SNOWY RANGE, WYOMING February 9, 1985

From: The Snowy Torrents

On Friday evening February 8, Steven Marquardt and Dennis Jeperson, both of Laramie headed west into the Snowy Range in southeast Wyoming for a weekend of snowmobiling. The men drove to the end of the plowed portion of Wyoming 130, just west of the small town of Centennial. From there it was about a 1-mile snowmobile ride to a cabin that Marquardt leased in Mountain Meadows. Both men were avid outdoorsmen; they also both worked for the U.S. Forest Service and knew the area well.

After an early breakfast Saturday morning the men climbed on their snowmobiles. Snow and blowing snow caused poor visibility that initially kept the men close to the cabin. The weather improved, so the men headed north through the mini glacier area and eventually ended near rock Creek Knoll. Both machines were running low on gas, so the men tried to find the sand Lake road to return to the cabin. They searched for a short time but couldn't find the road and ended back at the Rock Creek Knoll area.

At about 1015 Marquardt and Jeperson stopped to look over the east flank of Rock Creel Knoll, an area they wanted to cross. A large cornice overhung the slope, but old snowmobile tracks crisscrossed the slope and the entire knoll. Jeperson remarked that the slope looked like a good avalanche area. Marquardt agreed. Jeperson, in the lead, started out making a loop. Marquardt followed, presuming that they were turning around to take a different route. They crossed on a bench about a third of the way up the knoll, but Jeperson swung around the loop a second time. But this time he started up the knoll and Marquardt followed.

As they climbed up and across the slope the hillside fractured around them. Marquardt saw the moving snow, and both men were in the middle of the moving slab. Within seconds Marquardt was tossed from his machine into the tumultuous flow of the avalanche. He tried to swim but when the snow stopped he was buried. Immediately he tried to free himself, but all he could do was move his hands. He clawed away at the snow with his hands and soon he could move his arms. Marquardt then enlarged the space around his face. With more digging he could move his body and he started inching his way upwards to fresh air and life. Marquardt slowly dug through 3 feet of compacted debris. After 30 minutes Marquardt wiggled free from his tomb. The first thing he saw was his snowmobile at the bottom of the avalanche. Marquardt then expected to hear or see his friend; instead he was met by only the eerie sound of the wind

Fearful of a second avalanche, Marquadt moved his snowmobile away from the debris. If he lost his machine, he would have a long walk through deep snow to get help.

Marquardt returned to the debris and searched for his friend. Marquardt kept searching until he felt he could do nothing more without additional help.

It was a lonely ride back to the parking area at the end of Wyoming130. These he met other snowmobilers. There Marquardt asked Bill Salisbury to drive back to Centennial, about 6.5 miles down the road to call for help. On a piece of paper Marquardt wrote his name and the location of the avalanche and handed it to Salisbury. At 1330 hours the emergency call to 911 was made; Salisbury returned to the road closure to await rescuers.

Meanwhile at the road closure Marquardt had found some gas, so he and two other snowmobilers returned to the accident site to continue the search. They found Jeperson's snowmobile, but no sign of his friend. Sometime after 1400 hours the three returned to Wyoming 130 to meet and guide rescuers back to the accident site.

After the 911 call the Albany County Sheriff's Department mobilized deputies and equipment. The nearby Snowy Range Ski Area was notified and sent four trained National Ski Patrollers plus one of the ski area's owners. Into the pickup truck the patrollers loaded a snowmobile, a trauma toboggan, probe poles, shovels, oxygen and personnel bivouac gear. The group was headed by Neil Mathison an experienced avalanche-hand who had spent many seasons patrolling at Bridger Bowl Ski Area in Montana, and who also was an Albany County Sheriff's Deputy.

At about 1445 hours Marquardt and the other two snowmobilers who had helped search returned to the parking area and briefly met with the rescuers. They had found Jeperson's snowmobile. While rescue equipment was being loaded onto snowmobiles, Mathison talked with Marquardt and then briefed and organized the rescuers. By 1500 hours, 10 rescuers from the Sheriff's Department, the ski area, a couple of volunteers and Marquardt headed to the accident site.

Rescuers were slowed in their return to the avalanche when one of the snowmobiles broke down, but field repairs soon got it going again. After a cold windy ride on a rugged trail the rescuers reached the avalanche at 1556 hours.

While gear was being unloaded from the snowmobiles Mathison carefully interviewed Marquardt. Marquardt pointed out where he had been buried and where the two snowmobiles had been found. Mathison identified an escape route and the rescuers started the hasty search. Based on the flow of the avalanche and the victim's probable trajectory , Mathison instructed the rescuers to concentrate on spot probing an area of small trees and around Jeperson's snowmobile. The hasty search was done in about 5 minutes, but it was unsuccessful.

A coarse-probe line was started at the toe of the debris to search the highest probability area. The line worked uphill and after 15 minutes of probing, two rescuers next to each other had a strike. Mathison kept the line moving while he and another rescuer started digging. The digging, was slow and difficult in the compacted debris, but at 1627 hours they reached Jeperson's body.

Jeperson was found about 20 feet uphill of his snowmobile, just uphill of a small tree. He had been buried for 6 hours under 4 feet of snow. Snow was tightly packed around his body, including his face. An Army MAST helicopter had been requested but bad weather in Cheyenne had grounded the aircraft. Rescuers loaded the body into a sled and headed back to the trailhead. By 1800 hours all rescuers had returned to trailhead.

The slab that failed under Marquardt and Jerperson was larger than a football field. Rescuers estimated the avalanche fractured 3 feet deep for 450 feet across the east-facing slope. It ran just over 200 feet down the slope where most of the debris piled up on the bench the men had driven their machines across earlier.


We will never know why Jeperson took that second lap and started his snowmobile across the face of Rock Creek Knoll. Possibly the old snowmobile tracks in the area gave Jeperson a false sense of security and lulled him onto the slope, but only moments before the avalanche both men agreed the slope was avalanche prone. Jeperson must have thought the risk was acceptable; perhaps he believed that he wouldn't be caught or that nothing serious would happen if he was caught.

Neither man was equipped for avalanche rescue (Marquardt was extremely lucky, few buried victims, especially those buried several feet, are able to dig free), but tragically they knowingly chose to play in avalanche terrain. This accident raises the question: What is an acceptable risk? It's a question that all individuals and groups venturing into avalanche terrain must answer. Sadly, a wrong answer can result in painful lesson learned.

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