A helicopter departs for a search and rescue mission in April 2011 in Grand Teton National Park. A new podcast, "The Fine Line," aims to educate, inform and entertain listeners about the dangers of outdoor mishaps. (courtesy Grand Teton National Park)

More people die while climbing unroped in Grand Teton National Park than while doing any other activity. Just this past weekend, two Jackson women in their 20s died in a fall while ascending Teewinot’s East Face. They were not using ropes at the time of the fall.

Avalanches are the second leading cause of fatalities.

The most common activity where people need assistance — whether they are simply dehydrated, or seriously injured — is hiking. And males are much more likely to die or need rescue than females in every activity other than hiking.

Rangers take part in a rescue on the Grand Teton in 2003. More incidents occur on the Grand than any other peak in the park because it is the most popular climb in the area. (courtesy Grand Teton National Park)

These are findings from a report George and Michelle Montopoli compiled from data from 1997 to 2014 incident reports in Grand Teton National Park. The research from the father-daughter team finishes the work George started years earlier. He compiled a similar report using data from 1925 — when Theodore Teepe famously became the first documented fatality in the park falling on what is now called the Teepe Glacier on the Grand Teton — to 1996.

George, a Jenny Lake Climbing Ranger for 36 summers, has a doctorate in mathematics and taught statistics and now environmental science at Arizona Western College and Northern Arizona University.

Years ago someone suggested looking at the park’s data and George, who loves numbers and the park’s history, thought it would be an interesting project. His initial report is the basis of a display at the Jenny Lake Ranger Station meant to educate visitors on backcountry hazards.

George’s daughter Michelle, who is in her fourth year of medical school at the University of Arizona and wants to focus on wilderness medicine, grew up spending her summers in Grand Teton National Park. She heard many stories of rescues from her dad, and inherited his love of the park — and statistics.

When she learned about her dad’s earlier report, she wanted to update it. Other parks had documented similar types of statistics, but it hadn’t been done in Grand Teton before. “Search and rescue is such a huge tool here,” Michelle said. And search and rescue data can help educate people as they contemplate wilderness excursions. For instance they might see what areas are especially dangerous to climb unroped and decide to take a rope, or they might pack more water when they see how many people have suffered from dehydration.

A patient is evacuated from high country in Grand Teton National Park. A new report indicates males are much more likely to die while in the park’s backcountry, and that avalanches and unroped climbs are the leading cause of death. (courtesy Grand Teton National Park)

“We can’t predict what’s going to happen in the backcountry, but, for instance, one of the biggest trends I’ve seen is the amount of medical incidents have gone up,” Michelle said. “A lot of that is dehydration or heat issues. People think it’s not a big deal — they are doing a little hike. We want people to be more prepared.”

The data can also help park staff allocate resources, George said. Within the study George calculated probabilities of incidents occurring in certain areas, which can help staff prepare for where they might see the most incidents on busy days.

The report breaks down accidents and incidents by year, activity, age, gender and even time of day and cause of the accident. It also provides data specifically on fatalities. The report doesn’t include boating or car accidents. Incidents were subdivided to look for trends in areas such as climbing and hiking.

Michelle and George logged about 300 hours on the project each summer during the last four years, talking to rangers and entering data from old incident reports — many handwritten. The park began recording incident reports electronically in 2001.

When George created the first report he found most accidents were caused by falls on snow. The most common cause of accident now, especially in fatalities, is climbing or scrambling unroped.

A rescue litter is delivered to Jenny Lake Climbing Rangers. A new report compiled by ranger George Montopoli and his daughter Michelle Montopoli show trends in search and rescue incidents in Grand Teton National Park. (courtesy Grand Teton National Park)

Winter use in the park has continued to grow, especially in recent years with backcountry skiers, George said. Incidents have risen with increased use. There has been a significant spike in incidents in Granite Canyon, now easily accessible from Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. In 2011 there were 13 winter incidents, of those seven were in Granite Canyon.

“It was a big spike in 2011,” George said. “And before that, there was nowhere near that number.”

In fact, before 1999, there were only three incidents total in Granite Canyon, which used to be inaccessible from the ski area. Since 1999 there have been about 30, ranging from getting lost, caught in avalanches, or suffering serious falls.

“You know in the winter you can expect things to happen in Granite Canyon now,” George said. “You can think about collaboration” between Teton County Search and Rescue, Jackson Hole Mountain Resort and the Jenny Lake Climbing Rangers.

The researchers plan to publish their findings in a wilderness journal. The project will also serve as Michelle’s thesis and will provide visitor safety information at the Jenny Lake Ranger Station.

Here is what else they found:

  • Males are more likely to die in the park. Since 1997, of the 46 fatalities, 39 were male.
  • Only males have died in winter mountaineering accidents caused by something other than an avalanche, and the average age was 20.6.
  • While young people were most likely to die in winter accidents, older people were more likely to need medical assistance while hiking or fishing.
  • Most climbing fatalities happen on the Grand Teton — the park’s most popular peak to climb. Teewinot is also an area with a high number of fatalities. The mountain seems so accessible, “But people get in trouble very easily,” George said.
  • Accidents occurring while climbing unroped were double the next highest cause of accidents, which was falling on snow.
  • Of those injured from falls while roped, most were leader falls, while a few were caused by rockfall.

For more on this subject, read these WyoFile stories:

Search for lost Teton skiers cost $115K, May 2011

Wyoming rescue chief rethinks value of GPS device, July 2012

Avalanche awareness effort goes statewide, March 2014

New film tells the story of The Grand Rescue, July 2014

Family revives TetonAT ski blog, three years after author’s death, March 2015

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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