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.

Reality-Based News, and Resolutionary Views from Jackson Hole, WY.

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