On Wednesday, the National Weather Service issued a backcountry avalanche warning after Tuesday’s Pacific storm system added between 7 and 12 inches of snowfall in the Sawtooths and western Smoky Mountains. Though the warning expired Thursday morning, it proved prescient: The Sawtooth Avalanche Center observed dozens of slides—including some “very large” slab avalanches—around the region after the weather cleared, and human-triggered avalanches remain “likely” around the Wood River and Sawtooth Valleys, according to the Center’s Thursday forecast.
Amid persisting avalanche danger in the Wood River Valley and surrounding mountains, the Sawtooth Avalanche Center hosted a virtual webinar last week to give a behind-the-scenes look at winter backcountry rescues.
The Zoom presentation followed dozens of natural avalanches reported in the western Smoky Mountains by the Avalanche Center and Sun Valley Heli Ski, which offers remote skiing accessed by helicopter.
St. Luke’s emergency physician Terry O’Connor—also county EMS director and medical director for Sun Valley Heli Ski and the Sun Valley Ski Patrol—kicked off last week’s presentation by asking skiers and riders to consider how they may get helped in the event they run into trouble in the backcountry.
“We want you to continue to [recreate]—that’s what brings us together as a community—but I also know that you want to have some control, and know what you can do to help us help you when tragedy might cross your path,” he told attendees.
Ketchum Fire Department Lt. and paramedic Seth Martin, the department’s technical rescue co-coordinator, explained how responders mobilize in the event of a remote accident. When a victim or witness calls 911 via phone or personal locator beacon, the “ball starts rolling” to get the injured person to the state Highway 75 corridor as soon as possible, he said.
Martin recounted a deadly avalanche last January out Baker Creek that involved 40 first responders. It took an hour and 12 minutes to reach the victim by air and foot, he said, and extrication of the patient to the highway tacked on another two and a half hours.
“The [January rescue] was one of the best-case scenarios of how fast we can get to somebody that’s relatively close to town. All the ducks were in the row that day,” he said.
“[Extrication] to a warm ambulance about two hours and 22 minutes later is certainly one of the fastest times I can remember,” he said.
Still, a snowmobiler from Jerome died in the accident. The Avalanche Center’s forecast that day noted “considerable” avalanche danger, the same rating as of Tuesday morning.
Sun Valley Resort Snow Safety Director Skooter Gardiner noted last week that out-of-bounds skiing routes on the backside of Baldy can look deceptively safe, but usually aren’t. Some hidden hazards buried in the powder beyond the boundary ropes include felled trees from previous wildfires, for instance.
“A lot of people think [the north side of Baldy] is a bubble of safety. You ride the [Warm Springs] lift, you’ve restaurants nearby and people around—what could possibly go wrong? —and there’s just a rope line separating you from what could conceivably be fields of powder,” he said.
Backcountry rescues on Baldy can also take a long time for many reasons. The Sun Valley Ski Patrol needs to seek permission from the Blaine County Sheriff’s Office, for example, and communication is limited. Terrain on Baldy is not only inaccessible by helicopter—there are no good landing zones—but often looks the same in heavy snow, Gardiner said.
“There are areas where you have just one bar of cell phone service, and others with no cell service at all,” he said. “A ton of fir trees can make skiing back there on a powder day surreal, but there’s no discernible landmarks out there. It’s really tough to get an idea of what location [a caller or witness] is talking about.”