Digging out the sled after the client was successfully rescued.
The Mountain Riding Lab instructor and Togwotee Mountain Lodge guide, Matt Schebaum, explains the pressures and mental gymnastics guides go through to satisfy clients during times of high avalanche danger, specifically a deadly cycle that hit the northern Rockies in early February.
- On February 8, 2017, the avalanche danger rating for Togwotee Pass was “Considerable.” A foot of new snow in the previous 24 hours ended a weeklong storm totaling up to three feet. The day before, avalanches slid across multiple highways in the greater Jackson Hole area closing roads, and very high winds brought down power lines at the ski area, forcing it to close.
Signs of snow instability in avalanche terrain on Feb 8, 2017.
That same day, a group of snowmobilers riding with a guide from Togwotee Mountain Lodge was passing through low angle terrain — a few hundred yards across a meadow from avalanche terrain — when two of the riders strayed from the group and triggered an avalanche. One rider was buried and the other guy was able to outrun it. The buried rider had deployed his airbag and the top few inches of it sticking above the snow was enough of a visible clue for the guide to complete a successful rescue. Large wind slabs up to four feet deep had formed over the last few days and the Bridger-Teton National Forest Avalanche Centerpredicted them to be very sensitive, even releasing naturally.
The two riders involved were lured to the slope while the guide was helping someone get unstuck and claimed they never saw the slide coming — the visibility so low above them it hid the starting zone. Back at the lodge later, the guy that was dug out was doing everything he could to find a group that was only riding the trail the next day — or not going at all. He also asked us to refill his airbag canister — an interesting request since we assumed he was either going home or going for a trail ride tomorrow, not planning on having to use his Float pack again. He explained to me that before he left on his snowmobile vacation he told his two young daughters that they could pull the cord on his airbag when he got home. He didn’t want to have to tell them why it was already pulled.
Togwotee February 8, 2017 avalanche burial site and client’s repacked Float avalanche airbag.
Link to news story on Feb 8, 2017 avalanche on Togwotee Pass.
The next day, February 9, 2017, the Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center raised the avalanche danger rating on Togwotee Pass to ‘High’. In two other forecast zones in the region, the avalanche rating was ‘Extreme’. With more heavy snow, rain, and wind — an avalanche warning was issued.
The Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center advisory for the Togwotee Pass region on Feb 9, 2017
Two hours from Togwotee Lodge, around Noon that day, in one of the other forecast zones being impacted by the same storm, Josh Roth, a professional snowmobiler, guide, and avalanche instructor out riding with a friend was caught and buried in an avalanche and did not survive. The news hit hard. Given his training and experience, we thought he would be the last guy to get caught in an avalanche. That night, my social media was filled with shares, posts, and tributes about it; outpourings of support from all over the snowmobile community; links to current avalanche forecasts showing the dangerous conditions; and full on pleas from his friends and family to just not go out until things settled down.
Josh Roth, Professional snowmobiler and avalanche instructor killed in an avalanche near Alpine, WY, Feb 9, 2017.
My phone was constantly buzzing with more alerts of road closures, roof collapses, power outage updates, and extensions of the avalanche warning. I went to bed that night thinking about the fact that, in the face of all this, I still HAD to go snowmobiling tomorrow. It was my job. I had to go to work. There were a couple dozen guys who had hired guides ready to get their money’s worth.
On ‘Low’ or ‘Moderate’ avalanche forecast days — or sunny and calm days — ones that you could say it’s easy to manage Mother Nature, snowmobile guiding is hard. You have seven, eight or nine guys behind you chomping at the bit, expecting you to show them the best snow they’ve ever seen. They’re eager to test out their new $15,000 sled after traveling hundreds of miles and spending a ton of money; “the snow sucks back home” and they could only get three days off work to come out here. Lets go! Lets ride! You ready!?
My snowmobile group stoked on flat powder near the trail.
Group management is one of the most important aspects of safe backcountry travel, for anybody; skiers, snowshoers, sledders and snowbikers alike. Add noisy machines, muffling helmets, and the ability to cover hundreds of yards of terrain in a matter of seconds with the twitch of a thumb, and snowmobile guiding sometimes becomes something like herding cats. Every morning in the guide shop, we sit across from each other and lace up our boots, zip up our jackets, check our gear, and know that all of us in that room have the experience, training, and ability to handle that. There’s a trust and confidence between us, most of the time unspoken, that my colleagues and I can do it: make the right decisions and bring everybody home; everyday and in any conditions. After all, that’s our job and we’re good at it.
Every day? Any conditions? Really?! No matter what? What about today? The avalanche danger was ‘High’ possibly rising to ‘Extreme’. The visibility will be poor because of heavy snow and strong winds. All of us have mixed groups of differing skill levels and a lot of us will just meet our clients for the first time that morning — not really knowing their experience or how they ride. We had a client get buried two days ago after straying from his group for five minutes and an experienced guide and avalanche instructor just died yesterday. Are we better at managing the terrain and avalanche danger than him? No matter how good we are — can we keep everyone on that tight of a leash? Sure, we’ve seen ‘High’ avalanche ratings a lot of times. We got this. Or would that not only be pretty cavalier of us, but downright irresponsible, to just trust in that confidence we have in each of us guides that gets us through all the other days.
No! The mountain doesn’t care who you are. Our guide the other day was managing the avalanche risk, passing through that area as far as possible from the avalanche terrain. One of his guys just got away from him for a minute and one of the most stressful situations of his guiding career ensued. And I’m sure Josh was doing everything right in managing the conditions and the terrain the day before. But he died. Accounts from local avalanche experts and people familiar with his story said he just shouldn’t have been out that day. The mountain doesn’t care who you are.
All those things were on my mind as I came into work that day, on a ‘High’ avalanche danger day; something I’ve done many times, but I felt I had to say something. Is today different? It sparked a discussion that turned in to a semi-formal meeting. With clients lined up outside waiting for us to open the shop doors for the day, we made a decision: In the face of High to Extreme conditions with particularly complex avalanche problems that day, and highly variable group dynamics across the board, we were going to make it an unofficial policy to stick to the trail no matter what — a pact among colleagues to be dramatically conservative that day. The nature of our terrain is such that even conservative approaches to entering low angle backcountry terrain often briefly exposes us or brings us near micro features like terrain traps or terrain below or connecting to slide paths or more complex slopes. With low visibility, unpredictable and rapidly changing conditions and large unpracticed groups, attempting to negotiate even simple terrain away from the groomed trail would be too risky. The margin of error was unclear and could easily be tested by an inexperienced client, whether intentional or not. Even honest mistakes or a lack of riding ability in simple terrain could go wrong and increase someone’s exposure. On a day like that the acceptable risk window — from a guide’s perspective anyway-is very small and we had to stay far away from it.
We can still ride our machines; we can still get out – I guess, because we have to. We can still enjoy the company of new friends and offer our clients an experience. But today we just can’t go “there.” We just can’t shred that drainage, or climb that hill, or drop into that untouched bowl. Out of an entire season of snowmobiling and guiding in the mountains, is it a crazy notion that there are a few days where we just can’t go? I don’t think so! And by making a decision as a group of professionals who do this for a living, we hoped that this idea would resonate with not only our clients, but also those out there getting ready to go unguided.
Togwotee Mountain Lodge.