Climb for Help
One of the most majestic sights in Wyoming or from Idaho is the Grand Teton, the 13,770-foot centerpiece of the Teton Range in Grand Teton National Park
Imagine climbing it at age 50, in the rain or in the dark, or both, while carrying a 35-pound pack to rescue a climber, who might be suffering from serious injury.
This can be all in a day’s work for Darin Jernigan, the director of the Idaho State University Physical Therapy Assistant program in the College of Technology. Jernigan also has an administrative role as the director of Rehabilitative Services, also overseeing the Massage Therapy Program and ISU’s new Occupational Therapy Assistant program.
During the summer, Jernigan is a climbing ranger for Grand Teton Park. For the three months he works at the park, Jernigan can be called out on more than 50 rescues calls.
“It’s hard to describe what I do,” Jernigan said. “I don’t get to choose what I do.”
For example, one day, after spending 12 hours on the Cascade Canyon patrol shoveling and cutting trees, Jernigan got home, got called on a rescue and climbed the middle Teton.
“These climbers weren’t injured,” he continued, “but they were stranded and we didn’t get to them until right at darkness and we lowered ourselves off the middle Teton at night.”
Three years ago, a climber was hurt badly on the Grand Teton’s upper Exum Ridge, about 400 feet from the summit on a stormy day. Other climbers were there to “arrest” the climber keeping him secure, but Jernigan and another ranger were called to provide aid and were flown into the peak’s lower saddle at 11,700 feet. Jernigan’s pack contained climbing and medical equipment and gear to cover the injured climber in case a helicopter couldn’t pluck them off the mountain and they would have to spend the night.
“I didn’t realize I could get paid to climb and this is the job that paid me to climb. This particular job is all about being a climber and then being taught how to be a ranger. It doesn’t work so well the other way around.”
“So we get let off at the saddle and climb the Grand to get to this guy,” Jernigan continued. “I was 50 and was completely red-lining. My whole body was pulsating. You don’t lay all your chips down all that often. Laying all your chips down is an interesting thing.”
Besides being a fully licensed physical therapist and having a doctorate in that field, Jernigan is a certified Wilderness Emergency Medical Technician. He is also an expert climber, proficient in scaling snow and ice, rock climbing, roped rock climbing and aid climbing. He has “climbed all over the place” in the continental United States, Alaska and Mexico.
“I didn’t realize I could get paid to climb and this is the job that paid me to climb. This particular job is all about being a climber and then being taught how to be a ranger,” he said. “It doesn’t work so well the other way around.”
Sometimes all his medical and climbing skills are tested. Jernigan has responded to climbing accidents involving groups with as many as 16 climbers. He frequently rides in or hangs below a helicopter coming or going from a rescue.
“There can be death and destruction,” he said. “Two summers ago, in the span of a month, a big rock boulder virtually severed a man’s arm off his body. I had to place a tourniquet on him to keep him from bleeding to death. Three weeks later, a big boulder came across a different climber’s arm and it basically squished his forearm. You can’t make this stuff up. There are lots of wounds and broken bones.”
At age 53, Jernigan has been a climbing ranger since he was 33.
“It has been getting harder. I am expecting this to be my final season, my 20th-year, this upcoming summer,” he said, although it will be hard not living summers a quarter mile from the park’s scenic Jenny Lake.
Introduced to climbing in his early teens, Jernigan began mastering the craft with help from Alex Urfer, former director of ISU’s physical and occupational therapy programs, who Jernigan met when he was an undergraduate at ISU earning his Bachelor of Science degree in exercise science.
Jernigan, a native of Greenville, California, came to ISU in 1984 on a track scholarship and was a Big Sky Conference champion in the 60-meter hurdles and still holds the school record he set in 1986, which has stood for 30 years.
“Climbing took the place of athletics when I left ISU (as an undergraduate),” he said. “I am that kind of a guy.”
After getting a master’s degree in physical therapy from Pacific College in Costa Mesa, California, Jernigan returned to Idaho to practice physical therapy and work as a climbing ranger in the Tetons. In 2002, he was an emergency hire for the ISU physical therapy assistant program and has since taught during the school year and rangered during the summer.
“I owe everything to ISU, really, looking back at the scheme of my life,” Jernigan said. “I owe a lot to the faculty members there, like Trent Stephens (professor emeritus of biological sciences) and Alex Urfer, and my coaches including Dave Nielsen and Brian Jannsen.”
The ISU Physical Therapy Assistant program has 20 first-year and 20 second-year students and has had nearly 100 percent retention and job-placement rates for the last three years. New this spring, ISU will be offering an Occupational Therapy Assistant Program, which will start out with 16 students and then have a bi-annual class of 20. The OTA program was launched with the help of an Idaho Department of Labor Grant in conjunction with North Idaho College. The Massage Therapy program Jernigan oversees also has full enrollment.
“Working at ISU and rangering has been a good fit,” Jernigan said.