Search for avalanche victim on Taylor Mountain

Teton County Search and Rescue personnel prepare to skin into the Coal Creek drainage in April to begin looking for a missing snowboarder who was buried in an avalanche on Taylor Mountain the day before. Several agencies and more than two dozen people were involved in the effort, which recovered the body of the victim later that day.

Teton County Search and Rescue had its slowest winter and spring seasons ever.

A midyear review documented only 18 call-outs from December 2019 to June 1. That’s the fewest accidents in a six-month stretch in the volunteer organization’s nearly 30-year history.

“We are hopeful that prevention education through Backcountry Zero has helped our community be more prepared and practiced for adventuring in the Tetons,” said Stephanie Thomas, director of the Teton County Search and Rescue Foundation. “But our team continues to train to be ready to respond when accidents happen.”

Though the winter and spring months showed a slowdown in calls for help, the summer has seen an increase, foundation Communications Director Matt Hansen said.

“There has been a steady increase since June 1, with the team responding to six accidents already this summer,” Hansen said. “Hopefully moving forward people continue to make the right decisions.”

Backcountry Zero, an initiative that started in 2015, is an education program to reduce injuries and fatalities in the Jackson Hole region.

In 2018 the foundation introduced Backcountry SOS, a free app that helps anyone who is lost, trapped or injured text for help from remote locations.

That education, the foundation believes, has helped people be more prepared as they hike, hunt, climb, ski and snowmobile in the backcountry.

In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic likely also slashed winter and spring rescue numbers, Hansen said. Grand Teton National Park, for example, closed access to the high peaks for 55 days at a time when ski mountaineers typically pursue more challenging lines. In late March, April and part of May, many national parks closed entry gates to discourage travel and tourism amid the global pandemic.

“It’s impossible to know really, but the virus had an impact on everyday decision making,” Hansen said. “With the park shut down and the resort shut down there were way fewer skiers going into the backcountry for a couple months. That did eliminate some traffic. But we saw tons of traffic up on [Teton] pass. And people were very mindful of their decisions this spring when everything was shut down.”

The foundation’s midyear review report also highlights how the team has responded to the pandemic, from training to outreach and rescues.

“As first responders the team of 36 volunteers is acutely aware of the risks of being exposed to the virus,” the report said, “and has made it the top priority to be operationally healthy to perform rescues.”

The team canceled group trainings in March; volunteers took on individual exercises. And during missions team members wore personal protective equipment and masks and limited the amount of volunteers in cars.

They also kept personal protective equipment on hand for patients and the team’s medical advisor. Dr. AJ Wheeler held a video conference Q&A in late March.

“The team continues to take adequate precautions to mitigate their exposure to the virus,” the report said.

As outreach workshops start back up, like a mountain biking safety course later this week, participants are asked to stay in a designated zone, not share gear and wear masks.

The team’s Wyoming Snow and Avalanche workshop, scheduled for Oct. 23-24, may have to take place online, but a decision on the best format, or if an in-person conference is possible, will be made later.

Read the entire midyear review via the online version of this article at JHNewsAndGuide.com.

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

Emily Mieure covers criminal justice and emergency news. She also leads the News&Guide’s investigative efforts. She has reported for WDRB TV in Louisville, Ky., WFIE TV in Evansville, Ind., and WEIU TV in Charleston, Ill.

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