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Grand Teton National Park sets record for searches and rescues

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GRAND TETON NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. — Major searches and rescues at Grand Teton National Park hit a single-year record last week.

The Casper Star-Tribune reported Saturday that park officials aren't sure yet why there were so many rescues this year. They also don't have a final tab for the rescues.

The record was eclipsed Aug. 20 when injured climber Lauren McLean of Lake Oswego, Ore., became the 31st major rescue since the park's fiscal year began Oct. 1. McLean fell 20 to 30 feet because her belay system failed.

The busy year started right away for the Jenny Lake Climbing Rangers. Twelve major rescues were performed during the winter and early spring months.

"That's a big number," full-time ranger Chris Harder said.

Harder told the newspaper that rangers normally perform three to four major rescues during the winter. However, they performed three in October and nine between January and April.

This winter's incidents included several searches for lost skiers in Granite Canyon. In April, rangers led a multi-day search for two men who died in an avalanche in Garnet Canyon. Park spokeswoman Jackie Skaggs said search and recovery efforts for the bodies of Gregory Seftick, a Minnesota native living in Great Falls, Mont., and Walker Kuhl, of Salt Lake City, exceeded $100,000, which is believed to be the park's most expensive search ever.

Any search and rescue that costs more than $500 is considered major. Skaggs said officials believe the previous record of 30 major rescues was set in the 1999-2000 fiscal year. Seventeen to 20 major rescues are the norm. There were 17 major rescues last year and 16 in 2009.

Winter rescue operations become a big concern because of a smaller staff: Only four Jenny Lake Climbing Rangers are full time. There are also fewer daylight hours with which rescuers can work.

Rangers prepared for this season with their normal training in the spring, but kept avalanche and winter rescue gear out because of the record amount of snow in the mountains.

Recreation started slow in the park because people weren't venturing into the snowy high country, Harder said.

Now the snow at the bottom has melted while the gullies remain filled — so a slip on snow can lead to landing in a pile of rocks, which has happened to several backcountry users.

Slips on snow accounted for about one-third of accidents in the park, but rangers have responded to a variety of incidents, from climbers pulling down boulders down to falls on rock to glissades, or controlled slides on snow, becoming erratic and ending with people hitting rocks.

Harder said he hadn't spotted any trends this year as far as accidents and rescues.

Skaggs said that since Jan. 1 the park has performed a total of 56 searches and rescues, ranging from helping a lost child find his or her parents at popular Inspiration Point to evacuating injured climbers by helicopter. Some of those rescues also included assisting other agencies outside park boundaries.