Jenny Wilson, the daughter of our fellow rescue ranger, Ted Wilson, approached three of us one winter evening at Ted's home in Salt Lake City, and proposed making a film of the North Face rescue. Not understanding that it would take a lot of money, we greeted this new adventure with the enthusiasm only geezers can muster. Jenny and her husband Trell jumped in with both feet. Somehow I envisioned an amateur photographer making home movies of us getting together some 40 odd years later. It turned out to be so much more.
That next summer of 2009, all of the remaining rescuers met at Lupine meadows for a rendezvous. Jenny had procured a photographer, our good friend, Peter Pilafian, who lives in Wilson, Wyoming, and was set to make a movie. What a treat for me. We arrived at Lupine Meadows where Jenny surprised us by bringing Lorrie Hough back. None of us had seen her since the rescue, so we hugged and talked while the cameras rolled. Over the next few days Peter filmed away as the director, Meredith Lavett interviewed each of us. The last day we hiked to the Teton Glacier, stared up at the face, and reminisced while Peter filmed. Each of these days merits its own story, but since I've written it previously, this is just a thumbnail.
Skip forward two years... It takes a lot of money to make a film, and Jenny had been working to find enough funding to do some re-enactments of the rescue. I flew down from Alaska to Salt Lake, met Bob Irvine, and the two of us drove to Jenny Lake for a week of camping. Bob and I had known each other since we were young and had worked together for years at Jenny Lake. Now we were re-living the rescue.
Day 1: The crew met at 5:20 am for the first day of filming at Blacktail Butte. It was a long way from the North Face, but it provided a great venue for setting up the rescue system as it would have been in 1967, working out the bugs, and getting the close-ups of the rigging, actors, and details. John Logan Pierson, the Line Producer, had breakfast, gear, and support personnel already at the scene; over the week, he was the main go-to guy for any question I had. Renny Jackson met us; the recently retired Jenny Lake ranger took charge of the rigging and safety.
Peter Pilafian and Ken Saul, the cinematographers, arrived with cameras and gear; a small team helped them carry the gear up the hill. Peter lowered over the cliff, hanging from ropes next to the litter for the close-ups. The hot sun made it a long day for an Alaskan.
Looking down the Second Ledge of the North Face brought back the gut-turning of 44 years ago when Pete Sinclair and I carried the two parts of the Stoke litter lashed to Kelty packframes on our backs solo down the ledge. I remember it scraping and being top-heavy; I called down to Pete, "It would be great to have a rope right now!". Two thirds of the way down the ledge lay Gaylord Campbell with his shattered leg. I had led the support team from the Lower Saddle up to this point where the Scott brothers, Larry and Hugh, Ed Mortensen, Dave Black, and Bill McKeel had brought up all the supplies. Now it had been left to the seven of us on the face to ferry the gear down to the accident site and lower Gaylord down the face.
The memories came rushing back. At the ledge, Ken positioned me and filmed while Renny asked me questions about that day 44 years ago and the work of the rescue team on the ledge. I gazed at the panorama: the North Face fell vertically below me; Mount Owen straight across; Teewinot far below and across the glacier. The day was clear and warm, and I was in my element.
Rick and I on about the zillionth switchback of the Amphitheater Lake trail
At the lake, Renny and the crew set up the director's camp: a giant green tarp that sheltered the planning during a rain and hail storm during the afternoon. Rick and I huddled in under the fly of his new light-weight tent. In the evening, Renny gave a little talk on proper behavior at the lake, including the use of the RestStop 2 poop bag.
Alan and Renny had fixed ropes up to the shooting location overlooking the face, so all the crew had a safe ascent and descent route. Rick spent the morning climbing to the top of Disappointment Peak, then down to join his wife Mary Lee for the evening. I headed up to the action. Worried that I would be in the way, I tried to stay clear of the crew, but to my delight, the crew asked me questions all day about exact details of the rescue. Then, Renny asked me to lower the actual litter for the shoot. Well...I could do that! The first shots were of "Bob Irvine" dropping a rock over the face and timing the returning sound as it hit a ledge, a true scene from the actual rescue. We gathered rock after rock from my ledge to give to Forrest as he tossed the rocks for Peter and Ken.
Finally in mid-afternoon, Andy took Jenny over the edge. Peter and Ken hung from ropes secured at the anchor and filmed as the litter lowered down the face. Radios went silent and the action started. Inch by inch, the load slipped through my fingers and down the face.
It was a success! Bill, Jenny, Peter, and Ken were pleased as I could hear from the radio traffic. I was worried they would want a second take, which would take hours. The next day Jenny had a fundraising event at the Center for the Arts in Jackson, so I hiked down in the late evening, called Bob who picked me up and fed me a baked chicken dinner from his dutch oven at Jenny Lake.
The next evening was special: Rick, Bob, Ted, and I spent the evening socializing at the fundraiser and meeting some of our favorite friends:
Day 6: The Helicopter scenes. Dr. Rich Sugden and Teton Aviation agreed to furnish a period helicopter, the Bell 47 for the shoot. How Jenny persuaded them, I'll never know, but it was the finale for the filming. Dr. Sugden had been a medical adviser to the rangers when I worked at Jenny Lake in the 70's. What a nice gesture! Bill and Jenny had a crew of actors who would play the wives and families of the returning rescue rangers as they returned from the mountain. Particularly, Pete, Connie, and Melanie Sinclair were in the spotlight.
A short rehearsal and we were ready. The kids were the stars this time. We heard the thumping beat of the helicopter in the distance, and I couldn't wait to see it.
Peter Kline of Teton Aviation at the controls landed in the field and the action started. Lots of waving, lots of hugs, lots of action and kids ran everywhere. A cooler of beer for the returning rescuers was the only other prop. Peter filmed from the helicopter, and also had cameras set up on the perimeter to capture the joy. The heat cooked me, wearing my old 60's vintage shirt and Levis.
The next scene was a recreation of the "Morphine Toss" when District Ranger Doug McLaren tossed a package of the drug right into Leigh Ortenberger's lap while he was sitting in his sleeping bag on the Second Ledge, the second morning of the rescue.
A third member of the original team arrived: Ted Wilson, Jenny's father and inspiration for the film. We all dressed in our old uniforms and now played character actors as the "Superintendent" and "Chief Ranger". Peter, filming from the helicopter, also donned a uniform shirt to play Doug McLaren.
It had been quite a reunion and a memory movie for me. I'd had a week camping trip with Bob Irvine, a hike and camping trip up to Disappointment Peak with Rick Reese, and now a day with Ted Wilson.