IDAHO FALLS — A Wyoming man who fell into a deep crack in a glacier is speaking from his hospital bed about the frightening ordeal and the heroes he says saved his life.
Tyler Willis, 34, was hiking with his friend Josh Anderson, 37, at Grand Teton National Park on Friday night when he stepped onto a soft spot of snow and suddenly plummeted 30 feet into a crevasse. A crevasse is a deep fracture found in an ice sheet or glacier.
“We had finally reached solid ground after summiting Mt. Owen. We had left our trekking poles in the snowfield, and we felt like we were in relative safety,” Willis told EastIdahoNews.com. “Within about a minute of getting to our poles, I took a step, broke through and fell down, getting wedged into a crevasse in the ice.”
A cry for help
Anderson and Willis met seven years ago in Evanston, where they both live and teach school. They have hiked different mountains around the world, love being outside and are always up for a challenge.
Their hiking adventure at Grand Teton National Park began around 3 a.m. Everything had gone as planned until Willis’ terrifying fall. With the sun setting and cold temperatures quickly setting in, Anderson knew they were in trouble.
“All of a sudden, he just dropped,” Anderson said. “In half a second, he was gone. All of the poles were just laying across the hole. I was like, ‘Holy… did this really just happen?'”
Willis yelled for help, and Anderson carefully made his way over to the edge of the crevasse. Thirty feet below, Willis’s body was wedged between two sheets of ice, and his legs were dangling freely.
Anderson threw him a rope and told Willis to attach it to his climbing gear, but Willis couldn’t maneuver his body to the right position. Unable to get a cell phone signal, Anderson felt helpless but noticed two other hikers with their headlamps coming toward him.
“I shouted up to them that Tyler had fallen in a crevasse. They told me they had gear to help and roped up to come over,” Anderson says. “They were the only other people anywhere around.”
Those strangers were Ryan Stolp and Kia Mosenthal. They heard Willis screaming as frigid water rushed down the glacier, soaking his body.
Stolp and Mosenthal were carrying a satellite communication device and sent a “fall into crevasse” message to the Teton Interagency Dispatch Center. It was around 10:30 p.m., and crews responded that they were on their way, but it would take several hours.
Saving a life
Because Willis couldn’t move, Stolp rappelled into the crevasse and clipped a rope to Willis’ harness. Stolp returned to the top of the ice, and the trio began pulling the father of two out of the crack.
“We got him up a ways, but he was begging us to lower him back down. It hurt him so bad, and he kept saying, ‘My arms are broken,’ because the rope was cutting into him and he was just dangling,” Anderson says. “We lowered him to where he could wedge himself, and then he became stuck.”
Willis began losing consciousness, and the three rescuers knew they had to do something fast. Anderson decided to rappel down to his best friend, and Stolp and Mosenthal set up a pulley system at the top of the crevasse.
“Josh said when he got down to me, my face was covered in ice and snow,” Willis says. “I was unresponsive at that point, and my gear was completely soaked.”
Anderson attached a rope to Willis’ gear and then climbed underneath his friend to push him up. Stolp and Mosenthal pulled the rope from the top, and finally, two hours after falling in, Willis was out of the crack.
“Once they got me out, they cut all my clothes off and put any extra dry clothing they could possibly spare on me,” Willis explains. “They drug me off the ice onto some rocks, and Josh laid across me, trying to keep me warm.”
A long wait
Willis was breathing and had a pulse but would occasionally shake and have tremors.
“I laid next to him, trying my best to keep him warm,” Anderson says. “He kept breathing, and we kept checking his vitals, but it felt like they were slowly decreasing every hour. I remember hearing him snoring, and I was so glad because it meant he was breathing.”
Around 4 a.m., Anderson recalls seeing headlamps coming toward him and he, along with Stolp and Mosenthal, breathed a “huge” sigh of relief. Two Grand Teton National Park rangers arrived with a sleeping pad, tarps, a warm sack to put Willis in, and a big coat.
They needed to wait until daylight to move Willis from the mountain, and over the next three hours, he started to regain consciousness. Anderson laughs because the first words his friend said after waking up were, “Wuzzzz up!”
“The last thing I remember was falling in the crevasse, and the next thing I remember is about 7 o’clock in the morning there was a ranger sitting across from me, and I was all bundled up,” Willis says.
The ranger told Willis a helicopter was on the way, but Willis insisted he did not need it and would hike down the mountain.
“Josh said that’s how they knew Tyler was back because I was like, ‘I got this. I’ll just hike down,'” Willis says with a laugh.
A helicopter arrived around 8 a.m. and flew Willis via short-haul to Lupine Meadows, where he was loaded into Air Idaho Rescue and flown to Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center. Anderson, Stolp and Mosenthal were also taken to Lupine Meadows by helicopter.
“When I got to the hospital, they couldn’t get a temperature on me because I was so cold,” Willis says. “They thought the thermometer was broken, so they tried another one, and it didn’t work. I had severe hypothermia, but they got me warmed up pretty quickly, and I started responding more and more.”
Willis had severe cuts on his knees and the rope injuries in his armpits were so severe they affected his hand mobility to the point he couldn’t pinch his fingers together. His right hand is nearly back to normal, but it will take some time for his left hand to recover fully.
Willis’ wife, Kara, has been at his side since Saturday, when he was admitted to the hospital. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, other visitors have not been allowed, but he was finally able to see his two children, ages 7 and 4, when he was released from EIRMC Wednesday night.
A thankful heart
Anderson and Willis say this ordeal has taught them a lot. They don’t plan to do this hike again (“It’s one and done,” Anderson says), and on future excursions, they will pay closer attention to what they pack.
“Instead of focusing on weight, what can we eliminate, we’re going to focus on what gear we need to add — not only for ourselves but in case we come across somebody in my situation, we can be of assistance,” Willis explains.
Without the help of Stolp and Mosenthal, Anderson believes his friend would have died. Not only did they have life-saving equipment, but they also took control of the scary situation.
“When it’s your own buddy, you really need someone else to come and take charge and make it happen,” Anderson says. “My ability to make good, clean, rational decisions was not even close to where they were at. To have their objectiveness was so helpful.”
Willis says the staff at EIRMC took “excellent” care of him and he is thankful for the Grand Teton Rescue and helicopter crews who helped. He is planning “a great big reunion dinner” soon for Anderson and his two new friends, who he says will always be his heroes.
“There aren’t words for Josh and Ryan and Kia,” Willis says, holding back tears. “I get to go back to my wife and kids because of what they did. There is nothing else that I can say.”
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