Backcountry rescue could lead to charges

By Emily Mieue

Jackson Hole News&Guide

Via Wyoming News Exchange

JACKSON — Emergency responders have rescued at least six skiers and snowboarders this winter who became stuck or lost in Granite Canyon, steep and rocky backcountry terrain in Grand Teton National Park, just outside the boundaries of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort.

But only two of those people are looking at possible federal and state charges for violating an emergency closure.

The unusual closure of backcountry access gates was put in place last week because of extreme weather and dangerous avalanche conditions.

“We did what we thought was in the best interest of the public combined with ability to make rescues,” Teton County Sheriff Matt Carr said. “Our county was segmented because of road closures, and a significant backcountry rescue would have tapped out all our resources.”

On Thursday, the third and final day of the backcountry gate closure, resort ski patrol learned that skiers, who had ducked boundary ropes near the Teton chairlift, were lost in Granite Canyon.

“We were sure hopeful that people would not violate these closures,” resort spokeswoman Anna Cole said. “What happened to these people put them in inherent risk and also our rescuers. We would be taking this very seriously with or without gate closures. But they broke the rules two times over.”

Cole said action has already been taken against the skiers who ignored the emergency closure, but those specifics are not yet being released.

“We have told park officials our preliminary plan of action,” Cole said. “But at this time we are keeping that information private until the report is done.”

Grand Teton National Park rangers are investigating the violation and plan to release more information early next week, park spokeswoman Denise Germann said.

The park is withholding the names of those involved, stating only that it was a 24-year-old male and 28-year-old female from Jackson, a 24-year-old male from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and a 31-year-old female from Breckenridge, Colorado, who exited the ski area boundary.

Two of those people, a male and a female, ended up lost in Granite Canyon Thursday afternoon.

Park rangers conducted an overnight rescue to get the skier and snowboarder back to safety.

The lost skiers provided GPS coordinates, and rangers used ropes and belays to safely move down steeper parts of the canyon, Germann said.

“The rangers were able to verbally communicate with the lost individuals, and at approximately 11 p.m. they located the skier and snowboarder in the Spock Chutes area,” Germann said.

The next several hours were spent hiking back up to the ski area boundary. The rescue concluded just before 3 a.m., Germann said.

The rescued skiers could face federal charges, but park officials are not yet commenting on citations.

All four skiers could also face state citations.

“Given the information that we know, we do believe a violation of state statute did occur, and we’re working with our federal partners to figure out what the best action is for charging these offenses,” Carr said.

Not knowing about the emergency backcountry closures isn’t a valid excuse, Cole said, because alerts were posted at each exit point at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. The closures were also announced on the Aerial Tram and emailed to thousands of people — locals and tourists.

“It was also listed on the snow report and on the phone recording,” Cole said. “Up until the very last day at the very end people were doing a good job respecting that closure.”

Backcountry gates reopened Friday, a few hours after rangers got the lost skiers out of Granite Canyon.