A hike into horror and an act of courage in Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park, Mont. — Johan looked up. Jenna was running toward him. She had yelled something, he wasn’t sure what. Then he saw it. The open mouth, the tongue, the teeth, the flattened ears. Jenna ran right past him, and it struck him — a flash of fur, two jumps, 400 pounds of lightning.
It was a grizzly, and it had him by his left thigh. His mind started racing — to Jenna, to the trip, to fighting, to escaping. The bear jerked him back and forth like a rag doll, but he remembered no pain, just disbelief. It bit into him again and again, its jaw like a sharp vise stopping at nothing until teeth hit bone. Then came the claws, rising like shiny knife blades, long and stark.
Johan and Jenna had been on the trail little more than an hour. They had just followed a series of switchbacks above Grinnell Lake and were on a narrow ledge cut into a cliff. It was an easy ascent, rocky and just slightly muddy from yesterday’s rain.
Johan took some pictures. Jenna pushed ahead. It was one of the most spectacular hikes they’d taken on this trip, a father-daughter getaway to celebrate her graduation from high school. There were some steps, a small outcropping, a blind turn, and there it was, the worst possibility: a surprised bear with two yearling cubs.
The bear kept pounding into him. He had to break away. To his right was the wall of the mountain, to his left a sheer drop. Slightly behind him, however, and 20 feet below the trail, a thimbleberry and alder patch grew on a small slope jutting from the cliff. As a boy growing up in Holland, Johan had roughhoused with his brother and had fallen into bushes. He knew it would hurt, but at least it wouldn’t kill him.
So like a linebacker hurtling for a tackle, he dived for that thimbleberry patch. The landing rattled him, but he was OK. His right eye was bleeding, but he didn’t have time to think about that. Jenna was now alone with the bear.
She had reached down to pick up the bear spray. The small red canister had fallen out of the side pocket of his day pack, and there it was, on the ground. But she couldn’t remove the safety clip, and the bear was coming at her again. She screamed.
“Jenna, come down here,” he yelled.
She never heard him. She was falling, arms and legs striking the rocky cliff, then nothing for seconds before she landed hard.
The bear did hear him, however. It looked over the cliff and pounced. Johan had never seen anything move so fast in his life. He tucked into a fetal position. The bear fell upon him, clawing and biting at his back. His day pack protected him, and his mind started racing again.
His daughter didn’t have a pack. He always carried the water and snacks. If the bear got to her, it’d tear her apart.
He turned, swung to his right and let himself go. Only this time there wasn’t a thimbleberry patch to break his fall. It was a straight drop to where Jenna had landed, and instead of taking the bear away from her, as he had hoped, he was taking the bear to her.
Johan Otter lived with his wife, Marilyn, and their two teenage daughters in a two-story home in a semirural neighborhood of Escondido, Calif. He worked as an administrator at Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla. He ran in marathons and bred exotic birds. He knew the love of his family, success at his job, good health. At 43, he had dreams of a long and happy life. But dreams are often upended. Johan knew this, and whenever possible, he tried to distance himself and his family from risk.
It was Aug. 25, 2005. Seven days earlier, Johan and Jenna had packed up the family pickup truck and driven north through Nevada and Utah. In September, she would begin her freshman year at UC Irvine. Hiking was their special bond. He was a runner, she was a dancer; they both were in good shape for the trail, and it wasn’t unusual for Marilyn and Stephanie, their younger daughter, to stay home.
Johan and Jenna checked into a motor lodge on the east side of Glacier. Johan was eager to experience the wildness of the park, and the first night he did. A black bear, just outside the lodge.
For millenniums, bears have lurked on the periphery of everyday life, dark shadows just beyond the firelight. On this continent, they have been our respected competition and greatest threat. Even though close encounters with bears, especially grizzlies, are rare, they trigger a conditioned response, a reflex of fear and flight that is seldom called upon in modern life. Sometimes we get away. Sometimes we can’t.
But most of all, bears inspire a deep fascination. Johan remembered how, as a boy, he would go with his family on vacations to Norway and how his parents, his brother and he had always wanted to see a bear. The curiosity never left him. Three years ago, during a trip to Canada with the family, he and Stephanie saw a cub. Marilyn and Jenna stayed back.
On this trip to Glacier, they had an ambitious hiking schedule, and they were disappointed when it rained their first full day. They contented themselves with driving to various sights. The next day was beautiful. The sun cut through scattered, misting clouds. Johan was eager to get out on the trail before anyone else. It was 7:30 a.m.
The path wound through a lush carpet of thimbleberry, beargrass and lilies growing beneath a mix of Engelmann spruce and Scotch pine. They skirted Lake Josephine, and in less than an hour, Johan and Jenna were above the tree line. Surrounding peaks were lightly dusted with snow. At one point Johan spotted a golden eagle trying to catch a thermal. They talked loudly, just as you’re supposed to do in bear country. Jenna was trying to figure out how she could be both a dancer and a doctor. He wondered if he’d be able to qualify for the Boston Marathon.
As they made their way along the southern flank of Mt. Grinnell, a glacier-carved cliff that rises nearly 3,500 vertical feet from the valley floor, they fell silent, lost in the sounds of the wind and the water, the beauty of the moment. Ahead of them were the Gem and Salamander glaciers. A ribbon of water cascaded into the forest below. A river flowed into the turquoise stillness of Grinnell Lake.
Penstemon, columbines and fireweed bloomed amid the low-lying alder scrub. They passed through Thunderbird Falls, a landmark on the trail where a stream often pours from the cliff above onto a platform of flat stones. Today it was only wet and slippery, but the drop-off was unforgiving.
Ten minutes past the falls, they ran into the bear. In a matter of minutes, they had all tumbled 30 feet down a rocky V-shaped chute, landing on a ledge beneath the trail. Jenna had scrambled away, and the grizzly was on top of Johan.
The attack had just started, and it had been going on too long. He grabbed the bear by the fur on its throat. The feeling of the coarse hair, as on a dirty dog, was unforgettable, and for a moment the animal just stared at him, two amber-brown eyes, its snout straight in his face. It showed no emotion, no fear, no anger. There were just those eyes looking down at him.
Johan considered fighting. He reached to his left for a rock. A piece of shale, it crumbled in his fist. He tucked his knees to his chest and tried to cover his head.
The bear bit again and again on his right arm. So this is what it feels like to have your flesh torn, he thought, still trying to comprehend the attack. He tussled about, trying to avoid greater injury.
“Aaagh,” he screamed.
Now the bear was tugging on his back. It felt as if someone were jumping up and down on him, and he found himself growing angry. Throw it off the mountain. If only he could throw it off the mountain.
He felt a sharp pressure on the top of his neck and his head. The bear was biting into his skull, chewing into the bone. This could be it, he thought. This could be his death, and his right hand was useless. He could not push the bear away.
If only this were a movie or one of those old episodes of “Bonanza” he used to watch on TV. He’d be a stuntman, and they’d stop shooting any time.
But this was real. He’d die if he didn’t make another move, so he rolled and fell again, sliding 20 feet down the slope to a small ledge and then over that and onto a narrow shelf. Right foot, left foot. He landed on his feet. He was lucky he stopped. He wouldn’t have survived the next long straight drop.
He was silent. The bear stood above him, unable to reach him. It felt good to be left alone. Water flowed down his back. Cold water. He’d fallen into a small stream, runoff from yesterday’s rain.
Jenna heard the bear panting as it came closer to where she lay beneath the branches of a low-lying alder. She felt woozy from her fall. She had a knot on her head. Her back ached, and her ankle was bleeding.
She tried to stay tucked in, but when the bear got close to her face, she had to push it away. It nipped at the right corner of her mouth, at her hair, her right shoulder. Each bite was quick, followed by a slight jostle.
Her screams split the morning silence like an ax.
Johan pressed himself against the mountain. There was no room to sit or lie down. He heard Jenna, but he couldn’t do anything. He would remember the sound as the worst he had ever heard, and then there was nothing. All was still.
He was wet and dirty, soaked with blood and starting to shiver. The attack had lasted at most 15 minutes. He looked at his right arm and saw exposed tendons. His medical training as a physical therapist told him no major nerves or arteries had been cut. They can sew that together, he thought, and that, and that.
Then he touched the top of his head and felt only bone. He stopped exploring. It was enough to know that his scalp had been torn off. His neck hurt. He wondered if something was broken.
He couldn’t see out of his right eye. He reached up. It was full of blood and caked over. Was his eyeball hanging out? No, it was still in place. He carefully parted his eyelids. The sweet turquoise stillness of Grinnell Lake shimmered nearly 1,500 feet below him. He could see. He was relieved.
“Jenna,” he eventually called out.
She had played dead, and the bear had moved on. She assessed her injuries. A bite on her shoulder as deep as a knuckle. Lower lip torn down to her chin. Hair caked with blood.
Her father’s voice was the best sound she’d ever heard.
“Are you OK?” he asked.
“I’m OK. How are you?”
“I’m bleeding a lot.” He thought of his own injuries and of his daughter’s appearance. “How’s your face? Did it get you?”
“Just my mouth.”
“And your eyes?”
He could tell by the sound of her voice that she was OK. Thank you, God.
He gazed up into the sky above Mt. Gould on the far side of the valley. He thought of the people he knew who were dead. His mother and father. Thank you, Mom, and thank you, Dad, for being an energy that he could draw on. Somehow it made him less afraid.
And thank you, Sophie. She was a patient of his, an 80-year-old woman who had died last year. They had grown close as Johan worked with her. She would complain — I’m going to die, she’d say — and he’d tell her to be quiet. You’re not going to die, Sophie. And to think he nearly had.
And thank you, Steve, his father-in-law, Marilyn’s dad, who had become his own dad in a way.
Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Then he called back to Jenna. “It got me kind of bad.”
It was the only time he told her how he felt. After that, he turned stoic. No complaining. No despairing. He knew his dad would have reacted the same way. He chalked it up to being Dutch: You take care of yourself and your children. Jenna would do the same.
Together, unprompted, they began to call out.
Glacier National Park straddles the Continental Divide. Popularly thought of as North America’s Switzerland, famous for its snowy peaks, alpine meadows, rivers and lakes, the park attracts nearly 2 million visitors each year. On the east side of the park, the Grinnell Glacier Trail is one of the most popular day hikes.
Johan knew he couldn’t stand here much longer. He took off his day pack and camcorder. His digital camera was gone, lost in the chaos. He pulled a jacket out of his pack and put the hood over his head. The night before, he’d read a book about bear attacks: how a woman in Alaska had stopped the bleeding of her scalp by covering her head. He also thought it might be easier on Jenna or anyone else who might happen to see him.
He wanted to climb to the ledge above. He didn’t know how he’d carry his pack and camcorder. Then it came to him, what they say on airplanes. Leave your luggage and take care of yourself. It made sense. He clambered and crawled off the narrow shelf and up to the ledge. He felt dizzy, so he sat down.
Johan and Jenna alternated their calls. Jenna had decided to stay where she was. She too was dizzy and uncertain of her injuries. Perched on the side of the mountain, about 75 feet apart, they looked down into the valley. Their cries disappeared in the vast open space. It was windy and cold, and the quiet seemed unreal after the intensity of the attack.
Then Jenna called out. “Dad, the boat just got to the dock. I see people getting off.” It was a water taxi that ran a regular service across Lake Josephine.
Johan knew that with the arrival of the boat, hikers would soon be streaming along the trail and their shouts would be heard. He was tired. He stopped yelling and tried not to think about how badly injured he was. Nothing a little surgery can’t fix, he told himself. Besides, he was alive, and his daughter was fine.
Amid the isolation and the cold, he grew sore and stiff and numb. Lying down, sitting up, nothing helped. Forty-five minutes later, he heard Jenna talking with someone. She called to him. “Dad, there are people here now. They’re getting help.”
Still it seemed like forever. Then Johan saw a man cutting through the bushes and sliding down toward him. The man’s eyes were wide open. The expression said everything.
“Are you OK?” the man asked.
“Do you see a camera?” Johan replied.
Jim Knapp was surprised by the question, but very little was making sense.
Knapp and his wife had started their hike that morning a little past 8, well ahead of the water taxi. After an hour on the trail, they heard what sounded like a coyote or a hawk or some animal being attacked. Then there was more, and it sounded human. They started running. Someone must have fallen or sprained an ankle.
Knapp told Johan he would look for the camera, but his attention was focused on the injured man before him. It was the most gruesome sight he had ever seen.
Blood covered Johan’s face. His arms and legs oozed blood. His voice and sentences were jerky and repetitive. He reminded Knapp of Dustin Hoffman in “Rainman,” and with his sweat shirt pulled up over his head, he looked like Beavis in an episode of “Beavis and Butthead.”
“Jenna’s OK,” Knapp said, as he began to get a sense of Johan’s injuries. He noticed the day pack — but no camera — on the shelf beneath them, and he climbed down to retrieve it. Inside were a sweat shirt and four water bottles. He covered Johan and tried to make him drink. He took off his T-shirt and wrapped it around a deep gash on Johan’s leg. He laid out some nuts and a granola bar and took some water up to Jenna.
Then Johan saw a girl. She was sliding down to him. Her name was Kari.
Kari Schweigert and Heidi Reindl had been car-camping in Glacier. They were just starting on an 11-mile hike when they ran into Jim Knapp’s wife, running down the trail, screaming for help.
Then there were two teenage boys. Johan couldn’t keep track of everyone, but one of the boys — the one who wore a beanie — did get his camera. It was the camcorder, and Johan was glad to see it. He was also glad that people were finally getting there, but he felt bad for them. He knew stumbling upon a bear attack — and finding him as bloody as he was — couldn’t be easy for them. A fall or a sprain, sure, but a bear attack? He tried to tell himself that it would be OK. He tried to console himself. If he and Jenna had not been attacked, then these other hikers would have.
What can we do, everyone asked. How can we help?
The rock at the back of his head felt like it was digging into his skull. He squirmed about. He wanted them to help him sit up, but they didn’t want to. They were worried about his neck.
Then he’d have to do it himself. He simply wanted to sit up, have a drink of water and then maybe lie down again.
But he was fading.
Voices told him that help was on the way, only he was losing interest. He didn’t want to deal with any of this anymore. It was all too much: wondering how they’d get him and Jenna off the mountain; wanting to be cleaned up from the dirt and sticky blood; saddened that their trip was ending this way.
Kari Schweigert sat beside him, talking. Her curly hair was tied back in a ponytail. She was in a tank top; Johan was wearing her jacket. He was shaking and numb with cold.
“How are you doing?” she asked.
“The pain is OK,” he said. “I’d just like to take a nap.”
Then she started to move in closer to him. She knew he was cold. She said she wanted to warm him up. She angled around him and covered his abdomen and chest with her body, her legs off to a side.
“Are you sure about this?” he asked. He didn’t want her to get covered with blood; it would be impossible to wash out.
She couldn’t cover him completely, but she did shield him from the wind. It was a moment he would never forget. How strange, he thought, to be hiking along on this trail one moment, thinking about running in a marathon, and then suddenly not being able to walk, being so dependent upon strangers, and now this girl so close to him, so tender and different from the savagery of the attack.
His mind kept going back to Jenna. Everyone told him that she was not as badly injured as he was. He felt guilty. Why had he wanted to go hiking here? Why wasn’t he a better parent?
Schweigert kept talking to him. She told him not to fall asleep. It made sense. He knew he’d lost a lot of blood, and he knew he was in shock. The wash of voices and movement of people around him, once reassuring, began to blur.
A park ranger and a dozen hikers were on the trail above them. The ranger radioed a report on Johan and Jenna’s status to the ranger station at Many Glacier, where an incident commander was assembling a rescue team.
A few of the hikers peered over the edge.
“Do you need anything?” they yelled.
Someone tucked one under Johan’s head.
His neck felt broken.
“What’s your name?”
“Where are you?”
“Glacier National Park.”
“What time of day is it?”
“Bear attack .”
The name badge said Katie. She wore the green and gray uniform of the park service. She had slid down the slope, balancing a medical kit and a shotgun in her hands, and once she determined that he was alert and oriented, she started dressing his wounds.
Katie Fullerton had pulled into the Many Glacier parking lot expecting just another summer day. Then she heard about the attack. She and another ranger were ordered to get to Johan and Jenna as soon as possible. Since opening in 1910, Glacier National Park has had only 10 bear fatalities, and they were enough.
The incident commander at Many Glacier had put a call out for additional rangers, some stationed on the west side of the park, 70 miles — a two-hour drive — away. A helicopter, chartered from Minuteman Aviation, would ferry those rangers to the site of the attack and would be used to shuttle equipment and personnel up to the mountain.
Whup, whup, whup.
Katie Fullerton looked up. At 9,000 feet, the white chopper had negotiated a U-shaped notch in the Garden Wall, a narrow filigree of stone crowning the Continental Divide. As it drew close, it circled, looking for a place to land. Johan and Jenna Otter could not have fallen in a less accessible place.
Three hours had passed since the attack, and Johan’s metabolism was slowing down. The blast of adrenaline triggered by the attack was long gone; the 15-minute torrent of thought and reaction had dissipated in a miasma of pain, discomfort and boredom. Why was the rescue taking so long?
Crashing mentally and emotionally, he knew he needed to stay warm and awake. Gusts of wind ghosted along the cliff; temperatures shot from warm to freezing as clouds drifted beneath the sun. Hikers on the trail were tossing down energy bars, water and more outerwear. A ranger was talking on the radio.
A second ranger crouched beside Johan. He had arrived with nearly 50 pounds of gear, including a life-support pack with IV fluids, medications and an oxygen tank, and he began cutting away Johan’s jackets and clothing. He introduced himself as Gary, Gary Moses. Johan appreciated his calm and confident manner.
Moses explained that the plan was to place Johan and Jenna on litters, have them lifted up to the trail and then carried down to a landing zone, where the chopper would take them to the Kalispell Regional Medical Center in Kalispell, Mont., in the Flathead Valley on the west side of the park.
Rangers on the trail set up a belaying system. They knew they had to move fast. Moses took Johan’s vitals. His blood pressure was 80 over 30, his pulse 44, his temperature dropping.
Moses prepared an IV line. Johan tried to lie still, but he was shivering uncontrollably. Then he heard something. It was Katie Fullerton; she was crying. The sound startled him at first.
“Do you want to stand down?” Moses asked his fellow ranger.
She shook her head.
Johan was glad. She had worked hard to make him comfortable and safe.
This was her first season as a patrol ranger, her first major trauma. Just last year, she’d been collecting user fees, and she had grown up near the park. She and her family had hiked these trails. This could just as easily have been her father.
Her tears reminded Johan how grave his situation was.
The helicopter was making a second landing, and all Johan could think was: Hurry up. A second medic had joined Moses and Fullerton.
“How’s Jenna?” It was his steady refrain.
“There’re people with her.”
Moses and the other medic put a C-collar around Johan’s neck and got ready to insert a urinary catheter. Johan reminded them about a scene in “Seinfeld” in which an embarrassed George Costanza is caught naked and complains about “shrinkage.” They burst out laughing, and Johan relaxed a little. This is who he was: not just a bloodied man but someone always there with an easy line, ready to lighten the mood, to give to others.
Moses reassessed the rescue plan. It had taken nearly an hour to find a vein and get the IV started. Carrying Johan out, lifting him to the trail and then down to the helicopter landing zone was going to be too traumatic, and the afternoon was getting on.
He thought a helicopter could lift Johan directly off this ledge, in a rescue known as a short haul. It would be quicker but riskier. Still, he didn’t see any way around it. He radioed in his recommendation. The incident commander agreed. They called in the rescue helicopter operated by the hospital in Kalispell.
As they waited, Johan remembered an Air Force chopper that had crashed during a rescue on Mt. Hood little more than three years earlier. Everything — the foundering, the dipping, the rolling down the slope in a cascade of snow — had been televised on the evening news.
It made him nervous.
“Am I going to die?” Johan asked.
“You’re not going to die up here,” the second medic said.
Red against the blue sky and white clouds, the short-haul helicopter was easier to spot than the Minuteman.
“Hear that?” Gary Moses looked out over the valley. “That’s the sound of your rescue.”
Pilot Ken Justus adjusted the foot pedals and hand controls to bring the Bell 407 closer to the cliff. Travis Willcut, the flight nurse, sat next to him, calling out positions, monitoring radio traffic. Jerry Anderson, a medic, dangled 150 feet beneath them on a rope with a red Bauman Bag and a body board at his waist.
Piloting a helicopter at moments like this is like pedaling an exercise bike on the roof of a two-story building while trying to dangle a hot dog into the mouth of a jar on the ground. Lying on his back, Johan watched.
The IV had kicked in. Though stiff and still cold, he was wide awake and in no pain. Anticipation was everything, and he remembered feeling a little afraid. He hated roller coasters and worried about his stomach.
“You’ll have the best view of your life,” Moses said, hiding his worry. He knew getting Anderson in would be tricky. Because helicopters can’t cast sharply defined shadows on steep terrain, pilots flying short-haul missions have trouble judging closing speeds and distances.
Anderson, dangling at the end of the rope, had a radio in his helmet. He was using it to direct Justus lower and closer to Johan. Abruptly, the radio died.
“I’m at your 11 o’clock position, a mile out,” Moses broke in with his radio, once he understood the problem. “Half mile, 12 o’clock.”
“Do I need to come up or down?”
“Up about 10 feet.”
Then just as Justus got closer, he caught Anderson’s shadow on the ledge and set him down about 20 feet to the right of Johan. The other rangers shielded Johan from the rotor wash and dust.
Anderson unhooked himself. Justus moved the helicopter away. With the rangers’ help, Anderson slid the body board beneath Johan and strapped the Bauman Bag around him. He waved Justus back in.
“We’re ready to lift.”
“Roger, ready to lift.”
Johan couldn’t tell when he was off the ground. Dangling with Anderson beside him, 150 feet beneath the helicopter, all Johan would see was Anderson’s face, the blue sky and the belly of the chopper. The wind whistled around him.
“Woo hoo!” The hikers and rangers on the mountain started cheering and clapping.
With Johan and Anderson still beneath him, Justus accelerated down the valley to the helipad at Many Glacier. A waiting crowd was asked not to take pictures. Johan was transferred into an ambulance while Justus went back to pick up Jenna. Finally Johan was out of the wind and in a warm place.
Then he heard the news.
“Jenna is here,” someone said.
“Hi, sweetie,” he called out as they prepared to fly him to the medical center in Kalispell. With his head wrapped in bandages, mummy slits for his eyes and the C-collar on his neck, Johan couldn’t see her. “Make sure when they call Mom that you talk to her.”
He knew he wouldn’t be the one making that call.
“Otherwise she’ll totally freak out,” he said.
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