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Rangers Evacuate Ill Snowshoer from Phelps Lake Moraine

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Date: February 7, 2011
Contact: Jackie Skaggs, (307) 739-3393

Febraury 7, 2011

Grand Teton National Park rangers conducted a lengthy rescue operation on Sunday, February 6, to evacuate an incapacitated snowshoer from the Phelps Lake overlook. Michelle Harvey age 40,from Sacramento, California, became ill while snowshoeing to the overlook with her husband, Don Happel, and she could not continue hiking the final 2.5 miles to their parked vehicle at the Death Canyon trailhead. Ten rangers and park staff coordinated a multi-phase evacuation that involved both rescue skiers and snowmobiles. Rescue skiers hauled a toboggan with Harvey aboard down the steep Phelps Lake moraine, and rangers on snowmobiles—staged on the northwest shore of Phelps Lake below the moraine—transported her the remaining distance to the trailhead located on the Moose-Wilson Road. The rescue and evacuation took nearly eight hours to complete.

The rescue mission began at 3:15 p.m. after Teton Interagency Dispatch Center received a 911 cell phone call from Happel explaining his wife's predicament. Rangers and park staff used snowmobiles to cross the frozen surface of Phelps Lake and get close to the location where Harvey and Happel were waiting for help. Five rescuers skied up and over the Phelps Lake moraine and reached Harvey and Happel at 8 p.m. Harvey was then placed in a rescue toboggan and gradually lowered from the top of the moraine (7,200 feet elevation) to the lakeshore (6,633 feet elevation). Harvey was then transported by snowmobile to the Death Canyon trailhead where the evacuation concluded at 10:15 p.m.

Although Sunday's weather was sunny with mild afternoon temperatures, physical conditions changed as the evacuation stretched into the evening hours. With darkness and colder temperatures, rangers resorted to using headlamps for visibility and emergency gear to keep Harvey warm and protected from the cold nighttime air. After reaching the trailhead on the Moose-Wilson Road, Harvey declined further medical attention and departed the area with her husband in their personal vehicle.

Harvey and Happel, who arrived in Jackson Hole on February 3, had a couple of days to acclimatize to the higher elevations of the Teton backcountry before their Sunday excursion. They were equipped with good winter clothing, water, and high energy snacks for their snowshoe outing. They also carried a GPS unit, a compass, and a cell phone—which they used to summon help.

While most rescue operations involve injured, stranded and/or lost persons, rangers and other park staff often conduct rescue missions to locate individuals—who are incapacitated for whatever reason—and bring them to safety and/or medical care. Emergency responses for persons "in need" are part of the proud National Park Service tradition. However, visitors and local residents should accept responsibility for their own safety and welfare, and always be prepared to self rescue as a first option.

Park rangers and other staff schooled in emergency medical procedures regularly train for events like Sunday's rescue. Coincidently, park rangers conducted a scheduled training for wintertime open-water rescues on Monday morning, February 7. Many of the same rangers involved in the late day rescue of Harvey on Sunday, also participated in Monday's practice session.

Did You Know?

Close-up of a lodgepole pine cone

Did you know that lodgepole pine trees grow on glacial moraines in Jackson Hole? Glacial moraines are ridges of rocky debris left behind as Ice Age glaciers melted. The soil on these ridges retains moisture and is more hospitable to trees than the cobbly, porous soil on the outwash plain.