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Man Versus Rock

A staged photo op in the Tetons results in a near-crushing.
manvsrock(Illustration by Nathan Fox)

It was a brilliant July day when the Taylors dropped off the summit of 11,618-foot Disappointment Peak in Grand Teton National Park and headed down a rock-filled gully toward flatter ground. Disappointment was a favorite objective of Reed, daughter Britney, 22, and sons Wayne, 27, and John, 29, in part because of its neck-craning view up the Grand Teton’s towering East Ridge. But on this descent, a different vista caught Wayne’s eye, providing a photo op he couldn’t resist.

“John and I saw this great shot, where you could hang off a square boulder and fake like you were hanging over a huge void,” says Wayne. “So I got above John, lined him up in the viewfinder, and had him swing his legs out.”

“I wrapped myself around an eight-foot-high rock in a bear hug,” says John. “But as I shifted my weight, it slid out of the wall with me attached.” The refrigerator-size boulder landed on top of John and rolled off. Limp, he slid down the talus.
Wayne saw it all. “There was no doubt in my mind that he was going to bleed to death from internal injuries,” says Wayne, who stayed with John while Reed and Britney went for help, hailing climbers as they rushed down the rock. Soon, 15 to 20 people were on the scene, including climbing rangers Renny Jackson, Helen Motter, and Alan Orem, who called for a helicopter. Within 45 minutes, a chopper landed above the gully and dropped off three rescue rangers.

The team put a suction cast on John’s leg, strapped him into a wire litter, and lifted him to a plateau, where they loaded him onto the helicopter. “I remember thinking what a great view it was,” says John. “This slow, spinning panorama of the Tetons.”
In the end, John suffered a broken right fibula, a crushed foot, and a foot-long, bone-deep gash on one shin. “I got off easy,” says John. “The brunt of the boulder’s weight hit six inches below my crotch.”

Near-Fatal Flaw: “They shouldn’t have been hanging on rocks, at an incline, in a gully,” says Renny Jackson. “Gullies are natural weaknesses in mountains that hold snow or provide a drainage for melting snow. The rocks often sit on wet soil, which adds lubrication. Until you know the conditions you’re dealing with, don’t trust anything.”

Voice of Experience: “That couloir is probably better in the spring as a snow climb, with an ice axe, crampons, and rope,” says John. “Apparently, it’s not such a good place to horse around, either.”

Tips From a Pro: Jackson says there’s no substitute for time and experience in the mountains. That especially applies to moving on rock. His tips for safe scrambling:

  • No matter how big the rocks in a boulder field, test them before skipping across. If the wrong one shifts, you could break your leg.
  • When crossing a scree field or gully, be aware of what’s above you, and don’t climb in the fall line of others above you. Never linger in gullies or couloirs, where rockfall naturally channels to lower ground.
  • When scrambling, move one limb from hold to hold at a time. By maintaining three points of contact, you won’t fall if a rock pulls out.

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