Satchel Toole, 23, wasn’t breathing when his friends pulled him out of an avalanche Saturday afternoon on Teton Pass.
Twenty-four hours later, Toole said the experience was “humbling.” Two additional young men were caught in the same slide and buried to varying degrees.
The Jackson resident said he’s lucky to tell the tale of his successful rescue.
“I think it’s fairly haunting to think about a lot, but it definitely gives you a perspective on being thankful and also aware,” he said. “You can learn a lot from it.”
The near-miss was one of two backcountry emergencies logged by Teton County Search and Rescue on Saturday afternoon. The other, involving a crashed snow machine, occurred on the opposite side of the valley.
Volunteers were training in the field at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort and Mosquito Creek when the incidents occurred almost simultaneously.
The first call came in at 1 p.m.
A guided snowmobile trip reported that a 74-year-old female client had driven her snowmobile off trail into a ravine near the Goosewing Ranch, sustaining major upper-body injuries.
Search and Rescue planned to send a helicopter to the Gros Ventre Range to help, chief advisor Cody Lockhart said. But at 1:20 p.m., a more urgent call came in — Toole was unresponsive.
“Both of these calls were on top of each other,” Lockhart said. “We had people scattered everywhere.”
Search and Rescue diverted the helicopter to allow teams to be short-hauled into the avalanche situation on Wolf Trap, a line between KB Ridge and Avalanche Bowl.
“It’s probably the most dangerous place you can be on the south side of Teton Pass, this bowl,” Lockhart said. “These people were definitely in the wrong spot to be today.
“There are very few times where it’s ever an appropriate time to be where they were.”
From the air, rescuers learned that Toole had been resuscitated and wasn’t in need of a short-haul to an ambulance. The helicopter was diverted back to the Gros Ventre, and ground teams were sent in on snowmobiles to assist the avalanched skiers.
A complex, multiparty situation led to the avalanche catching not one, but three men in two separate groups. Besides a sprained ankle and a few skis lost, everyone is OK.
A group of six, including Toole and his roommate, Max McKendry, 25, had skied The Claw and were entering the confluence of two gullies when they heard rumbling.
“I just heard something behind me, and I didn’t get a chance to look,” Toole said. “I got knocked off my feet right away. The only two things going through my head were trying to start digging out and trying to control my breathing.”
Meanwhile, his roommate — also buried, but closer to the surface — self-rescued. The group worked to resuscitate Toole and fanned out to probe the debris. With so many people in the area using beacons, both parties involved described initial confusion.
Toole said he plans to buy an airbag as soon as possible and be more aware of the persistent deep-slab problem on days the Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center rates “considerable.” He doesn’t blame the party that triggered the avalanche.
“I don’t put fault on anybody, but I think it gave me a new perspective of how the dangers are out there, and it’s not necessarily what you’re doing but they’re just out there when you go out there,” Toole said. “Somebody else’s decision can be a risk for you and vice versa.”
Despite feeling happy and safe with his own group’s decisions, McKendry said he learned valuable lessons this weekend, too.
“You can be as confident as you want in your own decisions,” he said. “But when there’s this much traffic and this much terrain with the potential to go, it’s important to be aware of where others are as well.”
He thinks a stand of trees might have obscured his group from a party of four — Ted Grover, 23, of Missoula, Montana, and Wylie Picotte, 23, of Bozeman, and their two sisters — who were skiing Wolf Trap when Picotte triggered the slide.
Picotte and his partners had been skiing in the area all morning, he said, and the snowpack showed no red flags or signs of instability. A ski cut across the slope that ended up sliding resulted in “a little bit of sluff” but no major movement. But when he jumped off a rock and landed in a shallower spot in the snowpack, “where I had been skiing had slid down to the ground.”
“I made a couple of turns and then it caught me from behind and knocked me over,” Picotte said.
He threw his poles and tried in vain to pull his airbag before starting to swim in an effort to stay above the moving snow.
“At that point, I tried to stay calm and keep breathing steadily,” Picotte said.
When the snow stopped moving, he had one hand above the debris and was able to clear air around his mouth.
“I had a huge wave of relief roll over me knowing that I was no longer moving, and that I would be able to get myself above the snow fairly quickly,” he said.
Picotte freed himself and turned his beacon to search mode, worried about other members of his group that he couldn’t see. It turned out they were up higher on the slope looking for him.
Grover said that while they’d seen another group far away earlier in the day, there was no way to communicate with them. His party had set the skintrack into Avalanche Bowl earlier and had seen only three sets of tracks that far south on the pass.
“There was no indication or reason to believe there was anyone in the area when we dropped in,” Grover said. “I think we had everything under control; it was just confusing having the other party there.”
The men were remorseful, with Picotte saying he felt “terrible” in hindsight.
“In retrospect, we’re still trying to figure out what happened with the other group and where exactly they were,” Picotte said. “We’re not really sure how the other group got below us or where they had come from initially. I do feel really bad about involving other people in our accident. We’ve been reflecting pretty heavily the last 24 hours trying to figure out if we made one pivotal decision that set this whole thing in motion.”
The men said their biggest takeaway would be the need for better communication. Picotte won’t be able to ski while his sprained ankle heals in a boot — time, he said, for additional reflection.
“I’m definitely going to be a little gun shy for a while, but I think the important thing is to use this as a learning experience,” he said. “I’m sure I’ll have lots of time to mentally go over it again and again in my mind and hopefully find some sort of resolution before getting back on snow.”
Conditions were rated “considerable” Saturday by the Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center. Other human-triggered avalanches were reported, including a partial burial of a skier or rider in Chicken Scratch to the north of Glory Bowl, and a remotely triggered large avalanche on the Gros Ventre landslide.
Given the partly sunny skies after a big dump, Lockhart wasn’t surprised by the multiple-rescue afternoon.
“Rescues normally happen in waves,” he said. “And rescues are directly related to the amount of snow we have. When you get relatively nice weather after a period of storminess it just means more people are going to be out there.
“President’s Day weekend after a big storm is a recipe for having multiple rescues.”