Grand Teton National Park Rangers Receive Interior Department Valor Awards

May 15, 2008

Renny Jackson, Chris Harder, Jack McConnell, Dave Bywater, Ed Visnovske, and Steve Rickert received a Department of the Interior Valor Award from Secretary Dirk Kempthorne at a special ceremony held on Tuesday, May 13, 2008, in Washington D.C. Five of the valor award recipients are rangers at Grand Teton National Park who serve on the mountain rescue team based at Jenny Lake; Rickert, who worked as a seasonal ranger during the 1980s and 1990s, is a registered nurse at St. John’s Medical Center in Jackson, Wyoming. Visnovske was recognized for unusual courage involving a high degree of personal risk during a 2002 rescue on Middle Cathedral Rock in Yosemite Valley at Yosemite National Park. Jackson, Harder, McConnell, Bywater and Rickert received their awards for heroic actions during a life-saving mountain rescue operation in 2004 on Mt. McKinley in Denali National Park. In both rescue incidents, lives were saved by the professionalism, skill and courage of these six men.

Denali National Park Chief Ranger Pete Armington recommended valor awards for Jackson, Harder, McConnell, Bywater and Rickert, and submitted the following account of the Mt. McKinley rescue: On May 20, 2004, Korean climber Ho Cho sustained severe head injuries in a fall on Mt. McKinley’s West Buttress. While his climbing partner descended for help, Cho endured an exposed night at 18,200 feet. Extreme weather turned back two rescue attempts by Cho’s teammates. Alerted by radio, park rangers at the 14,200-foot camp mobilized a rescue team consisting of NPS employees Bywater, Harder, Jackson, McConnell, and Rickert, as well as two British volunteers. They reached the 17,200-foot high camp in just over three hours, a remarkable demonstration of strength and stamina given the elevation, technical terrain, and whiteout conditions. Rickert and Bywater initially remained to erect dome tents and construct snow walls for protection from high winds, an effort that later proved critical to the survival of both Cho and the rescuers. Meanwhile, their teammates began the climb to Denali Pass to locate Cho on the Harper Glacier, 800 feet below the Pass. Semi-conscious and severely frostbitten, Cho was packaged in a rescue sled and dragged back up to the Pass.

The team then faced a series of time-consuming technical rope lowerings to the 17,200-foot camp in gale-force winds, arctic temperatures, and driving snow. With time of the essence, Jackson placed a single ice axe as an initial anchor. Harder and McConnell attended the litter while the British volunteers established the next anchor system. The patient was carefully lowered down the steep, treacherous terrain, and then transferred to the next system, a leap-frogging method repeatedly employed for several hours. Soon after the lowering started, Bywater and Rickert rejoined the team, providing crucial relief for their exhausted teammates. Visibility at this time was often less than 100 feet, and the avalanche hazard steadily increased. The entire rescue team finally reached the temporary safety of the high camp shelter after 18 hours of grueling and dangerous work. During the night, Rickert and Harder provided constant medical care to the patient. Continuing bad weather the following day forced the team to complete a 3,000-foot technical rope lowering (with Rickert attending the rescue litter) to the 14,200-foot camp, from where Cho was evacuated a day later. Without this team’s selfless efforts, there is no doubt Cho would have perished.

Denali Chief Ranger Armington stated, “Over the last 35 years, I have seen NPS rangers execute many remarkable rescues—in Yosemite, Rocky Mountain, Grand Teton and Denali. Few, if any, of these rescues required the sheer physical team effort and endurance that this one did. What the Grand Teton patrol accomplished, without any air support and under the most extreme environmental conditions, stands out as a truly amazing and astounding life-saving achievement. They are heroes!”

Yosemite National Park Emergency Services Manager Keith Lober recommended the valor award for Visnovske, and submitted the following account of the rescue operation on Middle Cathedral Rock:On June 2, 2002, just before nightfall, Yosemite Valley rangers received a report of a significant rock fall followed by calls for help coming from the Direct North Buttress route on Middle Cathedral Rock. Using a spotting scope and public address system, rangers determined that 33-year old John Kurth of Durango, Colorado, had been caught in a rock fall that swept over him, injuring his neck, his shoulder, and fracturing his elbow. Due to nightfall and the difficult position of the climbing party—1,700 feet above the valley floor at the base of a long chimney system laden with loose rock—it was decided that it would be necessary to wait until morning to conduct the rescue effort. Kurth’s climbing partner held Kurth’s arm in traction as they huddled all night on a tiny sloping ledge. Early the next morning, rangers John Dill, Dave Horne, Greg Lawler and Ed Visnovske, and firefighters Dan Gleason and Shawn Walters, rappelled from the park’s helicopter to a small ledge 300 feet above the injured climber. From this dangerous, small ledge, the rescue team worked together to build a technical rope rigging system and then lowered Ranger Dave Horne three hundred feet down the loose rock in the chimney system to Kurth’s location. The entire area remained very much at risk of continued rock fall throughout the rescue operation. The rescue team handling the technical rope system at the top of the long chimney had to be vigilant of rock fall hitting them from above, and also had to be cautious about accidentally initiating a rock fall onto the victim and rescuers below in the vertical chimney. Once with the patient, Ranger Horne packaged Kurth into a rescue litter with the assistance of Kurth’s climbing partner. The rescue team then reversed their rope system and cautiously hauled Ranger Horne and Kurth to the top of the chimney where they were short-hauled by long line under the park helicopter to El Capitan Meadow and a waiting ambulance. The rest of the rescue team, Dill, Lawler, Visnovske, Walters and Gleason were then short-hauled by the helicopter to El Capitan Meadow. For his heroic actions, courage, teamwork, and professionalism, Edward Visnovske is granted the Valor Award of the Department of the Interior.

Yosemite EMS Manager Lober stated, “This was a difficult, technical rescue that demanded a high-level of skill, caution and proficiency to execute. Ed was instrumental to the rescue operation, and the entire team used their climbing expertise to safely carry out a successful mission, bringing Mr. Kurth to safety and needed medical care.”

Valor awards are presented to Department of the Interior employees who have demonstrated unusual courage involving a high degree of personal risk in the face of danger. The act of heroism is not required to be related to official duties, or to have occurred at the official duty station. Recipients receive a special certificate and citation signed by the Secretary, and an engraved gold valor award medal.