In the wake of the largest snowstorm so far this winter, Grand Teton National Park rangers remind backcountry users to recreate responsibly. While major snow events and the promise of fresh powder may tempt backcountry skiers and snowboarders, these events also bring elevated avalanche danger. Careful terrain selection, proper equipment, and training are essential for any backcountry excursion, but on some days backcountry travel in avalanche terrain is simply not advised.
The Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center’s avalanche advisory for Tuesday, February 5 began with the statement, “Travel in avalanche terrain is not recommended today.” It continued, “Backcountry travelers who venture into steep terrain are very likely to trigger slab avalanches that could be large in size and are expected to run long distances.” The avalanche danger was rated “high” for elevations above 7,500 feet.
At approximately 11 a.m. that morning, Geoffrey McAndrews, 48, of Jackson, Wyoming exited the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort boundary on his snowboard and entered the park’s backcountry with his partner. As they began to descend “Mile Long Couloir” in Granite Canyon, McAndrews triggered a 24-inch soft slab avalanche which swept him off his feet and carried him about 750 vertical feet. He was not buried, but injured his leg due to hitting a rock during the slide. His partner was not swept by the avalanche and was uninjured. “Mile Long Couloir” is a known avalanche path that exceeds 2,000 feet.
Grand Teton National Park rangers, Teton County Search and Rescue, and Jackson Hole Mountain Resort ski patrol combined efforts to devise a plan and assess the risks associated with the rescue. The possibility of a helicopter-based rescue was complicated by limited visibility and falling snow, while a ground-based rescue would likely result in an overnight operation and expose rescuers to significant avalanche terrain. The interagency team eventually extracted McAndrews via short-haul during an extremely narrow break in the weather. He was then transported to St. John’s Medical Center for treatment.
McAndrews and his partner were not the only recreationists to travel in avalanche terrain despite the avalanche advisory. “We saw about two dozen fresh tracks in Granite Canyon that day” said Chief Ranger Michael Nash. “Multiple people were taking a lot of risk by venturing out during high avalanche danger.”
Nash emphasized that both aerial and ground-based rescues are hazardous for rescuers even under the best conditions. “We were fortunate to reach McAndrews by helicopter, which decreased the amount of time our rangers spent in these avalanche paths.” Nash added, “Rescues are not guaranteed and should not be taken for granted. We work to mitigate as many hazards as we can to achieve an acceptable level of personal risk to our rangers so they can help people in need.”