GUEST OPINION: Backcountry Zero

By on October 27, 2015

How Teton County Search and Rescue saved my life.

Caption: Headlines surrounding Craig Benjamin’s near fatal night in the backcountry, circa 2002. Thanks to Teton County Search and Rescue, Benjamin is alive today. (Photo: craig benjamin)

Headlines surrounding Craig Benjamin’s near fatal night in the backcountry, circa 2002. Thanks to Teton County Search and Rescue, Benjamin is alive today. (Photo: Craig Benjamin)

Jackson, WY – It’s the phone call every parent dreads. “Mr. Benjamin, this is Rachel, Craig’s roommate. I don’t want to alarm you, but Craig and a friend went skiing on Teton Pass yesterday and they never came home. There’s a huge search and rescue operation underway, but as of right now, they are missing.”

On the morning of Jan. 20, 2002, Zach Jakub and I headed up Teton Pass to ski Avalanche Bowl. Both of us had moved to Jackson Hole a few months earlier to do exactly what we planned to do that day – slay pow in the backcountry. We had taken the obligatory Avalanche 1 course, practiced using our new transceivers and avalanche gear, and were heading toward familiar terrain.

As we boot packed south, the weather deteriorated. The winds picked up, visibility dropped and we lost our bearings. Instead of dropping into Avalanche Bowl, we accidentally dropped into the “Black Hole” of the Mosquito Creek drainage, an unfortunately all-too common mistake. At the bottom we instantly realized we were not where we wanted to be, but figured if we followed the drainage out, we’d eventually hit a road.

We slowly slogged down the drainage, barely making progress toward an unknown destination. By 4 p.m., it hit us – we were going to spend the night out there, and we weren’t prepared. We had only planned on skiing one lap that morning as the weather called for a major storm to roll in that afternoon, so we had minimal water, an insignificant amount of food and no extra layers. Neither of us had a cell phone. Before night fell we dug a snow cave, lined it with pine boughs, and tried unsuccessfully to light a fire. With all the brush we could gather soaked from snow, we resorted to trying to burn money as kindling. It didn’t work. So we snuggled in for a long, cold, and unforgettable night.

Zach’s roommates Gabe and Steve became concerned when we weren’t home by nightfall. They drove up the pass and found my car still there, buried under nearly a foot of new snow. They called the sheriff’s office and Teton County Search and Rescue sprang into action. They asked Gabe and Steve to visit every bar in the valley to make sure we weren’t simply celebrating a fun day, while they mobilized dozens of volunteers and crafted a plan to find us.

That night the weather deteriorated even more with winds gusting more than 70 miles per hour. Teton Pass and Highway 26-89-191 through the park were both closed due to blizzard conditions. Meanwhile, the temperature dipped to 13 degrees and the avalanche hazard spiked to high. In desperate attempts to stay warm, Zach and I alternated between spooning and climbing out of our cave to jump around.

At 6 a.m. Monday, more than 30 volunteers from Teton County Search and Rescue, joined by rescue workers from Grand Teton National Park and Sublette County, met to coordinate their search. Each one of those people dropped whatever they were doing, risking their lives in treacherous conditions to help save two people they had never met. Search and Rescue administrator Doug Meyer characterized the situation as a worst-case scenario. “We we’re searching for two people lost in a whiteout,” he explained. “It was like trying to find a needle in a haystack.”

At the same time search and rescue launched their rescue effort, Zach and I made a fateful decision. Tired and confused, we decided to head back north in an effort to hit Highway 22, which we believed couldn’t be that far away. If we had continued another quarter of a mile down the drainage we would have hit Mosquito Creek Road and easily been able to skate the remaining seven miles to Fall Creek Road and safety. We spent the day climbing up and over ridges behind Crescent H Ranch, completely lost and becoming increasingly worn out. Around mid-day a search and rescue team found both our tracks and our camp and they narrowed their search to the Mosquito Creek drainage.

At 4 p.m. Zach and I stopped to rest. I lay down and remember thinking how nice it would be to stay there and close my eyes for a bit. And then it hit me: If we didn’t make it out that day, we were going to die. There was simply no way we could survive another night. A shot of adrenalin coursed through me and we decided to head down the drainage we were traversing, and not to stop until we hit civilization. Just before 4:30 p.m., we heard what sounded like snowmobiles in the distance. We yelled as loud as we could and within minutes our knights in orange snowsuits arrived to transport us to safety.

I’ll never forget the tears in my mother’s voice when Doug Meyer handed me the phone to tell her I was OK. I am forever grateful for the care I received at St. John’s Medical Center over the next few weeks and months as the doctors and therapists worked to save my feet and all of my toes, which were severely frostbitten. And I will always remember that I owe every waking day of my life to the incredible members of Teton County Search and Rescue.

We’ve all lost friends and family in the Tetons. I won’t mention the names because revisiting these incidents brings back too much pain.

Teton County Search and Rescue save dozens of people from this fate every year. Fathers, mothers, daughters, sons, brothers, sisters and friends are still alive because of SaR’s selfless efforts. We throw the word “hero” around all too often these days, but the folks at Teton County Search and Rescue embody the very meaning of the word.

All of this is why I invite you to mark your calendars for Teton County Search and Rescue’s launch of Backcountry Zero, a community vision to reduce fatalities in the Tetons at 5 p.m. on Nov. 7 in the Center for the Arts. PJH

Backcountry Zero is a mission of Teton County Search and Rescue. Learn more at BackcountryZero.com.

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About Craig Benjamin

Craig Benjamin is the executive director of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance.

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