Tragedy bonds climbersWORTHINGTON — Out of a tragedy that received national attention, four area men have formed a bond that is helping to keep them steady at a time in their lives when there seems to be more questions than answers.
WORTHINGTON — Out of a tragedy that received national attention, four area men have formed a bond that is helping to keep them steady at a time in their lives when there seems to be more questions than answers.
Bob Miller, Cameron Johnson and John Armstrong of Worthington and Dave Stenzel of Heron Lake were four of 17 people caught on the side of a mountain at Grand Teton National Park several weeks ago when an electrical storm came out of nowhere, eventually claiming the life of 21-year-old Brandon Oldenkamp of Sanborn, Iowa.
All four men firmly believe it was by the grace of God they were able walk off the mountain unscathed.
“If we had left 15 minutes earlier or retreated 15 minutes later, things would be different,” Johnson said. “We all consider it really quite a miracle.”
Johnson and the others were on a week-long rock climbing trip in Jackson Hole, Wyo., trying to accomplish the “Wyoming Grand Slam” — reaching the summits of Gannett Peak, Devil’s Tower and Grand Teton. Miller had been on the mountain and reached the summit several times in previous years.
The group had already reached two of their three goals and was attempting to scale Grand Teton July 21.
A majority of the climb is more like extreme hiking than climbing, they said. Their group, Johnson explained, tends to be conservative, using ropes if there is any question of safety issues.
Heading for the top
Carrying packs that contained climbing gear and supplies, the eight men — Miller, Johnson, Armstrong, Stenzel, Oldenkamp and three others — prepared to leave their camp around 5:30 a.m. They were already 6,000 feet up the mountain and hoping to summit before noon so there would be plenty of time to get back to their camp. Across the snow-covered valleys they hiked until it was time to get “technical.”
They dropped metal hiking poles and extra gear into a pile, to be gathered on their way back down.
They broke into two separate groups of four and headed up. In their own group, Johnson was in the lead, with Miller tied on second, Armstrong third and Stenzel bringing up the rear. Oldenkamp’s group was below theirs as they worked their way across Belly Roll, through the Crawl and toward Twin Chimney. There were several groups elsewhere on the mountain — 17 people in all.
Sometime that morning, the clouds began to roll in, filling the valley.
“That was pretty much when things started to go downhill,” Miller stated.
Up until then, the men had been having the time of their lives.
“The challenge of the climb was awesome,” Stenzel said.
But at approximately 10:30 a.m., the first bolt of lightning hit the mountain.
“It’s not like a streak you see up in the sky,” Miller explained. “It is more of a flash of orange or blue, instantaneous and deafening.”
Johnson happened to be standing in a small puddle when the lightning struck. He said an odd blue glow came up from his feet, which were literally pushed upward off the rock by the energy of the blast.
“We literally had our hands against the wall when that first bolt hit,” Miller stated.
The group of four quickly made the decision to retreat. There was a climbing party of five located above them, and Oldenkamp and his party of four were below.
“After that first strike we turned around,” Miller said. “We made the decision to backtrack. We decided we had better get down as quick as we could.”
Heading down the mountain was now more dangerous than climbing up had been. Rain and sleet was falling, making footing perilous. Communication was more difficult because of the noise from the storm. The group pressed on quickly, and there were six men standing on a small crack near Twin Chimney and two in the Crawl when the next bolt of lightning hit the mountain.
“I felt the jolt go through me,” Miller said. “My gloves were smoking, my boots were smoking and there was the smell of burning hair. Dave was thrown from the rock. Now we were staring into the valley of the shadow of death.”
“I was anchored to the rock,” Stenzel said, taking up the story. “The shock picked me up off my feet and threw me against the opposite wall.”
The smell of burning rock was strong, and each raindrop that hit the mountain instantly turned to steam as the storm ranged around the climbers.
“I had never seen anything like this,” Johnson said. “It was so quick and so intense.”
Even the park service and experienced guides on the mountain had not predicted the fast-moving storm, Miller added.
As they waited and prayed, Armstrong said he clearly remembers going through three very distinct phases.
“The first was a lack of faith, and after the bolt that took Brandon I remember being angry and praying for a reprieve,” he said. “Lastly, there was this feeling of ‘God, I’m yours. If this is my time, take me.’ I knew I was at the mercy of God.”
It was the grace of God that had them in the best location during the storm, all four men believe.
“We probably took the least physical damage,” Johnson said. “The higher groups and the lower groups — some of them have permanent damage.”
Of the climbers above their group, Stenzel said, seven of the nine people had to be airlifted out.
“It is really quite a miracle we were OK,” Johnson stated. “We still don’t understand the tragic loss of Brandon or the tragic injuries of the others.”
As the storm subsided, the men rappelled down the mountain as fast as they could.
“We were cold, soaking wet and needed to get down before hypothermia set in,” Armstrong said.
As they moved lower, the men were met by a bevy of park rangers. More than 20 rangers were headed up in the aftermath of the storm — one of the biggest rescues in the national park’s history.
“They were a welcome sight,” Armstrong said.
Other climbers were stranded and hurt on other routes on the mountain, and many of the injuries were serious. All of the climbers and hikers were flown to a triage center, then taken by ambulance to Jackson Hole. The most seriously injured climbers had been taken to the nearest medical facility by air ambulance.
“The rangers and the pilots were incredible,” Stenzel stated. “They fought the weather until the last person on that mountain had been rescued.”
Johnson, Armstrong, Miller and Stenzel called home as soon as possible.
“I’m safe,” were the first words out of each one’s mouth when they reached their wives, followed by, “There has been a tragedy.”
“They were all very concerned,” Armstrong said. “Information about the storm had been picked up by the media, but no names had been released.”
The men were returned to their base camp, and while waiting for Oldenkamp’s parents to arrive, they all stayed up late sharing stories of Brandon.
“His parents are wonderful people,” Johnson stated.
“They thanked us for taking Brandon up and giving him a wonderful experience,” Miller said.
“They were very concerned for our well-being,” Stenzel added.
Park officials were on hand to meet Oldenkamp’s parents, and Miller said the hospital staff was equally compassionate and caring, taking all the climbers through a stress debriefing before they were allowed to leave. A local pastor, who was also a climber and been trapped on a mountain at one time, met with the group while it waited for Oldenkamp’s parents.
“You couldn’t have handpicked a better person for our group,” Armstrong said.
The gear had been left on the mountain during the rescue, so park rangers retrieved it, threw it all in a net and brought it back down the mountain. The metal climbing poles used by Miller had visible damage from the lightning strikes.
“They asked me if they could keep it as part of a permanent display about the dangers of the weather,” Miller said. “That is kind of cool.”
“It is too bad the trip ended with a tragedy,” Stenzel said. “Before we lost Brandon, we had been having such a great time. When we sat down with his parents, we all laughed and cried, and then they would ask for another story.”
“Brandon was always so strong,” Armstrong stated. “Sometimes we felt like we were holding him back, but he fit right into our group.”
The experience shook them all, and wondering about God’s reasons for taking Oldenkamp has left the men with questions. It has left varying thoughts about whether to climb again.
“The challenge is awesome, and the brotherhood and bonding that takes place is incredible,” Stenzel said.
Miller said he doesn’t know if he will do that intense kind of climbing again, not because of the experience but because he is almost 55 years old, the packs are heavy and it is taxing on his body. He doesn’t plan to give up climbing entirely, however.
Johnson said he will definitely climb again.
“I look at it like this,” he explained. “Brandon’s death was very tragic and it was sensationalized because of the way it happened. But it was a freak thing, totally out of our control. As for those questions — why did we lose one of our own? That is in God’s hands. In His control.”
All four men said they would have given their own lives to save Oldenkamp’s if it had been possible. But the loss of Oldenkamp has given them all a new passion for life.
“I’m going to live my life to the fullest, and go after things 100 percent,” Miller stated as the other three nodded in agreement. “None of us wants to spend the rest of our life sitting on a couch. Life is not to be wasted.”