By Jim Stanford on October 11, 2011
Grand Teton National Park rangers may or may not have set a record for the number of major rescue operations this year, depending on how the tally is kept.
With the rescue Sept. 30 of Mark Wilcox, a former News&Guide excursion columnist, in Open Canyon, the park performed 30 major operations (plus three assists of other agencies) in the fiscal year, said spokeswoman Jenny Anzelmo-Sarles. The fiscal year ended Sept. 30. Comparisons with past years are tricky, depending on whether fiscal or calendar year is used for the tally, she said. Suffice to say this was one of the busiest years for rangers in the park’s history.
Of more note was the citation for disorderly conduct the park issued to one of two climbers involved in an Aug. 19 rescue. The incident was the first time climbers triggered a SPOT emergency locator beacon inside the park.
At the time, commenters howled that the climbers, neither of whom were injured, should be held accountable. Well, one of them was — just not the one most people expected. Jenny Lake Subdistrict Ranger Scott Guenther took time to explain his decision, which serves as a lesson for backcountry responsibility.
To recap: Dave Shade, 33, of Missoula, Mont., and Jesse Selwyn, 28, of Florence, Mich., set out Aug. 19 to climb the Black Ice Couloir on the Grand Teton. They got off route and wound up on the Grand Stand, below the North Face. Selwyn felt he no longer could continue and activated the SPOT device, which called 911. After rangers flew to the scene and the climbers indicated they needed help, Shade took the rope and climbed down, via four rappels, to a place where he could spend the night. He then hiked out the next morning. Rangers, racing darkness, hauled Selwyn off the mountain.
After much deliberation, the park charged Shade with disorderly conduct, even though he had rescued himself.
“I struggled with it a lot myself,” said Guenther, who could not recall anyone else being charged in such circumstances during his 20 years with the park.
“By all accounts, [Shade] did almost everything right,” Guenther said. Shade’s mistake was assuming that rangers would attempt a rescue by helicopter.
By taking the rope, Shade eliminated the option of a self-rescue for his partner, Guenther said. Sometimes all that is needed is a “calming voice” to help a person get out of a jam, he said.
Rangers flew to the scene to survey what had happened, as the SPOT locator does not give any information besides a distress signal and location. During the reconnaissance flight, when the climbers indicated they needed help, rangers had to assume someone else in the party was hurt, Guenther said.
Deciding on a short-haul helicopter rescue was a “calculated bet,” he said. “We’ve got to go under the assumption something’s really bad, and we’re just not seeing it.” Had rangers been able to communicate with the men, perhaps by lowering a phone or radio, they might have suggested a different, easier route for down climbing, Guenther said.
“We really struggled with whether we were going to go up there that night,” he said. “Had we been able to talk to them, I would not have put a ranger on the Grand Stand that night.”
Over the years rangers have rescued many people who climbed too high and couldn’t get down, he said. “While I have reservations about sending rescuers in there … “I can’t say, ‘I’m sorry, you have to keep climbing till you get hurt or die, and then we’ll come rescue you.’”
If mountaineers were to take a lesson from the incident, Guenther said, it would be that climbers make a commitment when they rope up for an adventure. Disorderly conduct carries a fine of $110.
“You’re a partnership,” he said. “It’s very committing to go into the mountains, and that commitment increases the farther you go and the higher you go. When you step into the backcountry, certainly in mountaineering terrain, you should have a high level of responsibility for your actions. Choose a partner wisely, choose a route wisely, and be prepared for things to not go smoothly.”
In essence, he said, “Take care of yourself because no rescue is guaranteed.”