One of the men who was with Mike Kazanjy when an avalanche killed the skier on Pucker Face on Dec. 26 said his group made mistakes that led to his companion’s death.
Ian Tarbox said he wanted to tell his story about the fateful day so others could learn and perhaps be safer in the backcountry. He also wants the Teton ski and avalanche community to understand his group wasn’t clueless and had tried to account for the danger on the day after Christmas.
Tarbox, Mike Holland and three others were with 29-year-old Kazanjy just outside the patrolled area of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort when the avalanche carried Kazanjy about 500 vertical feet and buried him about 4 feet deep. Tarbox descended the face and helped a ski guide and others locate and dig Kazanjy free within about 20 minutes.
Resuscitation efforts failed.
“I wanted to at least respond to the locals and let them know what was going through our heads,” Tarbox said.
He initially posted thoughts on a website after reading criticism about his group’s action.
“We did make bad decisions,” Tarbox said. But “you can’t really judge it unless you were there.”
Members of the group had extensive backcountry experience and avalanche education, group member Holland said. While they knew and understood technical aspects of avalanche risk, they overlooked the influence a group of six had on one another.
“What led to this accident was the heuristic group dynamics that kind of shrouded the true risk,” Holland said.
The five hope to continue analyzing the event in an effort to develop a protocol that will allow groups to easily review their decisions to ensure they aren’t being baited into a trap.
Among those baits, avalanche forecasters and analysts say, are great snow, blue skies and a gung-ho group in which nobody wants to be the wimp.
Tarbox is in his third winter in the Tetons, his eighth on a snowboard. He uses a split board to ride about 80 days a season in the backcountry, and he makes a habit of profiling the growing snowpack as the season progresses.
On Christmas, he spent the morning inbounds at the resort, digging a snowpit to examine the slide danger. That evening he read a report that the Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center intended to reduce the backcountry danger rating from high to moderate for Dec. 26.
Tarbox, Kazanjy, Kazanjy’s parents and a few others had Christmas dinner together. They played cards that evening and discussed skiing Cody Peak the next day.
Fresh slope beckons
The plan was for four friends to ride the Jackson Hole Aerial Tram, then hike out of bounds to ski a slope on the nearby mountain. The group grew in size, however, as friends were added. They struck out with six.
On the way to Cody the group saw guided parties also heading to that peak. Tarbox said he didn’t have much experience in the area and didn’t know that some consider Pucker Face more dangerous than other nearby lines.
Parties appeared headed for Four Shadows and No Shadows, but nobody had skied Pucker Face. The fresh slope beckoned.
“I’m used to skiing things first,” Tarbox said of his backcountry experience, where he usually descends untracked slopes. “I think our eyes were on the powder.”
Pucker Face is on the way to Cody, and the group stopped atop it. The group began to discuss its change of plans and new objective.
Tarbox talked to a guide who said clients on Cody would not be skiing the center of any slopes that day but cautiously descending the edges, he said.
“It all seemed like the same danger,” Tarbox said of the different slopes in the area. “I had no idea Pucker Face was a sketchy spot.”
What he also didn’t know was that a slope similar in aspect to Pucker had slid on Taylor Mountain near Teton Pass on Christmas. The natural avalanche followed a four-day storm cycle that included winds up to 118 mph south of Jackson and up to 32 inches of snow on the eastern slopes of the Tetons, the avalanche center reported.
“I was not aware Taylor had slid,” he said. “If I would have seen an avalanche on a similar snowfield had slid the day before, I wouldn’t have considered Pucker.”
Skies had been clear for two and a half days.
Tarbox decided one way to test the slope would be to cut a cornice at its top using a rope, allowing the mass of snow to drop onto the face.
They got a cornice to drop — perhaps 100 pounds of snow — but it wasn’t directly over the run they were eyeing. Next they began talking about ski cutting the slope.
Group dynamics were taking over. The six had become distracted from the essential question of whether the slope was safe to ski, Tarbox said.
“It was a continuous excitement buildup,” he said. “We had no leader.”
Guides — through no fault of their own — had given them a false sense of security, Tarbox said.
Kazanjy asked if everybody was committed. While some in his group might have had reservations, none expressed inner doubts at the end of a 40-minute discussion atop Pucker.
The group finally went over safety protocol in case of a slide. Two were designated as quick responders with transceivers. Another was tasked with dialing for help should something happen.
Tarbox and others had heard of a skier ski cutting — traversing the top of a suspect slope — Pucker Face and surviving an avalanche down it, he said. Now they would also ski cut the slope.
“I said I’ll ski first,” Tarbox said.
But he wouldn’t have done a proper job on a snowboard because he couldn’t step uphill.
‘It ripped so big’
Kazanjy volunteered. He skied through a summit rock band and onto the face.
“He did a partial ski cut,” Tarbox said. He skied it to the first turn and everything was fine. He got a great powder turn.”
The slope failed. First it broke 2 feet deep and, farther down, stepped down and entrained another 2 feet of snowpack, the avalanche center reported.
“It ripped so big,” Tarbox said.
Tarbox yelled to watch Kazanjy. A huge powder cloud erupted.
He looked across the raked face.
“There’s nothing,” he said of his view.
His designated phone operator was calling ski patrol. Tarbox began snowboarding until he came to cliffs.
He threw his board down, slid and clambered over the rocks.
“I have no idea how I came out uninjured,” he said.
He saw ski guide Dave Miller approach the debris pile from below. Tarbox yelled that one person was buried.
He began searching with his transceiver at the top of the debris. Miller was at the toe.
“I started hearing Dave yelling numbers,” he said. The guide was honing in on Kazanjy’s avalanche beacon.
Tarbox went toward Miller and the two started a pinpoint search. The lowest reading on their transceivers indicated Kazanjy was 1.1 meters away.
A client deployed a probe. It was about six minutes after the slide.
“On the first hit he got to Mike,” Tarbox said.
“Yes,” the skier said. “It feels soft.”
“We dug and we dug and we dug,” Tarbox said. “We found a boot.”
Other skiers lined up with shovels behind the lead diggers.
Kazanjy was a big guy, maybe 240 pounds, Tarbox said. They reached his face after perhaps 16 minutes of digging.
“He was cemented in there,” Tarbox said. Kazanjy was facedown, head uphill. He was still.
“When I first saw him, he was blue,” Tarbox said.
Evidence suggests Kazanjy died of positional asphyxiation, Teton County coroner Keily Campbell said. The way his neck was positioned and the pressure on it prevented blood from reaching or leaving the brain, depriving it of oxygen, he said.
Professional emergency medical personnel took over, attempting to revive the victim.
“The backcountry guides, ski patrol and Search and Rescue did an amazing job with the rescue,” Tarbox said.
When working to recover Kazanjy, “I was so strong,” Tarbox said. “Once it was out of our hands, I just broke down. It was so sad.”
At a debriefing, the group criticized itself.
“We lacked protocol and discipline,” Tarbox said. “We let our guard down. We varied from our original plan. We got baited.”
The group was too big and doubters didn’t speak up, he said. There wasn’t a designated leader.
“Even though seeing the guides up on Cody gave me false security, they are not to blame for our bad decisions, mistakes,” Tarbox said.
He said he likes to proclaim backcountry slopes “guilty” until he can prove they are innocent of avalanche danger.
“I think the thing we really lacked was evidence,” he said. “We didn’t have the evidence to ski that.
“We want to make sure everybody understands what went wrong here.”
— Emma Breysse contributed to this story.