Snow King Mountain, Wyoming

From: The Snowy Torrents
February 16 was cloudy and snowing lightly at Snow King Mountain Ski Area. In the previous 24 hours, 4 inches of snow had fallen at the small ski area above the town of Jackson. Unsettled weather from the 13th-15th had deposited 8 inches of snow. During that time winds blew occasionally up to 20 mph from the south and southwest. Avalanche control within the ski area on January 26 indicated an unstable snow cover. One-pound explosives released several slabs up to 3 feet think.

Snow king Mountain Ski Area, small but challenging, has a history of avalanche accidents just outside of the ski area boundary. Undisturbed snow and steep tree-covered slopes and gullies ending right at the edge of downtown Jackson entice skiers to leave the ski area and venture into the backcountry. A short time before 1300, a group of four locals - Pierre Muheim, 27; Bob Jackola, Ed Garcia, and Jim Gates - left the top of the double chairlift and skied along the east ridge of Snow King Mountain. The men crossed the ski area boundary and a posted avalanche warning sign as they started the short climb along the ridge. From the high point just east of the radio towers, the men put their skis back on and headed to what locals call Ferrin's Run or Ferrin's Slide, a known avalanche path.

Gates went first, and started to make several traverses at the top of the slope to "check the stability of the snow." As he started back across the slope he hesitated and stopped. Apparently the wait was too long for Muheim. He shoved off straight down the fall-line and had only made a few turns when the snow fractured. Gates yelled for him to head to the trees, but he turned the wrong direction. A spider web of fractures shot out in all directions and torrent of snow swept him downhill into scattered timber.

Before the snow stopped, screams resonated back up the path as Muheim crashed through trees. The other three men quickly descended and followed Muheim's cries 250 yards down the slope. They found him immediately - not buried but wrapped around a pine tree. His right leg had been shattered by the impact with trees. Blood was spurting from his leg with each beat of his heart. Jackola and Gates did their best to aid their injured friend while Garcia skied down to get help. They tried direct pressure on the wound, but it did not control the bleeding. Soon after Garcia had left, Muheim lost consciousness. Jackola then headed down to make sure that rescuers had been notified. Within minutes Muheim stopped breathing. Gates started mouth-to-mouth rescue breathing, but he knew his friend was dying in his arms.

Garcia first skied to a house, but nobody was home. From there he raced to the Americana Hotel at the base of the mountain. Kicking his skis off he bolted inside to the Front Desk and reported the accident. The time was 1315 hours. Jackola arrived a few minutes later.

At 1327, the first rescue column of five ski patrollers headed to the accident. A second column with three other patrollers was dispatched 10 minutes later. Both columns reached the accident at 1412, about 40 minutes after the avalanche. Muheim was unconscious, not breathing and was in severe shock. Soon afterwards he went into cardiac arrest.

Cardio-pulmonary resuscitation was started immediately and continued throughout the evacuation. Though not far from a waiting ambulance, travel was slow because of rotten snow conditions in the trees. Deep, loose sugar snow - depth hoar - covered the ground. Patrollers on skis and hauling a sled with the weight of two men - the injured and one patroller doing CPR - sank to mid thigh on the sugar snow. It took a half-hour to evacuate Muheim to the ambulance.

At 1510, Muheim was wheeled into the Emergency Department at St. John's Hospital. There doctors tried to resuscitate him but couldn't. Besides broken bones in his lower leg, his femur was also broken, and it had severed the femoral artery. Dr. Bent Blue explained, "He basically arrived to the emergency room without any blood in him."

Ferrin's Run starts as an open slope but the starting zone funnels into gully covered with scattered timber. The upper portion of the north-facing slope measured 35 in steepness and steepened to 40. At an elevation of 8,000 and 150 feet across. It initially released on a weak layer about 40 inches above the ground, avalanche bulldozed to the ground and entrained the entire season's snow cover. The avalanche traveled 300 yards down the slope; it was classified as an SS-AS-3-O.

This accident demonstrates how violent the ride in a avalanche can be, especially when the snow flows through timber. Fractured femurs and pelvises are life threatening emergencies. Broken bone ends can cut arteries and cause internal bleeding. Death can occur in minutes. Even a textbook rescue of speed and efficiency couldn't save Muheim.

A final comment is about attitudes. The men knew they were venturing into avalanche terrain. On this fateful day their tracks passed within a few feet of an avalanche warning sign, but over the years they had all skied ferrin's Slide several times without incident. Muheim had had some avalanche awareness training, and as the skiers traversed out to Ferrin's, he even spoke about avalanches. The men knew there was some risk, but they seriously underestimated the danger that afternoon. They chose to ski an avalanche path that narrowed into a tree-covered gully. Perhaps it was because their previous experience in that area told them that it would not be a problem. Apparently their familiarity with the area caused lack of respect and resulted in the death of a friend.

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