Searchers find body of missing climber in Grand Teton who fell during storm

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Searchers find body of climber in Grand Teton

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Rescue workers found the body of a missing climber Thursday who had fallen from a cliff when a thunderstorm struck his climbing party on an exposed mountainside in Grand Teton National Park, a park spokeswoman said.

Searchers on a helicopter found the body of 21-year-old Brandon Oldenkamp after several hours of searching, park spokeswoman Bobbie Visnovske said. She said Oldenkamp is from Sanborn, Iowa.

Rescue workers are still trying to reach the area he fell and recover Oldenkamp’s body. He had fallen at least 1,000 feet in the Wednesday storm.

The cause of death wasn’t immediately known, but Visnovske said the helicopter searchers had been able to determine Oldenkamp suffered injuries incompatible with life.

Teams on Wednesday used helicopters to rescue 16 injured climbers in three separate groups from elevations above 13,000 feet on the mountain. The parties were climbing the 13,770-foot Grand Teton mountain and all three reported injuries after severe lightning hit the area at midday Wednesday.

All the climbers suffered injuries from lightning, and those included burns and neurological effects such as numbness, park spokeswoman Jackie Skaggs said.

Park officials have not released the other climbers’ identities and hometowns.

Suspended from helicopters by rope, rangers plucked the climbers from the mountain and carried them to aid stations at lower elevations. On Wednesday night, the climbers notified emergency officials of a 17th climber who had not been accounted for, Skaggs said.

A helicopter and three park rangers who spent the night in a high-altitude hut at Grand Teton National Park began their search at dawn Thursday for Oldenkamp.

The routes up Grand Teton are challenging and technical climbs that require ropes and climbing skills, said Paul Horton, a manager and former climbing guide at Jackson Hole Mountain Guides.

The best thing to do when a storm with lightning hits is to try to descend, but that can be a slow process on difficult terrain, said Horton, who didn’t know the lightning victims.

“It’s incredibly, terrifyingly loud,” he said. “It’s just a flat out terrifying experience.”

Short of coming down, climbers may try to move off ridges, insulate themselves by sitting on a pack or move away from weaknesses in the rock that lightning tends to follow.

“But it all feels like whistling in the wind,” Horton said. “It just feels like a matter of fate, and depending on where you are, you can try to lessen the odds. But you’re facing not just a direct hit, I think that’s pretty unusual, but the lighting hits the mountain and then there are ground currents and I think that’s what really gets people.”

Nine climbers were taken to St. John’s Medical Center in Jackson, said hospital spokeswoman Karen Connelly.

The hospital discharged three of the patients and transported a fourth to Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center for treatment of potentially serious injuries. Five others were still in the Jackson hospital Thursday, Connelly said.

“All of the patients that we saw were evaluated and treated for injuries related to lightning strike, and those injuries included minor trauma and burns,” Connelly said. “Most of the patients are in fair to good condition.”

Connelly said some of the rescued climbers had declined to go to the hospital.

Horton said Jackson Hole Mountain Guides normally starts climbs in the early morning to be able to finish before summer’s typical afternoon thunderstorms. Wednesday’s storm moved earlier than usual.

“Guided parties I think are extra cautious, but I wouldn’t say that anybody was particularly late at all,” he said.

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