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Original Issue


One year ago next week three parties comprising 17 climbers set off to summit the Grand Teton. Within hours one climber was dead and the rest were pinned down by lightning, setting off one of the most harrowing rescues in the mountain's history

Those wishing to climb to the top of the Grand Teton set out well before daybreak. It's safer to travel over any ice and snow then, when it's still likely to be frozen, and the early departure leaves time to hike all the way back down to the trailhead before dusk. One of the beauties of the Grand, the 13,770-foot signature peak of the sublime Wyoming mountain range and national park, is that it lies less than a full day's hike from the road. It's a world-class mountaineering experience that's also a weekender. There is another advantage to the predawn start: In the dark it is harder to discern the thousand-foot voids beyond the mountain's edge.

The appeal of the Tetons is obvious, even if you get no closer than a turnout on U.S. 89, 12 miles away. With no foothills, the 40-mile range rises from the earth's crust in one precipitous sweep, like an ax through a door. Upon seeing the mountains, Teddy Roosevelt is said to have remarked that they were ideal—the way a child draws them—and it's easy to see his point. The pinnacles are etched like a fever chart into the Western sky.

On Wednesday, July 21, 2010, the handful of parties hoping to summit the Grand Teton all awoke early. They were camped above timberline, some in a seasonal hut, others in tents; a few climbers, taking advantage of the clear night, had unrolled their sleeping bags between boulders and slept out under the stars. The day before, the forecast had been typical for the Tetons in summer: partly cloudy with a chance of thunderstorms by afternoon. But overnight the likelihood of a storm had increased, so the commercial guides hustled their clients out of their sleeping bags at 3:30 a.m. At close to 4:30, three self-guided groups began pulling on their harnesses, helmets and headlamps, and a half-hour later they were making their way with coils of rope up through the talus and bands of cracked rock to the near-vertical terrain below the summit. They were aware of clouds on the horizon but determined to get to the top and back down before they closed in. They had less time than they imagined.

Leading the first of the three groups were two brothers from Newton, Iowa, Greg and Barry Sparks, and their old friend from Worthington, Minn., Bob Miller, all in their 50s. Their group was relatively large—eight in all—and had the widest range of age and climbing experience. The eight were relatives and church friends, such as Greg's son-in-law Tim Vogelaar, 43, a middle school art teacher. Over the years some of them had been up Devil's Tower, Gannett Peak and scores of Colorado's 14ers—mountains over 14,000 feet high. The Sparks group planned to climb via the Owen-Spalding route (page 58), the oldest and easiest way up the Grand.

This year Barry Sparks had invited his daughter Katie's boyfriend, Brandon Oldenkamp. A senior-to-be at Dordt College, a small Christian school in Sioux Center, Iowa, the 21-year-old Oldenkamp was a rally-starting sixth man on Dordt's basketball team, a three-point threat and an invaluable practice player. The kid hustled and was always there for his teammates and friends. He and Katie weren't engaged, "but it seemed to be moving in that direction," Barry said. "I hoped this trip would be a chance for him and I to get to know each other better." His prospective son-in-law jumped at the offer.

The Sparks group had the whole week to work with and began with climbs of the South and Middle Tetons. Everyone made it to the top of the South Teton, no problem, but the "old guys" decided to conserve their energy and leave the Middle to the younger four, who summited in brilliant sunshine on Tuesday.

The second group, the Tyler party, was a father-and-sons trip. There was dad Steven Tyler; his two sons, Dan and Mike; their brother-in-law Troy Smith; and a work friend of Steven's, Henry Appleton. Steven, 67, had always been an outdoorsman, taking Dan and Mike backpacking from an early age. Steven had first topped out on the Grand Teton in 1966. In 1983, when Dan and Mike were 13 and 12, respectively, they'd all tried it together; bad weather kept them from the top that time. Still, it wasn't as if the Tylers felt they had unfinished business. They just wanted to take advantage of the fact that they'd finally found a week in which they could all climb together. Smith, 40, a lawyer with the Department of Defense, flew in from Odenton, Md.; Dan Tyler from Miami; Mike from San Diego. Steven Tyler and Appleton, 31, were already there, both working in Grand Teton National Park. The Tyler party also chose the Owen-Spalding route.

The third group, a couple and two friends from Bozeman, Mont., was led by Alan Kline, a 27-year-old climbing guide originally from Virginia. He had planned to go to Wyoming with only his friend Andrew Larson, 23, but at the last minute Kline's girlfriend, Betsy Smith, 26, and their friend Matt Walker, 21, rearranged their schedules and joined them. Kline and Smith had met in Yellowstone three years earlier and fallen in love over their shared love of the wilderness. The Bozeman group had climbed together, too, but not in the Tetons.

For their ascent, Kline settled on the Exum Ridge route. The Exum gets a little more sun than the Owen-Spalding, but it's on a ridge, so there is nowhere to hide, and it's trickier to descend than other popular routes.

After setting out that Wednesday morning, all three parties made good progress. By about nine or so, the Bozeman group had made it to within a hundred vertical feet of the summit; the Tyler party had made it up through the Owen Chimney, considered the hardest challenge of the route; and the Sparks group, moving a little more slowly because of its size, had just cleared the Belly Roll, a detached, car-sized flake of rock bisecting a narrow ledge that requires one to climb up and over it, or out and around it. The handholds are solid, but climbers are exposed to a sheer drop of 800 to 1,000 feet. For someone new to climbing, it's terrifying to anticipate and enormously rewarding to overcome. When Oldenkamp made it past the Belly Roll he flashed a wide, goofy smile that made him look as if he had just won a junior high league championship with a shot at the buzzer.

Though the climbing was going well, the skies were darkening, and over the next half hour just about everyone wondered if it was time to turn back—except for Kline, who determined that it would actually be faster and safer for his crew to summit and quickly descend by the Owen-Spalding route than to backtrack.

By 11:30 a.m. the Tyler party had turned around. Mike set up a rappel—an anchored rope to descend on—through the Owen Chimney. He reached the bottom easily, and Dan had just started down the 80-foot chute when the first pulse of electricity coursed down over the wet rock.

The Sparks group, 150 to 200 feet below the Tyler party, also felt it. "I really don't know what you'd call it—it wasn't lightning like you've seen lightning," Vogelaar said. "It zinged down our rope. I felt it leave from my elbow. But I didn't see a flash. There was no boom that first time, either." Other climbers near Vogelaar saw blue sparks and arcs around their shoes, and the jolt lifted Cameron Johnson, another member of the Sparks group from Worthington, Minn., off the rock a few inches before setting him down, unscorched. For an instant most of the Tyler party climbers were more amazed than panicked, "but that's when we all agreed we should go down, now," Vogelaar said.

The Tyler party was mostly unaffected by that first bolt, save for Appleton. His right leg was numb. Dan Tyler, hearing Appleton cry out, "I can't feel my leg! I can't feel my leg!" stopped rappelling down and started back up the rope to help. He wouldn't get there.

Out on the Exum Ridge things were even more dire. Thunder sounded in the clouds that had engulfed them, and Kline told his three Bozeman group partners to toss into a pile as much of their metal as possible: carabiners, cameras, pocket knives. Unfortunately Smith forgot to remove her metal-plated wristwatch. From the clouds there came a low buzzing sound. Kline suggested that they step apart from each other—not that there was far for any of them to go. There were huge drops on both sides. Then they stood on their climbing ropes as insulation as their pile of gear vibrated, popped and sparked.

"When we got struck, it was like slow motion," Smith said. "I was watching Alan and [Walker] fall, and I was thinking, They're falling, but not realizing I was falling too." Though the lightning probably struck within 50 yards of them, electricity buckled their legs, leaving Smith's and Walker's completely numb. They lay on the rock where they had been standing. The charge also entered Smith's and Kline's bodies. "It was the most painful thing," Smith said. "I've been through childbirth, and that was zero compared to this. It was like someone injected hot oil directly into my veins. I was screaming." When she came to a moment later, she could see the cuff on the sleeve of her parka smoking and smell burned hair and flesh—her own.

And then, for the moment, it was almost peaceful: clouds rushing past, wind and rain hissing on the dense rock. The climbers were still in pain, but it was subsiding, and they looked at one another with anxious relief: Hey, maybe that was it?

Then the low buzzing began to build again.

Some fierce storms on the Grand Teton barely register down in the valley, but not this one. This was not the afternoon shower that frequently arrives at altitude in the Rockies and blows out an hour later, leaving blue skies in its wake. This storm was monsoonal, and it featured cells that built along a pressure front like a line of freight cars. Worst of all, these cells regenerated themselves.

That morning Jim (Woody) Woodmencey had been at his computer, toggling back and forth between the blotchy radar maps familiar to anyone with an AccuWeather App and the more sophisticated infrared data from the National Weather Service. Woody operates, a go-to site for climbers and skiers in the Rockies. On Monday he had gone with a 70% chance of thunderstorms for Wednesday morning. By his 7 a.m. breakfast report on Wednesday he'd bumped it to 80%. And by 9 a.m. both of his computer screens were crowded with the bright colors that signified tall, leaden clouds—and danger. Lightning struck not only the Grand but also all over the valley. It hit the Snake River, briefly knocked out power at Jackson Hospital and fried a cellphone tower. Grand Teton National Park fire monitor Ron Steffens says the most powerful lightning strikes on the Grand occurred at 12:05 and 12:09 p.m., part of a relentless barrage that lasted 90 minutes. For the Tyler and Sparks parties, though, it was the second major strike that changed everything.

Dan Tyler had made it only a few feet back up the rope when lightning struck again—so close that he was showered with small rocks kicked loose by the blast—followed immediately by a deafening boom. Dan, though, wasn't conscious to hear it. "It knocked me into oblivion," he said of the lightning. "When I came to I was hanging upside down, and for a few seconds I wasn't sure where I was. I was completely disoriented. I then realized I was hanging on the rope. The next thing I noticed was that my legs were heavy. I couldn't feel them." His right arm was dead too. "I was unsure what to do and somewhat panicked, but I eventually realized I needed to get myself off that rope. So I fed some slack into the belaying device and was able to turn myself so my legs were below me."

As Dan tried to navigate the narrow passage with a single arm, his legs were snagged against the wall and bent back unnaturally. It occurred to him that if he pressed too hard, he might break his own legs and not feel it. Maybe five minutes later another lightning strike knocked some rocks loose above him. The rocks were small, but as they scattered down the chute they added to a growing sense that the climbers were under siege.

Above Mike and Dan, out of their sight, the charge had leveled Troy Smith too. He fell, gashed his head and stopped breathing. Steven Tyler had collapsed right next to him, and he saw Smith's eyes roll back, but he couldn't lift his own arms or move his legs. With an effort he rolled Smith, who had fallen across his arm, and gave him mouth-to-mouth. After a half dozen exhalations Smith inhaled on his own, but he still wasn't all there. The ensuing three hours still do not exist in his memory.

Mike couldn't see Dan, much less his dad, his brother-in-law and Appleton, and he yelled to them over the noise of the storm, asking if they were O.K. Dan and the party above yelled to each other, but neither could hear what the other said. Dan and Mike had better luck communicating and agreed that Mike should go for help. The only problem with that was that it left Dan alone and without any information about what had happened to his dad or the others.

Like Mike and Dan Tyler, Greg Sparks had used the time since the first strike to lower himself and Brandon Oldenkamp down to a ledge, the very one that runs into the Belly Roll. Their group had decided that since Brandon was new to climbing, Greg should go down first and be there to see that Oldenkamp gained the ledge safely. Both did.

Then the second bolt hit. Unlike the first one, it not only buckled their legs but also packed a concussive punch. From three feet away Greg watched helplessly as the force of the jolt propelled Oldenkamp off the ledge and over the side. To Greg's greater horror, the young man's rope did not catch and go taut. Instead Greg could see the end of the rope on the wet stone, the rope Greg swore was slipped through Oldenkamp's harness loop and knotted at the end to prevent him from falling more than a few feet. Desperate, Greg craned over the cliff, but he knew it was hopeless. Below him, 800 feet down, lay the Black Ice Couloir, a glaciated 50-degree ramp that drained over a 3,000-foot series of cliffs into Valhalla Canyon. No surviving that.

"It just took him off," Greg said months later, still with a trace of disbelief. He swore Oldenkamp was tied into the rope, which would make the fall impossible—unless, that is, his harness failed, or the carabiner through which the rope passed had popped open, releasing the rope. Even then the knot could have saved him. "He couldn't have unclipped," Greg said. "I'd have seen him. I was right there." He couldn't understand how it happened. He still can't.

With the hand that worked best, Steven Tyler fished in his pack for his cellphone. He couldn't close his grip, and he had split his lip, so things got a little clumsy and bloody. Under different circumstances, he thought, it might have been slapstick. Eventually he toggled to the most-recent-calls list and clicked on the last one he'd placed, which, he seemed to remember, had been to a ranger station for a weather update. He'd forgotten that Dan had since used the phone to check in with his wife, Heidi. So Steven's daughter-in-law, at a lodge with several of his grandchildren, picked up. He had one bar of wireless connectivity; no way could he risk dropping the call. As evenly as he could, he told her their situation. He did not volunteer details about Dan; he wouldn't have known what to say. Heidi's call to 911 was relayed to the Jenny Lake Rangers at 12:24 p.m.

The Jenny Lake Rangers, or simply the Climbing Rangers, have evolved into one of the elite rescue teams in the world. A haven for dirt-ball climbers looking to get paid to hang out in the Tetons, the group has plenty of loners and mountain men, but it also has people who've done law-enforcement training—a mix of type A's and poets that works. As physically fit as professional athletes, they exhibit the bonhomie of a championship ball club, rarely missing a chance to rib one another. In all there are four full-timers and 14 seasonal rangers. Among them the Climbing Rangers have amassed 230 years of experience in the Tetons.

Soon after Steven's SOS, more calls came in. Were they from different members of the same party or from different parties? It was hard for the rangers to tell. In the office of the Rescue Cache, their headquarters at the base of Teewinot Mountain, northeast of the Grand Teton, the Climbing Rangers tried to make sense of what they were hearing. There were 12 climbers, five dead.... No, that was wrong. There were 13 climbers, all alive but one missing.... "It was five, then eight, then 13, then 17," ranger Jack McConnell remembers with head-shaking astonishment. "That's a bus wreck on a mountain!"

By the time the rangers had a better grip on how many people they were looking for, a few of them, including McConnell and Helen Bowers, were already airborne in a chopper flown by a 30-year-old ace named Matt Heart. Though he'd been the head of the Climbing Rangers only one month, 34-year-old Scott Guenther had made the bold decision to launch a search-and-rescue operation even though rain had begun to fall in the valley, thunder rumbled not from far the Cache and the Grand Teton itself had vanished under a low ceiling of dark clouds.

Heart flew a yellow AStar B3 with the doors off. That high on the Grand, there was no place for a helicopter to land, so the rangers would have to pull people off using a procedure called the short-haul. First introduced in the Tetons in 1986, short-hauling involves attaching a cable to a helicopter with either a litter or a so-called screamer suit, which isn't a suit, really, but a full-body harness that works well for anyone who hasn't suffered spinal injuries. The injured party has his or her arms and legs put through sewn holes and is then clipped into the cable and whisked away. "It's like a jacket-diaper configuration," McConnell explains, "but it's the best ride in the Tetons: a Tilt-a-Whirl on steroids."

Every summer the Climbing Rangers rehearse this technique, because it takes nail-biting precision by the pilot to hold his airship steady, and the rangers can't make a false move as they clip in the patient or they'll kill the person they came to save. A number of the Climbing Rangers had done short-hauls before; once, in 2005, the rangers had short-hauled 13 climbers, also lightning struck, from just below the Exum ridge. (Until last July 21 that had been the largest rescue they'd ever completed.) The 2005 rescue had been another long day, but that storm had swiftly blown out. The rangers simply raced against nightfall, when it's no longer safe to fly the chopper.

This time was different: Heart and the rangers were going into the teeth of the storm. Guenther tapped Woodmencey for "spot weather"—to track individual storm cells on-screen like fractal video-game enemies and warn his rangers when they had to retreat.

Heart's first destination was the Lower Saddle, one of the two main base camps for those climbing the Grand. Exum Mountain Guides, one of two commercial services with permits to guide the Grand, maintains a hut there from June to September. The service volunteered the hut as a M*A*S*H tent.

As soon as they touched down on the Lower Saddle, McConnell and Bowers recruited Exum guide Dan Corn to go up the mountain with them. A sunny, highly accomplished alpinist who climbs and guides year-round, Corn, 27, had been among those who'd left for the summit at 3:30 a.m. and, with two fit clients, been to the top and returned to the Lower Saddle base camp before the lightning strikes. (A few others also made it to the top that morning, but at least one other guided party turned back.) McConnell, 50, a wry, squared-jawed ox of a man, can do laps around most climbers on the Grand, but he was glad to have Corn on the search party, so he could give the younger man the heaviest gear and medical kits.

Within a half hour, before reaching the steepest rock faces, McConnell, Bowers and Corn encountered Mike Tyler and a couple of members of the Sparks party on their way down. Mike had lost his gloves, so Corn gave him his. Bowers stayed with the climbers; McConnell and Corn continued on up. Luckily they came within view of three other members of the Sparks group, including Vogelaar, just in time. The shell-shocked trio was about to make a common but life-threatening mistake and head toward the so-called Idaho Express, a cliff that drops several thousand feet off the Grand's west face. "Don't go down that way. It's a death trap!" Corn yelled into the wind. Hearing them, Vogelaar and the others stopped and made their way to the Black Rock Chimneys, the right way down.

The storm had let up a bit, and Heart made a quick pass around the base of the summit pyramid. He soon had a bead on all the stricken climbers, but it would still be an hour or more before the rangers could reach them and begin the short-hauls. In the meantime a second helicopter brought more rangers to the Lower Saddle. They, too, started up.

McConnell and Corn met up with the last of the Sparks group and helped them down to the hut on their own steam, and then returned to climbing in earnest. It was difficult, with water gushing down the rock and pouring from chutes in flash waterfalls. The faces they saw as they poked up out of the Owen Chimney still haunt Corn. All the climbers could answer him on topic, but they were not all there: They looked like zombies. Steven Tyler and Troy Smith were especially ghoulish—bluish with cold, blood streaked down their faces. A slush of snow and small hailstones lined the seams of their parkas. Steven told Corn he thought he'd gone hypothermic. They had a winter layer on, but they'd been in the storm for more than three hours without being able to move. In the mountains, especially, motion is heat, and heat is life.

Larson, from the Kline group, had been trying to find help and had reached rangers who had gathered the lightning victims and huddled with them under a slight overhang to await the helicopter. The storm had picked up force again, and they all ditched their metal. McConnell had begun to pull a tarp over one side of the overhang for a bit of extra shelter when electricity snapped at his elbow. Not more lightning! The morale of the group, which had greatly improved when the helicopter passed over and the rangers arrived, sank. But McConnell's reaction to thunder detonating directly overhead —"It's getting sporty!"—made even the coldest of them grin a little.

The rangers were running out of time if they were to get everyone off by dark, and the urgency grew now with the intensifying storm. Heart banked the helicopter in toward the rock and dropped the cable. The screamer suit slid down the cable; McConnell detached it and tried to throw it to another ranger, but it fell short. They scrambled for a minute while Heart tried to hold his position in the AStar, the wind and rain whipping in his face as he flew. His copilot kept an eye on the tail rotor to make sure it didn't swing into the rock. That would be deadly. A stripped-down version of the AStar had made it all the way to the summit of Everest on a 2005 stunt flight, so the aircraft had no problem with the thin air. But holding a chopper steady in those conditions takes a rare, Zenlike skill.

Finally the rangers got the harness set between Troy Smith's legs and under his arms and hooked him to the cable with two big carabiners. The rangers took a step back and waved to Heart, and the chopper whisked Smith right off the rock and out into the void. Still not comprehending that he'd been struck by lightning, Smith found the ride, as McConnell promised, awesome. He didn't scream; he gave a hoarse whoop of joy.

Over the next two hours all of the climbers but Dan Tyler were evacuated at least as far down as the Lower Saddle, where the second helicopter had begun ferrying injured climbers to the valley. For the Climbing Rangers in the Cache, the operation had become a logistical drama as they coordinated 70-plus people in what had become the most complex rescue in the park's 82-year history. And it wasn't over. Weatherman Woody had checked in: He advised pulling the chopper out to see what the next storm cell had in store before attempting another short-haul.

"It was like an F-16 ripping open the sky," McConnell said of that squall. It was decided that he'd head down while rangers Drew Hardesty and Marty Vidak stayed with Dan. Some feeling had returned to Dan's arm and legs, and he could wiggle his toes a little, but he was terribly cold. McConnell told them he really hated to be going so soon. Dan appreciated the humor, but he really wanted off that mountain. He couldn't face the prospect of being out overnight, and it was starting to get dim. For Dan the helicopter hadn't just represented hope, it was hope, and now it was leaving.

His despair didn't last long. Within the hour Heart had taken advantage of another short window in the storm to return and pluck Dan off. Dan did not enjoy the short-haul ride nearly as much as his brother-in-law had. Out in the vast space over all that rock and snow of the Tetons, he had trouble breathing. He shivered and closed his eyes until it was over—it was just too much.

Dan only spent 15 minutes in the M*A*S*H hut, just long enough to be stuffed into a sleeping bag and given a cup of hot chocolate. He still couldn't walk, but he was feeling like he would eventually. Once in the valley, the EMTs ran an IV into him and had him wait in an ambulance. It's a 30-minute drive to the hospital, so the rangers had to take more than one at a time.

Dan spent those minutes wishing he knew more—anything, really—about the rest of his family. He'd talked to Heidi, but she too had been unable to find out what happened to the others. For six hours, since Mike had left to get help, Dan had been separated from the rest. He didn't even know if they were all alive. He tried not to think about it.

A few minutes passed and a volunteer stuck her head in to say that someone else would be joining Dan. They opened up the back of the ambulance, and his dad entered. The old man was roughed up—split lip, dried blood on his nose, some loss of hearing—but he'd made it. Dan broke down. He had never been more happy to see his dad in his life.

The following morning Heart started up the AStar again for the grim trip out to Valhalla Canyon to recover Brandon Oldenkamp's body. Like all the Climbing Rangers, Heart knew well that adventures in the mountains could carry fateful consequences, but he was in this job because mountains had, time and again, filled him with a profound sense of well-being. He imagined that Oldenkamp had just been discovering that too.

The park averages one to three deaths per year—statistically not bad, perhaps, given the four million visitors. But Heart found Oldenkamp's death profoundly sad. At least he and the other rangers had been able to save the lives of a handful more: Hypothermia and other injuries could have proved fatal to several of the lightning victims had there not been a helicopter to get them down fast.

Several of the climbers were back at their lodge rooms by nine or 10 that night, but a few had more serious medical issues. Troy Smith was flown on yet another helicopter to Idaho for CT scans. He turned out to be O.K. but would be loopy for weeks. Betsy Smith lost the index finger on her right hand, where the charge had exited her body, killing all the tissue. The finger had to be amputated and stitched up. Her wristwatch had burned her left arm severely. The arm was so swollen that surgeons had to cut it to keep blood flowing into her left hand.

Only Alan Kline ended up in the ICU. He had burns across his back and probably should have died. The electricity that had coursed through him had torn his lungs slightly, allowing air to seep into his chest and put pressure on his heart, which was beating at only 35 beats per minute when he was admitted to the hospital. "The doctor who saw me told me I had more air in my chest than anyone he'd ever seen who wasn't dead," Kline says.

One year later Steven Tyler still can't hear as well, though he's not sure if that's all from the lightning or from turning 68. Most of the rest have made a full recovery, at least physically. Several have continued climbing; for Kline it's his livelihood. Others have foresworn it, or plan to do less ambitious hikes—all under blue skies, thank you very much. Asked if he'd attempt the Grand again, Mike Tyler says, "No. I think we got the message."

The ranger who coordinated the rescue from headquarters, Jim Springer, investigated why Oldenkamp's rope and harness hadn't broken his fall. Given the evidence he collected and reviewed, it appeared Oldenkamp might have passed the rope through a weaker loop on his harness, one not designed to take his weight. Or maybe the rope slipped out of the carabiner on his harness, which had been found unlocked. Or maybe, reaching the ledge, Oldenkamp had simply unclipped from the rope. Greg Sparks cannot accept this: He was right there, and he's as certain as he is alive that the rope was through the main loops on the front of Oldenkamp's harness.

"I must have tried various scenarios out in the garage a thousand times," says Barry Sparks, who had to explain Oldenkamp's death to his daughter Katie. "I can't make sense of why it didn't work."

Oldenkamp was devoted to God, and his family says his faith, and theirs, has helped them earn a measure of peace. "I still weep sometimes," his father, Bob Oldenkamp, says. "We weren't ready for him to go.... But I do know that in those mountains Brandon saw the best the Creator has ever made. And, in a heartbeat, he got to see Him who made it."






Blinding and explosive—here and gone in two-tenths of a second—lightning "is the hottest natural force on the face of the earth," says Martin Uman, one of the world's preeminent lightning researchers. "Nuclear energy can be hotter, but that's artificial." Uman's program at the University of Florida is one of six that DARPA, the pure-research arm of the Department of Defense, has funded to better understand exactly how lightning originates. That remains one of the true mysteries of science.

If the precise genesis of lightning is not known (it initially involves the friction of millions of ice crystals in clouds), Uman and his ilk have established that lightning comes in many forms and has a variety of strengths, from a weak 100-ampere flicker to a 1,000-amp streamer to a cloud-to-ground stroke that reaches 300,000 amps and 50,000° Fahrenheit—five times hotter than the surface of the sun.

The National Weather Service estimates that lightning kills 55 people in the U.S. per year, many of them boaters, golfers and farmers. And many, like the climbers on the Grand Teton last year, don't experience a direct hit, but rather ground shocks: electricity running over or through the earth. Even so, Uman says, more than half of those who endure a direct strike survive.

"The reason is that the energy flashes over their skin," he explains. "Whether you live or not depends on whether it enters the body, and how much electricity goes through the heart—if it stops the heart."

With the possible exception of Floridians, Americans tend to be ill-informed about the dangers of lightning. The rule of thumb many of us learned as children—counting "one-one-thousand" for each second between the flash and the sound of thunder to determine how many miles away the lightning is—is off by a factor of five. John Gookin, who has studied outdoor lightning risk management for the National Outdoor Leadership School, based in Lander, Wyo., says every five seconds is the equivalent of one mile. One second between a flash and thunderclap means that the lightning could have hit less than a quarter-mile away.

Summit 13,770 feet

Tyler group descending Owen Chimney

Sparks group descending

Kline group on top of Exum Ridge

Owen-Spalding route

Belly Roll

Upper Saddle 13,200 feet

Exum Ridge



The story of men and the Grand Teton, like the story of men and any iconic peak, is steeped in controversy. William O. Owen, a surveyor and civil engineer, completed the first confirmed ascent of the mountain on Aug. 11, 1898, along with Franklin Spalding, Frank Petersen and John Shive. Yet Owen's account of their achievement in the New York Herald set off a feud, never fully resolved, over who really got to the summit first.

Competing claims ran back to 1877 and 1872. Whomever you believe, however, the Owen-Spalding route (Owen organized the expedition and Spalding led it) endures, and by today's standards it's eminently doable. In fact, if you chat with a local climber/valet at the nearby Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, chances are good he'll tell you that the real challenge of climbing the Grand Teton isn't maneuvering on rock, "it's the exposure"—that is, exposure to dizzying falls.

If you're being guided, this is probably true: As long as you're fit, you can handle the physical effort of summiting the mountain, but you have to screw up your courage for features such as the Belly Roll, a large flake of rock on a ledge that requires you to either go up and over the flake or out and around it, over a deep abyss. It's terrifying or exhilarating—or both.

For those not being guided, the greater challenges of the Grand Teton are finding routes, avoiding rock falls and reading the weather. In his excellent 2000 book, Teewinot, Jack Turner, drawing on more than 40 seasons in the Tetons as a guide and naturalist, notes that he became, over time, an aficionado of thunderstorms.

"I'd watch them coming for hours, trying to predict if they would hit me or pass benignly to the side," he writes. "I never learned to predict them, and I still can't."

The Tetons, Turner goes on to say, taught him to "fear lightning, to love emptiness and silence." The wisest of climbing guides and rangers, he reflects, never pretend to know the weather, but answer naive optimism and rank pessimism the same way: "We'll see...."


Photograph by TIM VOGELAAR

CALM BEFORE THE STORM From left: Oldenkamp, Miller and Greg Sparks summited South Teton in clear weather two days before attempting to climb the Grand Teton.



COLD RUN On July 19 members of the Sparks party made their way across the ice and snow of the valley between South Teton and Middle Teton.



SHOCK WAVES This map of the Grand Teton (center) and its environs shows lightning strikes on July 21, 2010. Yellow arrows mark negatively charged strikes; red circles, the more powerful positive strikes.



HIGH HOPES Above, from left: the Sparks group (Oldenkamp is second from right), the Tyler party (Steven is on the far left) and the Kline group (Smith is on the right) before climbing the Grand Teton. Left: the locations where the groups were stranded when lightning struck.



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HAZARDOUS FLIGHT The rescue chopper flew into the teeth of the storm and hauled out the lightning victims, who hung in harnesses, one by one.



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FINAL MYSTERY Even after an investigation, no one knows why the rope and harness failed to keep Oldenkamp (above) from tumbling down the mountain.