Skiers Found Dead in Wyoming: Unstable Conditions Behind a Deadly Avalanche Season

Mar 9, 2012 3:43am

The desperate search for two experienced backcountry skiers lost in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, came to a horrible end.

On Thursday, friends Steve Romeo and Chris Onufer were found dead after being swept thousands of feet downhill in an avalanche that started near the 11,355-foot summit of Ranger Peak.

The pair had been missing since Wednesday. Chris’ friend Michelle Smith told us skiing was a huge part of his life.

“He’d want to go out there every day rain or shine. He was super inspirational. He had so much energy for the mountain and he fed that energy to everyone around him,” she said.

Romeo and Onufer are now the 26th and 27th victims to be killed by avalanches so far this season. For perspective, on average 25 people are killed in U.S. avalanches every year, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

John Snook is an avalanche forecaster at the center, located in Boulder, Colo.

He tells me this year has been especially dangerous for backcountry skiers.

Why?

“We had a very dry start to the season, so the early season snow- which was very shallow- turned into a very weak foundation. Now, we’re putting new snow on top of that. We’re putting a very heavy load on top of a very weak foundation which is creating very unstable conditions,” Snook said. “So this year we are seeing more fatalities as a result.”

And it’s not just novice skiers. A few weeks ago, five expert level skiers were caught in an avalanche near Stevens Pass, Wash. Three were buried and killed.

“Even experienced skiers, if they don’t pay attention to what’s going on and stay focused to the unstable conditions, they can get themselves in trouble as well,” Snook says.

ESPN reported that Romeo and Onufer were well known skiers in the Jackson Hole area. Onufer worked at the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort and was reportedly a volunteer firefighter.

Romeo’s motto was “Live to Ski”. He ran this popular blog where, at times, he sadly noted the deaths of other avalanche victims and warned readers of avalanche dangers.

He also made extensive use of video to take viewers on the high-speed rides down the spectacularly steep peaks of his beloved Teton mountains.

His enthusiasm in many of his videos is infectious, as he shared the adventure, and sometimes the risk.

In one clip that seems hauntingly poignant now, Romeo narrates a YouTube video of himself and Onufer titled “Skiing the Southwest Face of the Middle Teton.”

“The skiing is awesome here,” he says at about 5:45 into the clip. “But as I descend, the snow begins to pile up and I get a little nervous of avalanches.”

 

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