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October 2006

Survival Story: Surviving a Grizzly Attack in Glacier National Park

On August 25, 2005, Johan Otter and his 18-year-old daughter, Jenna, hiked right into the worst nightmare of any Glacier National Park backpacker: a 300-pound mother grizzly protecting two cubs. Here, in his own words, the 45-year-old physical therapist from Escondido, CA, shares the incredible story of their life-and-death struggle.

The bear had gone back to Jenna. When it lunged at her, she extended her hands and grabbed it around the throat. I think that was when Jenna realized she needed to play dead instead. She quickly curled up in the fetal position. The bear bit her face and then her shoulder. She didn’t flinch. It finally gave up and left, probably to retrieve its cubs.

After her initial scream, I didn’t hear anything more, so I figured the bear wasn’t on her. But I didn’t make a sound myself for fear that it would turn back to me. At this point, I couldn’t do anything to help Jenna, because I was pretty beaten up. I assessed my wounds. I didn’t see any arterial bleeds, but when I touched the top of my head, I felt nothing but bone. I covered my left eye to find out if I could see anything out of my right eye, which had been clawed, and I managed to make out Grinnell Lake.

I waited a little longer, then I yelled for Jenna. She called back immediately. And her voice was strong. That was the best sound I’ve ever heard.

After Jenna fell, she had crawled under some bushes and next to a rock for some protection. We were about 30 feet apart. The first thing I asked when I called to her was how her eyes were. Fine, she said, but she had wounds on her face and her shoulder.

I crawled to a ledge, leaving my backpack and a trail of blood behind. I pulled the hood of my jacket over my head, just to cover up my scalp so people wouldn’t have to see me. A ranger told me afterwards that I actually created a seal to stop the bleeding.

Jenna and I were only 30 feet apart, but we were too weak to get to each other. And later, when the rescuers came, they didn’t want to move us. So I didn’t see Jenna until after my surgery more than a week later. But that was a good thing. When I saw pictures of how I looked, it was bad. I was covered in blood, and you could see my skull.

For the next 45 minutes, we yelled for help.

I don’t remember much until a guy came sliding down the mountain with his eyes wide open. His wife ran back down the trail and eventually found a ranger-led group on its way to the glacier. That ranger radioed for help.

It was a long 2 hours before medical personnel reached us. During the wait, more hikers stopped. Two boys retrieved my backpack and camera. Others covered us up with their jackets. We were bloody, but they didn’t care.

When the rangers arrived, they started treatment, but it was another 4 hours until a helicopter arrived to lift us out.

My blood pressure dropped to 80/30, and I lost about half of my blood. An artery going through my scalp was torn. But pain was not an issue. Yes, I was hurting, but it wasn’t something I concentrated on. I was just so happy to see people.

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