by Steven Markusen
An insistent voice brought me out of the void and darkness.
“What is your name? Where are you?”
My eyes opened to see a chiseled face with furrowed brow. Pain stabbed my side. My head, arms and legs were covered in blood. Every time I breathed my chest made a soft whistling sound.
I spoke softly, giving my name and our location as the Grand.
The air was thin, cold, and damp. The beautiful blue sky of morning had been replaced by lead grey clouds. The climbers huddled over me on a 6-by-4-foot ledge on the edge of the Exum Ridge, 400 feet below the 13,775 foot summit of the Grand Teton. I had fallen, and by some miracle, stopped on this sloping ledge just feet from a 1000-foot drop. We were 7000 feet above the valley floor. It was a place offering no shelter, exposed to cold, wind, rain, and snow.
The dramatic Teton Range and the valley of Jackson Hole are home to Grand Teton National Park. The jagged peaks of the Tetons are sculpted from an enormous westward-tilted fault block of ancient metamorphic and igneous rocks that are part of the central core of the continent. Over the last two million years, the north-south trending Teton fault block has risen 8,000 feet above the valley floor. The range provides an awe inspiring view for travelers who pass through the valley each summer on their way to and from Yellowstone National Park. On this day in August, tourists stopped at turnouts to snap pictures of the Grand Teton, summit wrapped in clouds, unaware of the drama unfolding high on the mountain.
The date was August 8, 2014. The story had begun the year before. My life was in crisis mode: my business was failing, my marriage was falling apart, and I was a defendant in a U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission civil lawsuit.
I dug deep for courage, quit drinking, closed my business and got divorced. In the settlement, all my assets went to my wife and five kids. I left the lawsuit uncontested.
As I sought to remake my life, my path led to Grand Teton.
I had left the warmth and light of my car at 2:40 a.m., stepping out into the cool darkness and damp smell of Lupine Meadows. I moved quickly up the familiar six-mile, 5,500-foot vertical approach to the Exum Ridge. The first time I hiked this trail was with my father in 1969. Over the last 45 years, I have hiked this approach 16 times and climbed the Grand by seven different routes.
I reached a diagonal, sloping ledge named Wall Street at 9:00 a.m. Most parties rope up here and use technical climbing gear to ascend the Upper Exum ridge, 1400 vertical feet to the summit. My plan was to free solo the route. I had done this twice, but never alone, not from the valley in a day, and not at 60 years old.
There is a six foot gap between the end of Wall Street and Exum Ridge proper: the infamous Wall Street Traverse. You cross this gap with nothing but 500 feet of air below your feet. Feeling calm and confident, I made quick work of the exposed traverse, each move thoughtful and precise. Emerging from shadow to bright sun, I soaked in the warmth.
Above was a party of three on the Golden Stair, a 100 foot vertical wall. They were firefighters from Boston, on the Grand for the first time. I asked permission to climb through, gave them some suggestions on route finding, and headed up the sun-washed granite. Higher up, in the darkness of a steep groove called the Wind Tunnel, a party of two was climbing a chimney. I nodded and passed on a less obvious step to the right. The next difficult section is the Friction Pitch, the 200 foot crux of the climb. Here a party of two women and I exchanged greetings, and they, too, told me to climb through. The rock was warm to the touch, protected from the wind and baked by the sun. Climbing alone, unencumbered by rope or gear, was pure joy.
Pausing at the top of the Friction Pitch to drink and eat, I noted with concern dark clouds forming below me. The weather the last week had been stormy. The pattern was changing for the better, but there was still residual moisture in the valley. I snapped some pictures and started up the final 400 feet to the summit. My last memory is of climbing the easy slabs to the exposed so-named “V Pitch,” at 10:00 a.m.
The Wind Tunnel party, Chris Casciola and Brian Carver found me after I fell. Brian later told me I was standing on my feet and wobbling/swaying and kept repeating, “I don’t know what happened.” Brian climbed to a ledge above me, set an anchor and belayed Chris who climbed over to my ledge. Chris got me to lay down, anchored me to the rock, put me in an orange down jacket, and wrapped me in a first aid blanket. I have no memory of any this. They contacted emergency services, reported the accident, and were joined at the scene by the Boston firefighters.
It was approximately 11:30 am when I regained consciousness. It was the Boston firefighters with me on the ledge. The face belonged to Keeghan O’Brien, a U.S. Marine with tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq. With him were Mike Aylward and Ryan Hackney. They did a professional assessment of my injuries: multiple lacerations, possible internal injuries and fractures, unable to move, but alert and talking. Keeghan later told me he knew I had punctured my lung; it made the same sound as a lung with bullet hole. It is a miracle that the Wind Tunnel climbers, and the Boston climbers with their emergency medical and wartime experience, were willing and able to help. They gave up the summit, stayed with me, and saved my life.
Nick Armitage, Jenny Lake Climbing Ranger, was hiking in the northern Teton Range when he got the call: climber with extensive injuries stranded high on the Exum Ridge. He immediately headed back to the trailhead and drove to the Lupine Meadows rescue cache, the command and control center for all national park rescue missions. A rescue mission in the Tetons is like a military operation, a serious affair with many potential bad outcomes.
Around two in the afternoon, a helicopter under contract to the National Park Service lifted off from Lupine Meadows to ferry climbing rangers and equipment to a staging point at 11,000 feet. Then a reconnaissance flight was flown to assess the accident location. Given the low cloud base, the helicopter could not see or reach us. A team of two rangers, Marty Vidak and Darren Jernigan, left the staging point to climb 2000 feet up the Owen Spaulding Route, traverse over to the Upper Exum Ridge, and then descend the ridge to my ledge. If I could not be airlifted to safety, they were equipped to haul/carry me up the route and lower me down the mountain.
I remember hearing the sound of a helicopter several times, but saw only clouds. Slipping in and out of consciousness, I felt the creep of the insidious cold and heard the whistling sound in my lung with every breath. There was a detached flap of my nose in my peripheral vision. It bugged me. I asked Keeghan if he had any tape. He produced a roll of gray duct tape and carefully taped the flap of skin back over my nose. The three stared at me, and we all burst out laughing. Most of all, I remember being grateful not to be alone.
After five hours on the ledge, with temperatures in the 40’s, I became hypothermic. First my body shook; then the shakes subsided as it began to shut down. I said to my companions, “I’m not going to make it.” The thought occurred to me that some people would think my fall a death wish or suicide. Nothing could be further from the truth. I climbed solo to experience the joy of life. I thought of my kids. They needed me and that gave me strength. I forced my mind to relax and let my body fight to live.
Around 4:30 p.m., roused by the sound of the helicopter, I opened my eyes to the welcome sight of blue sky. Into my field of vision came a bright yellow helicopter. Attached was a short haul line, and hanging 100 feet below was a stretcher, and park ranger, Nick Armitage.
The next 15 minutes were a blur of action. The two rangers, Marty and Darrin, who had climbed up from the Lower Saddle over the top of the Grand and down the Exum, helped detach the stretcher and Armitage from the short haul line. The three of them put me in the stretcher where breathing became difficult due to the pressure on my right side. The helicopter returned. Attaching the stretcher to the short haul line, and himself to the stretcher, Nick said to me, “Don’t forget to breathe.” To the Boston guys he said, “Make sure you detach us from the rock anchor when we lift off.” Pilot Jeff Parrish carefully lifted us off the ridge. Clear of the ridge he put the nose down, and with his package hanging 100 feet below, he blasted down to the warmth and safety of Lupine Meadows.
It took a big team to effect a rescue like the one I required. There were thirty people involved, eight of them were actually on the mountain or in the helicopter. A key player was Jeff Parrish, the helicopter pilot. That day, Jeff performed perhaps the highest helicopter short-haul insertion and one of the highest short-haul extractions performed in Grand Teton National Park. It was his willingness and ability to sneak in there between storms that made it possible to get me to definitive care. Within 15 minutes after we were airlifted to safety, the Exum Ridge was again shrouded in clouds. The two climbing rangers, the Boston and the Wind Tunnel parties, all made it down safely.
At the rescue cache in Lupine Meadows they detached me from the helicopter and hauled me into the makeshift emergency room. They cut off my clothes, climbing shoes, and harness. An IV was stuck in my arm and I was covered in a heated blanket. Taken to the emergency room of St. John’s Hospital in Jackson, I was found to have three broken ribs, a punctured lung, a lacerated spleen, and lacerations that required 42 stiches and staples. Two days later, with the aid of a walker, I walked the halls of the hospital. My eldest son Max flew in from San Francisco, packed me in my car and drove me home to Minneapolis.
My accident changed me. I was inspired by the sacrifice of the Boston climbers and the risk the rangers took to rescue me. Before my accident I was adrift, without purpose. Working on my personal physical recovery, I decided to become a health and fitness coach. My life is simple and meaningful, dedicated to helping people become stronger, recover from injury or illness, and lead healthier lives. The third of the Twelve Promises of Alcoholic Anonymous is, “We will not regret the past or shut the door on it.” Humans make mistakes, and failure is a way to move in a new direction.
A month after my accident I received this message from Keeghan O’Brian, leader of the Boston firefighters: “Please don’t be sorry that we did not make the summit. I am just happy that we happened to come upon you. If you had not helped me out with route beta, who knows where we would have been. It was truly a life changing experience to witness your strength and resolve in such a dire situation. Things happen for a reason, and everything worked out that day. I witnessed the power of the mountains, and the power of the human spirit and I will carry these lessons with me for life.”
Ten months after my accident, I asked my son Charlie what he wanted to do for his 18th birthday. He said, “Climb the Grand.” Perhaps he knew I needed to go back. My son Max joined us in Jackson.
Two days later, I guided Max and Charlie up the Exum Ridge. At the top of the Friction Pitch, we stopped. My return to the scene brought no recollection of what had happened, only dreamlike memories my chest hitting and desperately trying to grab a hold of a ledge. Initially, I thought I had been hit by a rock, but it is not a place you would normally see rock fall. My best guess is that being fatigued, I lost concentration, stumbled and fell.
Describing my accident, I was filled with love for my kids, respect for this mountain, and gratitude for life.
Max said, “Dad, promise you will never free solo this again.”
Charlie put me on belay, and I led up the slabs.
Steve Markusen lives in Minnesota, and is a writer, personal trainer, climber, paragliding pilot, and skier.
About the Author:
Steve Markusen writes creative non-fiction. His articles have appeared in national magazines and on his website, crooked-thumb.com. For over 50 years, Steve has been pursuing high risk adventures. He is an expert rock & ice climber, ski mountaineer, and paraglider pilot. In addition to writing, Steve works as a personal trainer and nutrition coach. He currently lives in Plymouth, Minnesota.