Injured Climber Flown from Middle Teton on July Fourth

July 6, 2008
Grand Teton National Park rangers and an interagency contract helicopter evacuated an injured climber from the Middle Teton on Friday, July 4, at 5:45 p.m. 24-year-old Tom Wilkinson, from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, tumbled approximately 150 feet and suffered a severe ankle injury while descending a snowfield on the Middle Teton. He was wearing crampons and a helmet at the time of the fall; he was also carrying an ice axe.

Wilkinson and his climbing partner, Christopher Leath, also 24 years old, of Wilson, Wyoming, were descending the South Couloir route—a rarely climbed couloir, between the Southwest and Ellingwood couloirs—when Wilkinson fell. He tumbled over several rockbands, injured his ankle when he impacted a rock, and came to a stop above a cliff (elevation 11,300 ft.). Leath placed an emergency cell phone call, which was transferred to park rangers at 12:30 p.m. Rangers began coordinating a rescue operation and requested the assistance of an interagency contract helicopter. Because the two climbers were unable to describe their exact position on the mountain, an initial reconnaissance flight was required to locate them. During this flight, rangers and the pilot determined that winds were too strong to allow for the insertion of rescue personnel to the climbers’ location. Instead, six rangers and a helitack crew member were flown to a landing zone in the Garnet Canyon Meadows, and they approached the party on foot.

Two rangers reached the climbers at 3:45 p.m., and another helicopter flight was launched to determine if weather conditions had stabilized enough so that the pilot could perform a short-haul evacuation of Wilkinson. When there is no suitable spot to land a helicopter, the short-haul method is used to place rescue personnel, who are suspended below the helicopter by a 100-150-foot rope, into a location near the patient; the injured person is then secured into either an evacuation suit or a rescue litter to be airlifted for a short flight to another landing spot where the ship can safely touch down. In this case, rangers provided medical care to Wilkinson, placed him in an evacuation suit, and flew him, along with an attending ranger, below the helicopter to Lupine Meadows. A waiting park ambulance transported Wilkinson to St. John’s Medical Center in Jackson for further medical care.

Climbers are reminded that dangerous and variable snow conditions persist above 9,000 feet. Backcountry users are advised to stop in or call a visitor center or ranger station on the day of travel to obtain the most current trail, route and snow conditions. Climbers should also note that most climbing accidents involve slips on snow, and most occur on the descent at the end of a long day.