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Survivors reflect on Jackson Hole avalanche death

First Published      Last Updated Dec 31 2013 08:31 pm

Jackson, Wyo. • One of the men who was with Mike Kazanjy when an avalanche killed the skier on Pucker Face on Dec. 26 said his group made mistakes that led to his companion's death.

Ian Tarbox said he wanted to tell his story about the fateful day so others could learn and perhaps be safer in the backcountry. He also wants the Teton ski and avalanche community to understand his group wasn't clueless and had tried to account for the danger on the day after Christmas.

Tarbox, Mike Holland and three others were with 29-year-old Kazanjy just outside the patrolled area of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort when the avalanche carried Kazanjy about 500 vertical feet and buried him about 4 feet deep. Tarbox descended the face and helped a ski guide and others locate and dig Kazanjy free within about 20 minutes.

Resuscitation efforts failed.

"I wanted to at least respond to the locals and let them know what was going through our heads," Tarbox said.

He initially posted thoughts on a website after reading criticism about his group's action.

"We did make bad decisions," Tarbox said. But "you can't really judge it unless you were there."

Members of the group had extensive backcountry experience and avalanche education, group member Holland said. While they knew and understood technical aspects of avalanche risk, they overlooked the influence a group of six had on one another.

"What led to this accident was the heuristic group dynamics that kind of shrouded the true risk," Holland said.

The five hope to continue analyzing the event in an effort to develop a protocol that will allow groups to easily review their decisions to ensure they aren't being baited into a trap.

Among those baits, avalanche forecasters and analysts say, are great snow, blue skies and a gung-ho group in which nobody wants to be the wimp.

Tarbox is in his third winter in the Tetons, his eighth on a snowboard. He uses a split board to ride about 80 days a season in the backcountry, and he makes a habit of profiling the growing snowpack as the season progresses.

On Christmas, he spent the morning inbounds at the resort, digging a snowpit to examine the slide danger. That evening he read a report that the Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center intended to reduce the backcountry danger rating from high to moderate for Dec. 26.

Tarbox, Kazanjy, Kazanjy's parents and a few others had Christmas dinner together. They played cards that evening and discussed skiing Cody Peak the next day.

The plan was for four friends to ride the Jackson Hole Aerial Tram, then hike out of bounds to ski a slope on the nearby mountain. The group grew in size, however, as friends were added. They struck out with six.

On the way to Cody the group saw guided parties also heading to that peak. Tarbox said he didn't have much experience in the area and didn't know that some consider Pucker Face more dangerous than other nearby lines.

Parties appeared headed for Four Shadows and No Shadows, but nobody had skied Pucker Face. The fresh slope beckoned.

"I'm used to skiing things first," Tarbox said of his backcountry experience, where he usually descends untracked slopes. "I think our eyes were on the powder."

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