Three skiers who got off-course and spent an unplanned night in the backcountry last weekend prompted the first significant search and rescue operation of the year at Grand Teton National Park. The group was successfully rescued despite a significant winter storm and high avalanche danger, and the incident offers some good "lessons learned" for winter recreationists.
At about 11 a.m. on Friday, February 7, the three adults left the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort boundary from Gate 1, with the intention of skiing an area called Four Pines, adjacent to the ski resort. The group, in their late 40s and early 50s, included a resident of Jackson, Wyoming, and two individuals from San Francisco, California.
The resort is just outside the park, and the group's plans went awry when the they mistakenly skied into Granite Canyon and became lost in Grand Teton's more remote backcountry.
By 4 p.m. that day, the three skiers realized they were lost, so they made a wise decision: dig a snow cave and stay put for the night. By Saturday morning, the group was out of food and water, and only one of them was carrying an avalanche transceiver. At that point, they decided to send a text message to a friend indicating they were lost and needed help.
Teton County Sheriff's Office dispatchers received the call for help, and notified park rangers at 8:30 a.m. The skiers were able to provide their location by GPS coordinates derived from their cell phone, and through a text message, rangers determined that no one in the party was injured.
High winds and low visibility ruled out a helicopter reconnaissance and rescue, so rangers prepared for a ground-based rescue... but conditions were hardly favorable for even a short trip into the backcountry. At 6:20 that morning, the Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center had issued the following General Avalanche Advisory:
"A winter storm warning is in effect and the avalanche hazard will be increasing during the day at all elevations. Strong winds, warming temperatures and abundant new snow will create dangerous unstable conditions. Large slab avalanches are likely to be easily triggered by humans. Natural avalanche activity is likely at the upper elevations and possible at the mid elevations. At the lower elevations smaller human triggered slab avalanches and pockets of natural avalanche activity are possible..."
A sobering forecast, especially in an area with a previous history of avalanche incidents. In 2011, an area resident was injured when he was caught by an avalanche while skiing in Granite Canyon.
Those conditions brought a basic tenet for search and rescue operations into play: "Don't become part of the problem!"
According to a park spokesperson, "Rangers spent most of the day weighing options to help the trio while analyzing the risk to rescuers. With concerns that the three might not survive a second night in the backcountry, rangers ultimately decided to attempt a rescue. If rescuers had encountered signs of slope instability, or if the avalanche danger had been any higher, rangers would not have attempted the rescue."
Four park rangers departed the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort on skis at 4:00 p.m. Saturday and reached the party at 7:30 p.m. The group was then escorted out of the backcountry and back to the base of the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort.
This situation ended well, but it offers some important reminders for winter recreation activities, especially when the trip is conducted in areas where there is the risk of avalanches. Those concerns are highlighted by two recent deaths due to avalanches elsewhere in the West.
"Rangers remind backcountry users and those who leave the ski resort boundary that a rescue is not guaranteed. Pursing these activities requires a high level of personal accountability and responsibility. All members of a backcountry party should have appropriate avalanche gear, including a transceiver, shovel, and probe."
"Backcountry skiers and snowboarders need to be prepared to spend more time than anticipated by bringing extra clothing, high energy snacks and water. They should also consider their physical limitations and time restrictions when choosing a destination, and bring a map of the area and know how to use it before setting out."
Good advice indeed.