Wyoming, Grand Teton National Park, South Teton
On February 22 at 1120, Wray Landon (31) was caught in an avalanche and carried to his death while skiing near the summit of the South Teton. Landon was skiing with partners Nathan Brown (32) and Brady Johnston (27). Both searched the slide path for Landon immediately after the avalanche occurred. They descended the path to the edge of a steep cliff where they could see something in the debris field over 1000 feet below, though they could not tell if it was Landon. At that point, Brown called 911 and was connected to Park Dispatch. Park rangers and several Teton County Search and Rescue (TCSAR) personnel responded to the scene using the Teton County Sheriff’s Office rescue helicopter.
At 1335, rangers located the debris field and Landon’s body, and while hovering nearby, determined that Landon was deceased. TCSAR personnel used explosives which were dropped from the helicopter to control slopes that rangers would have to cross over or under to reach the body. Rangers were flown to a staging area at Snowdrift Lake where they then skied to the body. The body was extricated via helicopter long line to the valley and the rescue rangers were picked up at Snowdrift Lake and flown back to the Jackson Hole Airport.
I talked to Brown by cell phone and told him to descend Garnet Canyon via the route they had climbed that morning. Johnston and Brown skied back to the Taggart Lake Trailhead without further incident, arriving at 1600. Analysis
Under mostly sunny skies at the summit, these ski mountaineers discussed their options. They considered skiing the Southeast Couloir, but were concerned that with its east and south exposure, it would be sun crusted and not very enjoyable skiing. The second option was to ski the South Face, which also had the potential for sun crusts given its aspect. Everyone in the party knew that one of the south couloirs, known as the Amore Vita, had been skied two days before by a party of two. The group could still see the ski tracks in the snow and Brown had spoken to a member of that party, Steve Romeo, about the conditions. The group felt that the Amore Vita was their best option because it had been previously skied and would likely provide better and safer snow conditions because it was protected from direct sunlight. Johnston told me that he and Landon had skied that line together about three times in the past. Brown told me that he had skied the South Face one time before.
After the group settled on the Amore Vita, they started down towards the South Face one at a time. Johnston went first, and Brown noted that he was aggressively jumping on the snow above the Southeast Couloir testing its stability. They found that only a shallow sun crust would break up and slide away. The group continued to descend to the skier’s right of the Southeast Couloir on a steep slope described by Brown to be around 50 degrees. The group was spread out as they reached the top portion of the South Face. Johnston was in the lead, followed by Landon and then Brown. They traversed one at a time, high across the top of the South Face snowfield, ski cutting and jumping on the slope to test stability. They regrouped on a 20 to 25 degree portion of the slope high on the skier’s right side. The main portion of the South Face snowfield was below them, later estimated to be about 35 degrees. From his previous descent of the South Face, Brown recognized that the slope held “way more snow” than he had seen there before, and he said that to the group. On the slope, they could clearly see the two sets of tracks left the by the group that had skied the Amore Vita.
Johnston skied the slope first, moving left towards the middle of the slope before turning back to the right towards the entrance to the Amore Vita. He told me that he was skiing “light” because the snow definitely felt weird. He noted that they were aware that there was a wind slab on the slope. In relation to the previous tracks on the slope, Johnston said that he was basically skiing the same line. He arrived at the entrance to the Amore Vita and looked back up to Landon and Brown. Landon yelled down to Johnston that he thought he could enter the Amore Vita from where he was standing with Brown, but Johnston yelled back that that was not the best way in. (Note: It is apparently possible to enter the Amore Vita at that point, however the route is more difficult and would require technical down climbing and significant exposure.) Brown said that Landon then looked at him, turned away and started skiing. He said he thinks Landon made about two or three turns when he heard a “whumpf.” Brown realized that a slab avalanche had broken right under his own skis, and he quickly worked to step uphill off of the blocks that were moving under his feet. Brown managed to stop on the bed surface near the avalanche crown. He did not hear any sound from Landon, and when he was able to look up, he could not see Landon.
In my separate interview with Johnston, he guessed that Landon was four to eight turns into the run when the avalanche occurred. He said that Landon appeared to be skiing the same line that he had, or possibly a little to the skier’s left of his line. When the avalanche occurred, Johnston noted that “the slide released really quickly,” and he could not see Landon in it at all. He described the slide as being so quick that it seemed to suck the air along with it. A powder cloud developed, and Johnston, who was standing on rocks, was showered with snow.
Brown recalled that immediately after the avalanche, he was yelling down to Johnston, though he couldn’t remember what he was saying. Brown then opened his transceiver and realized that it did not appear to be working. He looked to Johnston who also had his transceiver out and was moving into a search pattern on the slide path. Brown followed behind Johnston and scanned the slide path for signs of Landon. Fewer than ten minutes had elapsed since the avalanche occurred, and at that point Brown made the 911 call.
While some people consider the type of ski mountaineering that Landon was doing to be inherently dangerous, those of us who enjoy this activity understand the associated risks and work hard to mitigate them. The hazards can be many and include rock fall, fatigue, falls, equipment failure, weather and avalanches.
Landon’s party was well prepared both in experience and with equipment. All three members of the party had skied on the South Teton before, as well as having done many other ski mountaineering descents in the Teton Range. They were informed as to the current and past snow conditions. They had talked to the party that skied the Amore Vita two days before and they had discussed their intended route and associated hazards before they began skiing. All three members of the party were extremely fit and mentally prepared for their skiing objective. There is no evidence that peer pressure, haste, or any overwhelming drive to complete the objective clouded their judgment. They realized that the slope they were skiing was a wind loaded slab. They ski cut and kicked at the slope as they crossed it one at a time. Unfortunately, when Landon began skiing, he most likely initiated the slide that killed him by impacting what many avalanche professionals call a “sweet spot,” or an area of weakness in the snow pack that when affected can initiate a fracture. This was an unfortunate accident in which Landon made a calculated risk and paid the ultimate price. (Source: Scott Guenther, Incident Commander)