Two Wydaho Avalanche Deaths on 12.26.2013: Can Social Media Save Lives?

Pucker Face Avalanche December 26 2013
Fatal Pucker Face avalanche event 12/26/2013

On December 26th,  2013 tragedy struck when a backcountry skier was killed in an avalanche on Pucker Face just South of JHMR.

The avalanche buried local skier Michael Kazanjy, 29, at about 12:50 pm under 4 to 6 feet of snow.  Though he was quickly located by friends with avalanche transceivers and a doctor performed CPR,  Kazanjy was pronounced dead at 1:31 p.m.

Pucker Face Avalanche Fatality December 26th, 2013Avalanche tragedy struck again at 2:45pm in  the nearby Snake River Range between Jackson Hole and the Palisades Reservoir.  Rex J. Anderson, 39, of Arco, Idaho was buried while snowmachining in a remote area near Upper Palisades Lake.

McNeely Cove Avalanche Fatality December 26, 2013Friends located Mr. Anderson with avalanche transceivers within 10 minutes.  CPR was initiated immediately and continued for 20 minutes, but Anderson could not be revived. Air Idaho Rescue was dispatched and confirmed the deceased at 3:37 p.m.

These are the first two documented Wydaho avalanche fatalities of the 2013/14 winter.  Last winter three skiers died from avalanches in the mountains around Jackson Hole.

Michael Kazanjy skiing the Tetons in happier times.
Michael Kazanjy skiing the Tetons.  Photo from ABC News.

The avalanche that took snowmachiner Anderson happened on a NW facing 36-40 degree slope at an elevation of 9500′.  The avalanche that took skier Kazanjy happened on Pucker Face, an East facing 45+ degree slope with an upper elevation of 10,300′.

On the day before these two avalanche fatalities, an avalanche eerily similar to the fatal Pucker Face slide was observed near Teton Pass.  A large avalanche swept down a similar steep East facing slope with a starting zone elevation of 10,000 feet.

This event was submitted to forecasters and promptly added to the Avalanche Event Map by the fine folks at Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center.

Jackson Hole Avalanche Fatalities December 26 2013
Click image for full size detail. Note that this slide stepped down like the Pucker Face slide. Though I was not able to get close to the crown and examine the slide I would estimate both layers to be 1-2 feet thick. Based on observation of this photo alone the Taylor Mountain avalanche appears to have triggered naturally.

The East facing slope off the long North Ridge of Taylor Mountain where the 12.25.13 avalanche occurred is not quite as steep as Pucker Face but is within a few degrees and has similar cliffbands and geology.

Slide activity on a slope like Taylor’s NE flank signals that similar slopes like Pucker Face are primed for avalanches as well.  Like Cody Peak, Taylor’s steep East facing slopes are usually leeward and often contain heavy windloading and thick windslabs.

Pucker Face Avalanche Fatality December 26th, 2013
Click image for full HD view and notice the similarities of these two East facing slopes. Rendezvous Mountain and the Upper Tramdock are visible in the foreground of this image.

If experienced backcountry skiers like Michael Kazanjy and his partners had seen an image of the recent large slide on Taylor Mountain, perhaps they would not have attempted to ski Pucker Face the following day.  Unfortunately they never saw this image because it was never posted online and even if it was posted online, odds are very few people would have seen it.

Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center and other avalanche services do amazing work and provide crucial services to mountain communities.  Their positive impact would be improved greatly if social media were incorporated more effectively to reach a wider audience.

Currently Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center does not have a Facebook or Twitter presence.  Local non-profit Friends of the B-T Avalanche Center has 362 Facebook likes and the last post from them is dated August 5th.  On Twitter Friends of B-T Avalanche Center currently has 292 followers and the last tweet from them is also dated August 5th.

Perhaps we should all like and share their pages so they know that we are listening and that their crucial work is appreciated.  That’s step one.  Step two is integrating social media with existing avalanche forecasting centers to enhance mountain communities’ overall avalanche awareness.

Submitting a picture to Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter is simple and effective: the more likes and shares a picture receives, the more people it will be shown to.  If images of significant nonfatal avalanches were shared promptly by reliable sources, these images would undoubtedly get a lot of likes/shares/retweets and more people would be more aware of what’s going on out there.

If backcountry enthusiasts playing with their smartphones in the JH tram line on the morning of December 26th had seen a large East facing avy crown at the top of their newsfeed, maybe no one would have dropped into Pucker Face that day.  Maybe not, but it can’t hurt to raise awareness.

Skiers reported the Taylor Peak avalanche immediately after returning from skiing Mt. Glory on December 25th and attempted to submit a photo of the aftermath.  The photo was apparently rejected because the file size was too large for the current system on B-T Avalanche’s website.  Submitting a photo to Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center is time-consuming, exceptionally difficult to do via smartphone or tablet, and images “should not be wider than 500px and the file should not be larger than 200 KB“.

Once a picture is cropped, adjusted for brightness and contrast, resized under 500px, resaved under 200kb, and properly posted  to B-T’s Avalanche Event Map it is still difficult to access via smartphone, resolution is limited, and odds are the image won’t be seen by many people in a timely manner unless it gets featured on B-T’s front page photo gallery.  Even then it’s not getting the type of exposure that social media integration would provide.  In short, the current system could be improved upon.

The limitations of the existing avalanche awareness system are the fault of no one: the technology and nature of modern media is evolving so quickly that new ways of sharing information effectively are always coming online.

If an image of a big slide was promptly posted to Facebook or Twitter by a reputable and reliable source, backcountry enthusiasts would like and share it profusely in hopes of saving a life the following day.  Perhaps something as simple as using a tag like #btavalanche or #jhavalanche would do the trick.

Maybe some of the local web developers could donate a little time and effort toward improving the existing site jhavalanche.org by incorporating better video and image file uploading/sharing combined with integrated social media functionality.  Improved smart phone interface seems intelligent as well, because a lot of information-seeking people don’t own computers anymore.

Many backcountry skiers can’t even afford a computer, internet access, or a quiet, convenient place to do their computing.  Almost everyone has a smartphone and many people diddle around on one incessantly.  Raising avalanche awareness and sharing snow science through smartphone-friendly social media seems like the way forward.

How can we more effectively share information to raise the avalanche awareness of Jackson Hole and similar mountain communities?  That’s the question I find myself asking in the wake of these two tragedies.  What are your thoughts?

RIP Michael Kazanjy and Rex Anderson.  Respect to all those who’ve died doing what they loved in the mountains.  Let us not speak any ill of the dead.  One Love.  Peace.

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16 thoughts on “Two Wydaho Avalanche Deaths on 12.26.2013: Can Social Media Save Lives?”

  1. My local avy center (Crested Butte Avalanche center) uses social media quite a bit. Sometimes it’s to advertise an event, like the annual avy awareness night or beacon brush-up. Last week we had a notable and very visible slide, so a forecaster went to the crown line the following day and posted a video on FB, which was subsequently shared by others. It’s also the only place to get info during early and late season when the center isn’t running (sometimes from a forecaster doing a brief synopsis, sometimes from skiers observing slides which they can no longer submit to the center).

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  2. If that photo of Pucker Face avelanche had been submitted to a social media site prior to the 26th Mike and crew would have avoided that location. I agree.

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  3. As a web developer who has donated a lot of time to our local avalanche center (Friends of the Chugach) I’m going to say this article is a tad bit imflamtory. A Twitter and Facebook presence isn’t going to help people make informed decisions – a point especially pertinent when you consider ave danger was considerable 2 days before the accident. That said… I set up the advisory form for our forecasters so they could easily integrate existing photos from publicly submitted observations – I also set up Moxicode File Manager so they can easily upload / manage files and link them to the daily forecast. We have a daily updated Facebook page (and a daily updated Twitter account) but they are no substitute for the advisory. If any Bridger Teton people are reading this and would like copies of the code please email me (via akmountain.com) and I’m happy to share what I have.

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    1. I’m curious what part of this article you find inflammatory. I find your comment a bit confusing because it assumes that I’m suggesting that Facebook and Twitter updates could substitute for daily advisories (which I am not suggesting). What I am suggesting is that social media sharing of links to advisories and timely pictures of significant slides, snowpack observations, and interesting articles/videos on snow science will get more people visiting the avalanche center, reading the advisories, thinking about the snowpack, studying snow science, sharing their own observations, etc. That is, after all, how social media works: it feeds people information on topics that they are interested in.

      This article itself is a prime example of what I’m talking about. I wrote this article on a new and relatively unknown blog that is not even listed with the big search engines yet. I shared an image of a recent nonfatal avalanche on social media linking to this article and I spent $60 promoting the social media post because I feel strongly about the topic and want to raise awareness. In 30 hours this article has had 6,913 visitors and 4,952 of those visitors came from clicking a link on Facebook. Another thousand visits came from links on Twitter, Reddit and Google+. If I hadn’t shared that picture on Facebook or Twitter, at least 6/7ths of the people who’ve visited this article would not have even seen it. Does social media sharing of avalanche pics work? Duh.

      Avalanche forecasters could benefit from using social media in a similar fashion. More visitors means more awareness. More visitors also means more people benefiting from and donating to avalanche forecast organizations.

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  4. The BT avalanche website is merely a rough draft of what is going on out there. Last year, the same day fatalities occurred in low hazard days on lower to mid elevations. Twitter, Facebook, or any other form of wireless communication would have done nothing to prevent those events.
    It seems these days, humans are glued to their phone in hopes of finding the sacred water of life through how many likes they get or friends they have in a virtual world. Connecting people more to their Iphones in the backcountry will only further hinder modern days lack of presence in the mountains.

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  5. Do we really need social media for stuff like this? What next an app for aiare level 1 training? Download the app and you are good to go with your avie training. If people are going to venture into the backcountry, it should be their responsibility to check the forecast and event map…just like it is a bc enthusiaists responsibility to be digging pits and gaining first hand knowledge of the current snow conditions of where you are going to ski along with using what the avie forecasters are saying to make an educated (responsible) decision about the aspects and locations you are going to ski. This is a tragic event and I feel bad for all those who have been touched by this incident. I think this really furthers the need for more education on backcountry and side country travel as this type of recreation continues to grow!!!!

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  6. I’ve actually been wanting to put together a Avalanche event app for a while. Would let you post events tagged at your current local as well as see events in your area. I think if we could just generate a bit of fundraising this is a very doable project

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  7. I’ve actually been thinking about making a app to do exactly this. I bet if we could get some fundraising we could put something great together. Something mobile friendly that would allow people to post event at there currently local and view event in their area.

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  8. This article is spot on. I can imagine a computer generated map that looks at the aspect and elevation of the reported slides and highlights similar slopes in the area. Despite most people’s assertions that the victims of slides are usually “dumb-asses”, in reality they are usually risk takers who have miscalculated. Much of the time those miscalculations are benign and every so often we loose friends. Time to stop holding ourselves separate from the victims. We are the victims, every time one of our friends rolls the dice and looses. Very few people I know, are actually suicidal. The vast majority of us hide behind the title of expert thinking we are saving ourselves with knowledge. I think it is time to review the qualifications it takes to consider ourselves as experts in avalanches. It is my opinion that you really are not an expert until you’ve been surprised by a snow slide more than once. Slides that ripped bigger, ran longer, started on too flat or too steep of a slope or started on a day we thought we were safe. Knowledge of snow behavior is very important but no one get’s through a lifetime of snow study without being surprised from time to time. With that surprise comes humility. I think it is time to remind people of the value of that humility, especially the so called experts, like me. I think Mike was exactly the type of expert that would have utilized the social media tools discussed in this article. I think the ideas put forth in this article are some of the most practical I’ve heard in years and I advise the other experts out there to remove their personal exceptional-ism when commenting on this page. Unless your perfect every time… if so you only prove to me your ignorance. RIP Mike.

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  9. The B-T Avalanche Center is a non-profit with (I assume as with many non-profits) limited funds. Their priority is to provide an accurate avalanche forecast first and foremost. Every year they have worked on improving their website, including the new “problem area” graphics that were added last year and this year they added the ability to submit images with your own avalanche observations. In my opinion they are trying to improve their site every year within the budget they are given.

    Also, the people who work for B-T Avalanche are avalanche forecasters, not web developers. I agree that a social media presence would be beneficial but it is a time consuming task, so it doesn’t surprise me that the center decides to focus on providing the facts.

    As an avid backcountry skier I check the forecast every day, as well as the avalanche event map. The event map did include the observation about the Taylor mountain avalanche (but without the photo as you noted). It included the aspect, estimated depth and destruction size and was posted on December 25th. The information was available. I agree that it would have possibly helped to distribute that information through a social media source, but maybe it wouldn’t. We may never know. Either way, I think that if you feel strongly enough to try out your hypothesis that social media can save lives that you should consider donating some of your time setting up a social media page for the B-T Avalanche Center and training them on how to update it.

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  10. I follow B-T Avalanche Center on FB, they have not updated since August. Maybe there is a better FB to follow that updates when there are avalanches and especially report when there are fatalities.

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