JACKSON HOLE, Wyo. Unlike in the city newspapers, sometimes "everybody survived" stories make the big headlines in ski town newspapers. Such was the case in Jackson Hole after an avalanche near Teton Pass left a backcountry skier buried up to his neck.
The Jackson Hole News & Guide explains that the avalanche took the four skiers, who had a combined 125 years of experience, by surprise. They had seen an avalanche only once before in this particular area. Further, they had evaluated the stability of the slope they were skiing.
However, they had not considered that adjacent slopes might have different snow conditions. The avalanche that occurred was a "sympathetic" release on an adjacent slope where one man was standing, waiting for the companions.
The individual was carried only 60 feet. While he managed to "swim" to stay afloat, his arm was broken and his shoulder dislocated.
Well-equipped with beacons, shovels, and probes, the group also had extra clothing, a bivy sack, and even thermoses carrying hot tea, all of which were invaluable. The skier who was caught in the slide began to go into shock. Their preparedness may have prevented him from dying of hypothermia.
Still, having lost three skis and a pack in the avalanche, they needed outside aid. Even in the age of cell phones and helicopters, it took several hours.
The moral of the story? Carry a big pack, says one of the skiers, Dave Coon. "Go big, or dont go." In addition to everything they carried, he wishes he had also carried a GPS computer and a foam pad.
Fate less kind to Laurel Dana
JACKSON HOLE, Wyo. The next week, the Jackson Hole News & Guide reported an avalanche with an unhappy outcome. Despite some considerable preparation, a backcountry skier, Laurel Dana, died of suffocation.
In addition to carrying beacons, shovels and other gear, members of her party said they had dug a Rusch Block on the face they planned to ski. A Rusch Block is a method of testing slope stability by digging a pit and weighting the snowpack to see whether it will move along a weak layer.
Having satisfied themselves that the 40-degree slope was safe, they began skiing it although only one at a time. Two were caught up in the avalanche, but only one survived. This was despite all their rescue gear, as well as the efforts of other similarly equipped backcountry skiers in the area. As well, a doctor happened along within an hour.
The slope in question had received almost five feet of snow in the previous week, and that snowpack had been augmented by wind-blown snow on some aspects.