Massive Avalanche Blamed For Deaths Of Backcountry Skiers At Grand Teton National Park

A massive slide, which seems to have released just as two Wyoming men were reaching the summit of a saddle in the Tetons, sent them on a 2,000-foot tumble to their deaths. Chris Onufer, left, and Steve Romeo were long-time backcountry skiers in the Tetons. Top photos via NPS, bottom photo via Facebook site and Teton AT blog.

A massive avalanche that ran 3,000 feet is being blamed for the deaths of two veteran backcountry skiers at Grand Teton National Park.

Chris Onufer and Steve Romeo appeared to have been near the top of a saddle in a ridge that forms Waterfall Canyon on Wednesday when a soft slab broke just above them, according to rangers who recovered their bodies Thursday.

The two Wyoming men, long-time residents of Jackson Hole, were reported overdue Wednesday night from a backcountry ski trip to Ranger Peak, an 11,355-foot crag in the northern end of the Teton Range.

Around 12:30 a.m. Thursday Mr. Onufer's vehicle was found near Colter Bay. Shortly after daybreak Thursday an aerial surveillance of the area spotted avalanche debris, and rangers, using a transceiver hanging below the helicopter, picked up beacon signals from the men's avalanche transceivers shortly before 9 a.m.

Just before 11 a.m., a team of seven rangers was flown to Waterfalls Canyon near the toe of the avalanche where they began a probe search of the debris. By 11:45 a.m. the bodies of Mr. Onufer, 42, of Teton Village, and Mr. Romeo, 40, of Jackson, had been located and removed from the debris, park officials said Friday. Their bodies were then flown by the helicopter to the west side of Jackson Lake. From there, rangers on snowmobiles transported them to the east side of Jackson Lake where they were met by the Teton County Coroner.

The two skiers were near the top of a couloir on a ridge that forms the north wall of Waterfalls Canyon when the slide occurred, according to park officials. Based on evidence at the scene, park rangers believe the pair was ascending with skins on their skis when a large soft slab avalanche released, sending them more than 2,000 feet down the couloir.

The crown, or top of the avalanche, broke at about 10,300 feet in elevation and the toe of the avalanche terminated around 7,100 feet in elevation. The crown was estimated to be approximately 600 feet long with a depth of about 3 feet. The debris field that reached into Waterfalls Canyon had an estimated average snow depth of 6 feet.

Mr. Romeo was found about 150 feet from the avalanche’s toe and Mr. Onufer was found about 1,500 feet above his partner. Teton County Coroner Kiley Campbell determined the cause of death to be blunt force trauma. Both men were located near the surface of the debris.

The men were well-known by park staff and area residents. Mr. Onufer was a volunteer firefighter, and Mr. Romeo was known for his backcountry skiing experience and a blog he wrote on skiing in the Tetons.

“The tragic loss of Steve and Chris is deeply felt by everyone in Grand Teton National Park,” said Superintendent Mary Gibson Scott. “These two individuals have touched so many in the park and in our community. Our sincere condolences are extended to the family and friends of Steve and Chris. Hopefully all who loved them can find a measure of solace knowing they died doing what they both loved—skiing."