Grand Teton National Park Rangers Spending Their Days Rescuing Skiers
Make a wrong turn at the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort and you could find yourself in a fairly rugged canyon in Grand Teton National Park. That happened twice this week, forcing four skiers to spend cold nights in the woods until rangers could come to their rescue.
Fortunately, both incidents ended happily, as the skiers figured out how to stay warm in the biting cold and snow until the rangers arrived.
In the latest incident, a helicopter was used Thursday morning to pluck two Jackson, Wyoming, skiers from the upper reaches of Granite Canyon.
Thirty-two-year-old Darin Gamba and 39-year-old Patrick Thornberry wound up in the canyon Wednesday when they became disoriented in white-out conditions at the ski resort and accidentally took a wrong turn after exiting an out-of-bounds gate. The two spent the night out in the mountains with temperatures hovering near 1 degree Fahrenheit.
Messieurs Gamba and Thornberry were spotted about 9 a.m. Thursday by an aerial reconnaissance flight. They were flown from the backcountry at 9:30 a.m.
On Wednesday the two men had exited the upper gate at the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort with plans to ski into the Rock Springs drainage. White-out conditions obscured the route, causing them to ski westward and ultimately into Granite Canyon, rather than southwest into the area of the Rock Springs bowl. The two men searched for ski tracks to confirm their whereabouts, but by 2:30 p.m., they realized that they were not where they intended to be. About an hour before sunset, they decided to make preparations to spend the night in the backcountry.
The two dug a snow cave, collected pine boughs to insulate themselves against the snow, and made a fire. They were carrying food and water; however they also melted snow to replenish their supplies. While the two men did not have a map, compass or GPS device, they did have extra clothing and full avalanche gear— recommended equipment for anyone entering the Teton backcountry.
Early Thursday morning, Mr. Gamba and Mr. Thornberry began skiing up slope in order to get a clear view above tree line and determine their location. When they spotted Mount Hunt, they realized they were in Granite Canyon. The Teton County Search and Rescue contract helicopter, carrying a park ranger and county rescue staff, spotted the skiers’ tracks and eventually located them about 9 a.m. near the Shady Lady Couloir.
Rescuers communicated to the two men, directing them to ski to a landing zone where the helicopter could safely touch down. The two were then flown to the base of the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort.
Park rangers credit Mr. Gamba and Mr. Thornberry with doing everything right to keep themselves safe and attempt their own self rescue. They carried the basic necessities and kept their wits about them during an unexpected night out in the Tetons.
Two other skiers were pulled out of Granite Canyon on Monday after they too became lost. Chris Buechley, 29, and Dan Myers, 27, both residents of Jackson, Wyoming, took a wrong turn after exiting an out-of-bounds gate at the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort around 2 p.m. on Sunday and spent an unexpected night in the mountains without adequate clothing or shelter.
Fortunately, Mr. Buechley and Mr. Myers were located in good physical condition at about noon on Monday and they were safely escorted out of the canyon by rescue personnel.
As with Mr. Gamba and Mr. Thornberry, Messieurs Buechley and Myers had intended to ski into Rock Springs Bowl. They exited the second out-of-bounds gate at the top of the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, but turned north and entered Granite Canyon instead of turning south where they had planned to ski.
The two men did not realize that they were off course, and stranded, until after they had traveled some distance into the national park's backcountry. When darkness overtook them, they tried to camp for the night. Unlike Mr. Gamba and Mr. Thornberry, they did not have extra clothing or basic emergency gear to use in warming themselves, so they decided to continue moving when they became too cold.
That's when things got a bit dicey. As they were following Granite Creek downstream, Mr. Buechley fell through a thin bridge of snow and landed in knee deep water. In addition to getting wet, he lost one ski in the process of scrambling out of the streambed, which hampered his ability to continue skiing.
The two men used their cell phone about 6:30 on Monday morning to make a 911 call for help, and that call was received by a Teton County dispatcher. Mr. Buechley and Mr. Myers reported that they were stranded somewhere south of the ski resort because they still believed that they had skied toward Rock Springs Bowl. However, a GPS locator on the cell phone pinpointed their position as being in Granite Canyon within Grand Teton National Park — several miles north of where they claimed to be.
Shortly after making their emergency call, the cell phone lost service. Teton County dispatch alerted park rangers of the situation and a search and rescue operation was initiated.
Two park rangers used a snowmobile to access the Granite Canyon trailhead from park headquarters in Moose; rangers then positioned their snowmobiles on the valley floor and began to ski into the canyon. Meanwhile, patrol staff from Jackson Hole Mountain Resort skied into Granite Canyon from the summit of Rendezvous Mountain to search the upper reaches of Granite Canyon.
Both rescue parties reached the stranded skiers about 12 noon and provided Mr. Buechley with a spare ski to assist him in skiing out. The two men were located about two miles west of the mouth of Granite Canyon.