A small sluff avalanche that claimed the life of one Jackson resident and severely injured another this week was only a few inches deep and streamed quietly down Mount Moran’s Sickle Couloir, catching the party of four off guard.
The slide took the life of 39-year-old Luke Lynch, a father of three. Attorney and father Stephen Adamson, Jr., 42, is in critical condition at an Idaho Falls hospital. The Sunday morning tragedy has the Jackson Hole community in mourning.
Exum guide Zahan Billimoria, who was off duty, was huddled together within 5 feet of Lynch, Adamson and Brook Yeomans, preparing for a break at about 9,900 feet. He looked up and saw the sluff coming down the couloir.
“Before we were able to take our packs off, I heard a dull sound coming from above,” Billimoria said. “As I looked up, 30 feet above me is my estimate, I saw a small stream of snow — like snowballs rolling down towards us.”
Facing the steep face and wearing crampons, Billimoria only had time to alert his partners and take a single step out of the path.
“I stepped one step to the left,” Billimoria said. “Immediately I feel and see this stream of snow start to pour over my right boot, but it doesn’t hit the left. It was less than the top of my boot.
“I think it wasn’t much wider than the breadth of our group,” he said. “But it’s May, so it’s strong snow — it’s snowball snow.”
Billimoria recalled looking upslope within seconds and seeing that the sluff had passed.
“When I looked over to my right, all three of the boys were gone,” he said. “It was a small volume of snow. But they were gone. I looked over and they were gone.”
In the ensuing minutes Billimoria scrambled down the narrow, steep couloir and an ice bulge to assist his partners, who had tumbled roughly 500 feet with the slide. They had all been injured or worse.
He reached Yeomans, who suffered leg and chest injuries, and who was struggling to move.
Yeomans pointed Billimoria toward Lynch and Adamson, who were touching each other about 100 feet downhill. Yeomans phoned for help while Billimoria made his way to the others.
Billimoria discovered Lynch did not have a pulse and was not breathing. He began chest compressions.
“I determined Stephen had deep and labored breathing, and his pulse was thready, it was very hard to detect,” Billimoria said.
Billimoria said he and Yeomans would “fight like hell” to keep Adamson alive and attempted to revive Lynch while sluff continued to periodically stream down the mountain. Both men showed signs of serious head trauma, Billimoria said.
While Billimoria was aiding Lynch, Yeomans crawled his way down to assist.
“During that time we started getting hit by secondary sluffs, none of which were very big, but they made the job of maintaining our unresponsive patient’s airway very, very difficult,” Billimoria said.
Grand Teton National Park ranger Scott Guenther, who headed the investigation, was on the phone with Billimoria within 15 minutes of the accident, he said.
“He was impressively calm and composed,” Guenther said, “and provided really the absolute pertinent information that we needed to complete the rescue process.”
While on the phone Guenther said he could hear the party dealing with the small sluffs that continued to come down.
“He said, ‘Man we’re really right in the fall line for these avalanches,’” Guenther said. “At that time I said, ‘You’ve got to kind of take care of yourself.’”
Billimoria ended up bear-hugging Adamson away from the snow movement to a more stable spot downhill. After conferring with rangers about Lynch’s condition, he instructed Yeomans to follow him to Adamson’s location.
Meanwhile, a Teton County helicopter had been dispatched to drop rescue personnel farther down 12,605-foot Mount Moran.
Later it picked up Adamson and a Teton County Search and Rescue member via short-haul rope, and then returned for Billimoria and Yeomans, who rode inside the airship. Lynch’s body and the remaining park rangers and rescue gear were flown off the mountain by 3 p.m., according to park officials.
By Billimoria’s account, his ski mountaineering partners were “avid, astute, detail-oriented” mountain adventurers familiar with the Tetons. The party had done its diligence prior to the Moran ascent, he said.
“These guys were like professionals,” Billimoria said. “A guide could aspire to bring the level of attention to detail that Luke, Brook and Stephen brought to the game.
“These are guys you would trust with your life in the mountains unquestionably,” he said. “I loved that about them. I was proud to be associated with those guys.”
Sunday morning before dawn they took Lynch’s motorboat across Jackson Lake to dock at Moran Bay.
The party hiked through the snowless timber and began skinning at 7,500 feet, Billimoria said. Upon reaching the Sickle Basin on Moran’s east face they observed “extensive” avalanche debris that they estimated dated to the previous afternoon, he said.
“The debris induced confidence that the line had already produced the avalanche,” Billimoria said.
As the group began to ascend the basin with crampons and approached the couloir’s bottom, Billimoria said they noticed that the entire gully had flushed “from wall to wall” and there was a “very firm bed surface” with “1 to 2 centimeters” of fresh snow.
“The 1 to 2 centimeters of new snow was what would make the skiing decent,” he said. “It was just enough to carve on.”
Sickle Couloir, Billimoria said, “was a line we were all very keen on.” The Exum guide had skied it before.
While they climbed there were no signs of any danger, Billimoria said. All used either whippet ski poles or ice axes and wore crampons and helmets.
“There had not been a hint of spindrift or sluff or any snow movement at all,” Billimoria said. “There were, as I can determine, no warning signs.”
As of Tuesday afternoon, Adamson was still in critical condition at the Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center in Idaho Falls.