Climbing Tragedy Reminder Of Mother Nature's Power In the summer of 2010, 17 climbers set out for the summit of the Grand Teton, the highest point in Wyoming's Teton range. Storms caught the climbers on exposed slopes and lightning strikes left many disoriented and some temporarily paralyzed. One climber dead.
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Climbing Tragedy Reminder Of Mother Nature's Power

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Climbing Tragedy Reminder Of Mother Nature's Power

Climbing Tragedy Reminder Of Mother Nature's Power

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NEAL CONAN, host: Just over a year ago, 17 climbers set out for the summit of the Grand Teton, a dramatic peak that marks the highest point in Wyoming's Teton Range. Less than a day's climb on a good day, this was not a good day. Thunderstorms caught the climbers out on exposed slopes and ridges, and lightning strikes left many disoriented, some temporarily paralyzed and one dead.

If you've been struck by lightning, call and tell us your story: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joining us from his cabin on the coast of Maine is Brad Wieners. He profiled the group and their dramatic recovery in a piece called "Countdown to Tragedy" in Sports Illustrated. And, Brad Wieners, thanks very much for being with us today.

BRAD WIENERS: Well, thank you for your interest.

CONAN: And also with us from Fairfield, Connecticut, is Betsy Smith, one of the climbers on the Grand Teton that day. And thank you for being with us.

BETSY SMITH: I'm very excited.

CONAN: And, Betsy Smith, you started off well before daybreak that morning, 3:30. When did you figure out you were in trouble?

SMITH: ..TEXT:

CONAN: At that point it looked like, and then things went dramatically worse.

SMITH: They did, yeah. So we watched those clouds, and, you know, they kind of progressed on like we saw. And then a small band of clouds started coming our direction, which would be, you know, from the west, but we could see sunshine right behind us. So that was - you know, as climbers, we decided, OK, we'll hunker down and wait that out. And it lasted less than five minutes, and then we kept going.

And there was another small band, and that one linked up to that larger storm to the south. But it looked like if it stayed on course, once again, you know, five minutes and it would be past. That's the one that did not pass. I've heard - not a meteorologist, not sure about it, but - that those were two fronts at that point got - were kind of colliding and ended up swirling over the mountain range and staying on us all day.

CONAN: Your group - I think everybody had climbing experience, and this would be, you know, a challenging climb on any day, but this day, it really did get very serious.

SMITH: Right, right, it did. We had changed our route plan for the day, knowing that there was a chance of rain in the late afternoon and evening. So we did choose an easier route than we had expected or planned to do, but it still wasn't fast enough.

CONAN: And as the storm centered over you, what did it look like? What did it feel like?

SMITH: Well, at first, it was just kind of being cloudy, and rain turned into a little bit of sleet. And then as we were crossing this ridge - which was, at that point, our kind of point of no return - we started to feel kind of this humming in the air. And if you talk to many mountaineers out there, they can explain that humming to you, you know, very clearly. Your gear just kind of starts to buzz, and you realize that there's static around you.

So that was the point that we, you know, really got scared. And, you know, we hurried across the ridge and took all of our metal gear off, separated ourselves from it to hope that that would not attract, you know, any bigger types of electricity, you know, lightning, of course. And then we just waited, so...

CONAN: You forgot to take off your wristwatch, though.

SMITH: I forgot to take off my wristwatch, which was plastic, except, of course, the metal back that holds the battery in, so...

CONAN: Do you think that was what drew the lightning?

SMITH: No. I - you know, the amount of static around your body - of course, I've done a bit of research since then because of what happened to us. The amount of static around our bodies, I think, would draw it, you know, with four of us standing there within, you know, pretty close proximity to each other. So I don't know if it was my wristwatch or - you know, even a - well, a couple of us still had our harnesses on, which had - they're mostly fabric, but there's, you know, tiny little buckles, you know? So there were small bits of metal. We were just really hoping that our cache of gear, which was a lot of metal, would draw the lightning to it and away from us.

CONAN: What did it feel like when you got hit?

SMITH: You know, the initial strike was - you kind of realize what was happening. It didn't hurt right when it hit you. Everything kind of went in to this slow-motion effect, and you would watch, you know, as your friends were falling over and then not realizing you hit had the ground too. And then it would - then that's - the pain would hit, and you would realize that you were struck just like they were, and you were falling just like they were.

And the best description that we've had so far is that it felt like someone was injecting hot oil into your veins, like you're boiling from the inside out. And you could see the smoke kind of poof out of your clothes as soon as you hit the ground. And you could smell it, which is an awful smell. So...

CONAN: Hmm. Brad Wieners, the group that Betsy Smith was with, just one of three groups on the mountain that day, and all of them experienced varying degrees of difficulty.

WIENERS: That's true, yeah. They were 17 in all. And three parties that you mentioned; one was eight, another group was a sort of father-and-sons group, a five, and then Betsy was with three others. And they were on the Exum Ridge, which is a sort of more scenic route that's harder to get down from. And the others were on the sort of standard route, the Owen-Spalding, which is actually the first route that was ever, if at least confirmed, first ascent of the mountain.

It has a number of sort of narrow passages that you have to navigate, which posed to be a challenge when some of these guys were paralyzed from the waist down. So they had to effectively lower themselves without the use of their legs.

CONAN: Without the - there's a temporary paralysis that sets in. At least these people experienced it.

WIENERS: Several of them did experience this sort of numbness, yeah. And one of the memorable images or thoughts for me from this one climber was - he was in a - in a chimney and was lowering himself and he's - he got sort of turned to such that his legs were snagged on the side of the wall. And he could lower himself further, but it would, you know, sort of put pressure in an unnatural position on his legs. And it occurred to him that he could lower himself and break his own legs. And he wouldn't know it until he had done it because his legs were numb.

CONAN: And he was not the only climber suspended by ropes that day. And we have to note that one of them, well, something happened. It's not exactly clear what, but his line came loose and he fell 800 feet.

WIENERS: Quite tragically, you know, for a young man who was invited by his prospective future father-in-law. It was a chance - as these trips often are for members of the family or a family maybe uniting to get to know each other better under exciting circumstances. And they knew that he wasn't as experienced. He was 21 years old, and this was his first big mountain. He did great on the Middle Teton, which is a neighboring mountain, a couple of days before. So he was taking to it and he was doing fine. There was no sense that he wasn't capable. But when they determined that they should go back down - and they were on the way back down when the storm really hit with its greatest ferocity, one of the guys who put together the trip went down ahead of this young man, and he was joined on this fairly famous ridge where there's a feature called The Belly Roll, which is a great challenge for new climbers to get around because of that big drop that you mentioned.

So there's just - a lot of the people who climbed a lot talk about the Tetons not being particularly difficult for the climbing, but for newer climbers the exposure, meaning the exposure to these vast voids on the sides, and from where he was hit with sort of the concussive force of the lightning, that's 800 feet to a very steep core, narrow passage between two ridges, and that drains over another 3,000 vertical feet.

So it's a place that a number of climbers and skiers have been lost in the years past and, sadly, it claimed this guy. His name is Brandon Oldenkamp. And it's quite clear from the reporting I did that people liked him. This was a really good kid.

CONAN: Brad Wieners' story is not just about the terrifying experiences of those 17 climbers on Grand Teton that day, but about the remarkable rescue that was mounted to get them off the mountain and get them safe and get them down. And I want to ask, Betsy Smith, when you realized you were in such trouble, what did it look like when you saw help coming?

SMITH: Oh, well, it was amazing. And we were at a point on the mountain that the search and rescue would have been very difficult to reach us, so Alan Kline, my boyfriend and one of the members of our party is a professional guide. He lowered us down. I was unable to use my arms after regaining the use of my body, and a friend was unable to use one of his feet. But he lowered us down on these makeshift rappels that he used out of kind of what gear we had left that was good and got us down about a thousand feet

And at that point, we saw Helen Bowers from the Park Service. And I described her at the time and still do as just an angel. It was - she just seemed to be in such shape and she was just so beautiful. And, you know, Neal, it was just amazing to see her at this point because there was confirmation that, yes, you know, we were getting ourselves down, but we were actually going to make it. You know, once we saw her, it was a huge, huge sigh of relief.

CONAN: Brad Wieners' story in Sports Illustrated is called "Countdown to Tragedy." We're speaking with him and with one of the climbers, Betsy Smith. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's go next to Gene. And Gene is with us from Fresno in California.

GENE: Hello. How are you, guys?

CONAN: Good. Thanks.

GENE: Thanks for putting me on the show. Well, I guess I'm a member of that very elite, however sad, group of being struck by lightning and survived. I went out. There was a lighting storm outside of my home in New York when I lived there as a teenager and I went outside to watch it foolishly. And lightning struck the ground about 10 or 15 feet in front of me. And like the lady was saying earlier on the call, it was interesting because you don't really feel it immediately.

But I remember every time the flash went off, it felt like maybe, best way to describe it is like a giant, grabbing your body and squeezing you, because your body completely tensed up solid. And with each flash, it's like bup-budda-bup and you tensed up every time. And of course, you fall to the ground. And I couldn't breathe momentarily and stuff. But it's just - it's like weird, surreal.

CONAN: Any lasting effects?

GENE: Yeah. You know, more - mostly, whenever there's a lightning storm now, foolishly, I'm a little nervous. But I don't know. Medically, I couldn't tell you, but it does have an emotional strain on you, because I do a lot of outdoor activities like your callers there in the mountains. And when those storms come through, you feel very vulnerable. So that's the only effect that I can remember that mostly.

CONAN: Betsy Smith, your lasting effects were a little bit more serious.

SMITH: They were a bit. I definitely have the emotional effects that the caller related, of course. But I lost one of my index fingers, which has actually been the easiest injury to cope with. And then, you know, I lost quite a bit of muscle tissue and then other, you know, tendons and things underneath that wristwatch burnt, so that when with - I risked the most with losing my hand on that injury. And thankfully, they were able to keep it on there, so...

CONAN: So this is going to be with you the rest of your life.

SMITH: Definitely. Definitely, it will be.

CONAN: Let's go next to Dennis. Dennis with us from Emerson in Michigan.

DENNIS: Yeah. I got a hit back in about 15 years ago. And I was on my motorcycle riding to work, got trapped on the storm, took refuge under a pole building. And, I guess, the building got hit. It wasn't a direct hit. And it knocked me out. I got to work. And the thing that caught me, it's a little funny - is everybody who's - you're so lucky that you should go play the lottery. And it was like, well, I just got hit by a lightning, how lucky is that? Not very in my book.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SMITH: I hear that all the time.

CONAN: That you were lucky?

SMITH: Yes, that I was lucky.

CONAN: Yeah. Some luck.

SMITH: Yeah.

CONAN: Dennis...

DENNIS: I was...

CONAN: OK. Dennis, thanks very much.

DENNIS: Thank you very much.

CONAN: I wanted to ask Brad Wieners. How did you get onto this story?

WIENERS: I was actually out at Wyoming to climb the Grand. And the night before my hike, the guide that was going to take me up to the mountain ran through some of the hazards we might face. And I have a bit of a fear of heights, so climbing this mountain was largely about facing that fear for me. And I hadn't really thought about lightning. And he proceeded to tell me that there was a position we might assume if we couldn't get to safe place and there was lightning. And I thought he was joking. I thought that, you know, that's like the old parody of a nuclear strike, where you get down and put your head between your knees and kiss your butt goodbye or something, you know?

But he was actually running me through of some of the very things that Alan and Betsy and their crew did. You know, they just got rid of your metal and actually - this was interesting too. Actually, sort of, making a closed-circuit of your body, so bringing your feet together, your ankles together, so that the energy might flash over your body, and not pass through it. Some listeners may have seen those pictures of all the dead livestock out in fields along the metal fences. You know, the four-legged creatures are at a serious disadvantage because there's a differential between each of their feet.

So there is a lightning position, and that's - that led to them telling me about this rescue because the rescue involved climbers - the climbing ranger team that prepares for this, but they also drafted the - a couple of the commercial guides who were present at the base camp to help them out.

CONAN: Betsy Smith, here on now, do you climb?

SMITH: I do. I definitely do. I wasn't able to start climbing again until October of last year after the accident. And I climbed through the winter and do a little bit of rock climbing now. I'm a student, so I don't get out on these many weekend trips. And I'm definitely a little more cautious when it comes to real exposure. If there is any chance of rain, whatsoever, I'm not going to be out there right now, at least, you know? It's a much scarier adventure for me. And, you know, longer climbs, climbs that are going to take days, you know, a full day, two days, I haven't been back on yet just because I don't want to get my team in a position where I get scared and, you know, can't go any further so...

CONAN: Thanks very much for your time today and good luck.

SMITH: Thank you for having me, Neal.

CONAN: And, Brad Wieners, thank you as well.

WIENERS: Thank you, Neal. Take care.

CONAN: Brad Wieners is a special contributor to Sports Illustrated. His piece is called "Countdown to Tragedy." Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow will chat with Dean Kamen and will.i.am from the Black Eyed Peas. They're working together to get kids interested in science. We'll see you again on Monday. Have a great weekend, everybody. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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