Avalanche Tetons claims three

From: Jackson Hole Guide. By: Virginia Huidekoper
"The whole thing didn't seem real." Jesse Reimer, 17, from Philadelphia was describing the harrowing experience when an avalanche in the Tetons snuffed out the lives of three members of a National Outdoor Leadership (NOLS) expedition Wednesday, January 16. Reimer was standing on an adjacent slope, "I heard a rumble, looked up and saw everyone tumbling, being knocked around and disappearing," he exclaimed. "I could hear one of the guys yelling 'swim!'"

In spite of quick rescue efforts, killed were David Silha, 20, Minneapolis, Minn., Michael Moseley, 24, Metaire, La., and Bart Brodisky, 18, Philadelphia, Penn.

The tragic event, the first fatal winter mountaineering accident in Grand Teton Nat'l. Park, occurred on the 4th day of January during a 10 day NOLS winter climbing course. Twelve men lead by veteran mountaineer, Tom Warren, 27, now a resident of Alta, had spent two nights camped at Amphitheater Lake in snow caves. Wednesday morning they set out to move their base to a site on Teton glacier where they would practice winter climbing and camping techniques.

Traveling on skis, each man carried all the food, fuel and equipment he would need for a ten day stay. Their packs weighed close to 100 pounds.

"It was a bit windy," said leader Warren, "not too cold but the temperature was well below freezing." Crossing the steep slope that leads from the lake to the glacial moraine (9,500 ft.), the mountaineers set up fixed ropes and belayed each other one at a time to insure their safety from a possible slide.

With Warren in the lead, the expedition divided into two groups. In the advance part of seven were Warren, Peter Randall, 21, Newton, Pa., Donald Webber, 21, Lander, Wes Krause, 20, Driggs, and three victims, Moseley, Silha and Brodsky. In the rear were assistant NOLS leader, Bill Brudigam, 23, Lander, David Lundy, 20, State College, Pa., Jessie Reimer, Wyncott, Pa., George Huey, 20, New York City and Ted May 21, Birmingham, Pa. Wes Krause was breaking trail up the slope of the moraine and had nearly reached the top when the slide broke, "I did not hear anything or have any warning," said Krause, " suddenly I knew I was moving and the slope was breaking away. All I could think of was to fight to stay on top." Krause was swept almost from the top to the outer edge of the 500 vertical foot slide and only partly buried. "I was traveling so fast, and thought we'd be swept into the gully below when suddenly it stopped," he continued.

Below Krause on the slope, Warren heard a rumble. "Everything started sliding," he remarked, "I tumbled and was thrown up on top of a huge boulder free from the slide. The remainder of the group were near the foot of the slope.

The survivors were only partly buried and able to extricate themselves. Members of the rear party witnessing the scene strained to keep track of the tumbling bodies. Brudigam swiftly took his knife and slashed away at the ropes that held their shovels on their back-packs. They were equipped with five shovels to use for digging shelters in the snow.

"We were digging in a matter of minutes," said Reimer, the youngest member of the expedition, "we probed first with ski poles and it couldn't have been more than 20 minutes before we reached them."

Despite the desperate effort, time had run out for the three men captured in hardened snow.

In desperation, the survivors kept administering mouth-to-mouth respiration and heart massage until darkness overtook them. "I guess we knew it was a lost cause but we kept trying," said Wes Krause of the two hour effort.

A saddened and exhausted group huddled together in a make-shift camp for the night. "No one cared about eating," said Reimer, "we were all sickened by the experience. But we did feel very close to each other." Warren and Krause skied down the long slopes in the dark, arriving at park headquarters about 10:00 p. m.

The next day expedition members hauled the bodies down to Delta lake where a contract helicopter from Greybull was able to pick them up when the skies cleared in late afternoon. Park rangers Tom Milligan and Pete Hart climbed up to the sight of the accident on Friday. "It was a big one," Milligan said of the slide, "and in an unlikely place as far as we are concerned." Hart pointed out that the slope was only moderately steep and covered with huge boulders. "Ordinarily you'd expect the rocks to support the snow," said Hart, " in fact, we have skied across this area several times." "We certainly have confidence in Tom Warren's ability as a mountaineer," they added, "it was just one those unpredictable acts of nature." Warren, a native of Riverton, has been with NOLS since it's establishment in 1965. Twice he has climbed to the summit of the Grand Teton in mid-winter. He had taught at least 30 courses (10days) in the mountains without a serious mishap. Last August he and a companion were the ones to join Burt Jarvis, who was seriously injured near the summit of Mt. Owen. They aided in the daring rescue by helicopter. Warren holds an advanced rating in the Nat'l, Ski Patrol for avalanche training.

Paul Petzoldt, founder of the Lander based NOLS, was on hand to greet the saddened expedition members on their return. "This is a tough experience for anyone to take," he remarked, "and we have to admire the way the men reacted." Questioned about the inherent danger in the mountains at this time of the year, Petzoldt replied, "our training is all oriented to make living and traveling in the mountain as safe as possible. However, we deal in real mountains, real rivers and there's is no make believe about it. If there isn't some element of danger there isn't adventure." He added, "This kind of adventure tracks the more vigorous and intellectual type of individual, the duds don't come." NOLS enrolls about 200 students annually in winter and summer trips. NOLS student Krause summed it up, "It's been a harrowing experience but I don't think it will keep any of us from going back."

From: The Snowy Torrents
Weather observations taken at the Jackson Hole Ski Resort at roughly the same elevation (9,400 feet) and 11 miels south-southwest of the accident site, indicated the following conditions: Snowfall began on Saturday morning, January 12, after an extended period of sub-zero temperatures. Snow accompanied by strong west-southwest winds, continued on January 13 and by the next day, 11 inches of new snow were measured. The morning of January 15 was overcast and warm with light rain falling at 8,200 feet. By afternoon, rain turned to light snow. Temperature extremes at 9,400 feet were 31F and 21F. January 16 dawned clear with continued strong winds and continued warming, with a temperature maximum of 34F.

On January 12, a 15-member National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) Teton Winter Mountaineering Expedition set out for a 2-week trip into Grand Teton National Park. Led by two experienced mountaineers, they traveled on skis to their first night's campsite in heavy snow and strong winds. The storm continued through January 15.

On January 16, finally under clear skies, the group planned to traverse the Amphitheater under Disappointment Peak in order to reach Glacier Gulch and ultimately, Teton Glacier. One student became ill. He, one of the leaders, and another student, began the trip back out at 1115 hours. About 15 minutes later, the remaining 12 members of the group began the traverse. As they successfully belayed each other across the steep, convex snowslope of the Amphitheater, they noted sluffing in the new snow. Next they had to climb the terminal moraine in Glacier Gulch. Seven of the 12 men had reached the base of the 35 slope. After unroping, they began traversing and kick=turning on skis up the moraine. The surface was a rippled wind crust, and they all were having difficulty edging on the hard snow.

At about 1550, Wes Krause, 20, and Mike Moseley, 24, were in the lead and nearing the top of the slope. Expedition leader, Tom Warren, 27, followed 60 feet behind Krause and Moseley. Bart Brodsky, 18, was about 200 feet below and to the west of Warren. Three Others, Peter Rendall, 21, Donald Webber, 21, and David Silha, 20, were just beginning to ascend the moraine. After Warren had taken about eight steps uphill and was about 50 feet from the top of the moraine, the avalanche released. Warren was carried 50 feet down slope and ended up on a large boulder, buried to his waist in a standing position. Krause and Moseley were carried about 500 feet down slope. Krause managed to stay on top of the snow by swimming and ridding himself of one ski, poles, and pack. Moseley was buried about 15 feet below Krause, Brodsky was carried about 50 feet below Krause. Brodsky was carried about 50 feet by the slide and buried. Webber, Rendall, and Silha were all hit, carried less than 15 feet, and buried.

The remaining five members of the party, William Brudigam, Jesse Reimer, David Lundy, George Huey, and Ted May, had just completed the traverse from the Amphitheater. They were resting and beginning to put on their skis in a safe area above and to the south of the slide path. All five witnessed the slide and saw the others disappear from view. It took these five men about 3 minutes to get to the avalanche area. Huey, May and Brudigam went immediately to where Webber, Rendall, and Silha were buried. The tops of Webber and Rendall's heads were exposed: they were dug out from just under the surface in about 3 minutes. Warren joined in the digging and had David Shila's head exposed 8 minutes after the slide had occurred. Silha had been buried face down, head downhill, and under 1-1/2 feet of snow. He was not breathing and did not respond to artificial respiration. Brudigam, Webber, Rendall, and Warren began probing for Brodsky, Brudigam, who had marked the last-seen point, located Brodsky face down in a prone position 2 feet under the snow surface. It took 10 minutes to dig him out, so it was at least 25 minutes after the slide before cardiopulmonary resuscitation was initiated. He did not respond.

Krause, free of the snow when the avalanche stopped, could hear Moseley groan. Moseley's pack was on top of the snow but was not attached to Moseley. Krause began digging under the pack. Lundy and Reimer helped him dig and probe 5 minutes later. Finally Krause hit a boot with a ski pole. Moseley was lying face down with his knees bent and his feet extending upward. He was buried about 3 feet below the surface and about 5 feet downhill from his pack. Moseley was dug out about 20 minutes after the avalanche. He was given cardiopulmonary resuscitation immediately, but he did not respond.

For the next hour and 25 minutes, cardiopulmonary resuscitation was administered to all three victims. Finally, at 1745, Warren decided no more could be done. There was no sign of life in any of the victims. Brudigam was left in charge with instructions for the survivors to move to Delta Lake. Warren and Krause skied out to report the accident at Park Headquarters at 2210 that night. Helicopter evacuation of the bodies on January 17 concluded the rescue, and the remaining NOLS party members skied out on January 18.

The avalanche was classified as HS-AS-4 with a fracture depth averaging 2 feet. The avalanche, 350 yards in width, traveled 600 feet down slope to the base of the 35 southwest-facing slope. The elevation was 9,400 feet.

The subzero cold spell of the preceding week, and the high winds and heavy snowfall just 4 days prior to the avalanche, combined to set up highly unstable wind slab conditions.

The danger of the moraine in deceptive to the route finder because numerous large boulders protrude from the snow surface. Although these rocks did keep a portion of the slope from sliding, the slab generally flowed over and around them. Thus, the apparent anchor points provided no safety from the ensuing avalanche.

In his accident report, National Park Service Ranger Peter Hart concluded that the party had ascended the wrong slope at the wrong time. Since alternate routes all contained some avalanche danger, it is purely speculation to suggest that another route would have been safer. The group probably should not have been traveling anywhere in the area after 4 days of storm with high winds and warming temperatures.

This accident demonstrates the ever=present risk involved in winter mountaineering. If individuals chose this form of recreation, they must also accept the accompanying risk.

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