Sometimes it helps to talk or write about traumatic experiences that have occurred during your life – it can heal deep emotional wounds, pondered for years. Not long ago, I received the strangest telephone call. The voice on the other line asked if I was indeed Mike Beiser and had I been a Climbing Ranger in Grand Teton National Park. Then the man asked if I recalled a plane crash thirty years ago in the Tetons, Granite canyon, five people on board. I flashed back to my most powerful image of the rescue. I told the caller, “I clearly remember it – a five year old was crammed in the back luggage compartment of the small plane”. “I am that five year old” the caller said.
A long silence turned to nervous mumblings, mostly a string of thank you’s from the caller. Thirty seconds just crossed a thirty year gap. The caller was truly lucky to be alive and he knew it. He reintroduced himself to me as Paul Nebeker. His mother had died in the crash and I assumed his father had also. The fathers’ injuries at the crash site and a long cold night on a mountainside appeared fatal. I even thought I had heard later of his “not making it,” Paul informed me he survived. I explained that there were many other participants in the rescue and I was only one of many. He insisted I had played a key role in locating the wreckage.
Paul, his two sisters, and miraculously his father had survived a small plane crash in the heart of the Teton Range and a cold night at 9000 ft. Had it not been for quickly locating the crash site and supplying advanced life support during the night, they all may have perished from hypothermia and shock.
After the call, I realized an odd chain of events the winter before that probably led to locating their plane and them quickly.
On a Sunday evening in mid August 1980 around 7 p.m. a call came over the Park Service radio: a familiar voice that I could pick-out of hundreds. Bob was the daily point person of the Jenny Lake Climbing Rangers. “Calling all Jenny Lake Rangers available in the valley”, Bob’s voice squawked calmly. “We have a report of a plane crash someplace in the South end of the park. Meet at the rescue cache. Respond if you copy”. Other familiar voices chimed in – Jackson copy, 324 Beiser copy, Harris on my way.
A steady stream of people headed to a small cabin in lupine meadows turned into command central for rescues in the park, simply known as the “Rescue Cache.” We all showed up with overnight packs and arm loads of unpacked items. Family members, girlfriends, boyfriends, and visitors would usually saunter over, extra gear in hand or just to see what was happening.
Bob briefed us. Jackson Hole Airport had notified the Sheriff’s Department of a plane crash some place near the south end of the park. A plane’s emergency locator transmitter (ELT) ELTs are usually activated on impact was being received at the airport, but they had no definite direction. Several sightings of a bright flash had been reported in upper Granite canyon. The goal was to locate and get people to the crash site as quickly as possible.
We would be working with Teton County Sheriff Department because of jurisdictional and aviation regulations. The initial plan was for all involved to meet at Jackson Hole Airport and stage the rescue there. Daylight was fading fast; darkness would eliminate the use and speed of a helicopter for quickly locating the crash site and dropping a crew.
As we loaded into vehicles, I remembered the new portable ELT receiver stored at Park Headquarters at Moose, which I had played with the previous winter, fresh out of the box, but I was hardly expert. We picked up the orange box as we passed through Moose in route to the airport. I sat in the back of a pickup loaded with gear, handed the instructions to someone to read, and started assembling the antenna as we sped down the road.
By today’s standards and satellite technology, this thing was a dinosaur radio tracking device, which seemed too large and heavy to carry in the mountains. But it was cutting edge at the time and very expensive.
Before reaching the airport, I switched on the receiver. A signal came in load and clear, so I positioned the antenna towards Granite Canyon and the signal strengthened. I was confident the plane was in Granite. Dusk was falling as we reached the airport and the clouds in the mountains descending. With No helicopter in sight, it was going to be a long night.
The plan changed, we met at Jackson Hole Ski Resort and took the tram up Rendezvous Peak at 10,450 ft. and from there we planned to descend to the crash site. We shouldered our packs and headed to the tram, as I thought how cool it was going to be to ride the tram at night into the clouds.
The tram was waiting for us, door open, half-full of firemen in heavy structural fire outfits and sheriff deputies with cowboy hats and boots to match. We Park Climbing Rangers squeezed into the tram. Compared to them, we looked thoroughly mis-dressed, in our colorful long underwear covered with shorts, running shoes, headlamps, and full packs; I held the strange orange box and gangly antenna.
They made several off color comments about our odd dress, pansies was echoed more then once. As the tram climbed into the cold cloudy night, nervous silence settled in. Renny, our leader, quietly spread the word to our crew to move swiftly when the doors open. We needed to brake from this large group who would certainly hold us back.
As the tram doors opened on Rendezvous Peak, clouds whipped through the air. Our crew streamed out the door and dropped off the top of the peak at a running pace. We knew the general direction. The ELT receiver had a strong signal. Our Headlamp beams cut through the darkness and chilling clouds, we quickly descended about 1000 ft.
At one point I stopped to tune the receiver and get a better reading on direction. The receiver was going nuts. I knew we must be close. I had separated from the group and they were going the wrong direction. I had no radio so started yelling direction. A few head lamps moved my direction and we started down and east. The smell of aviation fuel rose up the canyon; we all recognized it about the same-time. Our frantic pace quickened.
The plane was not visible until we were right on top of it, the fuselage vertical – prop to the ground, most of the wings missing. It looked doubtful anyone could have survived. To our surprise voices came from the plane. As we pulled away wreckage, my attention focused on a female in the front seat. She had probably died on impact. Some one announced – two girls back seat, and seconds later – a small boy in the back, all alive. The pilot was alive but in bad shape. The crash had been reported at 5:30 p.m. and it was now about 11 p.m. or later.
As the rest of our group started arriving, everyone worked toward removing survivors from the crash and starting care almost automatically. Vitals, body exams, and treatment started. Under the advice of an advising physician through radio contact, shock reducing IV’s and pain medications were started to stabilize the patients. I focused on the children, unaware of what else was going on with others. I could hardly imagine the trama these young childen had gone through and had to face ahead.
The firemen and sheriff deputies started slowly trickling in with large spotlights which helped light the area, it was a bizarre scene. The severity of the father’s injuries, led to the decision to make a dawn helicopter evacuation. Two military Hueys would be flown in.
As everything settled down, the night turned cold. The firemen and sheriff crew started a warming fire on a bench away from the crash site. The smoke and an occasional groan of pain from one of the survivors broke the eerie silence. The eastern sky started to lighten. Someone had scouted a landing zone for the helicopters, and we put all our efforts into moving the survivors to the helispot .
At around 6 am the silence and fatigue were broken as two big Huey helicopters rumbled in – shaking the ground. We quickly loaded the victims, and one at a time the two choppers disappeared down valley. Silence settled in again as the sheriffs crew ascended to the tram. Most of the Climbing Rangers packed our gear and scrambled down to Granite creek and hiked out.
Our debrief was minimal in those days, usually consisting of swilling a few beers, briefly forgetting any grief, and moving on to the next rescue, usually in a few days during busy August days.
Paul’s call stirred long forgotten memories. He was trying to fill in his own blank spots of the incident and trying to locate the site of his mother’s death after thirty years. He hopes to do a tribute hike to the site with family members. I wish them the best.