Jackson Hole News&Guide, Bradly J. Boner) MAGS OUT NO SALES, AP Photo
JACKSON, Wyo. — High in the Tetons, Jackson Hole's outdoor adventurers are always a slip away from deadly or debilitating injury. Falls happen.
A quarter century ago, helicopter rescues were tightly constrained by topographic realities. If a pilot was unable to land near a victim, he or she was carried out on foot.
Due to the "short haul" rescue technique, that's changed. Nowadays, unforgiving terrain is more of an annoyance than a deterrent. Near Kelly on June 3, Grand Teton National Park rangers were perfecting their short-haul technique.
Scott Guenther, the Jenny Lake sub-district ranger, is in charge of the park's short-haul program.
"Today is really about reaffirming the basics" Guenther said from the banks of the Gros Ventre River.
The technique Guenther's 20-man team was honing sounds simple enough. A rope or cable, usually 150 feet long, is dangled from a hovering airship.
Attached to the line is either a harness or, for the seriously injured, a litter. In park ranger speak, the line is used for "insertion" and "extraction" of both rescue personnel and victims.
The short-haul program in the Tetons didn't start until the fall of 1985. It wasn't until the late 1960s that the technique was developed in earnest in Switzerland. It's a high-risk, high-reward operation.
"It's in our bag of tricks, but it's not the first thing we go to," Guenther said.
"The most dangerous thing we can be doing is hanging under that helicopter," he said. "We try to avoid that."
The use of short-haul rescue has become more commonplace both inside and outside of the park over the past couple decades.
When Guenther started at the Jenny Lake ranger station in 1995, Grand Teton didn't authorize a short-haul operation unless "life or limb," was in danger. That policy has shifted dramatically. Today, a sprained ankle on a precarious mountain slope can warrant a short-haul extraction.
The National Park Service goes to impressive lengths to make sure its rangers are prepared for any short-haul scenarios. Training sessions occur at the start of the season and then happen once a week throughout the busy season at Jenny Lake.
At the training last week, the first of the season, Guenther narrated while his crew practiced short hauling a 40-pound litter.
"He's setting the weight bag on the ground," Guenther said. "You'll see that orange bag touch."
"We have the rope," the Jenny Lake ground crew radioed the pilot.
"Go ahead and hook up," the pilot responded.
"There's a guy managing that line in case there's any other slack," Guenther said. "He's hooking that litter to the rope now."
"Hooked and ready," the ground crew radioed.
A ground crew member then threw his arms into a circular motion, indicating to the pilot that he's good to take off.
"Coming up," the pilot responded.
"It'll go tight to the litter," Guenther said. "They'll keep hands on the litter as he comes off the ground."
"That's the technique right there," Guenther said. "That's the bread and butter. It simulates extracting a patient."
Using one of its two interagency rescue helicopters, a Eurocopter AS350 B3, the Grand Teton crew continues shuffling rangers through the different roles of a short-haul operation through the afternoon. While Guenther has managed the program, the park has averaged three to nine short-haul operations a year.