By Emily Mieure
Jackson Hole News&Guide
Via Wyoming News Exchange
JACKSON — Instead of hiring an attorney and fighting federal charges for ducking a rope during high avalanche danger, Andrew Richards offered up guilty pleas and an apology.
The 24-year-old Jackson man, one of four skiers and snowboarders who violated an emergency closure in February along a Jackson Hole Mountain Resort boundary, apologized Tuesday morning in court.
“I thought this was a good opportunity to come forward,” Richards told the News&Guide during a phone interview Tuesday. “To me that’s one of the most frustrating things I have experienced in society — people not owning up to things they have done wrong. I can’t reiterate enough how thankful I am that everyone is OK and how sorry I am.”
Richards left the ski area boundary Feb. 28 during an emergency closure. He was with friends Ruth Schwietert, Natalie Burns and Joseph Higgins.
The three-day closure marked the first complete prohibition of backcountry access in resort history. The unprecedented move came amid a storm cycle that had already dumped 4 feet of snow in the Tetons and raised the avalanche danger rating to “high” at all elevations.
Officials from the resort, Teton County Search and Rescue, Grand Teton National Park and the Bridger-Teton National Forest agreed to the closure because of a combination of avalanche danger and a lack of resources to respond to an emergency.
Burns and Higgins ended up lost and stuck in Granite Canyon, which triggered an overnight search and rescue during dangerous avalanche conditions.
The apology Richards read to the court Tuesday offered context to how the incident unfolded.
“This lapse in judgment, though only a few seconds in duration, cost hours of time, thousands of dollars, and most importantly put the lives of multiple people in grievous danger,” Richards said. “I chose to duck a boundary and ski next to the rope line that borders Jackson Hole Mountain Resort and Grand Teton National Park. Absolutely never was it my intention to lead anyone under the rope, let alone Granite Canyon.”
Richards said he didn’t expect his friends to follow him under the rope because the plan they made while riding the Teton chairlift was to meet at the lower entrance of Saratoga Bowl.
Schwietert caught up to Richards.
“After waiting for two to three minutes with no sign of the other two, I knew something had gone terribly wrong,” Richards said.
Reached on her cellphone, Burns told Richards they were lost.
“Understanding both the severity of the avalanche danger and the terrain in which they must have entered I immediately told Natalie not to move and for her to direct Joe to do the same,” Richards said.
Richards informed Jackson Hole Mountain Resort Ski Patrol, which contacted Teton County Search and Rescue and Grand Teton National Park rangers.
Burns and Higgins provided their GPS coordinates. Rangers reached the skiers just before midnight after using ropes and belays to descend into the Spock Chutes.
They all hiked back up to the ski area boundary, concluding the rescue just before 3 a.m.
“It is unlikely I can ever fully express both my gratitude and sincere remorse toward every person involved with the incident,” Richards stated. “I feel completely blessed that my friends are alive and no rescue personnel were harmed during the arduous and courageous rescue.”
U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark L. Carman ordered Richards to pay $3,000 in fines, $1,500 for a community service fund and $1,500 in court fees. He pleaded guilty to violation of an emergency boundary closure and disorderly conduct.
His co-defendants’ cases are still being litigated.
Burns and Schwietert are set for hearings May 30 while Higgins has hired an attorney, according to federal records.