GUEST OPINION: Playing Safe

By on February 2, 2016

Let’s make the best decisions possible in the backcountry, and stay alive.

Jackson, WY – Our decisions have consequences. This hit home for me on Monday, March 7, 2005, when one decision saved a life; another, nearly ended one.

That morning, my regular ski buddies Mark and Neil, and I, decided to ski the Northwest Passage—an intricate maze of chutes and cliffs in Granite Canyon. With the avalanche danger rated as “Low,” we felt comfortable venturing into this gnarly zone. But when we arrived at the top of our line, things just didn’t feel right.

The wind had kicked up overnight, scouring the entrance to the chute we wanted to ski and creating a funky layer of wind slab. We assessed the situation and decided to head toward a safer line. We carefully skied the upper section of Endless Couloir and then cut over into the bottom of Mile Long Couloir, mainly skiing along the edges of the timbered island separating the two avalanche paths.

Near the bottom I heard it. I stopped, and above the blustery wind, I heard it again. It sounded like someone screaming. I yelled at Neil and Mark to stop, asking if they heard it, too. They did and agreed it sounded like someone screaming. It seemed like it was coming from up in the Northwest Passage. We instantly decided to send Mark out the traverse to call Ski Patrol to get them activated (You don’t get cell service back in Granite Canyon until you round the corner of the traverse back to Jackson Hole Mountain Resort). In the meantime, Neil and I started back up the canyon to see if we could figure out what was going on.

Neil got to him first. A lone skier laying shattered at the bottom of Endless Couloir, donned only in ski pants and boots, his leg compound fractured with bone sticking out of his pants and a trickle of blood coming out of his mouth. Incredibly, he was conscious, though in indescribable pain. He explained he got caught in a slide at the top of the Northwest Passage and had pinballed over thousands of feet of cliffs with the tumble stripping him of his clothes.

I had no idea how he was still alive, and he didn’t look like he would be alive much longer unless we got him help, fast. Thankfully, Neil had recently completed a Wilderness First Responder course and swiftly tied a tourniquet to prevent him from bleeding out while we covered him with a space blanket and all the layers we could spare. I bolted down the canyon to call 911 while Neil hunkered down to try to keep him alive.

Approximately an hour later, two JHMR ski patrollers arrived at the scene and provided additional emergency care. The patrollers then worked with other skiers who had stopped to help. Together, they stomped out a landing zone for a Teton County Search and Rescue helicopter. Somehow, the chopper battled the gusty winds to land safely at the scene, where Grand Teton National Park rangers provided additional medical care before loading him up and flying him to St. John’s Medical Center.

That day, because of a bad decision, this skier dislocated both of his shoulders and a knee, broke most of his ribs, a clavicle, and a humerus. Luckily, he lived to tell the tale. Our decision to ski a less dangerous line was the only reason we were there to save his life.

After the incident, the skier was the first to admit the error of skiing alone in dangerous backcountry terrain. He emphasized that “Low” avalanche hazard does not mean zero risk. While he learned the hard way, he wanted others to learn from his experience.

Here’s the thing, no matter what we do, we’re never completely safe when recreating in the backcountry. That’s part of what makes it so much fun. All we can do is make the best decisions possible and learn from our mistakes. And one of the best and easiest decisions we can make is to avoid areas closed seasonally to protect wildlife.

Last week, on two separate occasions, groups of riders poached Josie’s Ridge, a winter closure area. All of us in the community should keep in mind that when people—or their pets—disturb wildlife, it forces them to burn calories that are incredibly difficult to replace while foraging through several feet of snow. It can mean the difference between life and death for these animals. It’s also helpful to remember that poaching wildlife closure areas is a crime, carrying a penalty of up to $5,000 or six months in jail.

As there are exponentially more of us recreating in the backcountry than even a few years ago, wildlife have even fewer places where they can make it through the winter without being disturbed. That’s why it’s more important than ever we don’t poach the powder.

In significantly more tragic news, in the last few weeks there have been three incidents, both fatal and near-fatal, resulting from bad decisions in the backcountry.

The first involved a local snowboarder riding alone on a known slide path on a day the avalanche danger was rated “Considerable.” He perished after getting caught from behind in an avalanche. This terrible incident echoed a nearly identical tragic event that took the life of a local skier in 2004, in the same location, under the same circumstances.

Two other fatalities involved two visitors who lost their bearings in Rock Springs, just south of the JHMR backcountry gates, and got caught in an avalanche and swept over a 100-foot cliff. This area is known as Ralph’s slide because a nearly identical event took the life of Ralph Toscano in 2001.

Then this past Monday, in the same general Rock Springs zone just outside the boundary of JHMR, three out-of-town snowboarders fell off a 200-foot cliff near the Why Not Couloir. Two of the men sustained serious injuries. All three were rescued via helicopter thanks to Teton County Search and Rescue.

They say those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. What binds these stories together is that they mirror events of past tragedies. So while it’s emotionally painful to talk about such heartbreaking events, our decisions have consequences. Let’s learn from our mistakes, make the best decisions possible when recreating in the backcountry, and stay alive. PJH

Please visit JHAlliance.org/dontpoach/ to download high-resolution maps of which backcountry areas are closed seasonally to protect wildlife. Also check out JHAvalanche.org for daily avalanche forecasts. And, finally, visit BackcountryZero.com to learn about the Jackson Hole community vision to reduce fatalities in the Tetons.

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About Craig Benjamin

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

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