From the pages of
Sublette Examiner
Volume 8, Number 42 - January 8, 2009
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

Tip Top urges avalanche awareness

by Derek Farr

On Dec. 27, a 31-year old man was killed on an inbounds ski run by an avalanche at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort (JHMR).

The same day, a manmade avalanche slammed into a JHMR restaurant.

Two days later an avalanche killed an ice climber outside of Cody in an area little known for slides. It has been a gruesome prelude to avalanche season, and the deadliest months are yet to come.

Since 1903, avalanches in January, February and March have killed 23, 17 and 10 people respectively, and with more people heading into the backcountry every year that number is rising.

“We’re called out on avalanche-related incidences every year,” said Jason Ray, Tip Top Search and Rescue (TTSAR) administrator.

“And they are getting more common.”

Since 2000, an increase in backcountry skiing’s popularity and lighter, more powerful snowmachines have tallied more deaths than the previous three decades combined.

Statewide, backcountry skiers comprise the majority of avalanche deaths but in Sublette County, snowmachines constitute the majority of avalanche incidents.

The vast majority of victims are male (a 10-to-1 ratio) and most of those are between the age of 15 and 29 with a notable spike for 40 to 44-year-olds.

Locally, the most avalanche-prone area is the Wind River Range but according to Ray, the Winds’ relative inaccessibility keeps snow-slide incidents to a minimum.

Other spots are more popular.

“The hottest spot for snowmobiles and backcountry skiers is in the Hoback Canyon and the Wyoming Range,” he said.

“There’s a lot more people recreating there and there’s a lot easier access.”

Thus far, TTSAR has not been involved in an avalanche-related body recovery that Ray knows of but “that’s just a matter of time the way things are going,” he said.

More people moving in avalanche-prone areas virtually guarantee more incidents.

The best way to avoid an avalanche is to stay home but for many Sublette County residents it’s impossible; the backcountry is too alluring.

As an alternative, Ray strongly urged skiers and snowmobilers to attend an avalanche awareness course.

“Anytime you step one foot into the backcountry, you should have an avalanche course,” Ray said, adding, “But if you don’t go outside, or never get out of town, then you don’t need one.”

It’s a complex subject.

Avalanche alchemy is part science and part art. Three precursors lead to avalanches: steep terrain, an unstable snowpack and weather.

Avalanches are possible on slopes greater than 20 degrees although the deadly slab avalanche lurks in slopes between 30 and 45 degrees – the same slope angles that are the most fun to ski, according to Ray.

An unstable snowpack is the brick-and mortar of a snow slide. One weak layer of mortar is all that is required to send the whole structure crashing down mountain.

The weather infuses almost incalculable variables to avalanches. As storms roll into the state’s high country to create ideal skiing and snowmobiling conditions, the snow type and temperature factors combine with snowfall density, rate and weight to alter an area’s slide propensity. Even after the storm has passed, the snowpack changes. Winds, periods of cold, rapid temperature increases and prolonged sun exposure change a slope’s slide potential.

If the conditions are right, millions of pounds of snow become almost liquefied as gravity accelerates the slide to speeds up to 120 mph – too fast to outrun on a snowmachine.

What’s left of a person caught in an avalanche’s path is disturbing. Ray said he’s seen victims whose backpacks and jackets were ripped from their bodies.

Thirty percent of people buried completely are killed by trauma as their bodies are beaten into rocks, trees or just crushed by the snow’s tremendous weight.

The survival window for a person buried in a slide can be less than two minutes as the crushing, entombing matrix suffocates its victim.

According to Ray the main cause of avalanche accidents is the human factor and specifically the human’s attitude.

Avalanche novices who rely on the “ignorance is bliss” attitude are far more likely to be a snow-slide statistic than an experienced backcountry traveler who has the skills to evaluate avalanche hazards.

And Ray wants everybody who uses the backcountry to learn how to evaluate avalanche hazards.

Info/courses available

Getting tuned up on avalanche knowledge is simple. The TTSAR is hosting two Avalanche Awareness courses free to the public. The course includes classroom demonstrations and an outdoor clinic on how to use avalanche beacons. Ray asked participants to bring their own avalanche beacons and be prepared to spend time outside.

The first course is scheduled for Wednesday, Jan. 21, at 7 p.m. at the Big Piney Library followed by a course on Thursday, Jan. 22, at 7 p.m. at the Pinedale SAR building next to the Recycling Center.

Ray strongly recommends backcountry travelers take a two-day, level-one avalanche course in Jackson Hole. Course schedules are available at or by phone at (307) 733-3315. The courses cost about $200.

Current avalanche advisories are available at the Bridger-Teton National Forest’s avalanche center at or by calling (307) 733-2664.

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