Detailed Accident Report
Submitted By: WWAN
Place: Coal Creek, West side of Teton Pass
Summary: 2 skiers caught, 1 buried and killed
Skiers tried to be safe
Trio took precautions, but avalanche swept into "islands of safety."
By Angus M. Thuermer Jr.
One of the skiers involved in the Taylor Mountain avalanche that killed Laurel Dana on Thursday said his group evaluated the stability of the fatal slope before skiing.
Skier Greg Von Doersten, of Jackson, also said in a statement that he, Freddie Botur of Wilson, and Dana, of Victor, Idaho, also were skiing the east face of Taylor one at a time, a strategy recommended when skiing in dangerous country. The statement said each skier moved from one "island of safety" to another, and that the two who were not skiing were watching the third in case an avalanche broke.
Ultimately, the safety measures the party undertook, including being equipped with avalanche transceivers and other gear, did not prevent the death of Dana, 43, who was overwhelmed by the avalanche at approximately 1:20 p.m.
The slide broke on a 40-degree slope, along a crown deeper than 6 feet and across a slope about 100 yards wide. The avalanche ran from 300 feet below the summit of 10,385-foot peak to the bottom of the Coal Creek drainage, approximately 2,000 vertical feet down a track a mile long.
Skiers in another party who were below Dana and skiing on another peak found her with transceivers. They dug her from beneath 3 feet of snow, moved her from a danger zone and began resuscitation within 20 minutes of the slide.
Teton County coroner Bob Campbell said Dana died of suffocation. She had no other injuries, he said.
Von Doersten, who declined an interview, gave the following account:
He wrote that the trio set off up the mountain at 11 a.m. and reached the summit at 12:45 p.m.
"At 1 p.m. we decided to ski the Southeast Ridge and take a look at [its] NE face," he wrote. "We dug a Rusch Block on the NE face, which didn't detect any major signs of instability."
A Rusch Block is a method of testing slope stability by digging a pit and weighting the snowpack to see whether it will move along a weak layer.
Because of such potential weak layers and recent snows, the Bridger-Teton National Forest Avalanche Center labeled hazard at the elevation in question that day as "considerable." That rating meaning human-triggered avalanches were probable.
It warned of large avalanches on major slide paths that could be released by multiple skiers. In the previous week, almost 5 feet of snow had fallen at the Taylor Mountain elevation, and wind had blown some of it onto leeward slopes, including the mountain's east face.
Von Doersten wrote that his party started down after it completed its evaluation. "Freddie Botur skied the ridge while Dana and I descended on the edge of the SE Ridge and NE face, stopping midway down to regroup on the SE ridge," he wrote.
The group then decided to venture off the ridge onto the slope that would eventually crack and slide.
"Laurel Dana went first and skied the NE face where she traversed out to a large cliff band and island of safety near the SE ridge," Von Doersten wrote. "From there, she spotted and directed us where to ski.
"Freddie Botur descended the slope next and skied beyond where Laurel Dana skied, skiing back out to the ridge where he spotted Laurel and I. Laurel was spotting me from her island of safety and I followed near her tracks."
"About 200 feet into the run the slope fractured," Von Doersten wrote. "I lost visual contact with the group and I went through a violent ride."
Two thousand feet below in Coal Creek Meadows, Eddie and Karen Horney had watched the skiers enter the face. They said they could hear a woman whooping as she enjoyed her descent.
Then came a crack as the slope released. Eddie Horney said the avalanche accelerated and roared. A huge powder cloud shot down the slope.
"I looked at Karen and said 'I hope somebody didn't just die,'" he said.
When the avalanche broke, it swept Dana from her island of safety.
Botur wrote a statement for authorities that said he witnessed Von Doersten start one avalanche that broke to the north of their tracks, then flow down and start another to the south above Dana.
Botur wrote that he was centered in the second fracture but escaped and screamed for both to swim in the accelerating snow.
Teton County Search and Rescue incident commander Brendan McDermott said Von Doersten "talked about lunging for some trees." It sounded, McDermott said, as if he were able slow himself down.
"Snow was in his mouth," McDermott said. "He managed to keep his hands above the snow. He had done a lot of swimming."
Von Doersten wrote that when he came to the surface, Botur told him Dana had been caught in the slide. Botur pointed out where he last saw their companion, and the two yelled to other parties to call 911.
"We were out of cell range," Von Doersten wrote.
McDermott said he believes Von Doersten lost both skis in the slide, as did Dana.
Botur and Von Doersten began to search. They went to the area Dana had last been seen, Von Doersten wrote, feeling she might be hung up by trees or an irregularity in the terrain.
They told other skiers above them to begin a search from the top of the slide while they looked in the middle. When all failed to turn up any transceiver signals, Von Doersten took four other skiers down the avalanche track to search debris in gullies and Coal Creek Meadows below. Botur remained mid-slope to direct the search there, Von Doersten wrote.
Across the face and down to the meadow, avalanche debris covered some 40 acres, according to calculations from maps and aerial photographs.
Meanwhile, skiers in other parties had found Dana by using transceivers, probe poles and shovels. They began resuscitation and continued it for about an hour.
Kathryn Collins, a doctor and backcountry skier who arrived at the scene about an hour after resuscitation began, said cardiopulmonary resuscitation on a victim without pulse or breathing needs to be started within about five minutes or brain damage can occur. Many factors determine how long an untraumatized avalanche victim can survive, she said. Among those are whether he or she has an air pocket and how fast carbon dioxide builds up.
Avalanches, particularly large ones like the one on Taylor, can race faster than 100 mph said Doug Chabot, an avalanche forecaster in Montana.
"It's like getting worked in a river or pounded in surf," he said of being caught in such a slide. "It's a huge force."
At the Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center at Teton Village, forecaster Bob Comey said people couldn't protect themselves in the kinds of large slides that have released in recent weeks.
"If you take a short ride in gentle terrain, you can do things like swim, clearing your mouth," he said. "When you're on a 40-degree slope and going down 2,000 feet it's a different scenario. There's going to be a good chance you're going to get the air knocked out of you."
Collins said in large fast-moving avalanches a skier can be pummeled and crushed, even if not buried deeply, making speedy recovery essential to survival.
"With such a large avalanche, that alone would press so hard on your rib cage, you couldn't take a breath," she said of the Taylor slide.
Skiers who examined the slide path after the avalanche reported finding a weak layer of faceted snow and "depth hoar," on which the snowpack slid.
Dana became the second avalanche victim in Teton County this season. Jesse Humphries, 21, of Riverton, was buried on Togwotee Pass while snowmobiling Dec. 27.
Colorado leads the nation in avalanche fatalities this season with four while Wyoming and Montana each have two, Alaska and Utah one each, according to U.S. Forest Service avalanche centers.
Dana is the second avalanche victim on Taylor Mountain. Kevin Marriott died on an adjacent slope in 1995 after a cornice he was standing on broke and started an avalanche.
Since records have been kept starting in 1911, a total of 41 people have been killed by avalanches in Teton County, according to statistics assembled by the avalanche center. (Two of those deaths occurred in southern Yellowstone National Park where Teton County collects sales tax.)
Initial report from:
Avalanche Kills Skier on Teton Pass
January 5, 2006
A woman skier was killed when she was buried in an avalanche on the
Search and Rescue crews say the unidentified woman was buried for 20
Once they recovered her, rescuers performed CPR on her. A doctor that
was airlifted in pronounced her dead at the scene.
The avalanche happened around 1:30 on Thursday afternoon near Coal Creek
on the west side of the pass.
Rescuers say the woman was knowable about the dangers and was apparently
skiing in a safe zone of the mountain. She was also wearing a
transceiver, used to find a person if they are buried.
She was skiing with a group and another person made it through the
avalanche by clinging to a tree.