THE BUZZ 3: Proceed with Caution

By on January 17, 2017

Avalanche forecaster: ‘Bucket list’ lines should not be a priority right now.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – A skier-triggered avalanche in the wake of last week’s massive multi-day snowstorm that deposited almost five feet of snow in the mountains has compelled discussion about safety and decision-making in unpatrolled terrain.

Around 3 p.m. last Thursday, Teton County Search and Rescue received a call about a human-triggered avalanche in No Name Canyon, just south of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort boundaries. The slide partially buried a 22-year-old skier who injured his back, ribs and leg. The other members of his party were unharmed.

Thursday’s incident is one in a string of close calls this winter. Just one day earlier, a series of slides closed Highway 89 for several hours and buried a five-ton truck. Last month, an avalanche on Teton Pass swept a motorist across Highway 22, inciting uproar about backcountry ethics and responsibility. Officials say the avalanche was human triggered though they lack the evidence to prosecute anyone. No one in either incident was seriously injured.

Bob Comey is a ski patroller for Jackson Hole Mountain Resort and an avalanche forecaster for Bridger Teton Avalanche Center. He says the sheer volume of snowfall so early in the season has made the snowpack—particularly during big storms—precarious.

“It feels like we’re in mid-season,” he said. “We’ve transitioned and we’ve transitioned early.”

Avalanche forecasters have been closely monitoring snowfall since September. Jackson saw “record moisture” in October, Comey says, followed by a dry spell in November. This created a weak layer of ice upon which the rest of the season’s snow rests. “Then game on with powerful storms one after another.”

All three incidents have fueled a larger conversation about decision-making in the backcountry. Much of the discussion about Thursday’s incident became an effort to point fingers of blame on the skier who triggered the slide. The avalanche danger that day was “considerable,” and the previous day forecasted “extreme” danger at high altitudes and “high” danger at mid and low altitudes following the storm. The last time Comey remembers seeing avalanche danger that high was February 2015.

Comey said that periods of frigid weather followed by warm, heavy snowfall create unstable snowpack and unsafe conditions. The definition of extreme, he noted, is that “natural and human-triggered avalanches are certain.”

In other words: “It’s a good day to stay home and let it settle out.”

Conditions on Thursday, however, appeared innocuous to some. The sun shone for the first time all week, and avalanche danger had dropped to considerable. Still, Comey warned venturing into avalanche terrain is always dangerous. Savvy decision-making can literally be a matter of life or death.

It’s not only the skier’s (or snowboarder’s or snowmobiler’s) life on the line. Teton County Sherrif’s Sgt. and Search and Rescue supervisor Matt Carr noted the risks TCSAR volunteers take with every rescue mission. This particular incident required 19 Search and Rescue volunteers, from the helicopter driver to short haulers (the people who lower themselves down from a rope attached to the bottom of the helicopter) to medical staff. According the incident report, it took an hour and 57 minutes to transfer the patient to an ambulance from the time the call was placed.

“That’s a very fast time,” Carr said.

The mission also cost Search and Rescue around $3,790. It pays for the helicopter by the hour—$3,485/hour—for as long as the rig is in the air, plus $1,000 per day for the hangar.

There haven’t been any reported incidents since Thursday to Carr’s memory, but winter is always busy for TCSAR and Carr said this year feels “right on par” to meet last year’s 20 rescues. Since November, Search and Rescue has conducted 11 snow-related rescues. Four incidents in December included operation periods for the missing Targhee snowboarder. Others included the Twin Slides avalanche on Teton Pass, three rescues in Rock Springs Bowl just outside the boundary of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, and overdue or stranded snowmobilers on Togwotee and Teton Pass. Each rescue happens at the expense of the volunteers’ time and Teton County Search and Rescue’s limited resources.

With so much at stake, why take the risk? Comey thinks that a lot of decisions in the backcountry are fueled by a “bucket list” mentality, especially among people who aren’t in the valley long-term, that pushes recreationists toward “big, bold lines” in less than ideal conditions.

“People are knocking off bucket lists in a season or two or three that might take me 20 years,” Comey said. “There’s no hurry … Wait until we know that it’s perfect. There are plenty of other places to ski.”

Navigating backcountry terrain requires knowledge of avalanche conditions and how to read them, but it also requires a lot of introspection and understanding of one’s risk threshold. “A big error for a lot of advanced users is being careful about not thinking you know more than you know,” Comey said.

Amy Golightly, associate director of the Teton County Search and Rescue foundation, said that ultimately, it’s “just a matter of people making good choices and trying to be prepared and aware of the consequences.”

Still, with such a large audience from such varied levels of experience, Comey says it’s difficult to know how to communicate his forecast and its implications to the public. “People communicate differently, and how people interpret communication is different, too,” he said.

Comey is not leading these discussions alone. Backcountry Zero, a Teton County Search and Rescue initiative, is committed to providing education and materials to help people stay safe in the backcountry. TCSAR announced a series of workshops this month designed to promote avalanche awareness. The first, Avalanche Rescue Skills for Snowmobilers with Mike Duffy and Dan Adams, is 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday, January 19. Then on January 31, Sarah Carpenter will lead a discussion on how to read and interpret the avalanche forecast.

“It’s super important to really get people to understand the dangers [of traveling in the backcountry],” Carr said. “Backcountry zero is a great vehicle to get that message out.”

During these discussions, Comey cautions against pointing fingers, especially in the wake of tragedy. A common reaction to such incidents, he said, is for people to say “that wouldn’t happen to me because I wouldn’t have made those decisions,” when really they’re just justifying they’re next trip. The reality, he said, is that “those things can happen to any of us … the important thing is to kind of learn about it, not be so judgmental about it, and be happy those people are OK.”

Visit jhavalanche.org for a detailed, daily avalanche report. PJH

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