We all have bad mornings. But at 10:30 a.m. on July 21, 2010, Betsy Smith was about to have her worst yet as it began to snow 100 feet below the snow-capped summit of the 13,770-foot Grand Teton in Jackson Hole, WY.
As a buzzing sound that came from nowhere grew louder and her hair started to stand straight up as if someone had rubbed a balloon against her, she had to fight the urge to swat at a nonexistent swarm of bees. But logic told her that the unnerving noise and her body's reaction was from the buildup of static energy in the cold alpine air.
While the sound continued for about 10 minutes, Smith and her group, which included her boyfriend Alan Kline and friends Matt “Junior” Walker and Andrew Larson, watched the snow come down harder, giving way to whiteout conditions that draped around them like curtains, restricting their sight to a few feet ahead of them. With such limited visibility and the threat of a lightning strike, though unlikely, clearly in the charged air, they decided to hock all of their metal equipment some 20 feet, hunker down, and wait for it to pass.
As Smith huddled with Walker and Larson in a shallow rocky alcove and Kline hunched over the opening, the buzzing suddenly stopped. It was replaced with a moment of silence and a bolt, then harrowing screams.
Calm Before the Storm
A day earlier, when the group from Bozeman, MT, had started their two-day climb up the impressively jagged Grand Teton, the weather was near perfect as usual for the national park that time of year. It was hardly an out-of-the-ordinary outing for the skilled group. Smith, then 26, had spent her life scaling anything and everything from backyard trees to her home's rooftop to high rock walls in her native Texas, plus Yosemite and outside of Yellowstone.
When Kline, a pro climbing guide, entered her life in 2007, the frequency of her technical climbing escalated. They spent most weekends bagging peaks locally and across the country. The Grand Teton had long been on their to-do list.
An impossibly steep and strenuous 6-mile, 5,000-foot ascent to 11,600 feet led them to base camp at the mountain's Lower Saddle, a ridge between two peaks. The altitude was a cardiovascular challenge for Smith, who had done less alpine climbing than Kline and Larson, but she felt pretty pumped about keeping up. She even spared some precious oxygen to sing “Hakuna Matata” throughout the day while carrying her 50-pound pack.
On the way up, they stopped by a ranger station to check in and obtain the free permit required to camp overnight in the backcountry. The ranger warned them of a 20-percent chance of rain in the late afternoon (thunderstorms are common in July and August), but then quickly dismissed his own heed, saying that this had been the daily forecast all month, and it had only been sunny and clear every day. Kline still kept a keen eye on the bright blue sky.
“It doesn't matter what the ranger tells you; you need to be making decisions while you're up there. You watch the weather, see what's going on and what's coming, and then you make the call,” says Kline, who is well versed in mountain storm systems. With this in mind, he had thoroughly studied all possible retreat options along their planned route before and during their trip in case they ever needed to make an emergency getaway.