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Saturday, December 27, 2008

Jackson Hole Avalanche: A death in the snow

Ski patrols prepare to start back down the slope after probing up the debris field for skiers buried by an avalanche at the Jackson Hole ski resort. Lines of other rescuers can be seen probing near the bottom of the slide.

JACKSON HOLE, WY - The Jackson Hole ski area opened its expert upper slopes today for the first time since receiving 5 feet of fresh snow over the past week.

At about 11:30am I rode to the top of the mountain in the first tram in 3 days with a load of 100 cheering skiers as the ski patrol openned the upper mountain. The snow conditions at the top were challenging even for expert skiers. A short way down the mountain the soft powder was thigh deep between the trees of "Bivouac Woods", and you could hear loud hoops of excitement from every direction as skier got "first tracks" down the mountain.

At about 1:30pm I stopped on the headwall on the northwest side of "Toilet Bowl". I had never skied this run before, and so I took a minute to look at the run and consider whether I wanted to drop in. The run looked terrible, the snow was thin, and there were rocks sticking up all over. There was a guy climbing over some boulders at the bottom carrying his skis. Nothing about the scene made sense...

I stood for a minute waiting for my ski partner to join me and decide which way we would go when I noticed several red coated ski patrols with avalanche probes scrambling up the bottom of the slope. They were climbing over a large debris field made up of large chunks of broken snow... A serious avalanche had just swept the slope moments before I arrived! This explained the bare upper slopes and exposed rocks.

A growing group of skiers started to gather on the lip of the slope and watch helplessly as ski patrols converged from all directions. Within a few minutes a dozen people were frantically digging with shovels near the center of the debris field.

It was amazing how quickly the number of people working on the debris field multiplied and how quickly their frenzied shovels had excavated an massive 8 foot deep hole.

A rescue sled arrived, and then we heard an urgent radio call for a defibrillator. Not a good sign. This meant they had found a buried skier with no pulse. The mood of the spectators grew decidedly somber.

Many of the onlookers in our group were experienced backcountry skiers but none of us were carrying avalanche probes or shovels for a day of presumably safe "in bounds" skiing, and so there was nothing we could do as we watched helplessly.

As the rescue efforts continued to get more organized another ski patrol arrived with an arm load of heavy duty 12 foot avalanche probes, and asked for volunteers with avalanche beacons to help probe for additional buried skiers.

An avalanche beacon is a small radio transceiver that allows skiers buried by avalanches to quickly be located under the snow. The reason that they needed volunteers with avalanche beacons was so that in the event of a second slide on the unstable slope they would know that everyone on the slope was wearing a beacon and could be more easily rescued.

David Nodine the dead skier at the bottom of the 8 foot hole was wearing an avalanche beacon which explained how the ski patrol was able to locate his position so quickly. Unfortunately, he was dead by the time they reached him, presumable from the trama of the violent avalanche. In a less severe slide he would almost certainly have survived having been located so quickly.

At this point the rescuers had determined that there were no other avalanche beacons buried under the slide, but there was no way of knowing if other skiers without beacons might still be buried (which seemed likely, as most casual skiers at ski resorts don't carry avalanche beacons).

The minutes were slipping away to locate other potential victims in time to save them. And so a group of onlookers with avalanche beacons including myself quickly stepped forward to take the extra avalanche probes and join the professionals on the slopes searching for additional victims.

I joined a group of about 20 mixed citizens and ski patrols. We stood shoulder to shoulder in a straight line at the bottom of the slope and worked our way slowly 300 meters all the way to the top of the slide... one step at a time... "probes up, step forward, probes down". As we moved up the mountain the rescuers at the ends of the line placed small red flags in the snow to mark the area that had been searched.

A trained avalanche search dog searches the debris field among red flags marking the areas that have already been search by rescuers with avalanche probes.

At the bottom of the debris field my 12 foot probe would sink all the way out of sight without touching ground under the snow. We worked our way up the steep slope as quickly as we could in the thin air at 9,000 feet. As we neared top our probes would only sink a few feet before they hit solid rock.

The surface was a jumbled mess of concrete like snow boulders interspersed with invisible pockets of soft powder snow that would suddenly suck me down to my hips as I struggled up the slope.

The organization of the rescue efforts was adhoc but exceedingly professional. My probe line worked a 60 foot wide swath for the slope from bottom to top with military precision and no rest breaks. There were potentially lives at stake and darkness was coming...

I live at 500 feet above sea level, and at times I struggled to hold my place in the line climbing the steep slope with seasoned Jackson natives accustomed to the 9,000 foot elevation. But I knew that others were counting on me, and also that it could easily have been me buried under the snow if I had arrived just a minute earlier.

At the top of the slope we reached the fracture line where the "slab" avalanche had started. The fracture line was a smooth 6-8 foot tall flat vertical wall of snow where the snow pack had literally broken in half all the way to ground as the entire snow field down to the bare rocks below the fracture line slid 300 yards down the mountain.

Our line of searchers wheeled at the top of the slope below the fracture line and started back down a new swath of the debris field next to section we had just probed on the way up. We met another probe line coming up the slope in the same section and it was determined that the entire slope had been covered once.

Rescue leaders confer on next steps in the search effort high on the slope.

It was decided to get all of us off the debris field to the safer north side without giving up any altitude (there was some real fear that the rest of the slope to the south could still slide). Moving us all off the slope let the avalanche dogs sweep the entire slope "clean" (without any rescuers on the debris field to confuse the scent).

At this point it appeared that the main probing effort might be done, unless the dogs "hit" on anything new on the slope, and the decision was made to turn the citizen volunteers loose. As we slid down the slope next to the debris field to leave the scene we wished the ski patrols who were staying behind good luck, and many of them gave us heart felt thank you's for our efforts in joining the rescue.

In all I spent about 2 1/2 hours on the scene of the avalanche and came away with nothing but the highest regard and praise for the professionals of the Jackson Hole ski patrol, mountain guides, and mountain rescue team that joined in the rescue. I never heard a voice raised in frustration, and numerous leaders worked together with smaller teams in a highly organized manner in a chaotic situation without dissension or any sign of uncertainty.

The death of David Nodine is a terrible tragedy, be we were exceeding lucky that no other skiers were buried. Many other skiers had skied the same slope earlier in the day, and it's amazing that no one else was on the slope.

The "Toilet Bowl" avalanche as seen from the bottom as I prepared to leave. Searchers have moved off to the right of the slope, and a lone skier and 2 avalanche dogs are working the debris field. Red flags marking search areas can be scene in the debris field.

(Note: All pictures for this story were taken with my iPhone.)


Unknown said...

Good story. Its a shame there was a loss of life, but it does tell you that you're never completely safe in the mountains in winter, even at a controlled ski area. The JH ski patrol is among the best in the world but they can only control mother nature so much. Also beware of what you read online! This is the 4th story I've read about this accident and all have varied greatly in details. Bottom line for this winter is that the avy danger ain't going away anytime soon. Be careful out there, carry and know how to use the right gear. Turn baby turn. TJM Jackson

Anonymous said...

Awful story. One correction, though: the chance of surviving an eight foot deep burial is virtually nil. Suffocation is usually the cause of death, not trauma. Skiers have been dug out within 5 minutes and not survived. Sorry you had to witness such a sad, frightening scene. Slab avalanche is the stuff of nightmares, and this winter is especially dangerous. Mike in Utah

Kookaburra said...


I went through a similar experience in Australia last ski season:


It's quite a harrowing experience for all involved. My thoughts go out to the family as well. Cheers, Nick Reese in Australia.