Headwall Avalanche at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort

Headwall Avalanche from Webcam
Bridger Gondola webcam image of the avalanche before it was shut down.

If you aren’t afraid of the snowpack yet…maybe now you will be.  And if you haven’t hugged your neighborhood ski patroller recently, you should…because it’s unbelievable that no one was seriously injured in this recent event.

This morning, a large avalanche released from the Headwall, buried ski patrollers and damaged sections of the Bridger Restaurant at the top of the Bridger Gondola.  After one round of avalanche control work, ski patrol was in the process of a second round of avalanche reduction in the Headwall area, and an area known as the “White Spider”, when a secondary slide occurred, releasing nearly 80% of the snow in the hike-to area.  Debris ran past the restaurant and buried windows on the second floor of the building, breaking some and pouring snow into the Couloir and Cornice restaurants.   Though multiple ski patrollers were caught in the slide, all were recovered without injury.


40 Responses to “Headwall Avalanche at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort”

  1. 1 matthew Dec 29th, 2008 at 8:07 pm

    So, it sounds like the resorts privacy rights trump the rights of the pass holders and ticket buyers to see the level of hazard that mother nature is dishing out to us.
    Did the resort hang the threat of legal action over your head. I’m pretty sure you didn’t just pull them because you felt bad about how they might affect the resorts right to privacy A few pictures of a slide like that and the resulting damage might be just the thing to get the attention of those who just don’t “get it” when it comes to risk evaluation and a complacent attitude toward skiing in-bounds as being safe. It’s only as safe as you chose to make it.

    I’m totally with you though about giving much thanks to the patrollers for all of their hard work and putting themselves at significant risk to help us do what we love to do.

  2. 2 sven Dec 29th, 2008 at 8:12 pm

    Protect the privacy rights? Whaaaat?

    Please explain.

  3. 3 Big Chris Dec 29th, 2008 at 8:27 pm

    Protect what? $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$!!!!!

  4. 4 Hal Dec 29th, 2008 at 8:33 pm

    I concur… these pictures visibly depict how dangerous the current avalanche conditions are. The safety of our fellow skiers is much more important than the “privacy rights of the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort” (aka the amount of money they will lose in the biggest money making week of the season)…

  5. 5 randosteve Dec 29th, 2008 at 8:35 pm

    Thank you for your comments.

    I, like you, am not happy about the currently situation, but unfortunately since I was wearing my TCSAR hat while I was there, and we were called to help by JHMR, I feel the need to respect their wishes.  It is a very small town and I try to do what’s right.  I know the Sheriff’s Office doesn’t like it when I post TCSAR related photographs, but I felt the need to get these images out so strong, I couldn’t NOT post them…even risking my membership to the TCSAR organization in the process.  Skier’s, both backcountry and resort, HAVE to see the power of avalanches and the resulting devastation…especially when it is currently under our feet when we go into the mountains.  Unfortunately, I began to get some heat from some of the ski patrollers and JHMR itself, never mind the SO, so I pulled the pictures.  It’s hard to please everyone in life and a small town makes it even harder.  If I have offended anyone in the process, I am sorry.   -Steve

  6. 6 Greg Dec 29th, 2008 at 8:44 pm

    I am sorry you were pressured to remove these photos. I can assure you that I have spent the past hour emailing them to as many media outlets possible. I started with Idaho Falls, then Denver, then British Columbia outlets. With recent deaths in these markets due to avalanche, I figured it to be our best bet to get coverage. I hope the reaction to JHMR’s pressure is to take money elsewhere. There were plenty of warnings regarding this building’s location. I am sure this will all play out over the next few weeks. Hopefully, people will pay attention.
    Again, I am sorry your day has ended this way. I have the upmost respect for your intentions here and thank you for the work you do keeping all of us locals and tourists safe.

  7. 7 randosteve Dec 29th, 2008 at 8:48 pm

    I can’t say I’m happy to hear that Greg, but hopefully they will respect the copyright watermark.

  8. 8 Greg Dec 29th, 2008 at 8:50 pm

    Fair enough.

  9. 9 drew Dec 29th, 2008 at 9:14 pm

    we all live in or near a resort. thats how we work and afford this lifestyle. we ski inbounds and out…we assume the risk to ski out…we pay all this money to ski inbounds and the risk is often still the same. are we just paying to ride a lift and for ski area insurance policies to rebuild 10 million dollar restaurants that were built in slide paths?…its your choice where to spend your money and where to ski…as far as the photos…i am both a journalist and b/c skier…in situation like this, i can see the conflict of interest for steve…its unfortunate. but the public reaction makes the resort out to be the bad guys…from the secrecy and tension of jhmr’s reaction (which seems to serve none but their own tense selves (and with some historical knowledge of jhmr mtn policies) i will choose the side of the locals. public safety starts with awareness…

  10. 10 mike Dec 29th, 2008 at 9:29 pm

    What is the resort trying to protect with Madoff on the cover every major news print wearing a JHMR hat? …besides think back to that tent that housed the head wall pizza how many times was that taken out by slides..3-4…they had to know this would happen some day

  11. 11 John Dec 29th, 2008 at 9:46 pm

    There is no legal basis for JHMR to demand the removal of those photos. You were on public property and the people had no reasonable expectation of privacy (the legal standard used in these cases); that you were on SAR doesn’t matter. It’s up to you to decide whether to comply with their request for political reasons. But you certainly are not obligated by law to do so.

  12. 12 jbr Dec 29th, 2008 at 9:48 pm

    I can agree with the JHMR and patrol about removing the photos but i think that you should leave your comment about it being a secondary slide. More so for the other snow workers out there trying to keep the public as safe as possible. Knowing information like that just helps others not make the same mistake.

  13. 13 Lance Dec 29th, 2008 at 10:02 pm

    respect to you steve. it’s understandable your decision given this situation.

    but the fact that there is pressure to take down the images speaks volumes as to how this situation is being handled buy the authorities and JHMR.

  14. 14 daisy Dec 29th, 2008 at 10:06 pm

    There are pics posted on stephenkoch.com.

  15. 15 TODD Dec 29th, 2008 at 10:07 pm

    The Village needs to start giving a FREE Beacon with every lift ticket? “Free Beacon Weekend”

  16. 16 G Dec 29th, 2008 at 10:11 pm

    At first I thought it was awful that the resort/Sheriff wanted the pictures taken down. But I didn’t understand that they were taken as part of an SAR mission – is that correct? If so, I understand the privacy issue. It is more of an ethical, professional issue than a legal one – for example, an EMT isn’t supposed to leak photos of accidents, nor would a police officer post a photo of an incident that happened while he was on the clock. It’s expected that those situations are protected by those personnel.

    I imagine there is some expectation of privacy with SAR, because SAR allows individuals access to scenes the public isn’t invited to. If the pictures came from that access, and the access came SOLELY from being SAR, I think the standards of both journalism and probably SAR would say distributing those is…complicated. Because it was just property damage, I can see why it doesn’t seem a big deal, but imagine if someone on SAR posted a photo of a person who was injured or killed. It’s a short leap in the mind of the policy-makers, to allow that information to go directly from SAR to the public. Whether it is stupid or not, in this situation.

    I think the pics and info are both great and that Steve is fantastic. But I can see where the line is blurry there. It is fair to make rules about what is and isn’t private in that organization. Most organizations have those policies and SAR is probably no different.

  17. 17 young and dumb Dec 29th, 2008 at 10:20 pm

    Wholeheartedly agree with posting these photos for the public to see…I was planning on leaving from Bozeman to come down to Jackson tomorrow, but seeing these photographs immediately forced me to rethink my plans…it’s true, we need to understand the potential power in these slides, and seeing is believing. Keep it coming, because God knows we all need to be brought back down to earth now and again.

  18. 18 masedog Dec 29th, 2008 at 10:21 pm

    Wow! thought it was possible, but did not expect it would happen. I think we have all been lulled into a state of confidence, thinking we are safe from the killer forces of large avalanches. We ski deep powder on steep slopes and spew it’s ecstasy at the bar. Control efforts at the village, and skier compaction on the pass and village back country has yielded a false sense of security. Don’t think edelweiss could slide? Thanks JHSP. Yes the photo’s must be public.

  19. 19 randosteve Dec 29th, 2008 at 10:22 pm

    This is the heart of the matter G and in most cases, I am cool with it. If you visit TetonAT regularly, you may have noticed that there haven’t been any TCSAR posts over the past year or so…since my long talk with the Sheriff.

    BUT, TetonAT being a backcountry skiing website and the consequences relating to people being buried in such huge avalanches being so great…I posted the pictures because I knew people wanted to see what happened up there. Now, I will have to take all the responsibilities that come with that decision.

  20. 20 G Dec 29th, 2008 at 10:26 pm

    Just to add – that isn’t meant in any way to imply Steve broke established ethics in SAR – just that I can see why and where the Resort/Sheriff might be drawing a line in the sand on this one. It sounds like a precedent is being set here, for better or worse, that wasn’t really in place before. But again, it’s obvious Steve is doing a great job both at this site and SAR. He may just caught in the middle of some policy-making.

    With everyone (not just Steve) having camera phones on them now, etc, it isn’t surprising that SAR would want to clamp down on privacy, since sometimes they have very good reasons to hold things back for a short time (like in the case of informing family before identifying a body, for example). It’s an issue most organizations have to address if they offer access to information the public wants to know.

  21. 21 orographics Dec 29th, 2008 at 10:28 pm

    Holding back those photos is fear based so not to create more fear in the public. It is the reason the US gov’t held back the US media from releasing photos and fotage of the Iraq war (a reverse policy after Vietnam). Release the truth and let the public see what reality is. The hell with politics, this is real and we all need to live the truth, even in a small town.

  22. 22 Dan Dec 29th, 2008 at 10:28 pm

    It is sad that JHMR thinks it can block publication of pictures taken within the national forest. Just what are they trying to hide? this is a plaintiff’s lawyer’s dream, as they are establishing a pattern of hiding the true risks and their own ineptitude. Sadder still that the Sheriff is cooperating with this conspiracy of silence. To the contrary, the Sheriff should be posting these pictures on its website to discourage people from going into the back country in these high avalanche risk times.

  23. 23 G Dec 29th, 2008 at 10:30 pm

    Oops, we posted at the same time. I am new to this blog so I don’t know the history well – for sure. I see why you posted the pics, and also why you took them down…and I don’t envy your position!

  24. 24 Big Chris Dec 29th, 2008 at 10:35 pm

    Steve,IMO, you did the right thing by taking the photos down. It’s only right.

    As far as the Village, anyone who has ever worked there should not be surprised by their response. How many times has it been brought up to not say a word about their big Chevy SUVs and the farce about being “Green”.

    The building has been a town joke since its proposal.

    Free beacons_ Now that is funny! When they think a nearly $2,000.00 pass is a great deal for the locals. Non-locals pay the same price?

  25. 25 Christi B. Dec 29th, 2008 at 10:35 pm

    Hey Steve,
    I think you did the right thing by both posting the pictures and taking them off your site. It is unfortunate that you were forced to remove them but I completely understand. It is a really scary and unfortunate situation that we are experiencing right now with our snow pack and weather. I am curious though…does JHMR plan on rebuilding Couloir restaurant and the rest of the building that was damaged? I would have thought that they would have listened to people like Rod Newcomb who I heard (hearsay) warned them of the location of the building being in an avalanche path when it was first being built. If this is true, you would think that this would be a huge wake-up call for JHMR. If they do rebuild it seems apparent that JHMR’s first and for most concern is not safety of its visitors but instead profits. Anyways, thanks to you Steve and to Search and Rescue and the Ski Patrol at the mountain for all you have been doing!

  26. 26 lucy Dec 29th, 2008 at 10:38 pm

    Some new pics of the interior can be found here: http://www.skiingthebackcountry.com/jackson_hole_Avalanche.php

  27. 27 randosteve Dec 29th, 2008 at 10:48 pm

    Man…and all I wanted was for us to talk about how sketchy the snowpack is…NOT about how sketchy my decision was.

  28. 28 rdegolia Dec 29th, 2008 at 11:12 pm

    Regarding the issue of trying to get publicity: I’m in the SF Bay Area and the lead item on KCBS, largest news radio station here, is the slide on Headwall and the previous slide in Toilet Bowl. I heard it three or four times over the past hour. It was well presented, not as an emotional story, but as part of a severe weather story across the nation.

  29. 29 Big Chris Dec 30th, 2008 at 12:04 am

    I think in way we are discussing how sketchy the snowpack is. There are those of us who are refraining from traveling in the backcountry because we already understand the situation and the consequences.

    There are those who are continuing to travel and ski out there. Whether they be “Plato’s Sheep” or Superhero’s.

    When I was reading the original post this afternoon I was listening to Holly on KMTN offer a warning to people not to bring their dogs skiing with them. She was announcing that dogs were returning to the parking lot at the top of the pass without their owners, physically exhausted.

    I couldn’t imagine someone would be ignorant enough to bring their dogs out in these conditions. If you want to kill yourself that’s cool. Darwin reigns supreme! Don’t kill your dog!

  30. 30 Kate Howe Dec 30th, 2008 at 1:06 am

    Steve, thanks for the well written and honest account of what happened up there, and for your take on the situation. The photos were important, and I am I grateful to have seen them.

    Regardless of how it makes JHSR look, we all know it slid, and we should all see what a slide can do. There are far too many cavalier decisions that get made in the back country, and many good ones that go wrong unexpectedly.

    I wish I’d grabbed your whole post and copied it to my blog, but I put up your intro paragraph and one of the photos before it was taken down.

    I hope you don’t catch heat for being honest and sharing really important information on the realities of being inthe mountains with the rest of us. I, for one, am grateful, it will help me make better decisions in the future, in bounds or out.

    Kate Howe

  31. 31 gringo Dec 30th, 2008 at 5:27 am
  32. 32 jt1ski Dec 30th, 2008 at 7:35 am

    Yo dude, you did the right thing, it is sometimes hard to find the balance between getting the information out, and following protocols set by various organizations such as SAR, Ski Patrol, and resort management. I’m sure there are a lot of liability issues involved here and everyone is probably in the CYA mode. Stay true to yourself, and keep on rock’n bro.


  33. 33 jrt sawpow Dec 30th, 2008 at 10:33 am

    lets see, I can ski big pow in the backcountry with the upside down layers, or…
    head to jhmr and ski knowing there are more than a few
    pros who will do there best to pull my sorry bottom out if things go bad. I read the fine print on my passes.
    The pictures help me make my mind up!! If I want to ski, Im sticking close to the cavalry this weekend! Thanks for all you do, I like knowing whats really going on.

  34. 34 wine skin drew Dec 30th, 2008 at 10:59 am

    yah, leave the dogs at home, even though they totally freak out when they hear the nylon ski pants zipping around your shack in the morning and when they see the skis come gathered they jump you and knock you down. take em for a walk and throw them in snowbanks. its like the same for them…

  35. 35 Tucker O Dec 30th, 2008 at 11:52 am

    Steve: thanks for the forum that does help keep us safer.
    Returning to the snow pack: have we learned what we need to yet?
    For most of us, it will be if we can dial it back far enough, long enough?
    For JHMR, it will relate to PR. How do you empower your patrol despite an uneducated, impatient client? Can you demonstrate the amazing talent you have on staff that is protecting us with such heart pounding work?
    For snow scientists, I can only guess it will relate to how creep is affected by bombing and how this affects timing in stabilizing a slope.

  36. 36 Kevin Dec 30th, 2008 at 12:49 pm

    Hey, must admit I did not notice that you were no longer posting SAR stories. That’s too bad. I think everyone enjoyed about knuckleheads doing stupid stuff and paying the consequences. Also, served as a reminder that sh@t happens, and we might want to be prepared. It would be nice to hear an occasional SAR rescue, perhaps not including anything more than the local paper. It does us no good if we bury our heads in the sand. We learn from our (or others) mistakes.

  37. 37 jon Dec 30th, 2008 at 1:03 pm

    Just watched patrol bomb the crap out of the headwall with binoculars from the “siberia” parking lot. They detonated one sled bomb on shot 11 (top of headwall above casper bowl, north of white spider) and three sleds full on skiers right of headwall. All propagated slides that appeared to run full track or close to it. They must be psyched for this window of weather and hopefully can make some progress today towards regaining control of the mountain. These men and women are truly risking their lives every second they are out there and I hope they know how important and respected they are in this community! Other natural slides visible south of the resort in rock springs (by the elevator shaft) and in green river (just south of green river traverse) with 6-8 foot crowns and a similar slide on NE aspect west of the pyramid. Also wydot has triggered a large slab below the skier right cliff band in glory bowl, and probably many others. There are few if any safe lines anywhere!
    Also, big chris has it right. If you really have to go ski the BC right now, no photos or words will stop you. Be as safe as you can but leave your dogs home. This upside down snowpack destroys acl’s and they have absolutely no chance in these slides. peace

  38. 38 Matthew Dec 30th, 2008 at 5:59 pm

    Steve, Thanks for the explanation of why the photos were pulled, and your candidness on the matter, I know there must be a fine balance of your responsibilities to TCSAR and your responsibilities as blogmaster to the backcountry community at large to provide information and awareness.
    Tough place to be right now.
    I have always respected your efforts to provide us with stories, information and discussion of things relevant to our shared pursuit of snow and fun. If the purpose of a site like this is to provide a forum for this then you have been successful. One look at the posts on this matter will show that this is a highly impassioned and aware community. We should all feel lucky to call this place home.
    Everybody hug a loved one, hug a ‘troller, and when mother nature lets us back into the playground, tear it up with a newfound respect for what lies at our feet. Thanks for all the hard work Steve, now get some sleep

  39. 39 FnB Dec 30th, 2008 at 11:48 pm

    Take this for what it’s worth (which isn’t really much), but 10 years ago I worked for the Ski Corp., in Food & Beverage, and the plans for this building were shown to the F&B Director and myself by our company President. We made a point of how the building was situated below the Headwall and jokingly started to refer to the proposed restaurant as the “Slide-Away Cafe”. Unfortunately, the joke came to a level of fruition and all of these other issues have arisen. Fortunately, however, this did happen thanks the efforts of ski patrol in trying keep the mountain under control for the people to ski. This could’ve been a much worse situation had the facility been in heavy public use at the time. I miss the Solitude Cabin Dinner Sleigh Ride…the roof always slid on that place too. Kaboom!

  40. 40 Eyeson Jackson Jan 17th, 2009 at 3:58 pm

    The Sheriff should get rid of the rule. Post your pictures. Every member of TCSAR should carry a camera and record their successes and failures in full color for the educational and news value. The Sheriff’s rule is stupid and outdated. Screw the lawyers, the resort, the TCSO, and anyone else who thinks posting those photos is unwarranted and potentially dangerous to the TCSO, TCSAR, or the JHMR. Those folks are living in the old days.

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