Old story in new avalanche death

Five snowriders died last April in Sheep Gulch, near Loveland Pass. They were well equipped, knowledgeable, and, ironically had gathered to draw attention to avalanche safety.  Photo was taken in late September, near the avalanche site, about 100 yards off Highway 6.Photo/Allen Best

Five snowriders died last April in Sheep Gulch, near Loveland Pass. They were well equipped, knowledgeable, and, ironically had gathered to draw attention to avalanche safety. Photo of memorial near the avalanche site, about 100 yards off Highway 6, was taken in late September.
Photo/Allen Best

Leader absent in latest avalanche death in the sidecountry of Tetons

Gear? Yes. And training, too. But still, it was all for naught

JACKSON, Wyo. — Again comes news of skiers and ‘boarders, young and strong, knowledgeable about avalanches, equipped with transceivers, shovels and other gear of survival – all of this woefully insufficient when faced with the wildly seductive snows of the Teton Range.

The Jackson Hole News&Guide tells a detailed story of the death of Mike Kazanjy. He had enjoyed a Christmas dinner with his parents and a few others while contemplating plans to ski a mountain just outside of the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort the next day.

Instead, they skied something called Pucker Face. The slope avalanched on Kazanjy. His companions used beacons to locate him within minutes, then used probe poles to establish exactly where to begin digging. They then peeled away the cement-like snow, getting air to his face within 16 minutes of the slide.

That was too long. Evidence suggests he died of positional asphyxiation, according to the coroner’s report. The way his neck was positioned and the pressure on it prevented blood from reaching or leaving the brain, depriving it of oxygen.

How did things go so terribly wrong?

“While they knew and understood technical aspects of avalanche risk, they overlooked the influence a group of six had on one another,” reports Angus Thuermer, editor of the News&Guide and a long-time backcountry skier himself who has now written probably dozens of such stories.

He reports that the five surviving members hope to continue analyzing what happened in an effort to develop a decision-making protocol. Such a decision-making matrix might allow others to ensure they aren’t being baited into a trap such as Pucker Face.

Baits that avalanche professionals have identified include great snow, blue skies, and a gung-ho group in which nobody wants to be the wimp.

“We lacked protocol and discipline,” said Ian Tarbox, one of the survivors. “We let our guard down. We varied from our original plan. We got baited.”

The group was too big, doubters didn’t speak up, and there wasn’t a designated leader, he told the News&Guide.

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