Wydaho Snow: 1.25.16: Two More JH Skier Fatalities & Pyramid Conditions Report

Yesterday, 1.24.16, at ~2:30pm two skiers died in an avalanche they set off just South of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. A third skier in their party managed to grab a tree while the other two were carried off cliffs and completely buried. Buckrail.com reported a 5-6 foot crown at ~9900′ on a steep, cliffed out, SSE facing slope.  For more info on that slide, check out the report at BT Avalanche Center.

I hope to get a look at the site on Wednesday when I have access to a JHMR lift ticket.  My guess is that it broke on slippery pre-Christmas sun crusts like the  natural slide we saw on the same aspect of The Pyramid on December 24th in the midst of this year’s “miracle” storms.

The skiers who died yesterday didn’t  have beacons or other avalanche gear. This is a good reminder how easy it is to get into serious trouble just outside the boundaries of JHMR.

These were the 3rd and 4th fatalities of lift-services skiers in Jackson Hole this winter. Two female snowboarders died inbounds earlier this season.

A splitboarder died in an avalanche on The Pyramid last Tuesday. I went up there yesterday to check out the scene of the accident, to pay my respects to the deceased, and to reflect on the frailty of life and how quickly beauty can transform into brutality in the backcountry ski world.

I couldn’t find anyone to go with me so I was ready to turn around at any time. Maestra and I hit the trailhead at 12:30 pm and found that four skiers and two dogs had gotten a head start on us. There was 2″ of fresh in the parking lot growing to 8-10″ of windblown fresh on the upper mountain. We were glad to have skin track setting guinea pigs above us until their presence became a safety hazard on the exposed upper mountain.

Temps were warm and skies were sunny down low. Snow was sticking to my topsheets and skins on the lower half of the ascent. By 3pm temps had cooled as snowbearing clouds had moved in: faint suncrusts are now to be found on some sunny slopes at lower elevations.

The 5-6 moose I encountered the last time I skied The Pyramid around New Years appeared to have moved on: no moose tracks apparent among the dozen or so recent ski/snowboard descent tracks still visible. Perhaps the moose have gotten spooked by all the recent skier and avalanche traffic.

On account of all the new snow I didn’t see any signs of recent avalanche activity visible from the skin track. I contemplated skiing down the slidepath to the debris pile but opted to ski the safer E Ridge instead.

We caught the party ahead of us just as they were surmounting the sketchy cliffband guarding the upper mountain. They were old friends of mine but I opted to turn around there rather than running the gauntlet with four people and two dogs above me. The skiing was great from just below the cliffband to bottom on aspects that weren’t sun affected.

Years ago I used to live on Fish Creek and skied The Pyramid almost every day, often with just my dog for company.  Back then I did a lot of pruning on the lower slopes.  It was “my mountain” in my eyes.

Looking back I wonder what the hell I was thinking while skiing that peak alone in all sorts of conditions: The Pyramid is steep, gnarly and slide prone. The steeps begin only a few hundred feet up the mountain and persist pretty much all the way to the summit. The NE Ridge is the standard ascent route, but several steep starting zones and slidepaths are unavoidable even there.

IMHO the upper ESE facing cliffband is the sketchiest spot, and years ago — 2009 or 2010 —  I did something about it by hanging an old dynamic rope down the standard ascent chute from a tree above. It gave skinners and bootpackers something solid to hold on to while swimming up that steep step. If the chute or snowfield overhead slid at least they, we, I would have a chance.

The rope lasted maybe a week until someone stole it, so I hung another line with a sign that said “don’t take this rope for safety’s sake”.

That rope was taken a few days later, probably by some “avalanche expert” who decided the rope itself was somehow a safety hazard. How well would it fly if someone cut down the fixed lines leading up to the lower saddle between the Grand and Middle Tetons?  Why take down an equally useful cord on a very steep and slide prone spot?

I think I will leave another life line on the upper Pyramid soon and see how long it lasts this time. Maybe my sign needs to be funny?

Today I am laying low and letting the mountains alone. Skate skiing the Park Road in prep for the Birkiebeiner sounds about right.