Investigation Continues on the Grand Teton Climbing Fatality

July 21, 2008
Grand Teton National Park rangers continue to investigate the death of longtime Exum Mountain Guides employee George Gardner, age 58, that occurred on Saturday, July 19. Fellow guides, who were with Gardner before the accident that took his life, have provided rangers with extensive information about the circumstances leading up to his untimely death.

Gardner and several other Exum guides had taken a group of clients, including youths from Wilderness Ventures, to the Lower Saddle on Saturday with the intention of climbing the Grand Teton the following day. After the group had eaten dinner and settled into their Lower Saddle camp for the evening, Gardner departed around 5 p.m. to free solo climb the Lower Exum Ridge on the Grand Teton, a climb rated 5.7 on the Yosemite Decimal System. According to his colleagues, Gardner planned to climb the route to Wall Street and then return back to Lower Saddle base camp. It is not unusual for professional guides—either in pairs or solo—to go out for additional climbing on their own, once their clients have settled in for the night.

Several guides were concerned when Gardner had not returned by dark; however, the guides noticed headlamps coming down from the Upper Saddle and they figured it was Gardner, perhaps assisting a mountaineering party in their late-hour descent. When the guides awoke at 3 a.m. to prepare for the day’s excursion, they discovered that Gardner was missing. Out of concern, they notified Exum Mountain Guides President Jack Turner, who contacted Teton Interagency Dispatch Center (TIDC) with news of the missing guide. After the call, park rangers immediately began coordinating a search and rescue response, and requested for an interagency contract helicopter to arrive at first light.

At the Lower Saddle, several Exum guides began a hasty search for Gardner, with three guides climbing the Lower Exum Ridge route and two guides ascending the classic route to the Upper Exum Ridge via Wall Street. One of the guides ascending towards Wall Street spotted Gardner’s body around 6 a.m. from an area near the Eye of the Needle. After alerting the party that was ascending the Lower Exum Ridge, two of the guides from the Lower Exum Ridge party climbed to Gardner’s location and confirmed that he was deceased. Park rangers and TIDC were notified of the fatality, prompting a switch to a recovery and investigation operation. At approximately 6:30 a.m., park rangers were flown by helicopter with the intention of landing at the Lower Saddle. They were diverted to a landing spot on Teepee Glacier due to moderate and high wind conditions; a local storm system with lightning temporarily shut down air operations. After the storm passed, the helicopter delivered additional rangers involved with the recovery and investigation effort to the Lower Saddle. Gardner’s body was flown from the accident site on the mountain via short haul and delivered to his family and a contingent of fellow climbing guides at the park’s Lupine Meadows rescue cache at 12:30 p.m. Gardner’s body was then transferred to the Teton County Coroner’s office in Jackson, Wyoming.

Park rangers are further investigating the accident, though they acknowledge that the exact cause may never be known for certain. Rangers speculate that Gardner may have fallen from one of the upper pitches of the Lower Exum Ridge route. They also note that there was a substantial (and atypical) wind gust—of about 60 mph—at approximately 6 p.m. the day of the accident that may have been a factor in Gardner’s fall. Whatever the cause of this accident, park rangers and Exum guides both agree that Gardner was climbing well within the realm of his capabilities, and doing what he was comfortable with and what he loved.

Superintendent Mary Gibson Scott expressed heartfelt condolences on behalf of all park staff. “Park employees, local residents and the climbing community are stunned by this tragedy,” she said. “George was not only a respected guide, but also a wonderful mentor to other climbers. Our hearts go out to his family.”

A resident of Ridgeway, Colorado, Gardner had been an Exum guide for 17 years and a climbing guide for 28 years. His vast mountaineering experience included expeditions on the southwest face of Kanchenjunga and the west face of Hyani Potosi in Bolivia’s Cordillera Real; ski ascents in the Alps and in Colorado; and extensive climbing in North America and the Himalayas. He was the program director for Sterling College’s “Semester in the Himalayas” as well as an AMGA Certified Alpine Guide.