By Joseph T. O’Connor EBS Managing Editor
BIG SKY – A Yellowstone Club ski patroller was recently killed in a Jan. 19 avalanche outside the ski area’s boundary in the northern Madison Range.
Poor snow stability due to early season cold temperatures and wind loading across the southwest Montana has led to numerous natural and human-triggered avalanches in recent weeks.
The Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office identified the victim as Darren Johnson, 34, of Big Sky, who succumbed to trauma-related injuries sustained after the slide near Cedar Basin carried him through a tight pocket of trees, according to a Jan. 20 Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center advisory report.
Johnson, who had patrolled at the Yellowstone Club since 2010, and a fellow patroller were helping two Montana State University snow science program researchers collect data in the Cedar Basin area.
The foursome left the Yellowstone Club boundary at approximately 9 a.m. and traveled to the research site utilizing safe-travel techniques, according to Chris Bilbrey, one of the researchers as well as an avalanche safety instructor for the Friends of the GNFAC, a nonprofit dedicated to avalanche education and awareness in southwest Montana.
“We had had great group communication and made good travel decisions,” said Bilbrey, who also worked for10 years as a ski patroller and assistant snow safety technician at Colorado’s Wolfe Creek Ski Area. “We achieved the work objective around 2:30 [p.m.] and decided as group how to get back to ski area, based on prevailing winds and other natural avalanche activity in the area.”
The group agreed to ski one at a time down a south-facing, low-angle aspect back to the Yellowstone Club boundary. Bilbrey went first, and after stopping in a safe location below a stand of trees, signaled to the group to send the next skier.
“I looked up, and [Johnson] dropped into the far skiers’ right side of [the] bowl,” Bilbrey said. “He made [a] hard check turn to the right and the whole bowl propagated. It happened super quick.”
According to GNFAC Director Doug Chabot, the wind-loaded slope broke at a 2-4-foot crown approximately 300 feet wide, and slid 300 vertical feet, carrying Johnson about 50 feet through the trees.
“There were three feet of dense, windblown snow on top of a steep slope,” said Chabot, who conducted the avalanche investigation the following day along with MSU Snow Science Laboratory Director Jordy Hendrikx. “He was the trigger.”
Skiing a slightly different aspect of the same slope no matter how minor, according to Bilbrey, can have tragic consequences.
“I think it boils down to Darren getting on the wrong aspect and the wrong part of the slope,” Bilbrey said. “That’s the special variability of a mountain snowpack and that’s why we have to continue to pursue snow research.”
The rest of the group reached Johnson within 2-3 minutes, but found the patroller with a weak pulse and breathing intermittently. They radioed dispatch and began the rescue operation, which consisted of a Yellowstone Club ski patrol snowmobile towing him by toboggan to a flat area at the club where an air ambulance helicopter transported Johnson to the Big Sky Medical Center.
“Darren has been part of our Yellowstone Club family since November 2010 and we are devastated by this tragedy,” wrote Hans Williamson, Yellowstone Club general manager and vice president, in a Jan. 20 email to EBS. “Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends at this difficult time.”
In a heavy snow year with a weak layer, as much of the Rocky Mountain West is seeing this winter, Chabotsays it’s that much more important to be careful while traveling in the mountains.
“We have a really weak snowpack, and we’re cautioning people that it will take a long time for this layer to get strong again,” he said.
Hendrikx says it’s tragic when fatalities occur in the mountains, and this was a situation he wished would have gone differently. He says it’s also more reason to continue snow research, however. The study of snow and avalanches isn’t flawless.
Visit GNFAC’s website at mtavalanche.com for up-to-date snowpack conditions and avalanche forecasts.