One Slip Triggers Dramatic Teton Rescue

Jan 9, 2015

From deep powder in winter to a snowpack that lasts into summer, the Tetons offer an ideal proving ground for athletes. But in the mountains, the stakes are high. Skier and climber Jesse Stover sits down with two of his rescuers to talk about the day that one slip turned a perfect adventure into a death-defying fall.

JESSE STOVER: June 4, 2011. It was just an amazing huge snow year. 

REBECCA HUNTINGTON: That's Jesse Stover. He'd been climbing and skiing in the Tetons since the 1990s. Even as green grass carpeted the valley, Stover had his eye on Teewinot, a peak in Grand Teton National Park.

STOVER: This was the day. It was like the perfect day.

HUNTINGTON: The snow was smooth and frozen, reaching from Teewinot's summit, at more than 12,000 feet, all the way to the valley floor. Stover and two friends started up the mountain at 4 a.m. When the pitch steepened, they put their skis on their packs and started hiking with crampons, pointy metal cleat that attach to climber's boots to give them traction on hard snow.

STOVER: I was in the Narrows on the upper East Face, that's a feature that's kind of the black hole of Teewinot, I guess, that's where a lot of accidents have begun.

HUNTINGTON: His friend asked if Stover wanted to go first.

STOVER: I said sure I'll go around you, and I took a step to the side. And that's when I slipped. I had an ice axe in my right hand and I had a ski pole that has an ice axe grip on it called a whippet in my left hand. And I immediately went down on to both sharp points. I just remember looking at my friend and just zzzwep..., you know the sound of Gortex on ice. And my left crampon caught and I flipped over backwards and proceeded to do, probably 10 to 15 full layout backflips. On the first flip I felt my leg break.

HUNTINGTON: Stover says he could feel his leg break each time he flipped down the mountain.

STOVER: I had dislocated my right shoulder where my ice ax was. And I still had one crampon on my broken leg. My leg got hung up on some chunks. Basically my leg was turned around inside out and backwards. It was incredibly painful. And as soon as I freed the crampon from that I started sliding again.

HUNTINGTON: Stover managed to use his broken leg to stop before he went over a cliff.  He suffered other injuries too. 

STOVER: The big long slide was on sharp snow, really rough, it basically like shredded all my clothes off my body. The main thing I can remember is just saying, you got to get that helicopter here cuz I'm dying.

HUNTINGTON: Luckily, there was another ski party on the mountain that day that rushed to his aid because Stover's partners were now 2,000 feet above him and couldn't get to him quickly.  Grand Teton climbing rancher Philip Edmonds was also contacted to help with the rescue.  He arrived and directed people to dig a rescue platform out of the way of avalanches.

EDMONDS: We were right in that runnel where everything's shedding. So it was not quite a burning building but it was going to be very soon.

HUNTINGTON: As Edmonds and others were digging, AJ Wheeler, an E.R. doctor and a volunteer on Teton County's Search and Rescue team, was meeting a county-contracted helicopter that would help with the rescue.  He was also getting an update from one of the skiers helping Stover.

WHEELER: And he said, you know, I'm really worried. We've been here for several hours and I've tried everything I can to try and stop the bleeding from Jesse's leg and it's just not working.  We just put on an improvised tourniquet. And so when you hear that as a medical provider the clock starts ticking. 

HUNTINGTON: Saving Stover's life and limb meant getting him off the mountain as fast as possible. So Wheeler clipped into a rope dangling more than 100 feet below the helicopter, which dropped him and a litter off on the snow platform that responders had been digging.

WHEELER: Really the thing that probably I was most nervous about the entire day was making that first landing going in and not having happen to me what happened to Jesse and slip. 

HUNTINGTON: Still conscious, Stover was worried too.

STOVER: The worst part of being a victim is when you're sitting there helpless and you can see and hear what's going on.  I don't know, I just know I'm putting everybody else at risk.

HUNTINGTON: But he knew he'd die without the help.

STOVER: So I was kind of on the way out. And I was really happy to see that helicopter.

HUNTINGTON: Edmonds says risk comes with the territory.

EDMONDS: It could have been me. I don't think you should have any remorse over putting us in that situation. We'd do it every day for you and I'm sure you'd make the same sacrifices for us.

HUNTINGTON: They eventually helicoptered Stover off the mountain to an ambulance waiting below.

WHEELER: It was a beautiful flight...

STOVER: I just remember being so cold and shivering so hard, and we flew like two minutes, not even, and it was like being dipped into bath water. It was so warm in the valley. I just remember the change in the air temperature and being like, 'Oh, I'm going to make it.'

HUNTINGTON: For Wyoming Public Radio I'm Rebecca Huntington in Jackson.