A severe winter storm on Saturday with snow and high winds (up to 50 mph on the valley floor and over 80 mph at higher elevations) created blizzard conditions and led to two major SAR operations in the Grand Tetons – one to evacuate and shelter stranded travelers and the other to rescue a lost snowboarder.
The storm also forced the closure of Highway 26/89/191 within the park on Saturday afternoon, stranding approximately 160 travelers between Moran Junction and Flagg Ranch near the south gate of Yellowstone. Due to whiteout conditions caused by high winds and blowing and drifting snow, Grand Teton snowplow operators were unable to keep open a 22-mile stretch of highway between the Jackson Hole Airport and Moran Junction, 30 miles north of Jackson.
Out of concern for traveler safety, rangers closed the main highway at 1:45 p.m. Marooned travelers were provided emergency shelter, food, and makeshift accommodations at Signal Mountain Lodge, Flagg Ranch, and the Moran Elementary School. Teton Interagency fire staff gathered emergency gear, cots, and sleeping bags from the Colter Bay fire cache and Moran Fire Station to provide some level of comfort to the stranded people. Rangers staffed highway barricades throughout the stormy night and rerouted motorists to the provisional shelters. Rangers at the Jackson Hole Airport Junction barricade advised travelers to return to Jackson, eight miles south, for overnight lodging.
The highway was reopened at 7 a.m. the next day, and two-way travel resumed without restriction.
In the midst of the intense blizzard and resulting highway closure, rangers also received word that a snowboarder was missing in the park. Sam Hoerr, 31, of Dunlap, Illinois, became separated from his companions. He sent a text message to them at 2:30 p.m. and explained that he had reached a creek and was going to follow it out. His companions notified Jackson Hole Mountain Resort’s ski patrol.
Given the high avalanche danger and late hour of the day, a rescue effort was launched. High winds and poor visibility closed the upper mountain at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. These same conditions also prevented use of a helicopter-assisted search for the lost snowboarder. The highway closure prevented rangers from responding from rescue facilities located at park headquarters in Moose. Rangers therefore requested help from Teton County Search and Rescue volunteers, and a unified command was established. Considerable avalanche danger made it unsafe to direct rescue personnel into Granite Canyon from the Mountain Resort’s out-of-bounds gate. Ultimately, thirteen rescuers accessed Granite Canyon from Teton Village and begin to ski into the canyon from the trailhead off the Moose-Wilson Road. Rescuers made contact with Hoerr via cell phone at 7:30 p.m., directed him to continue down canyon following the creek, reached him around 8 p.m., and provided him with a “split board” so that he could more easily travel out of the backcountry canyon on his own. He was then escorted out of Granite Canyon by rescuers.
Because Hoerr was unprepared to spend a night in the backcountry-and he crossed numerous avalanche-prone areas during stormy conditions that were wind loading slopes-this situation could have become life-threatening or worse. Hoerr and most of his companions did not carry avalanche equipment with them when they exited the out-of-bounds gate. Park rangers remind skiers and snowboarders to consider weather conditions and time of day before making a decision to enter backcountry areas. Rangers also strongly advise skiers and snowboarders to be prepared before embarking on a backcountry excursion by carrying appropriate avalanche gear and emergency equipment, and using good route-finding skills. It is essential for backcountry users to have basic knowledge of backcountry areas in which they plan to travel.
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