Patroller buried in avalanche
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By Angus M. Thuermer Jr., Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Date: January 7, 2010
Jackson Hole Mountain Resort ski patroller Mark “Big Wally” Wolling was listed in critical condition in an Idaho hospital Wednesday evening after being buried by an avalanche that morning.
Wolling was buried for about 10 minutes after being swept over a 30-foot cliff in the resort’s Cheyenne Bowl at 8:26 a.m. while on avalanche hazard reduction duty. The public was not on the mountain at the time of the incident, officials said.
Wolling’s partner, whose name ski area officials withheld Wednesday, found the patroller well down the 1,000-foot-long avalanche path using a radio transceiver, ski patrol leader Jake Elkins said. Rescuers uncovered Wolling from beneath about 6 feet of snow and began rescue breathing as soon as they reached his face.
An automated electric defibrillator rescuers employed detected “no shockable rhythm” or pulse at the scene, Elkins said. Rescuers brought the patroller to the Teton Village Clinic in a sled in six minutes.
“He was in the clinic eight minutes when they detected a pulse,” Elkins said.
An ambulance took Wolling to St. John’s Medical Center because weather was too bad for a helicopter to pick him up from Teton Village, and a plane subsequently transported him to Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center in Idaho Falls, where he was in the Intensive Care Unit on Wednesday night.
Wolling, 58, is a veteran of the mountain, where he has worked since 1978. He is widely known for his tall, lanky build; brushy, blond mustache; gregarious nature; penchant for fun; and big heart. A kayaker, skier and mountain biker, he has survived two serious parapent crashes that caused him to launch the tradition of Goatstock fundraiser parties for injured valley athletes.
Elkins said he addressed some of the ski patrollers after the incident.
“I told them if anybody can pull through, Big Wally’s the man,” Elkins said. “And I complimented everybody on the work they did.”
Resort President Jerry Blann held out hope for the patroller’s recovery.
“Our prayers are with Mark and his family,” he said.
Patrollers Wednesday morning were expecting “considerable” danger and slab avalanches with crowns up to 3 feet deep, Elkins said.
“That’s pretty much what we saw on the upper mountain,” he said of morning patrol work.
The Bridger-Teton National Forest Avalanche Center on Wednesday afternoon listed the danger as “high” at mid and upper elevations.
Wolling was on Route 7 at the bottom of Rendezvous Bowl with his partner when he threw a hand charge onto the slope in Cheyenne Bowl, provoking no slide.
He then skied to his bomb hole and began a traverse beneath Rendezvous Trail and above the cliff band, the two being about 120 feet apart. His partner followed and traversed farther to the east, arriving at a tree somewhat above Wolling.
Wolling then threw two more hand charges to the edge of the cliff and they detonated simultaneously. The charges each weighed 2 pounds, an official said.
“When that shot detonated, the slope above him failed,” Elkins said. “Mark’s partner was able to self-arrest on a tree.”
Two other patrollers on Route 7 watched the slide carry Wolling over the cliff.
The avalanche cut a crown up to 3.5 feet deep and 130 feet long. Avalanche forecasters classified its size relative to its path as three on a scale of five. Its destructive capacity also was listed as three on a scale of five.
It started on a 34-degree slope facing northeast. The slope had not been opened to the public this season but had been bombed without provoking a slide.
“That’s why they ran it today,” Elkins said of morning patrol work.
The slide ran into the bottom of Cheyenne Bowl, which has been open to the public this season.
Bridger-Teton National Forest winter sports coordinator Ray Spencer said he expects to review a report from the avalanche center, which operates closely with the ski patrol but runs under the auspices of the U.S. Forest Service. Elkins said his crew will go through a debriefing and several stages of counseling.