Spate of deaths point to backcountry danger


JACKSON — Several snowboarders and snowmobilers have gone into the backcountry in western Wyoming in recent days and not come home.

Another snowmobiler caught in an avalanche Tuesday nearly suffered the same fate.

Back-to-back fatalities and injuries have emergency responders and avalanche forecasters echoing urgent messages of safety during dangerous conditions.

“Involvement in one of these destructive, large to very large avalanches will almost certainly result in another fatality,” Tuesday morning’s Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center advisory warned. “It is critical for skiers and riders to choose the appropriate terrain for the current avalanche conditions.”

Later Tuesday, rescuers raced to the backcountry for the seventh time in as many days to help a snowmobiler who was partially buried in an avalanche near Mount Leidy.

The 62-year-old suffered serious leg injuries and narrowly escaped a full burial when snow on the southeast facing aspect that he and half a dozen others were high marking let loose, Sheriff Matt Carr said late Tuesday.

“We noticed on the flight in, multiple avalanches in that area,” Carr said.

Teton County Search and Rescue has been called 30 times, resulting in 23 active missions, since Jan. 1. That’s more than the entire 2019/2020 winter season, TCSAR Foundation Communications Director Matt Hansen said.

“Not only have the missions this winter been frequent, they have also been mentally and physically demanding for the volunteers,” Hansen said in a news release. “Nine of the calls have resulted in short-haul operations, during which volunteers are inserted on-scene via a long line beneath a helicopter.”

On Jan. 27, Jonah Kletsch, 24, of Minnesota, died after wrecking his snowmobile on Togwotee Pass.

On Feb. 15, Daniel Tatum, 27, of Virginia, was found dead in a tree well at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort.

Just a few days later on Feb. 18, Michigan resident Greg Stanczak, 56, died after an avalanche carried him and seven other snowmobiles in its debris in an area off of the Greys River Road.

Last Thursday, Jackson snowboarder Mike McKelvey, 31, was killed in an avalanche on Togwotee Pass after being buried by the slide. McKelvey and his ski partners had built a jump on a steep slope not far from the highway. The slope slid when McKelvey landed on its face.

On Monday, Jackson snowboarder Matt Brien, 33, died in an avalanche in the Broken Thumb Couloir in Grand Teton National Park. Brien and two others were skiing the upper part of the couloir, with Brien leading, when the avalanche occurred and swept Brien downslope about 1,000 feet, according to a Grand Teton National Park press release.

“We’re burning the candle at both ends,” Sheriff Matt Carr said shortly before Tuesday’s rescue. “When you get to the end of the rope you tie a knot and hang on … and that’s what we’re doing.”

The Teton County Sheriff’s Office oversees search and rescue, which along with U.S. Forest Service personnel and Grand Teton National Park rangers, responds to calls for backcountry aid in and near Teton County.

“We started 2021 with two rescues on Jan. 1 and we have been as busy as we have ever been since then,” Search and Rescue Chief Advisor Cody Lockhart said. “I am so proud of how the team has stepped up. The dedication, compassion, and competency that the members of our team have demonstrated over the past few weeks is nothing short of amazing.”

The avalanche danger in the region has gone back and forth between considerable and high at upper elevations, where several recent slides have occurred. High winds and consistent snowfall have contributed to an unstable snowpack.

Backcountry skiers Jim Woodmencey and Chris Harder happened to be up on the peak, 25 Short, in Teton Park on Monday shortly after Brien was caught in the avalanche. Hearing radio chatter of a rescue underway, they staked out the area above the operation for hours to make sure nobody else dropped down the slope toward rescuers, which could trigger another slide. Woodmencey, an avalanche safety instructor, said the decision to ski the Broken Thumb Couloir on a “considerable” hazard day left him baffled.

“I just don’t get it,” Woodmencey said. “I was left scratching my head why that route was chosen on that day, given the amount of snow we had and the avalanche conditions.”

Daily avalanche advisories have been grim, warning of deadly consequences.

“Backcountry travelers could easily trigger small to large wind slabs on steep, wind loaded slopes,” Monday’s advisory warned. “While these slides could kill you, involvement in a persistent deep slab avalanche almost certainly will.”

Tuesday evening’s advisory was more pointed.

“Your terrain decisions could end your life tomorrow,” the advisory stated. “Volunteer rescue resources are not infinite.”

Forecasters and emergency responders are making pleas to backcountry users to stay off of and out from underneath terrain steeper than 30 degrees until further notice.

“Regardless of the circumstances we are going to respond to the best of our abilities and with empathy and compassion,” Lockhart said. “Our only request is that our community and our visitors use the backcountry as responsibly as they can.”

Looking ahead, Sheriff Carr worries what spring will bring if people don’t heed the warnings.

“It’s been such a big winter for us that we’ve blown every short haul record out of the books,” he said. “We’ve surpassed everything we’ve done in the past and it’s only February.”

As weather conditions continue to change, check avalanche danger before recreating in the backcountry at JHAvalanche.org.

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