Movie News & Reviews

Film Society’s documentary event includes film about an Olympia hero

In 1967, a team of rangers rescued an injured climber on the North Face of the Grand Teton, becoming the first to navigate that side of the mountain and making national news.

That challenging three-day rescue — led by Pete Sinclair, who later moved to Olympia to teach at The Evergreen State College — is the subject of “The Grand Rescue,” a 2014 documentary being shown this weekend at the Capitol Theater.

The Olympia Film Society will show “Rescue” both Saturday and Sunday as part of its first Blow Up Documentary Weekend, a mini-festival of recent documentaries.

“We felt it was a good time to show some of these amazing documentaries that we were hearing about,” said Harry Reetz, the society’s program director. “The documentaries we’re showing are relevant to our community and what’s going on in the world right now.”

Filmmaker Jenny Wilson, rescuers Bob Irvine and Rick Reese, and Connie Sinclair, Pete Sinclair’s wife, will answer questions after both screenings. Pete Sinclair has late-stage Alzheimer’s disease.

“It’s so exciting,” Connie Sinclair said. “It would be even more exciting if Pete could be a part of it. That’s a heartbreaker for me. It’s just not feasible to get him there.

“It’s a wonderful tribute to him,” she added. “I know he would be so proud and elated if he could be there.”

He loved the film when it was released last year, she said.

“He was just mesmerized by it. I think he knew it was his writing.”

The film is a re-enactment of the Aug. 22-24, 1967, North Face rescue. It is based on a chapter in Sinclair’s 1993 book “We Aspired: The Last Innocent Americans.”

“He was a wonderful writer,” Reese said. “It is the rescue as seen through his eyes. It’s beautifully written.”

Sinclair, then the chief of mountain rescue at Grand Teton National Park, led a team of six climbers — most rangers at the park —to rescue Gaylord Campbell, whose leg had protruding compound fractures after he was struck by falling rocks. He and his companion were stranded on a narrow ledge 13,000 feet high.

Because of the severity of Campbell’s injuries, the rescuers immobilized him on a stretcher and lowered him slowly down thousands of feet of the nearly vertical North Face, a process that took three days.

A major plot point in the film is Campbell’s criticism of the rescuers.

“He was second-guessing us the whole time,” Reese said. “He thought we should have just piggyback rappelled him down the mountain.”

The rescue was undoubtedly both dramatic and challenging, but Reese said the rescuers were lucky.

“I never felt that we were not going to come out of there in one piece,” he said. “There were a lot of things that could have gone wrong, and fortunately none of them did. We could have had terrible weather, and as it turned out we had beautiful weather.”

He also felt lucky to have the opportunity to climb with his friends. Because all but two of the men on the rescue were climbing rangers, some of them always had to remain behind while others climbed for fun, in case their services were needed.

“It was a wonderful experience, because I was out with all of my buddies on a very interesting project,” he said, adding, “No one had ever done anything like that, so it was scary at some times.”

It was undoubtedly a challenging rescue. The men faced freezing winds and falling rocks and spent the second night of the rescue lashed to the precipice.

And it was life-changing for Pete Sinclair.

“He was kind of questioning life in general then,” Connie Sinclair said. “The world was changing then.

“Pete had been on many, many rescues, and I think he realized that his luck might be running out once he got down from the North Face rescue. He’d had enough of rescue work. He might even have gotten frightened.

“He didn’t want to go up there anymore.”

That was Sinclair’s last summer as the park’s chief climbing ranger. Then a graduate student in English, he turned his focus to teaching. He taught at The Evergreen State College from 1971-2000.

He didn’t do much climbing after that, either, Connie Sinclair said, though he continued to spend a lot of time outdoors.

And he continued to be friends with his fellow rescuers. “They still stay in contact with Pete through me,” she said. “They are the loyalest of friends. It’s like they’ve been to war together.”

In fact, several of the men still climb together, said Reese of Bozeman, Montana, who recently climbed 12,799-foot Granite Peak, the highest mountain in Montana.

“I think I’ve climbed the Grand Teton 63 times,” he said. “I’ve done it every year but one since 1959, and that was the year I was in the Army.”

The rescuers received letters of congratulations from then-Vice President Hubert Humphrey and Citations for Valor from the Department of the Interior

The film society describes Pete Sinclair as “an Olympia hero.”

“He was a hero, no question about it,” Connie Sinclair said. “They were all heroes, every one of them.”