JACKSON - High in the Tetons, Jackson Hole’s outdoor adventurers are always a slip away from deadly or debilitating injury. Falls happen.
A quarter-century ago, helicopter rescues were tightly constrained by topographic realities. If a pilot was unable to land near a victim, he or she was carried out on foot.
Due to the “short haul” rescue technique, that’s changed. Nowadays, unforgiving terrain is more of an annoyance than a deterrent. Near Kelly on June 3, Grand Teton National Park rangers were perfecting their short-haul technique.
Scott Guenther, the Jenny Lake sub-district ranger, is in charge of the park’s short-haul program.
“Today is really about reaffirming the basics,” Guenther said from the banks of the Gros Ventre River.
The technique Guenther’s 20-man team was honing sounds simple enough. A rope or cable, usually 150 feet long, is dangled from a hovering airship.
Attached to the line is either a harness or, for the seriously injured, a litter. In park-ranger speak, the line is used for “insertion” and “extraction” of both rescue personnel and victims.
The short-haul program in the Tetons didn’t start until the fall of 1985. It wasn’t until the late 1960s that the technique was developed in earnest in Switzerland. It’s a high-risk, high-reward operation.
“It’s in our bag of tricks, but it’s not the first thing we go to,” Guenther said.
“The most dangerous thing we can be doing is hanging under that helicopter,” he said. “We try to avoid that.”
The use of short-haul rescue has become more commonplace both inside and outside of the park over the past couple pf decades.
When Guenther started at the Jenny Lake ranger station in 1995, Grand Teton didn’t authorize a short-haul operation unless “life or limb,” was in danger. That policy has shifted dramatically. Today, a sprained ankle on a precarious mountain slope can warrant a short-haul extraction.
The National Park Service goes to impressive lengths to make sure its rangers are prepared for any short-haul scenarios. Training sessions occur at the start of the season and then happen once a week throughout the busy season at Jenny Lake.
At the training last week, the first of the season, Guenther narrated while his crew practiced short-hauling a 40-pound litter.
“He’s setting the weight bag on the ground,” Guenther said. “You’ll see that orange bag touch.”
“We have the rope,” the Jenny Lake ground crew radioed the pilot.
“Go ahead and hook up,” the pilot responded.
“There’s a guy managing that line in case there’s any other slack,” Guenther said. “He’s hooking that litter to the rope now.”
“Hooked and ready,” the ground crew radioed.
A ground crew member then threw his arms into a circular motion, indicating to the pilot that he’s good to take off.
“Coming up,” the pilot responded.
“It’ll go tight to the litter,” Guenther said. “They’ll keep hands on the litter as he comes off the ground.”
“That’s the technique right there,” Guenther said. “That’s the bread and butter. It simulates extracting a patient.”
Using one of its two interagency rescue helicopters, a Eurocopter AS350 B3, the Grand Teton crew continues shuffling rangers through the different roles of a short-haul operation throughout the afternoon. While Guenther has managed the program, the park has averaged three to nine short-haul operations a year.
“It’s usually going to be climbers,” Guenther said of those rescued. “That said, it’s not usually elite athletes. Just look at the sheer numbers. There are way more recreational climbers, so there will always be more recreational climbers getting hurt. Slipping and falling on snow and failing to self-arrest is one of our biggest accidents historically,” he said.
Just hours later, Guenther’s words rang ring true.
A climber, 21-year-old Danielle Mendicino, tumbled 50 feet down Albright Peak, a 10,552-foot mountain accessed from the Death Canyon trailhead. Mendicino failed to self-arrest with her ice ax. Park authorities said she was an inexperienced climber who was not wearing crampons.
“They were minor injuries, but she was unable to walk out on her own,” park spokeswoman Jenny Anzelmo-Sarles said.
Rangers at the training session, 10 miles away near Kelly, switched from training to a real rescue.
Clayton Mitchell, a pilot under contract with the park, was assigned to the job. Guenther was in tow.
Unable to find a place to land in the talus field near Mendicino, Mitchell parked his AS 350 on Albright’s summit. Guenther, in a short-haul harness, hiked down to the victim.
“When Scott was ready, I hooked them up and pulled both of them down together,” Mitchell said.
By sundown, Mendicino, Mitchell and the rangers were safely on the ground at the White Grass Ranch. The operation saved man-hours and kept rangers from having to scurry up slippery slopes as night approached.
“As far as short hauls go, it was real routine,” Mitchell says. “All the conditions were cooperating.”