rangers.

The rangers trained for and thought about different rescues. What if something happens on the slabs of Mount Moran? What if someone falls on Symmetry Spire. The big one was always the North Face.

“It was no-man’s land,” Wilson said. “I think everyone shuddered in their own particular way (when they learned of the rescue). I remember a chill running down my spine.”

Wilson didn’t have a phone in his cabin. He got news of the rescue with a knock on the door. Get your gear. Jenny Lake called. They’ve got a rescue on the North Face.

“That’s when I felt the chill,” he said.

Bob Irvine and Pete Sinclair on the North Face rescue (photo by Rick Reese – click to enlarge)
Bob Irvine and Pete Sinclair on the North Face rescue (photo by Rick Reese – click to enlarge)

It was luck that the rangers — with the exception of one — were in the area that day. Irvine happened to be off and was climbing with his friend Leigh Ortenburger. They heard McCoy’s calls for help and when they saw a helicopter they waited to meet the rest of the team on the mountain. It was also luck that the weather was clear and would continue to hold for the next three days, Reese said. He’d return to the North Face on the same date the following year to find it covered in more than a foot of snow.

The helicopter ferried the rangers from the floor to the lower saddle of the mountain. As Wilson, laden with gear and worried about weight, prepared to load a woman offered him a large bag of sandwiches. He declined thinking they’d be down that same day. It would take Wilson about three years before he finally told his friends about the sandwiches. They spent three days without food. On the second night, Irvine found a small gumdrop – he thinks it was green – in his pack he split four ways for dinner.

Maneuvering the litter down the North Face complicated the rescue in 1967. Rockfall made it dangerous (photo by Rick Reese – click to enlarge)
Maneuvering the litter down the North Face complicated the rescue in 1967. Rockfall made it dangerous (photo by Rick Reese – click to enlarge)

When the first rescuers arrived at the ledge where Campbell lay, they saw his leg, an open fracture in the tibia with the bone sticking out. They immobilized the leg from the hip down and knew a tragsitz, which is like a chair a ranger carries out, wouldn’t work, despite Campbell’s claim that was the way to get him down. The rescuers opted instead to put him in a litter.

They decided not to take him up the mountain over the steepest part of the face with a painfully slow winch system that would increase everyone’s exposure to rock fall and require multiple anchors to pendulum the litter across. Instead they opted to go down, into the unknown.

The next morning a helicopter buzzed the mountain. Something sailed from the window. A box of morphine landed in Ortenburger’s lap. The rest of the team made its way to the ledge and began to plot the lowering.

They couldn’t always see where they were going and how far below to their next stopping spot. Irvine and Ortenburger were both mathematicians so they calculated distances by dropping rocks and counting how long until they heard them hit, accounting for the time it takes for sound to travel back to determine if the rope was long enough.

The features of the North Face include ledges that gave rescuers a chance to regroup and set new anchors. Those ledges though, accumulate snow and ice and as the day warms the snow releases chunks of rock, periodic unexpected zings racing by, some the size of tennis balls — big enough to gravely injure anyone they hit. Bigger rocks, the size of softballs and soccer balls, are enough to remind you of your mortality. Each rockfall emits a sulphurous smell as the impact turns schist into dust with a percussive bang.

Rocks continuously assaulted them as they slowly made their way down.

“It’s kind of like artillery blasts going by you,” said Ermarth who served as litter jockey, sitting with Campbell for the first lowering. “It’s like being on a shooting range with people shooting at you. You don’t know where it’s coming from or where it’s going.”

Gaylord Campbell the victim in the 1967 rescue was critical of how rangers got him off the mountain. (Courtesy The Grand Rescue — click to enlarge)

When they placed Campbell in a helicopter they thought it was over. The rescue was a success. Campbell lived and would go on to a full recovery. No one else was injured in the efforts.

But the rangers found themselves the center of a media frenzy with magazines and newspapers wanting interviews for national stories. In his interviews Campbell criticized the skill and decisions the rangers made. Almost 50 years later Campbell remained critical of the men in interviews for the “Grand Rescue” film, one of the interesting twists that first drew Jenny Wilson to the story. That and what the rescue meant for the men who were already friends that summer and still are today.

The rescue meant different things to each of them.

“Having that experience with my mates is something that transcended anything I’ve experienced in my life,” Wilson said.

For Reese it wasn’t life-altering or introspective. It was a rare chance to spend three days climbing with his best friends in the mountains.

The Grand Rescue screens at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Center for the Arts in Jackson. Tickets are $18.

— “Peaks to Plains” is a blog focusing on Wyoming’s outdoors and communities. 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 and the Casper Star Tribune. Contact Kelsey at kelsey.dayton@gmail.com. Follow her on twitter: @Kelsey_Dayton

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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. I’m sure Mr. Campbell was in a lot of pain for Pete’s sake after 50 years a person would have thought in retrospect he would have matured and realized his saviors did the best they could with what they had to work with. Perhaps they should have left him to fend for himself. He got up there by himself and so could get down by hook or by crook next time. That’s what I figure whenever I’m in a tight spot.