Searchers recover body of Grand Teton climber who fell 2,000 feet during thunderstorm

By Matt Joyce, AP
Thursday, July 22, 2010

Searchers recover body of Grand Teton climber

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

Searchers using a helicopter found the body of 21-year-old Brandon Oldenkamp, of Sanborn, Iowa, in an area off the northwest face of Grand Teton mountain, park officials said. Rescue workers recovered his body in the early afternoon and brought it to the Teton County coroner, a park spokeswoman said.

Oldenkamp, who was climbing with six other people, fell about 2,000 feet during the midday storm Wednesday, according to park officials. Authorities don’t know whether he died from a lightning strike or the fall.

“His climbing party simply reported to us that when the lightning hit, they looked back and saw him falling away and out of sight,” park spokeswoman Jackie Skaggs said. “We’ll be able to analyze his climbing harness and rope and come up with a possible reason for his fall, but at this point, our understanding was it was related to the storm and not related to anything Mr. Oldenkamp had done.”

A severe thunderstorm moved across the Teton Range on Wednesday, unleashing multiple lightning strikes on the 13,770-foot Grand Teton mountain. Three separate climbing parties at elevations above 13,000 feet called for help.

The 16 surviving climbers suffered moderate or severe injuries from indirect electrical charges radiating from the lightning, according to park officials. The injuries included burns and varying levels of neurological problems such as numbness.

Rangers reached seven of the climbers by climbing to them and then hooked them to cables so they could be flown to an aid station at an elevation of 11,600 feet, Skaggs said.

Two of the climbers were able to descend to the station on their own, and the remaining climbers were reached by professional guides, who escorted them down to the aid station, Skaggs said.

Skaggs said 83 people participated in the rescue, making it one of the largest missions conducted by the park’s staff.

Oldenkamp was a student at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, where he would have been a senior this fall, according to a tribute posted on the college’s website Thursday.

He was an accounting major and played for the Dordt basketball team, where he was twice a Great Plains Athletic Conference honorable mention honoree.

“The loss of a vigorous young man in the midst of a joy-filled excursion is a tragedy that stuns our whole campus,” Dordt College President Carl E. Zylstra said in a written statement. “Brandon was an integral part of our campus, whether in the classroom, on the basketball court, or as part of our summer maintenance team.”

All three climbing parties trapped by Wednesday’s storm were private groups that were not climbing with professional guides that lead trips in the park, Skaggs said.

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

The hospital discharged three of the patients, and five others were still there Thursday. Most of the patients are in fair to good condition, Connelly said.

A climber named Troy Smith was transferred to Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center in Idaho Falls, said Colleen Niemann, a hospital spokeswoman. Smith was in good condition Thursday. Privacy rules restricted the hospital from releasing Smith’s age or hometown, Niemann said, and he was not granting interviews.

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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