American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fall on Snow — Ski Mountaineering, Unable to Self-Arrest, Wyoming, Middle Teton, Ellingwood Couloir

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  • Publication Year: 2012

FALL ON SNOW – SKI MOUNTAINEERING, UNABLE TO SELF-ARREST

Wyoming, Middle Teton, Ellingwood Couloir

At 0140 July 2, Ryan Redmond (32), Ben Johnson, Rob Backlund, and Kevin Salys departed the Lupine Meadows trailhead intending to climb and then ski the Ellingwood Couloir on the south side of the Middle Teton in Grand Teton National Park. After an uneventful approach to the bottom of the couloir, they began their ascent at dawn. Clear skies and cool nighttime temperatures created a firm, icy snow surface. Thequartet used ice axes and crampons to facilitate their climb. Johnson and Salys climbed to the top of the couloir. About two thirds of the way up the couloir, Redmond and Backlund ended their ascent. Redmond was tired and they felt that because a runnel was in the middle of the couloir above them, the best skiing conditions would be in the lower section.

They donned their skis and at approximately 1000. Backlund watched Redmond begin his ski descent. He was surprised by how aggressively Redmond made his initial turns. Redmond made three telemark turns, then fell. He slid head downhill on his back. He was wearing a climbing helmet and had attached an ice ax to one of his ski poles. His attempts to arrest the fall were unsuccessful.

Reportedly, he screamed once. During the fall he went over a slight dip or bump in the couloir, which, according to Backlund, seemed to compress his body. He came to rest on an old avalanche debris cone at the mouth of the couloir and remained motionless. He fell approximately 800 vertical feet.

At 1010 Salys used his cell phone to contact a dispatcher at the Teton Interagency Dispatch Center. Salys said that he, Backlund, and Johnson were concerned about the snow conditions and that they would carefully descend to Redmond and assess his injuries. I mentioned that once they began their descent, cell phone coverage would be difficult. Though they tried several times to call during their descent, the initial call was the only direct contact I had with Salys, Johnson, or Backlund. Johnson was the first person to reach Redmond around 1130. Redmond was unconscious and his skis had come off. Other climbers in the area came to help. Johnson provided initial patient care. Backlund and Salys successfully down climbed the couloir joining Johnson and other rescuers at 1320.

At 1020 I contacted rangers Brian Hays and G.R. Fletcher. At 1220 they arrived at the scene of the accident. After they assessed Redmond’s injuries, they suggested that a helicopter short-haul operation would provide the most efficient rescue. Redmond remained unconscious during the entire rescue.

Helicopter 20 HX arrived at Lupine Meadows at approximately 1230. At 1401 Redmond and Armitage were short-hauled from the bottom of the Ellingwood Couloir to the rescue cache. Dr. Will Smith, who serves as the Grand Teton National Park medical director, and several EMS providers stabilized his injuries and prepared him for the life flight. At 1441 Redmond left Lupine Meadows aboard an Air Idaho life flight, which took him to Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center in Idaho Falls, where he was admitted in critical condition.

Fletcher, Hays, Backlund, Johnson, and Salys safely descended to the Lupine Meadows Trailhead and arrived at the rescue cache at 1900.

Analysis

Redmond is an AmeriCorps volunteer affiliated with the Teton Science School in Kelly, WY. Johnson and Backlund work for the Teton Science School and Salys works for another organization in Wilson, WY. Johnson and Backlund were casually acquainted with Redmond through the Teton Science School. They had known each other for about a month. Johnson, Backlund, and Salys were better acquainted with each other and had embarked on previous ski mountaineering outings including some in the Teton Range. This was the first ski mountaineering trip either of them had taken with Redmond. Johnson and Backlund knew Redmond was a good skier. Conversations they had with Redmond indicated that he had been a high school ski racer and had some backcountry skiing experience. They weren’t sure about his ski mountaineering background.

In discussing this accident with Backlund, Johnson, and Salys they offered these observations. They stated it would have been nice to know more about Redmond, including his emergency contact information and his ski mountaineering background. Backlund observed that Redmond had stated that he was excited to ski the Ellingwood Couloir and hoped to “ski it hard.” This statement and the aggressive way Redmond initiated his turns surprised Backlund, who was more accustomed to a conservative approach of testing the snow with skis on before committing to more aggressive turns. Finally, they commented that it would be difficult to arrest a fall on the steep, firm snow that existed in the Ellingwood Couloir. This is an important point. On steep, firm snow a fall must be arrested immediately to avoid serious consequences. (Source: Ranger Ron Johnson – Incident Commander)

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