UPDATE 4:30 p.m.: The Lincoln County Coroner has identified the skier who died Sunday in Prater Canyon as 41-year-old David Rice, formerly of Jackson and the once owner of Jackson Hole Music.
ORIGINAL STORY 3:40 p.m.: A skier was killed in an avalanche Sunday in the Wyoming Range in Prater Canyon outside of Star Valley Ranch.
The Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center reports two skiers were skiing off a feature called Little Poudre and triggered an avalanche.
“The second skier triggered an avalanche and he was carried into a gully with trees and bushes and was buried and killed,” said Frank Carus, executive director of the Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center.
The fatal avalanche report of the incident states the skiers arrived at the summer trailhead by snowmobiles before ascending up the skin track.
“The survivor of the accident heard one collapse while on the skin track to the ridge. They also reported that the area had been heavily wind-affected by a wind event that came through the region two days prior.” – Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center Fatal Avalanche Report, Little Poudre, Prater Canyon
The reports states, the first skier was able to excavate his partner from under two feet of snow in under 15 minutes, but found him pulseless with signs of a leg injury.
“The first skier performed CPR for 1.5 hours. Due to the nature of the visible leg injury and the subject’s position in the debris, it seems most likely that the skier was unconscious when the debris came to rest and may have died of trauma,” the report states.
Carus said the skier was from Alpine and worked in Jackson.
KHOL has not confirmed the skier’s identity, but Matt Hansen with Teton County Search and Rescue (TSCAR) Foundation said the Lincoln County Sheriff and Coroner’s offices are in charge of releasing that information. Neither could be reached for comment in time for publication.
Hansen said there were multiple search and rescue operations over the weekend as avalanches occurred across the region.
“It was a lot to deal with, especially with a fatality. Those are the worst calls. It’s not something that the volunteers ever want to see happen,” Hansen said.
‘Slab of snow on a house of cards’
The Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center issued an avalanche warning in the Tetons Friday as the recent storm approached. A wide swath of the region is still under “incredibly dangerous avalanche conditions,” according to the center’s website.
Both Hansen and Carus are advising recreators to avoid the steep slopes in the backcountry due to dangerous avalanche levels following the recent snowfall and cold temperatures following an extremely dry December.
Carus said old snow has just been sitting in the mountains and has recrystallized.
“Frost feathers, also called surface water, get buried by new snow which is just what started happening in January, it started getting buried by low density snow,” Carus said. “Then some more snow piled on top of that. So basically you have a slab of snow on a house of cards.”
“All that dry snow, that snow that fell, a month or two months ago was sitting under high pressure and the surface of the snow just became faceted,” Hansen said. “And then you put a bunch of new snow on top of that, and it’s basically putting it on ball bearings.”
The Monday Bridger-Teton avalanche forecast for the Greys River zone — which includes the Wyoming Range — states: “Triggering an avalanche large enough to bury, injure, or kill a person is very likely at all elevations. Avalanches can be triggered while riding a slope, or from far away and below. Destructive natural avalanches are likely and have the potential to run long distances. Traveling in, near, or under avalanche terrain is not recommended today.”
“I have spoken to a number of long-time locals here. This the touchiest snowpack and the biggest avalanche cycle that they’ve seen,” Carus said.
“I think a lot of people are familiar with the terrain in the Tetons and familiar with a snowpack that’s fairly forgiving, maybe some big wind slabs and some other avalanche problem types. But this layer of weak snow and its facets and buried surface here is particularly touchy and responsible for avalanches propagating from a distance and quite far. So that’s why we’ve been in high danger for so many days.” -Frank Carus, Executive Director of the Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center
Multiple weekend search and rescue calls
Hansen said TSCAR has been out to several rescues this weekend, with one person buried in the snow in Idaho Friday, who survived. He said there were multiple calls Sunday afternoon within two hours, including the Prater Canyon fatality, which they responded to around 1:30 p.m.
Hansen said there were no known backcountry skiing or snowboarding deaths last winter, but one snowmobiler died in the region. He is encouraging everyone to be cautious in 2024.
“We need to take really, extra, more caution out there. You can’t just operate like normal,” Hansen said. “Check your friends, make sure you’re doing beacon checks and that you have the skills and the gear and the knowledge to go in the backcountry and do it safely.”
“This avalanche problem is going to be with us through the week,” Carus said. “It’s not going away until we bury it with five or six feet of snow. We’re not there yet. I’m sure we’re going to be in considerable danger.”
“Avalanches don’t know that you’re an expert and will kill you no matter how much you know,” Carus said. “So maintain really wide margins right now.”