EVANSTON — By all accounts, Tyler Willis is lucky to be alive.
When he and friend Josh Anderson, both of Evanston, set off last week for a few days of adventure in Grand Teton National Park, they had no idea just how much true adventure, danger and heroics awaited them in the wilderness. While the two avid outdoorsmen and global travelers have had their share of experiences that could be considered life-changing, the challenge they found themselves facing near the end of a climbing expedition tested all their strength, determination and will to survive.
The first couple of days of Tyler and Josh’s trip went according to plan. They scaled the peak of Grand Teton itself and then took a day off from climbing and went on a river rafting trip. Then, said Josh, he suggested they tackle Mount Owen — the second highest peak in the park at just under 13,000 feet.
The two set off on their climb just before 3 a.m. on Friday, Aug. 7. Josh said the climb was more difficult, technical and challenging than they had anticipated, but they were successful, reaching the peak about 12 hours later at roughly 2:30 that afternoon. They took a few selfies, enjoyed the view and texted their wives to let them know they’d reached the summit and expected to be back down by about midnight.
Fate had something entirely different in store.
By about 9 p.m. that night, they’d completed the technical part of the descent and were at the portion of the trek where they felt like they could relax and exhale. Instead, as the two started crossing Teton Glacier, the largest of the seven glaciers in the park, the unthinkable happened. Josh said he had stopped to coil the climbing rope while Tyler was walking just in front of him with both men’s trekking poles.
“Suddenly, he just disappeared,” said Josh. “He was just gone and the poles were lying across a hole in the ice and snow.”
Tyler had fallen into a crevasse — a deep crack — that had opened up under the ice.
“I just fell,” said Tyler, who found himself, relatively unscathed, with his feet dangling beneath him, about 30 feet below where he had been just moments before. The crevasse, which at the surface was about 3-4 feet wide, had narrowed so much that Tyler was wedged in and stuck, with the crack extending to an unknown depth below him.
Josh carefully surveyed and navigated the situation and the two thought perhaps it would be a relatively quick and easy matter to pull Tyler back up. That, also, was not to be.
Concerned that his friend would continue to slip further into the crevasse, Josh attempted to use his ice axe as an anchor and lower a rope and climbing runners that Tyler could attach to his harness; however, he was wedged so tightly and positioned in such a way that made it impossible. He was also unable to reach his feet, thwarting any attempts to loop around those.
As the reality of their predicament set in, Josh tried in vain to get some type of cellphone signal to call for help to be dispatched to the remote area.
Call it luck, fate or divine intervention, but at that desperate point, help appeared in the form of two fellow climbers who were on the ascent several hours earlier when Tyler and Josh were heading down from Owen’s summit. The two were the only other individuals the climbers had seen all day. Josh spotted the light from their headlamps and began to yell for assistance.
Kia Mosenthal and Ryan Stolp, of Jackson, are also avid adventurers and outdoor enthusiasts. Although at first they weren’t able to ascertain what Josh was yelling, eventually they understood the word “crevasse” and realized there was only one person visible when they had passed two on the mountain.
It took about 20 minutes for Ryan and Kia to reach Josh. In another stroke of very good luck, Ryan had crevasse rescue training, although he’d never had to use it in a real-life setting. The three rescuers set out to create a “dead man’s anchor” system using crampons (traction devices that can be attached to climbing boots), the ice axe and climbing ropes. Josh said they devised a 3:1 mechanical advantage system and lowered the rope to Tyler, who was able to loop it under his armpits.
“It was working and he was moving,” said Josh, who felt they were succeeding in getting Tyler up. As they had been able to lift him up somewhat, they asked Tyler if he was then able to attach the rope to his harness; however, he began to scream in pain, saying he couldn’t use either of his arms and begging them to lower him back down into the crevasse and to the wedge because he couldn’t stand the pain in his arms any longer.
Lowering his friend back down into the crevasse was incredibly difficult, said Josh. Tyler described his arms as useless at that point, like “wet noodles.”
“At that point I started to think I was going to die there, hanging by my arms,” Tyler said.
For Josh, Kia and Ryan, that was a moment of realization. With his rescue training, Ryan knew time was of the essence. Dressed for the summer climb, Tyler was wearing shorts, a T-shirt and a light jacket. He’d been immobile, surrounded by ice and snow, down in the crevasse at night for what they estimated to be already close to an hour. Ryan’s training told him survival times in such situations were typically about 45 minutes. Time was not on their side.
“Ryan suggested he should rappel down into the crevasse with him to attach the rope to his harness,” said Josh, and he did just that, making his way down to Tyler, whom he found wedged nearly horizontal, becoming increasingly hypothermic, incoherent and barely conscious.
“It was pretty clear he was rapidly deteriorating,” said Ryan.
After attaching the gear to Tyler’s harness, Ryan returned to the surface and the three then again tried to lift him out. “I assume he must have lost consciousness and fallen more into the crevasse,” said Josh, “and we just couldn’t move him.”
After several unsuccessful attempts, Josh decided to go down in a desperate attempt to save his friend.
“When I got down in there and could see, I was amazed at how far down he actually was and how much further there still was underneath him,” said Josh.
Tyler had completely lost consciousness, still wedged sideways in “the squeeze,” with ice and snow now covering his face.
Josh dug his face out.
“His eyes were open, but I could tell he wasn’t really with us anymore,” Josh said.
His voice breaking as he spoke with the Herald, Josh described desperately trying to get Tyler to respond.
“I slapped him and told him we were going to get him out. I talked to him about Kara, Harvey and Makenna (Tyler’s wife and children) waiting for him at home. He started to talk about how he might not make it out, and I just wasn’t having it.”
Kia and Ryan, too, said they reached a point when they began to doubt they would be able to extricate Tyler in time.
“It was over an hour into our efforts and there was a palpable feeling that maybe we wouldn’t get him out in time,” said Kia.
Josh frantically worked to get Tyler unstuck so he could be pulled out.
“I remember at one point thinking I didn’t know if I could do it, but I just kept at it,” he said.
Finally, after a few huge pushes, Tyler was free from the wedge and Josh yelled to his fellow rescuers to pull. Josh watched from below as his friend was finally pulled over the lip of the crevasse, completely limp and unconscious after being trapped for 90-120 minutes.
As it turns out, freeing him wasn’t the end of their ordeal. By the time they finally had Tyler out, he was extremely hypothermic and his clothes were soaked. Kia used a climbing knife to cut Tyler’s wet clothes off and they wrapped him in every bit of dry clothing and gear they could find, including using backpacks to wrap around his feet.
Kia, who, in another stroke of good fortune, has had Wilderness First Responder training, monitored Tyler’s vital signs repeatedly and was finally able to get an SOS call out on her Garmin INReach satellite communication device, receiving a response at about 10:30 p.m. Relieved to have Tyler out of the crevasse and to have gotten an emergency message out, the three knew they still faced a long night and several hours before park rangers could reach their location to care for the injured man.
Wanting to get off the glacier, the three devised a makeshift stretcher out of backpacks and managed to get Tyler about 50 yards away to a boulder field, a few yards at a time. They then did all they could to keep Tyler warm and monitor his vital signs while waiting anxiously for help to arrive.
Ryan described it as a tense several hours during which the still-unconscious Tyler would intermittently spasm, seize and froth at the mouth, with nonreactive pupils. Josh said his friend’s loud snoring during that time was comforting; whenever the snoring stopped, he would anxiously shake Tyler until he could see that he was still breathing. With all their excess gear being utilized to warm Tyler, the other three did whatever they could to stay active and keep warm.
Two park rangers ultimately reached the four climbers at about 4:30 a.m., at which point they conducted a thorough medical evaluation and wrapped Tyler in what Josh described as a huge down coat, sleeping bag and waterproof sack in a kind of “burrito roll.” Eventually, Tyler began to mumble incoherently and finally reached a point where he could respond to questions around first light Saturday morning, just in time for a short-haul helicopter rescue by Teton Interagency Helicopter and a LifeFlight transport to Eastern Idaho Medical Center in Idaho Falls. By the time he was being hauled away, Tyler’s condition had improved to the point that he was cracking jokes and expressing his desire to hike out rather than pay for the helicopter ride.
The other three climbers were also flown by helicopter to Lupine Meadows after the rescue. Rangers reportedly told them it was a freak occurrence to have a crevasse in that particular area of the glacier and that the climbers hadn’t done anything wrong. In fact, other climbers and park rangers themselves frequently cross the glacier in the same fashion.
Back in Evanston, the two men’s wives had started to become increasingly worried after not receiving word the two had made it back down the mountain. Kara Willis and Susan Anderson began to text one another and call their husbands after midnight, receiving no answers. Kara said she tried tracking Tyler’s cellphone signal, with no success, and began to get extremely concerned.
“Tyler said he’d had the hardest climb of his life,” she said. When she looked Mount Owen up online and saw how hard the peak could be, all kinds of scenarios started running through her head.
By 7 a.m., around the time Tyler was being rescued by helicopter, Kara and Susan began calling Grand Teton ranger offices, reaching only voicemail. Both women became emotional recounting the desperate phone calls before finally reaching a ranger. Unaware at that time of the rescue situation, that ranger told Susan he would investigate and get back to her.
After about 10 minutes, Susan received a return phone call notifying her there had been a climbing accident.
“He told me Tyler had been LifeFlighted,” she said. “I started hyperventilating and gave him Kara’s number.”
When Kara was reached, she said the ranger informed her Tyler had serious injuries and was very hypothermic. Based on the information she had, the situation wasn’t good.
“I knew he’d been flown to the hospital, and I kept trying to call the emergency room and I wasn’t getting an answer. I finally talked to Josh, his best friend in the world, and he reassured me. Eventually I was able to get through to a nurse, who told me Tyler was doing miraculously well,” said Kara through tears.
Miraculous is probably the right word to describe it. Tyler suffered nerve damage and injuries to both arms and had leg and face contusions and scrapes.
“I remember a lot of the LifeFlight ride,” said Tyler. “I know they couldn’t get a temperature reading on me and they just kept covering me with more blankets, and I started realizing that my arms weren’t working properly. I just kept thinking I was so lucky to be alive. I decided that even if my arms had to be amputated, I’m alive and I get to go home to my wife and kids.”
Tyler’s arms didn’t need to be amputated. He was released from the hospital on Wednesday, Aug. 12, and is recovering his hand movements. Function and grasp in his right hand is greatly improved, but he has a longer recovery in store for his left.
“At first I had no movement in my left arm, and it was like a boneless Harry Potter arm,” he said. “They’re pretty confident the right hand will get back to almost normal. I have some therapy to go through with my left, but I’m going to go through that journey with a smile on my face.”
Both Josh and Tyler said the whole experience will change their habits in the future, as they’ll likely carry more equipment and be more prepared.
“At some point, maybe I’ll be able to pass this on and help somebody else,” said Tyler.
Ryan said he, too, will change his climbing habits, resolving to carry more gear, even if that means not being as light for climbing.
Ryan said he also hopes their story will serve as warning to fellow climbers to never let their guard down and to carry lightweight climbing tools and gear that can make all the difference in such situations.
“Know your rope systems and tools and be able to get creative with them in emergency situations,” Ryan said. He also stressed being wary of situations like the glacier crossing, either skirting around them or roping up, no matter how smooth the surface may be and how unlikely a crevasse might be in that location.
Tyler and his family credit his best friend Josh with refusing to give up and being determined to save his life.
“Everything had to go right, including the incredible perseverance of my buddy, and Ryan and Kia being there with gear. Everything fell into place. All I did was fall into a hole,” said Tyler.
Ryan said the way he, Kia and Josh were able to work together was incredible. Though he and Kia had just descended from Owen, it was the first time they had ever climbed together and neither one knew Josh at all.
“You’d be hard-pressed to find three strangers who worked that well together,”Ryan said.
Besides how well the three worked together in the rescue effort, he spoke highly of Josh and his ability to focus clearly on what needed to be done while his friend was trapped. Ryan and Josh both unknowingly used the same words to describe the teamwork — “dialed in.”
For his part, Josh said he credits Kia and Ryan.
“Without everybody, it wouldn’t have worked,” Josh said. “There was nobody else, and they happened to be there. I couldn’t have done it alone.”
The two said they’d like to get together with Ryan and Kia in the future and express their gratitude in person.
“It’s just incredible that I can be back with my wife and kids. Sometimes crap happens,” said Tyler. “I’m just so fortunate and grateful that when crap happened to me, Josh, Ryan and Kia were there.”
Tyler’s family and friends would like to ask for financial assistance to help with the costs associated with the helicopter rescue and medical expenses. Donations can be sent to Tyler’s Venmo account at @Tyler-Willis-36.