The college wrestlers who took on a grizzly bear
WARNING: This story contains graphic descriptions of a grizzly bear attack.
GOOD FRIEND never let his buddy step on bear shit. So when Brady Lowry stumbled upon a fresh pile deep in the thick Wyoming wilderness near Yellowstone in October, he turned his head and began to warn Kendell Cummings. Those were almost his last words.
The two wrestlers from Northwestern College had only known each other for about a month and a half, but quickly became friends. Brady, who was a juco All-American as a freshman, returned to the team after a year off from college. Kendell was a hard-working sophomore who had yet to break through the roster.
There’s something about being a wrestling partner that can make a lifelong friendship in six weeks. Pushing each other on 5k runs, sweating and bleeding all over the place, or twisting your friend into a pretzel or getting pretzels… it’s violence and then forgiveness, for hours on end, and it can bring two people together almost instantly. . That’s what he did to Brady and Kendell.
So they started hanging out after practice. They both loved the outdoors, and when wrestling season began in early October, Brady spoke to Kendell about how much money he was making “barn hunting.” Barn hunting involves scouring the dense mountain trails near Yellowstone National Park for antlers, which moose, moose, mule deer, and other male animals lose once a year. A large set of antlers can cost around $200. A good day of barn hunting can net a college student $500, and today, October 15th, things started out great.
They dated two other Northwestern College wrestlers, Gus Harrison and Orrin Jackson, and had a 45-minute drive teasing Gus for wearing a bright red sweatshirt instead of camouflage or dark clothing. They kept telling him that he would be a flashing food sign for any aggressive wildlife in the area.
The four stayed together for most of the day. That day they walked about 15 miles in six hours on the Bobcat Houlihan trail, which is on the outskirts of Yellowstone. They crossed patches of wide-open jagged rocks… and then places where every bush and tree seemed to come together and decide to form a district. Thick and thin, thick and thin, for miles.
As sunset approached, they split into pairs and pointed to a specific rock in the distance, where they could meet in about an hour. Brady and Kendell got up; Gus and Orrin remained below. The couples were half a mile apart around 4:00 pm, far enough that Brady and Kendell could barely hear Gus and Orrin talking and joking downstairs.
At the top, Brady and Kendell wandered into dense undergrowth, so dense that it was almost impossible to see the ground. Kendell was about 50 feet away when he heard Brady yell, “Hey, watch out for that big pile of bear shit.”
At that moment, they heard a loud crack. Brady finished his sentence and could only blurt out “Bear!” before the 500-pound grizzly hit him in the chest.
Suddenly, two wrestlers find themselves in the toughest fight of their lives.
THERE IS AN OLD saying that if you’re going to be a bear, be a grizzly. The origin of the quote is obscure and dates back 100 years, although many still implausibly attribute it to Mahatma Gandhi. Its true meaning speaks of human admiration for the exceptional ferocity of the grizzly bear, which is arguably the most dangerous creature on earth. It’s hard to say for sure how a grizzly will handle a tiger or hippo, but wildlife experts say the grizzly may be the No. 1 seed in this group.
Grizzlies are common in the so-called Greater Yellowstone ecosystem, which extends into parts of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. Grizzlies are federally protected and killing them, even in self-defense, is an automatic legal matter. If lawful self-defense is questioned by investigators, shooting a grizzly can result in one year in prison and a $50,000 fine.
Attacks are rare—Yellowstone Literature says the chance of a person being hurt by a grizzly bear is 1 in 2.7 million. The Yellowstone website says that in 150 years, eight people have died from grizzly attacks, one more than the number of deaths from falling trees.
But threaten the grizzly’s habitat, food supply, or worst of all, the female’s cubs, and beware. A typical female grizzly weighs about 500 pounds and is 7 feet tall, tops out at about 30 miles per hour, and her mouth can crush a bowling ball.
So Brady didn’t stand a chance. He is a two-time high school Utah champion and ranked seventh in the nation as a rookie at 149 pounds meaning he has been clinching horns and trying to use strong people all his life. But he had never felt anything like that day. The bear – probably the grizzly’s mom – hit him and threw him 30 yards across the uneven ground. She ran right next to his tumbling body, hitting him as he rolled. He still remembers how his body stopped, and the bear began to cling to him with its paw, almost kicking him up and down the ground.
Kendell was about 30 yards away, facing the bear’s back, as the initial attack unfolded. He watched this indescribable cruelty happening to his friend and couldn’t believe how fast and brutal it was. He wanted to help, but how? He, too, would have been tossed about like a bag of rattles, and then they would both be dead. Maybe he could kick some ass and take Gus and Orrin and come back and they could try to outflank the bear. He remembered that Gus had a gun and he knew that Gus was an incredible marksman. Maybe running away was his best chance.
But when he saw the bear pushing and pulling Brady, he realized that his friend had maybe 30 seconds before he died.
Looking at him, he couldn’t help but remember all the times he and Brady wrestled, pressed each other’s faces to the mat, then pulled each other off the mat, and then did it again. Do you know families where everyone fights and quarrels… but no one else dares to mess with any of them? This is how Kendell felt when the bear attacked him.
Then Kendell started yelling at the bear. No reaction.
He took a stick, threw it and hit the bear. Nothing.
He threw a stone exactly in the middle of the bear’s back. Nothing yet.
The bear was in kill mode and the sticks and stones weren’t going to distract him. “I couldn’t even get her to move,” says Kendell.
So he made the most dangerous takedown attempt he had ever made. Kendell ran up and threw his body onto the bear’s back, tugging at the fur around her neck. This caught the grizzly’s attention, and it turned around just as Kendell loosened his grip and began to run away. Kendell hoped his counterattack would confuse and distract the bear long enough for Brady to get off the ground and run in the opposite direction. Maybe, just maybe, the bear would be content to let them run.
But there’s a reason most bear experts say the only way to survive a grizzly attack is to play dead. As Kendell broke into a run, he allowed himself to look over his shoulder to see what the bear was about to do. He watched in horror as she wriggled out of Brady’s collapsed body, made two giant gallops, and was now on top of him.
The violence was so terrible that it defies logic, because anyone could survive. She knocked Kendell to the ground and pounced on top of him. Her mouth dropped to his head, and he smelled the rancid breath of a creature that spends its life killing and eating raw meat. She drooled over him as he desperately tried to get his hands into her mouth instead of his face.
But eventually her mouth closed on his face and head, biting several times until Kendell went limp on the ground. “I thought that was everything for me,” he says.
The bear stared at Kendell’s motionless body for a few seconds, then slowly walked away to where Brady was. Kendell opened his eyes and tried to see if his friend had left. But he had so much blood running down his face that he couldn’t tell for sure. He just knew that the bear was heading in the opposite direction and might have a chance to get away.
Finally, when the bear was out of sight, Kendell got off the ground and began to look for a descent from the mountain. He was bleeding heavily and his bicep on one arm was torn from the bone, but he was conscious and full of adrenaline. He hoped he could find his three friends and they could get the hell out of there.
But he wasn’t even sure that Brady survived the first attack. Without thinking, Kendell screamed as loudly as he could.
And then he heard the crack and crunch of something that was not his friend.
The bear returned.
WITHOUT INTRODUCTION Kendell, Brady jumped to his feet as the bear first turned its attention to its friend. Brady called out Kendell’s name, but the bear was already chasing him. He saw that Kendell was moving faster than he thought, so he hoped that his friend could outrun the bear.
So Brady pulled out his cell phone to call for help and then ran into the clearing to warn Gus and Orrin. He had the same thought that Kendell had had before: maybe Gus could go up there and shoot the bear.
He somehow got a signal and called 911. He told the operator what happened and exactly where they were, around the same time he spotted Gus and Orrin 200 yards down. The only reason he could see them from a distance? Gus’s red sweatshirt.
Pressing the phone to his ear, Brady yelled, “Help!” and waved his hand. At the foot of the hill, two wrestlers couldn’t make out what he was saying. Gus actually smiled and waved back – he thought Brady was just a fool.
But as Brady staggered down the path, Gus and Orrin could see him holding his left arm like a baby, limp and pressed to his side. It became obvious that he did not say hello; he needs help. They ran towards him, Gus ahead of Orrin. He learned the words…