Last Climber's Prayer: Get Me Off the Mountain

Associated Press Writer

THE STORY SO FAR

High on a peak in the Tetons, rescuers on foot and in helicopters reach a group of climbers injured by lightning. One is already dead. The survivors are helped to safety below, except for one man whose precarious position dangling from the mountainside makes him hardest to reach.

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GRAND TETON NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. -- "Down and comfortable," Craig Holm coolly radioed to the pilot above as he unhooked the rope that had tethered him to the helicopter and lowered him onto the 10-foot-wide mountain ledge.

Winds kicked up from the chopper's rotors. But Holm had stabilized himself under the weight of his 60-pound backpack that was loaded with rescue gear.

He peered over the edge, 50 feet down to where Rod Liberal was dangling off Friction Pitch in a ghastly upside-down V. He had been twisted that way for more than 2 1/2 hours.

Holm figured that Rod's back was broken; his spine might even be severed.

"Rod!" he yelled. He heard moans from below.

Holm rappelled down a thin rope and soon was hanging near Rod's waist. They were about 13,000 feet up.

Holm attached a tether from his harness to Rod in case the climber's rope was damaged by the lightning.

"I'm Craig," Holm gently began. "We're here to get you out of here.... How ya doing? Talk to me."

Rod mumbled incoherently.

"Rod, do you know where you're at?"

"I think I'm in Grand Teton," he replied in almost a whisper.

"Do you know what happened to you?"

"No."

Rod was too weak to tell Holm how much pain he was in, how hard it was to breathe, how relieved he was to see him. He had willed himself to keep going by thinking about his wife, Jody, and their baby son. He kept praying that someone would get him off the mountain.

"Whoever gave me life," he said to himself, "please help me keep it."

It was past 6 p.m. The sun was now lowering over the peaks. The two men were suspended side by side next to jagged, steeply sloping rock, with layers of ledges below. Holm was in a sitting position in his harness, his feet against the wall.

Rod was bent backward, belly toward the sky. His face was flushed and swollen. His clothing was tattered under his left arm and across the left side of his chest, melted behind his right knee. The path of the lightning, Holm suspected.

He unzipped Rod's jacket and pulled up his T-shirt, looking for possible fractures and bleeding. Under Rod's left arm, expanding across part of his chest was a purplish, spidery 6-inch mark that appeared to be a lightning burn.

Rod's breathing sounded like a snore, and that worried Holm.

He needed to straighten his body. Holm fashioned a chest harness from tubular nylon slings, wrapped it under Rod's arms and around his back, lifted him and placed him on his lap.

Now both faced the wall, and Rod's breathing improved.

At 5-foot-10 and a wiry 140 pounds, Holm was only about 10 pounds lighter than Rod. But the injured climber felt much heavier -- he was dead weight.

Holm continued his medical check.

"Does this hurt?" he asked, pressing Rod's ribs.

"Owww," he moaned.

Rod winced when Holm pressed his lower back, hips and left side -- his chest, arm and shoulder. Rod could squeeze Holm's fingers with his right hand, but not his left. He wiggled the toes on his left leg when asked.

"Good," Holm said. "Wiggle your toes on your right leg for me."

"I can't," Rod muttered.

Next for Holm was getting Rod oxygen. But the tank was stuffed in Holm's backpack along with needles, medicine, a blood pressure gauge and other things.

Cradling Rod's head in one hand, he couldn't safely pull the tank out. If his grip slipped, it could fall on a rescuer below.

"George!" Holm yelled up the mountain. "I'm going to need an extra hand down here."

Ranger George Montopoli, who had been setting anchors above, is one of many Teton veterans, an experienced climber who has scaled peaks in Ecuador, Chile and Argentina. An amiable man with a curly mop of salt-and-pepper hair, he also is a former Peace Corps volunteer, a bald eagle researcher and, during the off season, a math professor in Arizona. He has used his PhD in statistics to analyze accidents at the park.

As Montopoli descended, Holm kept talking with Rod.

"Am I going to be OK?" Rod asked. "I've got a 3-month-old son."

"What's his name?" Holm asked.

"Kai."

Holm figured that Rod had a 50-50 chance, but he wasn't about to tell him that.

"We're going to do everything we can," he said.

Clouds were coming in, but the wind had subsided. It was eerily calm. When it seemed too quiet, Holm called out Rod's name or asked him to open his eyes. He regularly checked his pulse and breathing.

Montopoli reached them and pulled out the oxygen tank. Holm placed the mask on Rod's face. Though more stable now, Rod was in no shape to be plucked from the mountain the way others were -- in a seat-like harness ferried beneath a helicopter. For Rod, the best way off was a basket-like litter suspended from the chopper.

But for two rescuers and a badly hurt climber hanging like spiders against a rock wall, it would be tricky.

Rescuers above lowered the unwieldy, 100-pound orange plastic litter, which consists of a backboard and basket.

It couldn't be placed under Rod because it was rigged with four straps from a center ring while he, of course, remained suspended.

With Holm holding the litter as steady as possible and Montopoli crouched like a cat on its narrow rims, they pulled the backboard halfway out and gingerly eased Rod onto it. Then they delicately slid him into the basket.

With Velcro straps, they secured his shoulders, chest and legs, and placed his head between two spongy blocks. For warmth against the twilight cool, they bundled Rod in a sleeping bag that was in the litter and two down coats that Holm carried in his backpack.

It was 7:56 p.m. Rod had been hanging for more than four hours.

"Patient packaged," Holm announced in his radio. "You guys ready to raise?"

Rod's litter was attached by four adjustable straps to something rangers here have nicknamed "the god ring." Some joke that the large metal O is called that because you put all your trust in it. Others say if it breaks, you'll see God.

Montopoli climbed back up to help raise the litter, which now weighed about 400 pounds, including the basket, Rod and Holm, who would escort him.

Rod was on his back, and that was not ideal. Rescuers prefer to evacuate injured people on their sides so if they have to vomit, they won't choke. But there wasn't enough time to strap him in that way.

Holm glanced at his watch in the looming darkness.

Atop Friction Pitch, ranger Leo Larson radioed to a rescue supervisor.

"What's pumpkin hour?" he asked, referring to the 30-minutes-after-sunset deadline for helicopter flying.

Close, he was told.

"You guys catch that?" Larson said. "Let's go!"

Working from a ledge the size of a porch, Larson, Montopoli and two other rangers, Jack McConnell and Marty Vidak, began to hoist the litter, using pulleys.

Foot by foot, Holm walked up the mountain wall, steadying the litter at his waist and shielding it from banging against rock.

He narrated calmly as they moved.

"Rod, we're going to haul you to a place where we can fly you out. This is going to be a little bumpy."

Rod was more sluggish.

"Tell me about your son," Holm urged. Anything to keep him alert.

It took about 30 minutes to reach a ledge atop Friction Pitch. Quickly, the rangers readied Rod for the helicopter ride down.

As pilot Laurence Perry hovered, the god ring holding the litter was attached to the chopper's 100-foot rope with two locking carabineers.

It was 8:57 p.m.

"Lifting," Perry announced. The basket rose, silhouetted in the last glow of the fading sun.

As it did, Holm moved close to his patient, slinging his left leg out, grabbing one of the litter straps and draping his body horizontally across the outside of the basket.

"Rod, we're flying," he shouted in the wind, his face six inches away. "We're going to set you down in the meadow. It's almost over."

Twelve minutes later, they landed.

The storm clouds on the Tetons were long gone. The night sky was brilliant with stars.

Epilogue

Rod Liberal is home now from the hospital and rehab center. On Sept. 28, two days after his release, his friends held a surprise birthday party for him. He turned 28.

He survived pneumonia, pancreatitis and kidney problems that required six weeks of dialysis. He was treated for second-degree burns and lost about 30 pounds. He's now undergoing physical therapy and uses a cane because of a displaced right hip.

Doctors tell him that he should be fully recovered within six to nine months.

The other climbers are recovering from injuries, ranging from third-degree burns to a broken shoulder.

Erica Summers was buried on her fifth wedding anniversary.

Her husband, Clinton, told their two young children that their mother is in heaven. "These things happen for a reason," he said.

On Sept. 27, Rob Thomas scaled the Grand and built a cairn, a marker of rocks where Erica and Clinton had been sitting. He removed a five-pound piece of granite. It will be engraved in memory of Erica and the climbers who survived that day on Friction Pitch.

Next summer, they will climb up again to place it on the mountain.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Sources for This Story

From Associated Press

The story of the lightning strike and rescue efforts at Grand Teton National Park is based on interviews with park rangers, including Dan Burgette, Scott Guenther, Craig Holm, Renny Jackson, Leo Larson, Jack McConnell, George Montopoli, Jim Springer and Brandon Torres, who provided a time log he'd kept; helicopter pilot Laurence Perry, and climbers Jacob Bancroft, Reagan Lembke, Rod Liberal, Clinton Summers, Rob Thomas, Sherika Thomas, Justin Thomas and Bob Thomas.

Also interviewed were Ron Holle, a meteorologist who works with Vaisala Inc., a manufacturer of weather instruments; meteorologist Jim Woodmencey in Jackson Hole, Wyo., and Mary Ann Cooper, a professor of emergency medicine at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

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