Survival Stories: Free Fall Above Death Canyon

Lauren McLean was a seasoned climber. No one expected her to end up broken on a ledge.

By Kenneth Miller from Reader's Digest Magazine | June 2013

Slowed by a Storm

McLeanYbarra’s initial call reached Martin Vidak, the SAR coordinator. At 4:55 p.m., Vidak paged his fellow Jenny Lake Rangers—the specially trained squad assigned to Grand Teton’s Jenny Lake subdistrict, whose 18 members constitute one of the foremost mountain SAR teams on the planet. They gathered at the Lupine Meadows SAR base, a few miles from the accident site. And by 6:10, three of them had boarded the park’s helicopter for a reconnaissance mission to Cathedral Buttress.

The scouting crew brought back worrisome news: Thunderstorms were nearby, and it wasn’t clear whether the angle of the cliff allowed enough rotor clearance—a minimum of 30 feet—for the helicopter to extract the victim from her current location. Due to the late hour, she might have to spend the night there; the last rays of sunlight would be gone by 9 p.m., and safety regulations prohibited the chopper from flying after dark.

“We’re going to have to play this one by ear,” Vidak told his colleagues.

A Daring Rescue
At 7:45, Dana Ries was sitting glumly on the buttress, huddled against the deepening chill, when she heard the drone of helicopter rotors. Looking up, she was startled to see a ranger floating toward her, suspended from a rope. “I’m Ryan Schuster,” he said, as the aircraft set him down, along with a large gear bag. He began inspecting the site and reinforcing the climbing anchors.

Minutes later, the chopper returned and deposited another ranger, park medic Rich Baerwald. Then it came back with a litter full of medical equipment, food, warm clothing, and sleeping bags.

Baerwald shouldered a backpack full of supplies, rappelled down the cliff, and reached McLean and Ybarra a little after 8:20. “How are you doing?” he asked the injured woman.

“I’d like to get off this mountain,” she replied. Baerwald checked her vital signs and splinted her left ankle, which was clearly shattered; if there were other broken bones, they could be set later. A more urgent concern was shock: McLean seemed stable for the moment, but Baerwald knew she needed fluids and pain medication to remain that way. Ideally, the SAR team would get McLean off the rocks and to the hospital immediately. But with the approaching storm, fading light, and narrow space for the helicopter to maneuver, Baerwald wasn’t sure that was possible.

Baerwald clipped mclean onto the end of a long rope. they rose from the rock Together.

Baerwald radioed Schuster; both agreed that the helicopter could squeeze between the rocks if the wind remained calm. Schuster radioed the pilot and the ranger acting as his spotter. They confirmed that the storms were at a safe enough distance, but warned that gusts could still be a problem. The pilot suggested attaching an extra 100 feet of rope to the 150-foot length usually used for rescues so that the helicopter could stay farther away from the dangerous cliff.

“I’m going to put you in a screamer suit,” Baerwald told McLean. “It’s a full-body harness that’ll support your spine until we get you on the ground.”

“Why do they call it that?” she asked.

“You’ll see when you’re hanging from the helicopter.”

Ybarra helped strap her into the rigid suit, which had a ring at the front so it could be attached to a carabiner. With the chopper hovering above, Baerwald clipped McLean and himself onto the end of the extra-long rope. Together, they rose from the rock. McLean really did feel like screaming—but with joy, not fear. She was finally off the mountain. And the sunset was the most beautiful one she had ever seen.

Next: The aftermath »

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