Seriously Injured Hiker Located After Major Search in Grand Teton National Park

Felder was located at the base of the cascade waterfall and snowfield

August 7, 2008
A seriously injured hiker was located and rescued Wednesday afternoon, August 6, from Avalanche Canyon in Grand Teton National Park after an extensive search effort that involved 65 searchers from multiple agencies: Grand Teton National Park rangers and trail crew, a Teton interagency helitak crew, and members of the Teton County Search and Rescue team. Fifty-eight year old Richard Felder, from Houston, Texas, was descending Avalanche Canyon on Tuesday morning, August 5, when he slipped on a snowfield just below Snowdrift Lake and tumbled at least 10 feet over a cliff. Felder received internal and head injuries, as well as several broken bones, and was unable to resume hiking. He spent an unscheduled night in the backcountry, enduring cold temperatures and his multiple injuries.

Felder and his wife, Patty, were on a backcountry trip, hiking the Teton Crest Trail together, when they opted to separate from one another at 7 a.m. on Tuesday after camping in the south fork of Cascade Canyon. Richard chose to hike out of the Tetons via a traverse over Avalanche Divide—a route he had read about in a recent issue of Backpacker Magazine. Patty continued to hike out the more traditional route through Cascade Canyon, intending to meet her husband at Jenny Lake sometime late Tuesday afternoon. When Richard failed to return by the appointed time, Patty reported him overdue to park rangers at the Jenny Lake Ranger Station. Rangers began to coordinate a field search for Felder and planned to get searchers on the ground at first light the next morning.

At 6 a.m. Wednesday morning, a team of two park rangers hiked from Taggart Lake into Avalanche Canyon, while another team hiked from Jenny Lake into Cascade Canyon to reach Avalanche Divide. These two “hasty search” parties met at Snowdrift Lake in Avalanche Canyon without finding Felder. The incident commander for the search effort also summoned the assistance of an interagency helicopter to provide aerial search capabilities. Because the interagency helicopter was temporarily out of service for maintenance, air operations did not begin until 11 a.m. In the meantime, over 20 searchers—including the park’s trail maintenance crew and Teton interagency fire crews—began an extensive ground search using a grid system to methodically cover assigned sectors of Avalanche Canyon from Taggart Lake trailhead. Once airborne, the helicopter was able to deliver approximately 15 searchers into the upper canyon using a landing zone at Snowdrift Lake; these people fanned out to search assigned locations above the lake.

Working a systematic search pattern from the air, rangers eventually spotted Felder at 4:52 p.m. Felder was lying near some rocks at the base of a snowfield about ¼ mile below Snowdrift Lake outlet; he became visible to the searchers after he waved his arm at the helicopter. Rescue personnel responded by foot from Snowdrift Lake, reaching Felder at 5:12 p.m. These first responders provided emergency medical care for his serious injuries and prepared him for immediate evacuation by helicopter. Felder was placed into a rescue litter at 5:40 p.m. and flown by short-haul with an attending ranger directly to Lupine Meadows where a park ambulance was waiting to transport him to St. John’s Medical Center in Jackson.

An investigating ranger was able to interview Felder in the hospital on Thursday morning, and Felder gave the following account of his ordeal: While descending from Snowdrift Lake (elevation 9,999 ft.), Felder found himself on a steep snow-covered slope; because he did not have an ice axe with him, he began to use his hiking pole as a brace to get himself to a more level area. As he traversed the snowfield, he started to slide, but was able to remain on his feet. He then continued to work his way toward a flatter spot, but broke through the snow into a shallow stream and hit his head on a rock. To climb out of the icy moat (lingering snow cover in the backcountry may be as deep as 15 feet), he took his pack off and tied it to his waist so that he could climb out of the snow cavity without interference from his backpack. He gradually worked his way out of this hollow using steps that he punched with his feet. As he was attempting to put his backpack on his shoulder, he slipped again. His backpack was still tied to his body, so as he slipped, its weight pulled him off balance, causing him to slide and then tumble over a 10-foot cliff. At this point, Felder was dazed and seriously injured. He tried to get a shelter from inside his pack and other items to help him with his injuries, but was unable to reach them. Felder noted that the temperature became quite cold with the setting sun. He also noted that the next morning he watched “helicopters come and go several times” and tried to get a yellow shirt from his pack to place onto his hiking pole to use as a signal.

Felder’s injuries were serious enough that he may not have survived a second night exposed to the elements in the Teton backcountry. He is scheduled to be flown to Houston for further intensive medical care on Friday.

The search and rescue operation was successful in locating and evacuating Felder in a relatively short period of time thanks to the combined efforts of park staff and interagency partners, including search coordinators from Teton County Search and Rescue.

The Teton backcountry can be difficult terrain in which to locate a single person, especially if they are injured and not moving. Rangers caution backcountry users that making a solo hike and climb includes a certain level of risk. If someone gets injured and cannot perform a self rescue, they may become vulnerable to the elements and be stranded for a period of time until a rescue and evacuation can be accomplished.