The hard lessons of surviving an avalanche in the Tetons
The sky was dark and the air crisp on the morning of February 4 as we skinned toward the Spoon Couloir in Grand Teton National Park. Moving along in meditative unison, my mind began to wander to the events of the past two weeks. A lifelong friend, Darren Johnson, had died in an avalanche while patrolling at the Yellowstone Club on January 19th. This massive loss had ripped a hole in my soul and I was heading into the mountains to repair the damage. I could have never imagined that later in the day I would nearly suffer the same fate as my dear friend……
I am writing on the 8 week anniversary of an avalanche in the Spoon Couloir, off Disappointment Peak, that nearly killed me. As many of you know, I was airlifted from Amphitheater Lake by a TCSAR’s helicopter with the expert pilot, Nicole Ludwig at the helm. The Jenny Lake Rangers were incident commanders on the rescue and rangers Case Martin and Jim Martin were the professionals on scene. They performed the extraction from the lake in a matter of minutes and were nothing short of amazing. These two groups are absolutely essential to our community and you should all donate to their causes (TCSAR and Jenny Lake Rangers) to ensure they will act on a moments notice when you are at your most vulnerable point.
After being admitted to St. John’s Medial Center, I had the privilege of having Dr. Heidi Jost as the surgeon who repaired my broken leg. As it turned out, my tibia was broken into 22 pieces and she did an exceptional job putting everything in place and giving me the opportunity for a full recovery. I spent a total of four nights in the hospital, including Super Bowl Sunday, where I “hosted” one of the more expensive four person “party’s” ever.
I have been on the mend since, but it is a slow process. I am suffering from significant PTSD, but making progress moving-albeit at a snails pace. I recently was able to get into a pool and practice putting weight on my leg. Since I have been on crutches and non-weight bearing for the past two months, it was a very strange sensation. Despite the pain, the slight movement was exhilarating. For someone who craves physical activity, the stillness of this recovery has been a huge challenge. Simply being able to move under my own power brought a rare smile to my face.
Powder.com is going to be posting the full account of my experience here on Tuesday April 5th. I will also have an extended version of the article on OutdoorBeta with additional photos. It will share many lessons learned and give everyone an insight into the experience of nearly perishing in an avalanche. Those of us fortunate to live in mountain towns have all heard of people losing their lives in avalanches-doing what they love, but we never think it can happen to us. I can say for certain that I have never heard a story like the one I am going to tell. I hope you all take a moment to read the article, share it with all your friends and let it sink fully into your soul. I was once someone who thought this could never happen to me, but here I am, alive and able to tell my story.
Most importantly, I want to thank my loving girlfriend Zelie Dunn-Morrison and my friends and family for coming to my aid during this trying time in my life. One might think that surviving a near-death experience would be the hardest part of the process, but the emotional impact has been eye-opening. The struggle, anguish and frustration an event like this has on your soul and those around you has been hard to comprehend. Without all of you: Dane Etter-Garrette, Beau Etter-Garrette, Maureen Garrette, Diane Johnson, Brian Close, Mike Bessette, Tyler MacPhie, Tristan Droppert, Danny Filice, Ben and Kate Shanks, Lexie Hunsaker, Brian Donner, Brian Collins, Chase Sandbloom, Paco, Casey and Tom Kalishman, Bill and Lannie Hoglund, Victor Morrison and Patty Dunn, Braden Masselink and many others, I would not be here today moving forward to live another day. I love and thank you all from the bottom of my heart.
Snow Conditions: Powder, some sun crust under 6″-10″ of new light density snow.
The return of snow! The feeling of fresh snow returned to us on Friday with the onslaught of fresh snow falling on the Tetons once again. Tristan and I decided last Thursday night to head into the park to try and get some powder turns and a little storm skiing. Leaving the trailhead at 7am we cruised up into the Meadows area in around 2 hours.
Working our way through the Meadows and into the apron of West and East Hourglass, we made good progress through the spitting snow. There was a persistent crust and some wind packed rollers that became very slick with the new snow. On the way down this made for some interesting / tentative skiing. Switching over to the boot pack, we opted for crampons and soon were knee to waist deep in newly deposited snow in the lower half of the West Hourglass.
The middle and top sections were a bit rocky, but to the skiers left, there was plenty of snow for some good skiing. We were happy to be dropping into a storm filled couloir once again. It was a great climb up, and with the return of snow and wind we felt lucky to be there.
On the lower section, right at the roll over, I managed to kick off a small soft slap that went roughly 400 feet down into the apron. I had plenty of speed to ski off to the right and get out of the way. It was a reminder that with only a few inches and the right wind, things can get serious pretty quickly. But we were good and happy.
Snow Condition: 10″ of Consolidated Powder with areas of faceted snow and some small pockets of unstable snow at lower elevation.
The Banana Couloir is a ski mountaineering run that many have stared at during the winter months, wondering what it would be like to ski such an aesthetically pleasing line. I have been guilty of looking up at this East/Southeast facing couloir off Prospector Mountain for years, always wanting to ski it, but not sure how, or when the right time would be. Well, after some thought the other night, I rallied my brother Dane and friend Close to head up Open Canyon and give it a try.
We left Granite Canyon Trailhead at 7am as the first flicker of daylight began to light up the sky. We had a pretty solid plan for how to navigate the approach to the base of the couloir, but were unsure if it would translate into success. After pouring over google earth, I found an old road 1.2 miles down Moose-Wilson Rd. that would take us close to the beginning of Open Canyon without much bushwhacking. It veers off to the left, before Moose-Wilson Rd. makes a hard right and the pavement begins. This proved to work, with a skin track taking us into the often overgrown and seldom traveled area to the south of Phelps Lake.
With a visual of our objective, we took a left and started breaking trail towards Open Canyon. The snow was solid because of the low elevation rain event from a few days before, so we cruised up canyon with relative ease. We came to a ravine at some point and not thinking, dropped into it and crossed the stream. In hindsight, we should have just stayed on the right side of this gully, because it was the drainage from Open Canyon and we needed to be on the right side of it to start our climb.
Despite that minor setback, we made it to what we thought was the base of the couloir in just over 2hrs. Here we stopped for a few minutes to eat and decided how to tackle the initial steep face.
We decided to begin our climb to the lookers left of the “waterfall”, but I think the easiest and safest line up is to the right, through the trees and cliffs. Upon starting up, we heard numerous whomps as the snow collapsed on a weak layer at about 7600′ in elevation. This was very concerning to us and we discussed proceeding or not, but decided that the weak layer was only a low elevation (surface hoar) issue. We continued up cautiously for around 500′, making quick switchbacks on relatively exposed face, maintaining a policy of only one person on the slope at a time. After a stress filled, painfully slow initial hour of climbing, we seemed to be out of danger, having not heard a whomp for 200′ or so. The slope got pretty steep and crusted here, so we took off our skis and shouldered them for another 500′ until we reached the top of the steep initial face. We quickly got back into skin mode and tried to make up some of our lost time as we worked our way up and to the right. We got our first look at the Banana Couloir from up close not long after and were a little concerned at its size and the distance we still had to cover before reaching the top. We worked our way up the left side of the massive couloir for around 500′, before crossing the couloir to the safer, less exposed right ridge.
After gaining the ridge, we proceeded up at a frustrating slow pace due to the slick snow conditions and a few points where we had to take off our skis to get over some rock outcroppings. We struggled up, eventually coming to a steep, exposed section that we had to quickly bootpack through. After making it through this pinch in the couloir, we could see the summit, but we a little unsure if we would get to the top. The sun was warming the snow a little faster then we would have liked and none of us felt like going for a 3500′ ride down the couloir in an avalanche. We set a turn around time of 1:30pm and decided to push for the top at full speed. We skinned our way up the mellow upper “bowl” for a bit, but had to switch over to bootpacking about 800′ from the top. The snow was surprisingly stable, but after our experience down low, we were all a little nervous to be on the upper face, exposed to avalanches.
We made great time up the face, making it to the summit just past 1pm, but were all aware that now we had to make it down this large avalanche path safely. We took a few pictures, admired the entry into the “V Notch Couloir” and quickly geared up for the ski.
I made two big ski cuts on the rollover with Dane and Close watching, but when nothing budged we cautiously skied the upper section – gaining confidence in the snow with each turn. The skiing was unreal – fun/bouncy/playful powder with areas of deeper snow on the northeast facing right wall. We worked our way all the way down in several sections, having a blast and hooting all the way to the last pitch.
We approached the lower face from skiers left of the waterfall and cautiously made our way down, all to aware of the potential instability the snowpack displayed earlier. We made it down to a cliffband about 200′ from the bottom of the canyon. There were two possible ski throughs and I chose a less exposed ski to the left. I made it down and gave a hoot, signally the next skier should come down to me. All of a sudden, Dane yelled, “Avalanche!”. I moved behind a tree and as I did, looked up and could see snow beginning to flow over the cliff. It didn’t look huge, but saw large blocks of snow from what appeared to be a hard slab rolling over the cliff for what seemed like minutes. When the snow stopped, I could hear someone yelling from below the cliff (to my left) and nothing from above where Dane and Close had just been. I called for Dane again and thankfully heard him yell, “I’m safe, but Close got taken down below!”. I raced down to the debris pile at the bottom of the cliff band and as I approached, saw Close’s pole. My mind was racing, but was going for my transceiver to search for Close when I heard something from above. It was Brian, he had been pulled over a small cliff and thankfully found some way to stop himself from being dragged over the much larger cliff edge a few feet in front of him. He said he was missing his ski and pole, but he was ok. I looked around in the debris pile for a bit and luckily found his ski half buried, but intact.
Dane gingerly made his way down after Close had retrieved his ski and we collectively let out a sigh of relief. We knew the snowpack at the lower elevation had some weaknesses, but thought we could mitigate them. We were wrong, but thankfully we all made it out safe.
We traversed around to the right (south), keeping high and trying to make it around the lower flanks of Olive Oil and find a skin track out. Eventually we found a fast one all the way out to Moose-Wilson Rd. and pushed our way back to the truck in 8hrs. It was a great day, but very easily could have been a tragic one.