Two Slides to a Story

By on April 18, 2018

In less than two years, two avalanches on Teton Pass have impacted motorists and one driver is still grappling with the effects

Horacio Garcia’s car was destroyed in an avalanche on Teton Pass in December 2016. The responsible skier never came forward.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – A snowboarder-triggered avalanche April 13 on Teton Pass that partially buried a vehicle stirred chilling memories within 28-year-old Horacio Garcia. He thought of spinning and rolling across the highway as a white abyss swallowed his Jeep Wrangler, of his bloody fingernails clawing for the steering wheel, the visor, the console—anything to slow him down. Less than two years ago, Garcia was caught in an avalanche in the same place, driving home from his job at Lucky’s Market.

On December 15, 2016, Garcia and his vehicle were swept by a 20-foot skier-triggered avalanche off Twin Slides. It precipitated a Search and Rescue mission for potentially buried recreationists and forced an overnight closure of a state highway blanketed in debris. Hundreds of commuters and START Bus passengers found themselves stranded.

When his car finally stopped spinning, Garcia dug himself out of his snow-packed vehicle. A motorist near the scene picked him up and drove him down the pass where his family waited. She did not immediately notice that Garcia wasn’t wearing any shoes. The snow that poured into his car had ripped them off his feet.

Five days later, after authorities grilled suspects who had been skiing in the area, the Teton County Sheriff’s Office determined it did not have enough evidence to charge one of the skiers with reckless endangerment.

A fiery debate about recreationist responsibility and whether WYDOT should prohibit backcountry access on Teton Pass ensued in the following weeks.

What was largely forgotten in the tense discourse was the story of the motorist swept by the avalanche. Indeed, most people have not heard Garcia’s name until now. But he is still reckoning with the aftermath.

Snow Senselessness

Though they were 18 months apart, the avalanches had a few things in common. Both deposited snow onto the exact same location on Teton Pass and both involved recreationists in an area prone to avalanches. But that’s the extent of the similarities.

The April 13 avalanche did not result in injury or property damage and the responsible parties immediately identified themselves as Mark Kemper and Brittany Mauer. Kemper did not respond to an email request for comment.

The snowboarders triggered an avalanche on a road cut off Twin Slides that partially buried Brian Siegfried’s Dodge pickup truck and shut down the highway for nine hours.

Uninjured, Siegfried climbed out of his passenger side window and hours later heavy machinery dislodged his truck from the snow. To Siegfried’s surprise, his vehicle was completely intact. “But I also didn’t come to a crashing stop, I was just driving and then all the sudden, I was stuck,” he told Planet Jackson Hole.

Siegfried was on his way to ski the pass that morning. When he arrived at the top to see a clogged, blustery parking lot, he left. “It was too crowded, there were a bunch of WYDOT vehicles; it just wasn’t the place to be,” he said.

After he turned around and drove back down Teton Pass towards Wilson, Siegfried was caught in the slide. “Once I realized there wasn’t any more snow coming, I was able to roll my window down and look uphill, then it became clear what had happened,” he said.

He called up to the two snowboarders to confirm they had triggered the slide and that no one else was caught.

Avalanche danger was marked “considerable” that day. When the danger is below a “high” rating, it often inflates people’s courage to venture into the backcountry. This may have been the case on April 13. The avalanche that Kemper and Mauer triggered was actually the third skier-caused slide in the same location that morning, said Brian Gorsage, a WYDOT avalanche technician.

The investigation into whether the snowboarders should be charged with reckless endangerment—a felony—is ongoing. “If we are to prove intent, that avalanche rating is kind of critical because that is the information they came armed with,” Lieutenant Matt Carr of Teton County Sheriff’s Office said.

Alternatively, if it was “high” or “extreme” danger, it would be easier to prove someone consciously disregarded the potential to cause harm. Avalanche danger was “high” the day of Garcia’s accident, Carr pointed out.

Whether they are charged, the snowboarders are already facing a certain degree of public backlash. “I spoke to them directly,” Carr said. “They got too low and felt terrible about it. Now they are living it; they are definitely high on some people’s blacklists.”

The snowboarders’ proximity to the road would have made it difficult for them to deny responsibility, unlike the skiers involved in Garcia’s accident. Their names did not enter public dialogue.

Teton Pass ambassador Jay Pistono, who can be found on the pass most days of the week talking avalanche safety and snow conditions with backcountry users, was stationed at his normal post on Teton Pass when both avalanches occurred. During such emergency scenarios, he helps Search and Rescue look for people who could have been buried, talks to folks on the scene, directs traffic. That meant he found himself involved in the investigation into Garcia’s accident.

“I attended a lot of meetings with detectives and the private investigator,” he said. “At one point, I got so frustrated, I had the [suspects] separate and draw a map of what they skied.” The stories, Pistono said, changed when the group separated.

In the Teton County Sheriff’s incident report, former WYDOT avalanche technician Jamie Yount said he was “certain” one of the suspects triggered the avalanche. He and WYDOT’s Gorsage interviewed skiers at the scene.

“To the best of my knowledge, what was said at the scene and what was said to investigators didn’t line up,” Gorsage said.

Other factors complicated the investigation. According to the incident report, suspects and witnesses noted the presence of skiers who did not come forward and cooperate with authorities. White-out conditions made it difficult for officials to pinpoint the folks involved. The report concluded that up to seven skiers were near the avalanche’s trigger point that day.

That officials did not have enough evidence to charge one of the skiers is problematic for Garcia. The damage to his car, which Detective Dave Hodges noted, “will most likely be assessed as a total loss” was not covered under Garcia’s Geico insurance policy.

“They said that they couldn’t help me because the avalanche was a natural disaster, and act of God,” Garcia said.

Since he could not afford to purchase a new car, Garcia and his brother Ven went to work. They spent six months pouring hours of labor and thousands of dollars into repairs. Today, the car is still missing parts—it’s not all that pretty but it delivers Garcia from Victor to Jackson for work five days per week. Each time he makes the journey, Garcia said he is reminded of the day he was slid off the road. It’s a step forward, though. For months after the accident, he was panic-stricken driving the pass.

 

“To the best of my knowledge, what was said at the scene and what was said to investigators didn’t line up.”

– Brian Gorsage, WYDOT avalanche technician

 

The trauma Garcia reports is not only emotional. Eighteen months after the accident, he complains of a sore back. He did a couple weeks of physical therapy until it became too expensive. Now he sporadically uses the steam room at the Rec Center to relax his muscles and alleviate some of the pain and stiffness. But, he said, “I can’t really afford going all the time.” His back pain has limited his activities—he has not snowboarded since the accident.

Contemplating Privilege

Horacio Garcia spent several months repairing his vehicle. His insurance company refused to cover the damage.

Pistono hopes these incidents will force people to examine their “responsibility and entitlement” on Teton Pass. He said half of the decisions people make about what to ski on the pass “are based on luck.”

“I have probably seen people on Glory or Twin slides dig [avalanche] pits maybe a dozen times. And I have been up there skiing since 1978.”

This year he installed signage and fencing near areas that pose a risk, like the road cut near Twin Slides where the snowboarders found themselves. But apparently, that’s not enough.

The next step, Pistono said, is closing off the north side of Teton Pass to recreationists. That area contains massive amounts of backcountry terrain, including runs like Glory and Twin Slides, which Pistono likes to remind people to avoid. But it also provides access to seemingly safer runs—First and Second Turn and Coal Creek.

A few people, he said, have ruined it for everyone else. Bystanders are largely at fault too, he said. “Ninety-five percent of people are not willing to speak up when they see someone skiing something dangerous. People need to be invested enough in that place to talk to other people about skiing the road cuts.” He repeated the words of WYDOT foreman Bruce Daigle: Maybe it will take a fatality for people to change their ways.

Some say limiting access is a drastic measure. Pistono, for one, did suggest the notion of snow sheds following the 2016 avalanche. He noted they are used extensively in Europe, South America and states like Colorado. But the sheds are costly. The latest estimate to install them on the pass was $40 to $50 million dollars and not all taxpayers think they are worth the cost.

Until a magical fund for snow sheds materializes, Pistono said people must think twice before skiing the pass. “When you are skiing on a run above a road, you better make damn sure you are 100 percent positive that thing is not going to slide.”

After Teton Pass reopened following Friday’s avalanche, Garcia found himself in his maroon Wrangler driving up the highway. He knew what had just happened and it made him shudder behind the wheel. “I was seriously just bracing myself… like just a little bit.”

Garcia tries to block the memories when he drives the pass, but it always comes back,” he said.

While recreationists chase fresh lines of powder and push the limits, Garcia’s unavoidable commute is a daily reminder of his trauma. “Every time I drive, like any time I see a little bit of snow coming down, I wonder if it’s going to come down on me again.”

 

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About Robyn Vincent

Robyn is the editor of Planet Jackson Hole and Jackson Hole Snowboarder Magazine. When she's not sweating deadlines, she likes to travel the world with her notebook and camera in hand. Follow her on Twitter @TheNomadicHeart

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