GRAND TETON NATIONAL PARK — A year ago, Jenny Wilson, the Salt Lake County councilwoman and former mayoral hopeful, went with her family to her favorite national park, where she found herself retelling her favorite national park story.
It involves a daring 1967 mountain rescue of two climbers off the North Face of the Grand Teton, which is sort of like plucking two billiard balls off a pool table standing on its end.
Jenny was 2 at the time. Her dad, former Salt Lake City Mayor Ted Wilson, was 28 and part of the rescue team.
After she finished her tale, Jenny's husband, Trell, gazed toward the
summit of the Grand Teton, at 13,770 feet the overlord of everything below, the Brad Pitt of peaks, easily America's most photographed and painted mountain.
"You know what?" he said. "That ought to be a movie."
Pretty much all he needed to say.
Fast forward a year and the documentary film, "North Face, 1967" is well into production. First, Jenny, who in an earlier life learned the film business working for the Sundance Institute, rounded up enough private funding (some of it hers and Trell's) to get started
Next she recruited a strong team of filmmakers led by producer-director Meredith Lavitt, an ex-Sundance colleague with a number of documentaries to her credit.
Finally she contacted members of the 1967 rescue team and invited them back to the Tetons for a chance to tell their story all over again.
These are men who 42 years ago were fit, young guys who worked as summer rescue rangers for $2.84 an hour because they got paid to climb.
Now they're fit, old guys who climb for free.
It took them less than a heartbeat to say yes they'd be there.
For five days this past week the six living members of the rescue team, none of whom will ever see 60 again, immersed themselves in the present and the past, traipsing around mountains they knew and know like the back of their pack.
From Olympia, Wash., came Pete Sinclair, 73. From Ogden came Bob Irvine, 70. From Salt Lake City came Ted Wilson, 70. From Bozeman came Rick Reese, 67. From Anchorage came Ralph Tingey, 66, and from Dartmouth, Mass., came Mike Ermarth, 65.
Standing in the shadow of the North Face, tranquilized by cool, clean Teton air, everyone got to look in the camera and tell his version of who, what, when, where, why and how — and when one person's memory collided headlong into someone else's, creating a physical, psychological and existential impossibility, they agreed to go with whatever version was sexier.
"The bull — was really flowing," Ted Wilson said, smiling.
The details can get distorted after 42 years. For instance, there's the debate over what they had to eat during their 60 straight hours on the mountain. Wilson insists it was a Salted Nut Roll candy bar he divvied into seven pieces with his pocket knife; Irvine insists it was a gumdrop he found in his pack. But the cold, hard documented truth remains as unchanged as the mountain:
It's a fact that two experienced climbers, 22-year-old Lorrie Hough (now McCoy) and 26-year-old Gaylord Campbell, both from a University of Illinois outdoor recreation club known as the Simian Outing Society, were about 900 feet from the summit of the North Face on Monday afternoon, Aug. 21, 1967, when a piano-size boulder bounced down without warning and shattered Campbell's leg, immobilizing him.
Two climbers on nearby Mount Owen heard Lorrie's subsequent cries for help echo in the thin mountain air. They made a hasty but lengthy descent to the valley floor below, not arriving at the door of Tingey's cabin until well after midnight.
Tingey took a powerful scope to a lookout point that afforded him a clear view of the North Face, where he was able to confirm the two stranded climbers. He then alerted the lead rescue ranger, Pete Sinclair, and the above-named six-member Park Service rescue team was assembled. For good measure they added a non-Park Service employee to the team, 38-year-old Leigh Ortenburger, author of "A Climber's Guide to the Teton Range" — the man who literally wrote the book on Teton climbing. (Ortenburger died in 1991; he was the only member of the group not in attendance at last week's filming/reunion.)
Identifying the location of the fallen climbers was one thing. Getting them off the mountain was another.
In the entire expanse of the Teton Range it would be hard to find a worse place to break your leg, especially in 1967 before helicopters had been developed that could pluck the injured party directly off the face.
With Lorrie hovering over him, Campbell found himself lying horizontal on a thin shelf of rock barely protruding out from the otherwise nearly vertical rock wall.
Taking him up the face looked impossible. So did taking him down.
But most everyone was in his 20s and mortality was still only a vague concept.
After escorting the uninjured Lorrie over the top and into a draw where a helicopter could take her to the town of Jackson, the rescue rangers decided down was better than up for Campbell.
They gave him morphine, strapped him to a litter and through a series of ropes, cables, levers and winches got to work lowering the 5-foot-11, 220-pound climber inch by precious downward inch over a 2,000-foot nearly sheer face that to anyone's knowledge hadn't been traversed before and hasn't been traversed since.
Two sleepless nights and most of three nonstop days later — that's an average of less than 40 feet per hour — they arrived at the 11,000-foot Teton glacier where a helicopter awaited Campbell and a cache of beer the park superintendent had thoughtfully stashed in the snow awaited the rescuers.
Pete, Ralph, Ted, Bob, Mike and Rick were hardly prepared for the attention that followed. The saga was covered in a number of national publications, whose reporters descended on Jackson. Reader's Digest ran a story titled "The Impossible Rescue." Later, early in the summer of 1968, under orders from President Lyndon B. Johnson, the Department of the Interior flew the rescue rangers to Washington, D.C., where the Navy band played as each member of the team was presented a Medal of Valor from Interior Secretary Stewart Udall.
Later that same day Bobby Kennedy was assassinated and the fuss over the rescue quickly died.
After that, life took over. The six rescue rangers got college degrees, families, mortgages, careers. Sinclair became an English professor at Evergreen College in Washington, Irvine a math professor at Weber State College in Ogden, Ermarth a history professor at Dartmouth and Wilson, after three terms as mayor of Salt Lake, a political science professor and director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah. Reese worked in conservation and the community affairs office at the University of Utah. Only Tingey, after getting a degree at the University of Utah in classical Greek and studying for a Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins in Near Eastern languages, stayed with the Park Service. When no one wanted to hire a college professor who spoke Arabic, he went to work in the mountains full time and became an administrator over a number of national parks, including Grand Teton.
But all that was mere footnote when the six reassembled 42 years after the fact to reminisce about the time they slept out together on the face of the Grand Teton.
The highlight of their reunion was the arrival of Lorrie Hough McCoy from her home in Denver. Then a young-looking 22, now a young-looking 64, Lorrie arrived while her rescuers were being filmed and one by one gave them each a huge hug.
"Oh this is incredible," exuded Lorrie, getting a good look at the men who escorted her off the North Face for the first time in 42 years. "I get a chance to thank you all. I could not have asked for a better group of guys to rescue me." She repeatedly called the rangers heroes. "I can't imagine what would have happened if they hadn't done what they did," she said.
Gaylord Campbell, on the other hand, did not make it to the Teton shoot. The filmmakers said they hope to travel to his home in Wisconsin for an interview.
"I'll be happy to talk to them, but they'll have to come to me," said Campbell, 68, in a telephone interview with the Deseret News.
Campbell did not rave about his rescue in 1967, and while he says, "My general feeling then, and now, is that they did a very good, professional job and I was happy to get out of there," he also leaves now, as then, the impression that in his opinion they might have employed a different technique.
In contrast to accounts from his climbing companion Lorrie and from the rescuers of the formidable dangers posed by the sheerness of the North Face and by his injuries, Campbell suggested that had he been with his European climbing peers they might have strapped him and his broken leg onto someone's back and rappelled him down the North Face "in time for drinks that night at the bar."
From his vantage point on the stretcher, Campbell wasn't bashful about engaging in a bit of backseat driving ?— or make that just back driving — during the '67 descent. "I might have said something like 'Do this and let's get the hell off,' " he said. "It's no fun lying there with your leg all crushed up. But I want to make it clear that I have no animosity. They did a good job. They got us down. That's the important thing."
Jenny Wilson is not dissuaded by Campbell's contrarian attitude. The filmmaker part of her smile lights up when she hears of the conflict. No good story should be without it. Campbell is hardly the first person in history to second-guess those who rescued him. She is eager, she said, to include his perspective in the narrative.
But it will be balanced by the stories of half-a-dozen brave men "who have more focus, intelligence and integrity than most people I know. It's not just my father. I have known most of these guys since I was a child. They've always been an inspiration to me."
"I know there's nothing to a story about a great bunch of guys who are aging," she said. "But add in the adventure they had, the risks they took, and the way they used that relationship through the years to make them better people and the world a better place — now there's a story."
"This has been quite the week," said the politician-turned-producer at the end of her five-day shoot. "I think we got some really good stuff."
Coming soon — well, in about a year — to a film festival near you.