Granite Canyon rescue

Teton County Search and Rescue and Grand Teton National Park rangers rescued two stranded skiers in Granite Canyon late at night Feb. 28.

The last holdout of four skiers who illegally left the ski boundary during dangerous conditions in February pleaded guilty last week instead of going ahead with her scheduled trial.

Natalie Burns, a Colorado resident, was sentenced to two years of unsupervised probation and ordered to pay a few thousand dollars in court fines and restitution after pleading guilty to violating an emergency closure, a federal citation.

In the last-minute plea agreement the U.S. attorney dropped a charge of disorderly conduct.

Burns was supposed to be on trial Aug. 12 in Jackson.

Grand Teton National Park officials said Burns left the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort ski boundary with three friends on Feb. 28 during an unprecedented emergency closure. They said Burns, along with Joseph Higgins, ended up lost and stuck in Granite Canyon, which triggered an overnight search and rescue.

In May one of Burns’ co-defendants, Andrew Richards, issued a public apology after pleading guilty in federal court.

“To me that’s one of the most frustrating things I have experienced in society — people not owning up to things they have done wrong,” Richards said. “I can’t reiterate enough how thankful I am that everyone is OK and how sorry I am.”

Richards explained what happened in a long apology letter to the community and first responders of Jackson Hole.

“This lapse in judgment, though only a few seconds in duration, cost hours of time, thousands of dollars, and most importantly put the lives of multiple people in grievous danger,” Richards said.

“I chose to duck a boundary and ski next to the rope line that borders Jackson Hole Mountain Resort and Grand Teton National Park,” he said. “Absolutely never was it my intention to lead anyone under the rope, let alone Granite Canyon.”

Richards said he, Ruth Schwietert, Burns and Higgins were skiing together when they rode the Teton chairlift up and made a plan to meet at the lower entrance of Saratoga Bowl.

Taking much of the blame, Richards said he didn’t expect all three of the other skiers to follow him out of bounds.

“After waiting for two to three minutes with no sign of the other two, I knew something had gone terribly wrong,” Richards said.

Reached on her cellphone, Burns told Richards they were lost.

“Understanding both the severity of the avalanche danger and the terrain in which they must have entered I immediately told Natalie not to move and for her to direct Joe to do the same,” Richards said.

Burns and Higgins provided their GPS coordinates after Richards alerted Jackson Hole Mountain Resort Ski Patrol, which contacted Teton County Search and Rescue and Grand Teton National Park rangers.

Rangers reached the skiers just before midnight after using ropes and belays to descend into the Spock Chutes.

They all hiked back up to the ski area boundary, concluding the rescue just before 3 a.m.

Schwietert, who was facing the same charges, pleaded guilty to violating an emergency boundary closure and received three years of unsupervised probation.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark Carman ordered her to pay a few thousand dollars in fines and restitution to the Grand Teton Association. The U.S. Attorney’s Office dismissed the disorderly conduct charge with prejudice.

Higgins pleaded guilty to violating an emergency closure, received one year of unsupervised probation and was ordered to pay almost $3,000 in community service fees and court fines.

Richards was ordered to pay fines and was sentenced to four years of unsupervised probation after pleading guilty to both disorderly conduct and violation of an emergency closure. According to court records, Richards paid his fines in full and was released early from probation in June.

Burns was ordered to pay $1,500 in community service fees by October 2020 that will go to the Wildlife Protection Fund and $540 court fines by June 2021.

At the time, Grand Teton National Park officials said the incident put rescuers at unnecessary risk: “All recreationists are reminded to respect backcountry conditions and make informed decisions regarding any recreational endeavors,” a press release stated. “All rules and regulations should be followed, including exiting the resort at designated access points and respecting any closures.”

The Jackson Hole News&Guide requested the investigation report of the incident in April via the Freedom of Information Act. The request is still pending.

Contact Emily Mieure at 732-7066 or courts@jhnewsandguide.com.

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