In the early morning hours of Sunday, August 16, Grand Teton National Park rangers initiated a multi-phased rescue mission for ten climbers in two separate parties who became stranded together in the Stettner Couloir late Saturday evening, August 15, while descending from the Petzoldt Ridge on the Grand Teton. The initial call for help, at 8:45 Saturday evening, set in motion a search and rescue operation that did not end until four of the climbers were finally evacuated from the Lower Saddle of the Grand by helicopter late Sunday afternoon. Although none of the ten climbers sustained injuries during their mountain mishap, several did suffer from exposure to the extremely wet and cold conditions that they experienced during their hours-long descent of the Stettner Couloir.
The two parties met up during their respective descents off the Petzoldt Ridge, and both groups made an ill-fated decision to rappel down Chevy Couloir and into the Stettner Couloir to reach the Lower Saddle at the end of their day-long climbing adventure. With little understanding of summertime conditions typically found in the Stettner Couloir, this decision proved to be problematic and ultimately placed the climbers in jeopardy of incurring serious injury.
Climbing in the Stettner Couloir can be difficult during summer months because the floor of the couloir essentially becomes a waterfall, with steep, wet and polished rock walls. A constant flush of snowmelt—and the tendency for repeated rockfalls—makes this route a challenge. The climbers encountered several icy waterfalls, and rescuers witnessed dislodged boulders and other debris sloughing down slope as they approached the stranded climbers' location mid-morning on Sunday. A description of the Stettner Couloir, including a warning about summertime conditions, can be found in A Climber's Guide to the Teton Range by Leigh Ortenburger and Renny Jackson.
Jerry Painter (59) of Idaho Falls, Idaho served as leader for his climbing partners Chris Hanvit (55) also of Idaho Falls, Holly Preslar (27) of Sugar City, Idaho, Jacob Preslar (22) of Provo, Utah, Tina Reis (24) of Rigby, Idaho, and Chelsea Principio, 24 of Phoenix, Maryland. Painter's group began their push for the summit of the Grand Teton at 7:00 a.m. from the Lower Saddle. They intended to climb the Petzoldt Ridge, but had a discussion prior to departing about changing their objective because of the time of day and the crowding on the route. They ultimately stuck with their original plan. After encountering other climbing parties and getting delayed—plus moving slowly due to their large size—they did not arrive at the top of the Petzoldt Ridge until 5:00 p.m. Saturday, and they were still a considerable distance from the summit of the Grand. The Painter party encountered a party of four climbers led by Mike Hagen (25)of Moran, Wyoming. Hagen and his partners Nicolas Aguirre (20) also of Moran, Ryan Moorhead (28) of Colorado Springs, and Nancy Nguyen (23) of El Monte, Californiawere also climbing the Petzoldt Ridge. Following a discussion about the most expedient descent route, both parties ended up independently rappelling into the Stettner Couloir. Both groups also become separately stranded when their ropes got stuck and they could not continue to rappel.
Holly Preslar placed a first call for help at 8:45 p.m. and rangers started to initiate a rescue effort. Due to the late hour, the Teton Interagency contract helicopter could not fly, so one ranger hiked to the Lower Saddle from the Jenny Lake Rescue Cache at Lupine Meadows—a distance of seven miles and almost 5,000 feet in elevation gain.
Because rescue options were limited until first light on Sunday morning, rangers also encouraged Preslar and her five companions to use all their available resources to either move down the couloir, or find a safer and drier place to huddle up for the night. At 11:30 p.m., Preslar called to inform rangers that the two climbing parties had combined forces in an effort to make it down and out of the couloir, and she had high hopes that the climbers would make it to the Lower Saddle before morning.
Two of the climbers, Hagen and Reis, eventually made their way to the Lower Saddle by 12:30 a.m. Sunday and were given a sleeping bag and food by rangers at the rescue hut. They were also able to provide more information about the predicament that their stranded partners were encountering.
In trying to problem solve, a number of decisions were made which placed the ten climbers in the path of the icy water that drains into the Stettner Couloir during this time of year. Several of the climbers became fatigued and hypothermic from the cold and wet conditions, so the majority of the group decided to stop and not proceed further until morning light. Rangers received a text message at 5:50 a.m. that said, "Still stuck in the couloir. Very wet and cold. Need to get out ASAP." This communication caused park rangers to accelerate their rescue response.
At first light, two rangers headed out on foot from the Lower Saddle's rescue hut to climb to the scene, assess the situation, and ideally arrange for an evacuation by the Teton Interagency contract helicopter. Because high winds prevented use of the ship, three additional rangers hiked from the Lupine Meadows trailhead to reach the rescue staging area on the Lower Saddle and prepare for a ground rescue. Once the high winds subsided, three additional rangers were flown to a backcountry landing zone located on the Lower Saddle, and they also joined in the rescue operation.
Rangers also enlisted the help of four guides from Exum Mountain Guides, and two private climbers, who happened to be in the vicinity. The two private climbers accompanied one ranger to the rescue site, and the Exum guides helped the group across the Black Dike traverse after they were free of the couloir.
After extricating the remaining eight people from the Stettner Couloir and assisting them to the Lower Saddle rescue hut by early afternoon, rangers provided food and hot drinks to the climbers and assessed their physical condition to determine who might need aerial evacuation. Four of the ten climbers (Hanvit, Principio and the two Preslars) were evacuated via helicopter at 3:00 p.m. and delivered to the Jenny Lake Rescue Cache on the valley floor. The remaining six climbers hiked out of the mountains on their own.
Rangers strongly advise that climbers thoughtfully consider their skills, abilities and limitations before undertaking a climb of the Grand Teton and other peaks throughout the Teton Range. Climbers should also consider the time it takes to complete an excursion and realize that the size of a group, and other climbers on the same route, can increase the time it takes to complete a climb. Climbing partners should not rely solely on the skills and problem solving abilities of one member of the group. To ensure a safe and successful climb, each party member needs to be competent in navigating the vertical terrain, as well as the chosen route, and each should be capable of making good decisions in a mountain environment.