Avalanche at Grand Teton National Park Claims Life of Backcountry Skier

Grand Tetons in winter

Grand Tetons in the winter. Photo by Adventurous Wench via Creative Commons and flickr.

A backcountry skier triggered an avalanche on the South Teton that swept him to his death on Sunday morning, February 21, 2010 in Grand Teton National Park

Park spokeswoman Jackie Scaggs reported that Wray Landon, age 30, of Driggs, Idaho, skied with two companions to the summit of the South Teton via Garnet Canyon and the Northwest Couloir early Sunday morning. They were descending the southeast face of the peak when Landon set off a two-foot crown avalanche, approximately 300 feet below the 12,514-foot summit.

The avalanche carried Landon over 2,000 vertical feet of slope and cliff bands before he came to a rest about a thousand feet above Lake Taminah in upper Avalanche Canyon; the avalanche debris continued about 800 feet further before stopping.

Scaggs said Landon and his companions were experienced with backcountry travel in the Teton Range and prepared with the appropriate equipment for a mountain excursion.

Landon’s ski companions, Nathan Brown and Brady Johnston, made a 911 call to report the incident at 11:35 a.m., and Teton Interagency Dispatch Center received notice from the Teton County Sheriff’s office shortly after.

Park rangers immediately summoned theTeton County Search and Rescue helicopter to assist with the rescue operation.

In order to reach Landon—who was lying in an exposed avalanche-prone area—four rangers were flown via helicopter to a landing zone near Snowdrift Lake (elevation 10,006 feet) from which a recovery operation could be staged. Three Teton County Search and Rescue personnel were flown into the location, and they conducted aerial avalanche control using explosives to stabilize slopes above the route rangers intended to ski in order to reach Landon.

After the avalanche control work was completed, four rangers traversed a steep slope below an area of cliff bands and couloirs. While two rangers acted as safety spotters, watching for additional avalanche activity, two rangers prepared Landon for aerial evacuation. Landon was airlifted by a long-line to the valley floor at 4:45 p.m.

Landon’s two companions skied out of the backcountry on their own, and the rescue personnel were evacuated by air, completing their operation at 5:30 p.m.

The avalanche condition rating for Sunday, February 21, was listed as “moderate” for mid level and high elevations, below 10,500 feet. The Bridger-Teton National Forest Avalanche Center does not forecast areas above 10,500 feet, and park rangers remind skiers and climbers that conditions on the higher peaks can be vastly different above the Bridger-Teton forecast zone.

A moderate rating means that areas of unstable snow exist, and human triggered avalanches are possible. The general avalanche advisory warns that pockets of dense surface slab up to thirty inches deep rest upon buried surface hoar and sun crusts at the mid and upper elevations, and the possibility persists for backcountry travelers to trigger these slabs in steep, avalanche-prone terrain.