Our Members: Film Director and Producer Jenny Wilson
by AAC member Jenny Wilson
In 2009, with my husband and small children in tow, I visited the Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Center, which opened in Grand Teton National Park two years earlier. It’s a stunning site, and I was excited to see a display on mountain climbing that referenced a historic 1967 rescue on the North Face of the Grand Teton. My father, Ted Wilson, was one of the Jenny Lake Rangers involved with that rescue. As I retold the tale of drama, courage, and sacrifice to my husband, he turned to me and exclaimed, “that should be a movie!” From that day forward, I have worked to make that statement a reality. On November 5 the documentary film, The Grand Rescue, will premiere in Salt Lake City with a Teton premiere planned for summer.
The Grand Rescue is a story of a rescue that became legend. On the North Face of the Grand Teton in 1967, seven rescuers risked their lives to save a severely injured climber and his companion. The rescue took three harrowing days and pushed the team to new abilities. Remarkably, the injured climber criticized those who risked their lives to save his.
My father, Ted, describes the 1960s in the Tetons as a “campfire convergence” of America’s climbing community. There were no blogs, cell or satellite phones. Campfire stories were the most effective means to broadcast one’s latest mountaineering feat. If you wanted to share your own story or know what was happening in the international climbing community, you went to Jenny Lake. Both elite and emerging climbers summered there, climbing by day and sharing stories by night. As a young child, I was there to take it all in.
With growing numbers of climbers posing new and unique challenges to the park, its Jenny Lake Ranger mountain rescue team became more specialized. The 1967 team, led by ranger Pete Sinclair, was dispatched almost daily to a rescue or body recovery.
The Grand Teton (13,770’) was a much sought-after mountain for emerging and skilled climbers. One of its most famed and respected routes was the North Face. While the Jenny Lake Rangers knew the range well, they feared a call to the North Face—dark, icy, cold, and subject to consistent rock fall, with sections that had never been climbed. But late on the night of August 22, the call came. Ranger Ralph Tingey answered a knock on his cabin door from climbers who had heard shouts for help from Mt. Owen, a neighboring peak. After scoping the face and spotting a flashlight SOS from a ledge high above, he notified lead ranger Pete Sinclair. By morning, a team of five was assembled along with a back-up squad and ground operations. Pete Sinclair led rangers Mike Ermarth, Rick Reese, Ralph Tingey, and Ted Wilson. They left for the rescue knowing their colleague, Bob Irvine, was already on the mountain, climbing for recreation with one of the range’s experts, Leigh Ortenburger. They hoped they would meet up with them.
When the rescuers arrived on the ledge, they were able to escort Lorrie Hough off the mountain quickly to the support team, which took her to safety. Gaylord Campbell, however, had lost blood and the extent of his injuries challenged the rescuers. With protruding compound fractures, he risked dying of shock. The ledge was in a precarious spot. A decision had to be made. Could they take the known route and lift the litter sideways and up for hundreds of feet, then take the victim around the backside of the mountain to safety? Or would they be forced to lower the litter 2,000 feet into unknown territory to a site where the helicopter could land? Meanwhile, Bob Irvine and Leigh Ortenburger had heard cries for help while on the summit of the Grand and arrived on the ledge to assist. The rescue team was complete.
Team leader Pete Sinclair determined their only option was down. The decision would require untested techniques and lead to a series of cable and rope lowerings from ledge to ledge. The rescuers would be pushed to their limits as they committed to a “no man’s land” descent into unknown terrain and employed untested techniques, risking their lives to save another.
As the rescuers toiled through each phase of the rescue, Gaylord Campbell repeatedly questioned their procedures and techniques. He felt the rescue was inefficiently managed and that someone else might get hurt. He questioned the use of equipment, procedures, and leadership decisions. He complained about the time it took to get off of the mountain. More than 40 years later, Campbell continued to question the choices made.
As for the rescuers, the challenge, intensity, and lessons of their task had a lasting impact on each. For leader Pete Sinclair, it was transformative. This was his seventh and final year as lead climbing ranger for Grand Teton National Park. He entered into the rescue uncertain of his abilities but walked away from the incident a changed person, confident in his capabilities and forever tied to his rescue-mates.
After capturing national media attention, the North Face 1967 team was honored in Washington D.C. with the U.S. Interior Department’s Medal of Valor. The rescue is forever memorialized as one of the most dramatic and treacherous rescues in American climbing history.
Throughout my life the talents, courage, and honor of each of the rescuers have inspired me. It’s a pleasure to share this “band of brothers story” and meaningful moment in climbing history. As much as I prize the communication tools I have at my disposal as a filmmaker today, there is something magical about those simpler days of my childhood, huddled around the campfire at Jenny Lake.
Several of the 1967 North Face rescuers were or are AAC members.
The Grand Rescue is seeking broadcast distribution. To support this project, visit: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/thegrandrescue/the-grand-rescue
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