Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Avalanche claims Ketchum skier

Stella Keane, 53, was accomplished backcountry skier, mountain athlete

Express Staff Writer

Skier Marc Hanselman, who was in the area at the time of the avalanche accident, relays information about the avalanche site to Blaine County Sheriff's Officers on Friday. Photo by David N. Seelig

The close-knit community of local backcountry skiers is still trying to come to grips with the death of one of their own last week in a large avalanche in the western Boulder Mountains.

Stella Keane, 53, of Ketchum was killed in the slide, triggered off a partially forested mountainside on the west shoulder of Gladiator Peak. The accident occurred near Galena Lodge on Friday, March 6, about 11:30 a.m.

Keane was with three other local skiers.

The slide left Jan Koubek of Sun Valley seriously injured with a broken femur. Koubek had surgery and was released earlier this week from St. Luke's Wood River Medical Center.

The other two skiers, Jeannie Wall and Sigi Vogl, were not caught in the slide.

Late Monday, Wall told the Idaho Mountain Express that the group was drawn to the Boulders that day because of new snow.

Avalanche forecasters had rated the day's avalanche hazard as "considerable." More serious conditions can warrant "high" or "extreme" danger warnings.

After skiing partly up the west slope of Gladiator Peak, the group debated which way to descend, Wall said. Eventually they chose to drop down a timbered slope at around 8,500 to 9,000 feet that eventually breaks off steeply into mixed trees and an open slope above Westernhome Gulch.

Because no one in the group had skied the route before, they decided to regroup halfway through the trees just above a point at which the slope gets considerably steeper. There, Wall performed a snow safety test, known as a snow column, that indicated safe conditions.

"It looked good," she said.

Wall said they discussed the area where the slope broke off steeply just down the hill from them through the trees. She described the terrain as rocky.

Wall decided to take the first turns, taking a route that took her to her left where the hillside began to steepen.

In hindsight, Wall said, that took her to a more low-angle and therefore safer slope. Back uphill, Keane and Koubek skied a straighter line through the trees.

Though no one can be certain exactly when the two skiers crested the steeper slope, their placement put them above a line that exceeded 35 degrees, which is known as an avalanche-prone slope angle.

Wall, who was down and to the left, said she heard and saw the avalanche coming off the mountainside. She recalled thinking, "I know my friends are in it."

Once the slide stopped moving, Wall could hear voices above her. But she couldn't hear Keane.

Quickly throwing her climbing skins back on her skis, Wall raced uphill. She said the first person she spotted was Koubek, who had been caught in the slide and had his leg wrapped around a tree. He told her his leg was broken.

After making sure Koubek was stable and in a safe spot, Wall took off uphill through the slide debris. Because the entire group had avalanche transceivers on, which send signals that other wearers can detect, Wall began a thorough search of the slide and picked up Keane's signal. Soon after, Wall spotted one of Keane's ski tips poking out of the snow.

Digging as fast as she could, Wall found her friend lying face down. She said it had been 20 to 25 minutes after the slide before she got Keane's face out of the snow and immediately started CPR.

Though the group didn't know it, a rescue attempt by nearby skiers had begun within moments of the slide.

The first rescuers to arrive were from another group of four local skiers who saw there had been an avalanche from the top of Mushroom Ridge, a popular backcountry destination west of Gladiator Peak. They were Lee Melly, Kaz Thea, Sawtooth National Forest Ketchum District Ranger Kurt Nelson and Doug Abromeit, director of the U.S. Forest Service National Avalanche Center in Ketchum. Seeing the resulting fracture line after the slide and then hearing calls, the four skiers dropped off Mushroom Ridge, crossed Westernhome Gulch and made their way uphill to the site.

Wall looked up from her CPR efforts on Keane and saw Abromeit approaching. She said the sight of a group of rescuers with such a high level of backcountry experience was reassuring.

With the newly arrived rescuers in place, the group decided to send Wall out for help. However, that required a steep climb up and over Mushroom Ridge.

At the same time, no one yet knew where the fourth member of the group—Vogl—was. Leaving Melly, Nelson and Thea with Keane, Abromeit began searching for Vogl.

It turned out that Vogl was above the avalanche when it occurred and had to take a long route around the more than 1,000-foot-wide slide path to finally meet up with the rescuers.

Wall said rescuers continued CPR on Keane for about an hour and a half. According to Blaine County Coroner Russ Mikel, Keane was killed by the weight of the snow on her chest, which kept her from being able to breathe properly.

Arriving at Galena Lodge, Wall came across another local backcountry skier, Sawtooth National Recreation Area Backcountry Manager Ed Cannady. Together, Wall and Cannady skied back up to Koubek at the avalanche site.

The arrival of additional rescuers was hampered by the remoteness of the site and high winds and snow squalls that persisted throughout the afternoon. At one point, three rescue helicopters—from the Idaho Army National Guard, St. Luke's and Sun Valley Heli-ski—were in the air trying to reach the accident site.

Despite the difficult conditions, Sun Valley Heli-ski pilot Lon Stickney was finally able to touch down. Wall rode out in the helicopter with Koubek. Keane was flown out during a second flight.

On Monday, Wall skied back to the avalanche site to place prayer flags where her friend and ski partner died.

"She was one of my closest friends," she said.

Wall said she has been running the scenario over and over in her mind in the days since the avalanche. She said she's been trying to understand what mistake the group of highly experienced skiers might have made.

"I think we were excited about the powder," she said.

Though no one is certain, ski tracks at the top of the slide suggest Koubek and Keane were close together on the slope—though separated by a few trees—when it slid, Wall said. And it appears Keane, who likely skied first, was probably the trigger.

Because the same slope had slid earlier this winter, new snow had created a weak bond with the base layer, said Janet Kellam, a forecaster from the Sawtooth National Avalanche Center.

Wall now thinks the group should have been more aware because they were in a new area.

"You can't let your guard down," she said.

Jason Kauffman:

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