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avalanche

Wyoming Avalanche Season More Dangerous Than Ever, Avalanche Expert Says

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Because of rising temperatures resulting in more snowmelt, avalanche season in Wyoming is more dangerous than ever, according to the director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

CAIC director Ethan Greene told Cowboy State Daily said the avalanche danger on a given day is determined by weather events occurring over the entire winter, as well as what is happening on a particular day.

“We set ourselves up, building the snowpack over weeks and months, and then what’s happening on a particular day can have a big impact on that buildup,” he said. “Most avalanches occur when we are having some big weather event, like a snowstorm or windstorm. So if you have a big snowstorm rolling in, it’s going to exacerbate what’s happening deeper in the snowpack.”

Fifteen people have been killed in avalanches over the 2021-2022 season, nine of whom have died since the beginning of the 2022. There were 37 avalanche-related deaths during the 2020-2021 season.

Two people have been killed in avalanches in or near Wyoming in the last month.

Jay Norton, 61, a member of the faculty of UW’s Department of Ecosystem Science and Management, was skiing in the Game Creek drainage on the western slope of the Tetons near Victor, Idaho, when he and another skier triggered an avalanche about two weeks ago.

A 58-year-old snowmobiler from South Dakota was killed near Encampment earlier this month after he was buried underneath the snow from the avalanche.

Greene said that in the case of the avalanche near Encampment, a relatively dry period in the middle of winter produced a weak layer of snow. But more snow began to fall in February and March, adding more weight on top of an already weak layer of snow.

“That fellow triggered a pretty small avalanche, but it was deep enough and it had enough debris in it that it buried him,” Greene said. “He was under the snow and his friend didn’t see it happen, so by the time his friend came back to get him, he’d already passed.”

Greene said in the majority of avalanche-related deaths, a person becomes buried under the snow and begins to breathe in CO2, not unlike breathing into a paper bag. Other deaths are caused by trauma from the avalanche.

The springtime is a particularly dangerous time for avalanches, due to the rapidly warming temperatures and Greene said this will likely be the case until early May.

He encouraged anyone recreating in areas with potential avalanche dangers to use the website avalanche.org to check for up-to-date weather conditions. As of Monday afternoon, western Wyoming has “considerable” avalanche danger, particularly in the Teton, Togwotee Pass and Grey’s River areas.

He recommended that anyone going to recreate in an area where avalanches are possible take a shovel, a probe pole and an avalanche rescue transceiver.

“You’ll have days where it’s sunny and the powder is fresh and people are focused on having a great day outside,” Greene said. “It’s beautiful, there’s good skiing or snowmobiling to be had. And that’s where they get into trouble.”

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UW Professor Killed In Teton Backcountry Avalanche While Skiing

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

A University of Wyoming professor was killed last week when he and another skier triggered an avalanche in the Teton backcountry.

Jay Norton, 61, a member of the faculty of UW’s Department of Ecosystem Science and Management, was skiing in the Game Creek drainage on the western slope of the Tetons near Victor, Idaho.

According to officials from the Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center, five people, including Norton, were skiing in an area referred to as the “Sugar Bowl.”

According to the Colorado Avalanche Center accident report, Norton and an older woman were buried in an avalanche. The rest of the group located and uncovered both of them, and while the woman was conscious and breathing, Norton was unconscious.

The slope where the two were buried had avalanched in early January during a widespread avalanche cycle and then became reloaded with new snow, which turned into a slab, according to the Bridger-Teton Center.

“We experienced three collapses on the way to the site and adjacent to the avalanche,” center officials said Friday. “These weak layers around crusts are more likely to be found on northerly aspects at mid-elevations and areas with a shallow snowpack, where you may be looking for the best snow for skiing.”

The group initiated CPR, but was unable to save Norton. Norton is the second person to die in an avalanche-related incident in Wyoming this season, according to the Colorado center.

Representatives from the Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center did not respond to Cowboy State Daily’s request for comment on Monday.

Teton County Search and Rescue volunteers responded to the accident site via helicopter and evacuated the injured skier.

The UW community mourned Norton’s death on Monday. Norton’s wife, Urszula Norton, is an associate professor in UW’s Department of Plant Sciences.

“We have lost a talented and beloved member of our community,” UW President Ed Seidel said. “Our hearts go out to his friends and family as we all grieve his loss.”

Norton joined UW as an assistant professor in 2006, was promoted to associate professor in 2012, and became a full professor in 2018.

He operated a research lab investigating soil and ecosystem health, organic agriculture and a range of issues that support Wyoming agriculture and ecosystem sustainability, including soil nutrition and carbon cycling.

“Dr. Norton was a consummate scholar who was committed to the improvement of Wyoming agriculture and support of its natural resources. He was able to engage with students at both a personal and professional level at a rare level, and he brought a high level of energy and goodwill to every activity,” Professor Scott Miller, head of the UW Department of Ecosystem Science and Management said.

“To know Jay was to love him, and he will be deeply missed. We send our deepest condolences to his wife, Urszula, and son, Cazi,” he said.

Norton came to UW after more than 20 years as a soil scientist, researcher and teacher in Montana, Iowa, Utah and California. He earned a Ph.D. in resource conservation and soil science from the University of Montana, where he also received his bachelor’s degree in geology.

His master’s degree in agronomy and soil science was from Iowa State University.

“Jay was a wonderful friend and terrific colleague,” Miller said. “He had an infectious positive spirit that he carried everywhere. He is remembered for his excellence in scholarly activities as well as the warmth, friendship and good humor he brought to his community.”

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Snowmobiler Killed In Avalanche Near Encampment Over Weekend

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

A snowmobiler was killed in an avalanche near Encampment over the weekend, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

The snowmobiler triggered the avalanche on Saturday afternoon, was buried by massive amounts of snow and died. The avalanche occurred on a northeast-facing mountainside near Willow Park at an elevation of around 10,000 feet.

“Our deepest condolences go out to the friends and family, and everyone involved in this accident,” center officials wrote on the website.

The snowmobiler had not been identified as of Monday afternoon, but center officials said they would update the report as more information became available.

According to the center, this is the first person in Wyoming to be killed in an avalanche this season. Twelve people have been killed over the 2021-2022 season: three skiers, six snowmobilers and three climbers, hikers or snowshoers.

Four of those deaths occurred in Montana and four took place in Colorado.

Thirty-seven avalanche-related deaths occurred in the 2020-2021 season, four in Wyoming.

The center noted that snowmobile use is generally the second-most frequent cause of avalanches because of the stress the machines apply to the snowpack.

The most frequent cause of avalanches was identified as the “backcountry tourer.”

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“Scariest Experience of my Life!” Jackson Man Buried By Avalanche While Snowmobiling

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From John Sievers’ Facebook page

By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

A Jackson man escaped injury over the weekend after being partially buried by an avalanche while snowmobiling.

John Sievers and his friend Jason Rubio were snowmobiling up a steep backcountry incline south of Jackson when an avalanche overtook Sievers’ snowmobile, leaving him partially buried.

A video posted to social media showed Rubio watching as his friend disappeared into the snow while they were riding. He quickly got his snowmobile running and raced to his friend, whose avalanche airbag did not deploy as it should have.

“Do you copy?” Rubio asked Sievers, whose arm was the only part of him visible, as the rest of his body and vehicle were buried underneath the snow.

Sievers can be heard making noises as Rubio pulls him out from underneath the heavy snow. He can also be heard telling his friend that he tried to pull the cord for his avalanche bag.

“Scariest experience of my life,” Sievers wrote on social media Sunday. “Thank God Jason Rubio was right there definitely could’ve been a different ending. I’m very thankful to walk away from this. My avalanche bag didn’t work I pulled the handle like my life depended on it and it didn’t deploy. #SorryMom

Sievers did not immediately respond to Cowboy State Daily’s request for comment on Tuesday.

The Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center recorded the avalanche as being triggered by the snowmobile and remarked on Sievers’ good fortune.

“Partner appears to have helped dig out the machine that was buried against a tree,” the center wrote in its notation of the event. “Lucky result.”

According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, which compiles data on avalanche-related accidents, six people have been killed due to avalanches during the 2021-2022 season so far, three skiers and three snowmobilers. None of the deaths have occurred in Wyoming, though.

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Teton Search And Rescue Called Out More in 2021 Than All Of Last Season

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By Tom Ninneman, Cowboy State Daily

Teton County’s Search and Rescue Team has been involved in more active missions since Jan. 1 than it was through all of the 2019-2020 winter season, officials have announced.

Since the beginning of the year, the team has been called out 31 times — responding to events including five fatalities, three involving avalanches.

Of the 31 responses, 24 resulted in active missions, more than during the entire previous winter season.

Specifically, Search and Rescue has performed ten missions over the past nine days. 

Not only have the missions this winter been frequent, they have also been mentally and physically demanding for the volunteers. 

Nine of the calls have resulted in short-haul operations, during which volunteers are inserted on-scene via a long line beneath a helicopter. 

Three people have died in avalanches in northwestern Wyoming since mid-February, two snowboarders and one snowmobiler.

The deaths prompted the Teton County Search and Rescue to stress the importance of being prepared, practiced, and present. 

The team urges patience to give the new snow time to settle, and no matter what your activity is, take the necessary precautions to ensure that you can return home safely at the end of the day. 

Search and Rescue Chief Advisor Cody Lockhart explains that the seriousness of these frequent accidents does take a toll on the rescue team and often puts them at risk when recovering injured parties from the scenes of incidents.

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Lander Woman Provides Eyewitness Account of Togwotee Avalanche Rescue Mission

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

A Lander woman was having a normal day last week when she came across the search and rescue mission for the Togwotee avalanche that ultimately claimed the life of a Jackson snowboarder.

Kathi McKee and her husband were about 10 miles from Togwotee Pass and managed to catch much of the rescue on camera, through photos and video.

“We had parked here for the day and when we returned, the helicopter was flying overhead with a SAR person hanging from a rope with the patient bundled in an orange sleeping bag-type bundle,” McKee said.

Michael McKelvey, 31, a seasonal resident of Jackson, died after being caught in an avalanche Thursday near Wind River Lake near the top of Togwotee Pass.

Search and Rescue Chief Advisor Cody Lockhart said a group of snowboarders had built a substantial “kicker” to launch up toward a slope, and when McKelvey landed, it triggered the slide, which Lockhart described as having a 5-foot crown. 

McKelvey was totally buried, but was wearing a beacon and his companions were able to uncover him and begin life support efforts. 

Members of Teton County Search and Rescue were training on snowmobiles a short distance away and were on the scene within 10 to 15 minutes. 

McKee said Teton County Search and Rescue stopped traffic to allow the helicopter to circle and land, so McKelvey could be placed inside and flown to a hospital in Idaho Falls, Idaho.

“So professionally done. Amazing!” she said.

According to recreation website Teton Gravity Research, McKelvey had been an active member of the Jackson snowboarding community for years.

According to an Instagram post, McKelvey was buried under 12 feet of snow during the avalanche.

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Snowboarder Killed in Teton County Avalanche

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By Tom Ninnneman, Cowboy State Daily

Another person recreating in the backcountry of northwestern Wyoming has died as the result of an avalanche. 

Teton County Search and Rescue said Michael McKelvey, 31, a seasonal resident of Jackson, died after being caught in an avalanche Thursday near Wind River Lake near the top of Togwotee Pass.

He was the second person this week to die from injuries suffered in an avalanche in northwestern Wyoming.

Teton County Search and Rescue said its members were notified just after noon Thursday of a snowboarder buried in an avalanche.

Search and Rescue Chief Advisor Cody Lockhart says a group of snowboarders had built a substantial “kicker” to launch up toward a slope, and when McKelvey landed, it triggered the slide, which Lockhart described as having a 5-foot crown. 

McKelvey was totally buried, Lockhart said. He added McKelvey was wearing a beacon and his companions were able to uncover him and begin life support efforts. 

Members of Teton County Search and Rescue were training on snowmobiles a short distance away and were on the scene within 10 to 15 minutes. 

Team members continued efforts to resuscitate McKelvey and restored a pulse until he was short-hauled to an ambulance which took him to the airport to be flown to Idaho Falls.  He later died at the hospital. 

The death occurred one day after an avalanche in Lincoln County claimed the life of a Michigan man who was part of a snowmobiling group.

According to reports, one of the riders in that incident triggered an avalanche that caught and covered Greg Stanczak of Ironwood, Michigan.

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Officials Continue to Investigate Fatal Avalanche in Lincoln County

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By Tom Ninneman, Cowboy State Daily

A major avalanche in Lincoln County that left one man dead and several others injured Wednesday is still being investigated.

The Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department has identified the victim as 56-year-old Greg Stanczak of Ironwood, Michigan.

According to the sheriff’s office, search and rescue teams were dispatched to the Squaw Creek area of the Salt River Range at about 3:45 p.m. Wednesday.

Star Valley Search and Rescue, Alpine Fire and EMS, Lincoln County Sheriff Deputies and the Wyoming Highway Patrol were initially called to the area, where they were later joined by members of Teton County Search and Rescue and a helicopter.

Multiple snowmobilers had been caught in the avalanche, which was triggered by one of the riders. 

Some members of the group were able to free themselves. Stanczak was buried until members of the group were able to dig him out, when they began lifesaving efforts. 

However, Stanczak succumbed to his injuries at the scene. 

Reports indicate eight snowmobilers were involved in the incident. 

Lincoln County Search and Rescue Team members remained on the scene into the night.

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Avalanche Forecasters Warn of Hazard In Wyoming, Idaho, Montana

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By Tom Ninneman, Cowboy State Daily

Avalanche forecasters are warning of potentially dangerous avalanches in parts of Idaho, Wyoming and Montana. 

The Bridger Teton Avalanche Center reports high avalanche danger in the Southwest Trails and Grey’s River area in southwestern Wyoming and reminds people to be careful and follow backcountry safety. 

The Avalanche Center warns that snow immersion is a significant hazard in the backcountry today. It advises recreationists to travel with a partner and always keep in sight of each other.

Travel is not recommended in the area of any slope 30 degrees or steeper. 

Over the weekend, a skier near Big Sky, Montana, was caught in an avalanche and even though he was not completely buried, he died of injuries that he suffered in the incident.

While the general avalanche risk is expected to be moderate in the Teton area where small to large slab avalanches could be human triggered on steep avalanche-prone slopes, the danger should still be taken seriously, the center said. 

It added these slab avalanches could be 2 to 4 feet deep and could be large enough to seriously injure or kill a person. 

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Skier Triggers Avalanche in Grand Teton National Park

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Four skiers in Grand Teton National Park had to be rescued on Sunday after one of the skiers triggered an avalanche in the park.

The Teton Interagency Dispatch Center received an emergency call at approximately 2:30 p.m. Sunday about several skiers involved in an avalanche in the Olive Oil area of the park.

Four skiers were skiing the east face of Olive Oil when one of the skiers triggered an avalanche, although it was unclear what actions triggered the avalanche.

All the skiers were caught in the slide, estimated to be 40 feet wide and 2 to 3 feet deep. One of the skiers was able to dial 911 and reach the Teton Interagency Dispatch Center to ask for help and provide location information.  

Park rangers and Teton County Search and Rescue members jointly responded with park rangers and a helicopter.

One of the skiers, Stanley Edwards, 52, of Driggs, Idaho, suffered an injury and was short-hauled to a landing zone at Teton Village where he was then transported to St. John’s Health Center in Jackson.

Short-haul is a rescue technique where an individual or individuals, often with gear, are suspended below the helicopter on a 150 to 250-foot rope.

This method allows a rescuer more direct access to an injured party, and it is often used in the Teton Range where conditions make it difficult to land a helicopter in the steep and rocky terrain.

The other three skiers were able to ski out with emergency responders. 

Anyone recreating in avalanche terrain should practice safe travel practices.  

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