Avalanche Bowl, Teton Pass

From: The Jackson Hole News & Guide

The brother of a 27-year-old snowboarder who died in an avalanche while riding alone on Teton Pass last week said he hopes others learn a lesson from the tragedy. Peter Volf, the older brother of Pavel "Paul" Volf said Monday that calling his parents in the Czech Republic to relay the bad news was the hardest thing he's ever had to do. "I just wish there was no brother that would ever have to do that," Peter Volf said.

He made his comments in a Jackson condominium, surrounded by three Czechfriends who are part of a community of young, sports-minded outdoor-loving residents. Pavel, just into his third winter season, found a heaven in that society. He so loved the activities and freedomavailable in the American West, he never had time to watch television.

Search dog Soleil and handler Jason O'Neill, working under the threatening slope named Avalanche Bowl, pinpointed Volf's body Friday afternoon under four feet of avalanche debris. Friends and searchers still are uncertain when he left for his solo run on the south side of Teton Pass. Pavel Volf's roommate was not in town last week so Volf's absence was not immediately noticed. Friends said it was not uncommon to be out of touch for a couple of days.

It was a regular Teton Pass skier who first noticed signs of trouble. Keith Benefiel was enjoying the powder on KB ridge Feb. 29 when he saw atrack cutting off the crest and onto a steep face. It went only a fewyards before disappearing over the crown of an avalanche; the rest of the slope below had slid away and lay in a jumbled pile of debris running more than 200 yards down a gully below.

"I knew I was looking at the tracks of a dead man," Benefiel said. Theformer Search and Rescue volunteer two seasons ago found the tracks ofavalanche victim Johnny Beal who left the same ridge before being buriedalone in another gully below.Last week, Benefiel could not determine whether there were tracks out ofthe bottom of the slide. He skied down on the relatively safe crest ofthe ridge, knowing that any descent to the gully to check out the debriswould be folly. He shouted down. There was no response.

At home in Wilson, Benefiel reported his observation to his former team. For the next two nights, he had trouble sleeping. Search and Rescue director Tim Ciocarlan said that absent a report of a missing person, Benefiel's clues were too meager to launch a search.

Protecting searchers in the gully, something that was ultimately undertaken after Volf was reported missing, required a seven-hour operation, use of a helicopter and 27 hand charges.

Peter Volf was the next person to sense trouble when his brother didn't show up for work on Thursday. He called friends, then found his brother's car at the bottom of the Pass. It had snow on it and had been plowed in.

Immediately, Peter Volf and two friends geared up and headed for KB Ridge, begining their search at about midnight Thursday. They were in touch with a friend who notified authorities. The group followed the ridge down until they were able to enter the gully off its south side via a slope they felt was somewhat less threatening. They skied to perhaps 200 yards of where Paul Volf was eventually found, hoping hemight be stranded with a broken leg.

When they heard an alarming mass settling of the snowpack, they abandoned their sorrowful quest and retreated. Peter Volf said he never would have gone into the danger zone had he not been looking for his ownbrother.

Friday's search began at 6 a.m. and involved a core of volunteers andtwo dogs. Bombing took until early afternoon and produced several slides that covered the previous debris. It was not until about 1 p.m. that a couple of searchers and the dogs set foot on the slope.

Searchers first combed the area with avalanche transceiver but picked up no signal. They hoped Volf had been wearing a beacon. O'Neill, a Grand Targhee Ski and Summer Resort ski patroller, took Soleil uphill to the starting zone. The snow was so wet and soft he had to break trail for the four-year-old mutt retriever. Only a couple of weeks after being certified by the Canada Avalanche Rescue Dog Association, Soleil was a trooper, sniffing trees where debris was piled, working the slope for about two hours.

O'Neill then took Soleil down the fall line and paused near the toe of the debris.

"I was just taking a break," he said. "All of a sudden she got up and started moving into the slope. She had that look. She had something, I could tell."One hundred fifty feet feet from the burial site, Soleil lost the scent.

"She ended up at a spruce tree," O'Neill said. "She checked it out. The wind changed, she turned left and 10 feet away she started digging." O'Neill double checked the indication by skiing on by to see if the pup would follow him. Soleil remained focused on her spot. "She kept digging hard," O'Neill said. "As soon as I probed, I knew what it was."

Volf was buried under about two feet from the slide he provoked. The other two feet of snow slid into the gully from the search team's avalanche bombs.

The dogs reduced rescue workers' exposure to new slides, O'Neill said. "It would have taken a 6- to 10-man probe line to work the gully," he said. Instead, two people and two dogs were exposed.

The county's contract Hawkins and Powers helicopter recovered Volf usinga cargo net. Teton County Coroner Bob Campbell said Volf died of suffocation. He is the the third avalanche victim in Teton County this season and the second to be killed in a week. On Jan. 25 a Minnesota snowmobiler died on Togwotee Pass. Also on Jan. 28 Chris Terrell was swept 500 feet down Cody Peak by a slab avalanche but managed to survive with some broken bones. The county's first fatality was Jan 5 when a French snowboarder died of trauma north of the Pass highway. The Bridger-Teton National Forest Backcountry avalanche forecast rated danger Friday, the search day, as "high" at all elevations. The rating was as low as "moderate" earlier in the week at the elevation where Volf was found. Moderate means areas of unstable snow exist and that human-triggered avalanches are possible.

The daily forecast is available at 733-2664 and on the Internet at jhavalanche.org. Teton County accounts for 27 percent of the avalanche deaths in the U.S. this season. Five people have been killed in the Equality State this winter, accounting for 46 percent of the U.S. total.

O'Neill said Soleil got a treat that night at home in Driggs. "She got a T-bone," he said. "I got the fillet but she got the strip and the bone. She was a happy dog."

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