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An out-of-state climber sustained life-threatening injuries in an apparent fall while attempting to make a solo summit of the 13,770-foot Grand Teton on Friday morning, August 8. Grand Teton National Park rangers successfully rescued Steve Markusen, 60, of Minneapolis, Minnesota from the Grand Teton;however, dense clouds and inclement weather affected the rescue operations throughout much of the afternoon and hindered a more expedient short-haul rescue mission with support by a Teton Interagency contract helicopter.
Free climbing alone—without a climbing harness, rope or helmet—Markusen had reached an elevation of 13,300 feet on the Grand Teton and had reached a point midway between the Friction Pitch and V-Pitch on the upper Exum Ridge route when the accident occurred. Although Markusen was unable to recall exactly what happened, he believed he may have been struck by a rock, which caused him to fall or tumble possibly 100 feet down the steep, granite slabs strewn with loose rock that lie above the Friction Pitch. Markusen incurred extensive traumatic injuries during his 'tumbling' fall.
Two climbers in a separate party came upon Markusen, but did not have a cell phone to call for help. They continued to the summit of the Grand Teton, about 400 vertical feet beyond, where they located other climbers with a cell phone and called the Jenny Lake Ranger Station. In the meantime, another party of two climbers encountered Markusen and they began to provide first aid as they also placed a 911 call. The Teton Interagency Dispatch Center and Jenny Lake Rescue Cache received near simultaneous calls for help at 11:20 a.m. from these separate climbing groups.
About an hour later, while the park's rescue operation was now underway, a third climbing party with four firefighters from Boston, Massachusetts also came upon Markusen and the two climbers who were assisting him. Two of the Boston climbers had medical training and they stayed with Markusen to provide advanced medical assistance until park rangers arrived. Due to the threat of an approaching storm, all the other climbers continued to the Grand's summit.
The inclement weather, consisting of thick cloud cover, hindered visibility during an aerial reconnaissance by the Teton Interagency contract helicopter. Although Markusen's location was eventually pinpointed, because of the cloud cover high on the mountain, a ground-based rescue mission was initiated. The Teton Interagency ship flew seven park rangers and a Teton Interagency helitack crew member to the Lower Saddle of the Grand Teton (elevation 11,600 feet), which was below the thick clouds.
From the Lower Saddle, two rangers made a 'blitz' ascent with minimal gear to quickly reach the critically injured climber and begin emergency medical care. Four additional rangers carried all the equipment necessary for a possible extended ground rescue. Fortunately, a break in the weather allowed for one ranger and a rescue litter to be short-hauled to the accident site. The short-haul rescue technique involves suspending a rescuer (and/or rescue gear such as a litter) on a length of rope below a hovering helicopter;the rescuer is then tactically 'inserted' onto a cliff or ledge near the patient where a helicopter cannot safely land. The ranger who was short-hauled, and inserted with a rescue litter at the accident site, began emergency medical care. He was soon joined by the first two rangers who advanced on foot from the Lower Saddle to ascend the lower portion of the Owen-Spalding route and traverse the granite wall to the accident site.
Together, the three rangers prepared Markusen for a short-haul flight off the mountain, and he was flown to the Jenny Lake Rescue Cache at Lupine Meadows on the valley floor for transport to a medical facility.
Markusen's injuries were serious enough to warrant a life-flight to Eastern Idaho Medical Center in Idaho Falls;however, inclement weather in nearby Idaho also prevented the Air Idaho flight. Instead, Grand Teton rangers, emergency medical technicians and paramedics set up a temporary emergency room inside the Jenny Lake Rescue Cache to stabilize Markusen before transporting him by park ambulance to St. John's Medical Center in Jackson, Wyoming. Markusen arrived at the local hospital at 4:20 p.m., over five hours after his fall.
Markusen was fortunate that other climbers discovered him promptly because he was dazed and teetering over a thousand-foot precipice. It was also fortunate that a rescue operation could be mounted to evacuate him to an area hospital because his injuries were life-threatening and the consequences of his accident could have been much worse.
Park rangers strongly advise climbers to wear helmets and carry appropriate climbing gear whenever making a summit attempt. Rangers also advise against solo climbing because of the added risk in the event of an accident.
The current weather pattern—involving a monsoonal flow of moisture over Grand Teton National Park and northwestern Wyoming—is causing significant afternoon thunderstorms with heavy rain over the Teton Range. Park rangers advised climbers to be prepared for these challenging weather conditions.