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Fatal Lightning Strike at Grand Teton

(National Park Service) On the afternoon of July 26th 2003, two groups of climbers, separated by 150 feet, were ascending the upper Exum Ridge around the 13,000 foot elevation when an active lightning storm moved over the Tetons.

The lead group was climbing the Grand's Friction Pitch, a 5.5 climb, when lightning struck and killed Erica Summers, 25, of Idaho Falls, Idaho, and injured five others. Clinton Summers, Erica’s husband, was sitting next to her and belaying Rodrigro Liberal, 27, when the single lightning strike traveled down the ridge, severely burning Liberal who fell off the pitch. Liberal was found swinging in a pendulum fashion, mid-face on a vertical wall. He was unconscious, hanging from his harness and bent over backwards from the waist.

Three other climbers – Jacob Bancroft, 27, Reagan Lembke, 25, and Justin Thomas, 29 – were standing and anchored at the base of the Friction Pitch when the lightning struck. The impact blew all three of them off the ledge; they fell 70 feet and were stopped only when their rope wrapped around rock horns and caught in cracks.

Rangers launched one of the most complex rescues in the history of the park. A contract helicopter flew 11 rangers to the Lower Saddle and inserted them at the top of Friction Pitch via short-haul. The short-haul technique involved flying two rangers at a time, suspended below the helicopter on a 100-foot long line, and inserting them directly at the top of the pitch. Rangers began setting anchors, retrieving stranded climbers, performing medical assessments and packaging the five patients who were all perched on steep technical terrain.

By evening, the patients began suffering from hypothermia from the cold mountain temperatures. One by one, the helicopter short-hauled them to the Lower Saddle, where they were loaded into another helicopter and flown to the valley floor. Liberal was packaged into a litter mid-face on Friction Pitch and raised to a ledge 60 feet above. In fading light, Liberal, the last patient to be removed from the mountain, was short-hauled from the Exum Ridge to Lupine Meadows, then flown to a regional trauma center via medevac helicopter. All five patients were admitted into area hospitals. Liberal and Bancroft are listed in serious condition; the other three are listed in good condition. This marks the eleventh major search and rescue in the park this year and the third fatality.

[Submitted by Bill Holda, Acting Chief Ranger]


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