The avalanche that killed two skiers Sunday just outside the gates of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort sent the victims over a 100-foot cliff in an area described as complex terrain by avalanche experts.
David Hannagan, 46, and Catherine Grimes, 36, were probably already dead from trauma by the time they were buried by snow at the base of the slide, Teton County coroners said.
A third skier in the group, Michael Gehl, was able to escape by grabbing a tree.
Earlier that day, two in the group had skied a lap down Rock Springs, a popular out-of-bounds area located past the resort’s southern border. According to several accounts they got in over their heads when they returned in the afternoon.
“They didn’t have transceivers, they didn’t have a guide,” Teton County Deputy Coroner Russell Nelson said. “If you have not been back there, it’s really advisable to take a guide, get someone who knows what they’re doing. They didn’t do that, unfortunately.”
Hannagan joined Grimes and Gehl around noon, after they had skied in Rock Springs, his brother Andy Hannagan said, recounting the story told to him by Gehl, the survivor.
“They took him back to where they had been in the morning,” he said.
But the second time they left through the resort’s backcountry gates, passing signs that warn people to “be prepared” for the increased danger, they went farther, into an area known as Ralph’s Slide.
Tragedy struck as the group was attempting to side-step up and away from the cliff band on the southeastern-facing slope, at an elevation of about 9,900 feet, said Mike Rheam, Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center forecaster. That’s when the slide broke along a 100-foot-wide crown that was up to 4 feet deep, avalanche forecasters said.
The slope angle at the crown was 36 degrees, but the slope gets steeper as it rolls toward the cliff. The slide traveled 350 vertical feet and completely buried both skiers after dragging them over the cliff face.
Avalanche danger for the day was listed as “moderate” by the Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center, but the forecast warned that backcountry travelers could trigger deeper slabs formed during the last storm cycle.
The resort had received about 5 inches of new snow in the 24 hours before Sunday and 60 inches over the previous month, with wind-blown and unstable slabs.
The area has been the site of skier-triggered avalanches in the past. It’s called Ralph’s Slide because a man named Ralph Toscano set off a slide there in 2001 and was swept over a cliff and killed.
Another avalanche occurred in 2014. Two skiers went over the cliff but survived.
Gehl was caught in the slide before he was able to grab onto a tree.
“He said it was like floating down the mountain on a big mattress that was a football field wide,” Hannagan said.
A guide lower on the mountain spotted the slide and reported it to ski patrollers at 2:28 p.m.
The first people to respond arrived at the area between Zero G and M&M couloirs and located Gehl, who told them his two friends were missing.
Because the skiers weren’t wearing transceivers, patrollers had to make educated guesses and probe in areas of the slide debris they thought the skiers might be.
By 3:20 p.m. they found Hannagan under 3 feet of snow. Teton County Search and Rescue and Jackson Hole Backcountry Guides joined the hunt, and within 15 minutes they were able to locate Grimes, who was buried under 1 foot of snow.
“It’s a phenomenal thing,” Rheam said. “That’s a heroic rescue effort by the ski patrol, the backcountry guides and search and rescue and others who helped at the scene.”
Andy Hannagan said that although his brother did not have much experience in the backcountry, he probably would have made the same decision that day because others in the group were able to navigate Rock Springs earlier that morning.
“If I would have had somebody [who had] skied that in the morning I would have followed them, too,” Hannagan said. “That’s not being reckless; that’s kind of working with what you know.”
Jackson Hole Mountain Resort posts signs at its backcountry gates warning people of the dangers.
“Ever since we had an open gate backcountry policy in the year 1999-2000, those gates have been clearly marked,” said Anna Cole, resort spokeswoman. “We ask people to be prepared before they go out there.
“It’s just an unfortunate situation that happened out there. It just shows how quickly things can go wrong in the backcountry if you’re not prepared.”
The last person to die in an avalanche in terrain accessed by Jackson Hole Mountain Resort gates was Mikchael Kazanjy, who was caught in a slide on Pucker Face in 2013.
David Hannagan was from New South Wales, Australia. He worked as a surf instructor, ski instructor and real estate agent.
He had been in the United States for three weeks on vacation and had visited several other ski resorts before traveling to Jackson Hole, his brother said. He first met Grimes earlier on the trip, during a stay in Telluride, Colorado, and they later traveled together to Jackson Hole.
Andy Hannagan called his brother his “best mate.”
“We shared a passion for skiing all our lives,” Hannagan said.
Grimes was a physical therapist in Arizona. Her family is from Indiana. She and Hannagan had been dating for less than a month. A call to Grimes’ family was not returned Tuesday.
— The Associated Press contributed to this story.