The overnight search and rescue of two skiers who illegally crossed outside a ski area boundary during dangerous conditions in February cost more than $5,000 to pull off, a federal investigation revealed.
The rescue was due to “judgment error” and “insufficient preparation” and involved two Jackson Hole Mountain Resort employees and two of their out-of-town friends, Grand Teton National Park Ranger Ryan Schuster wrote in the report.
The News&Guide obtained the 94-page investigative report through a Freedom of Information Act request.
In the report Schuster details how skiers Andrew Richards, Joseph Higgins, Natalie Burns and Ruth Schwietert made a split-second decision that put two of them in a life-or-death situation.
“The party of four got on the Teton Lift without a definitive plan other than a generally agreed upon sentiment that they were heading toward Saratoga Bowl,” Schuster wrote in the report. “Richards was leading and the party followed. Richards skied a short way down the Crags run before ducking the double rope line that marks the JHMR/GTNP boundary.”
Schuster based his report off of interviewing the skiers and rescuers and studying their ski tracks.
“Richards stated that he physically lifted the rope in order to pass by it and continued his descent,” Schuster wrote. “Richards claims he was only outside the boundary for 20 seconds before he reentered the ski area. This stated timeframe seems unlikely given the fact that three other people subsequently ducked the rope and proceeded to follow him down outside the boundary.”
Schwietert and Richards, the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort employees, returned to the resort boundary while Higgins and Burns became lost in the backcountry.
“It appears that they ducked the boundary rope line approximately 250 feet below the top of the Teton Chair Lift. They skied .2 miles and 350-500 vertical feet outside the boundary before Richards and Schwietert re-entered the ski area and Burns and Higgins began their unintended descent into Granite Canyon,” Schuster wrote.
The backcountry areas surrounding the ski resort had been closed due to serious avalanche conditions.
“An emergency closure of the entire boundary between GTNP and the JHMR was in effect due to multiple factors, including limited available rescue personnel, high avalanche hazard and potential exposure of rescue personnel to extreme personal risk,” Schuster stated.
Burns and Higgins “became lost and unintentionally descended into Granite Canyon and triggered a small avalanche and became stuck.”
When Richards and Schwietert couldn’t find their other two ski partners, they alerted ski patrol. Schuster, incident commander for the event, eventually made the call to attempt an overnight “high risk rescue operation.”
“I met with rangers Chris Bellino, Nick Armitage and Rich Baerwald to discuss the situation and determine a course of action,” he stated. “We determined that a ground response was possible given the abundance and density of trees in this area. Although the avalanche hazard and exposure was high, as was rated by the day’s forecast issued by the Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center, we thought it was worth taking a look from the ridgetop and assessing further before making a final go/no-go decision.”
Teton County Search and Rescue made a flyover to see if an exact location of the skiers could be determined.
Rangers reached them around midnight by using ropes to descend into the Spock Chutes in Granite Canyon.
“Bellino’s team made slow and cautious progress toward the lost party, anchoring to trees and utilizing roped belays to protect themselves to the extent possible as they went,” the report stated. “They made voice contact with the lost party at approximately 2153 hours and reached them about one hour later, arriving on scene at 2306 hours.”
The skiers were escorted back up the steep mountainside.
“The subsequent rescue of Burns and Higgins, directly resulting from the actions of this party, was a high risk operation that involved a helicopter reconnaissance flight in poor weather conditions and required three rangers to enter steep avalanche terrain during an existing high hazard rating,” Schuster wrote.
After interviewing all four skiers, Schuster made the decision to give them federal citations despite their pleas. All four said they did not realize that all of the gates were closed.
“They felt it was unfair because they did not intend to cause a search and rescue incident and said they were good people who had never really been in trouble or broken laws before,” he said.
Schuster said there had been extensive announcements and signage about the closures at the resort.
“Avalanche forecast at that time was high at all elevations,” he wrote. “February 28 marked the third straight day that the avalanche danger was rated high at all elevations and the fourth straight day it was rated high at the mid and upper elevations. On February 26, GTNP implemented an emergency closure of the entire shared boundary between GTNP and the JHMR.”
All four skiers were charged with violating an emergency closure and disorderly conduct. The cases were adjudicated through various plea agreements. Each skier was ordered probation, restitution and fines, some of which will go to the Grand Teton Association.