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Avalanches swept skiers against trees
Collisions believed to have killed two in separate slides Sunday.
By Benjamin Graham, Mike Koshmrl, Johanna Love and Lindsay Wood, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Date: January 30, 2013
The avalanche that killed Nick Gillespie on Survey Peak in Grand Teton National Park on Sunday broke along a 230-foot crown up to 26 inches deep and pinned him against a tree, park officials said.
Trauma from being swept into a tree also killed Liza Benson in another slide on the same day about 60 miles south near Clause Peak.
She was carried by a slide with a crown depth of only eight inches.
The Survey Peak avalanche carried Gillespie 220 feet down the 9,277-foot peak and ran twice that distance. Up to 21 inches of snow fell in parts of the Tetons from Saturday morning to Monday morning, accompanied by an average 17 mph wind, the Bridger-Teton National Forest Avalanche Center said.
Benson was skiing with four partners on a ridge near Clause Peak in the Cliff Creek drainage, off Hoback Canyon in Sublette County, when she was swept 120 feet. In both instances, other members of the parties could do nothing to save their companions.
The news shocked the Jackson Hole skiing community. The incidents were the first avalanche deaths of the winter in the area.
Gillespie, 30, and Benson, 28, were both skiing with groups but on their own at the time they were caught in the slides. Both were carrying recommended safety equipment. They were experienced in the backcountry, investigators and friends said.
At their respective elevations, the avalanche danger Sunday was low for Gillespie and moderate for Benson. Avalanche experts used Sunday’s fatalities as a reminder to be constantly vigilant.
“Low danger is a pretty good sign, but our forecast is something you should look at from home,” avalanche center forecaster Jim Springer said. “Once you’re out of your car and it’s blowing like crazy and snowing and you see snow drifting, you need to throw our forecast out and make your own.”
Gillespie, a trail crew worker in Grand Teton National Park, had been skiing the park’s northern backcountry since Thursday. The four-person group on the excursion included his girlfriend, sister and a close friend, all bunking in the Berry Creek patrol cabin.
The foursome had already skied Survey Peak once Sunday when Gillespie, Elizabeth Koutrelakos and Chance Burleson climbed a slope for a second time. Gillespie’s sister, Heidi Gillespie, sat out the run.
Members of the group skied at one-minute intervals, and Gillespie was the last to descend, said Grand Teton ranger Dan Stark, the incident commander.
At about 8,400 feet, Gillespie triggered a soft-slab slide on a 38-degree slope, investigators determined.
The Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center characterized the Survey Peak avalanche as “destructive” and said it was triggered by Gillespie.
The slide carried him down the mountain’s southeastern slope into a stand of conifers, photographs show.
Burelson, on his way down to the group’s next meeting point, encountered avalanche debris, Stark said.
Yelling out, Burelson found Koutrelakos. He then activated the tracking feature on his beacon and began climbing the slide path in search of his missing friend.
Koutrelakos went to retrieve Gillespie’s sister, who was about a mile away at the backcountry patrol cabin, she said.
Only about 15 minutes elapsed between the time when the avalanche broke and Burelson discovered his friend. Gillespie’s head and arm were above the snow, but he wasn’t breathing, Stark said.
“As far as the cause of death, we have no idea,” Stark said. “We’re waiting for the coroner.”
Gillespie’s friends tried CPR for about an hour, Koutrelakos said. They then hauled his body down to the patrol cabin, she said.
“We got there super fast and he just was not alive,” Koutrelakos said. “I think that the group generally did everything we could do to save him. Just sometimes, you can’t.”
Emergency authorities received a call from Burelson at around 9 p.m. Because of the remoteness — Survey Peak is at least eight miles from the nearest road — he had to ski for a distance to reach cellphone coverage.
Four park rangers flew to the scene by helicopter at about 11 a.m. Monday to retrieve the party and Gillespie’s body. Because of heavy fog, they were unable to return with the body and the last of the group until around 5 p.m., Grand Teton spokeswoman Jackie Skaggs said.
Skaggs was surprised by the fatal incident.
“The elevation of the crown was in the zone that was actually still considered low [avalanche danger], even in the afternoon,” she said.
The avalanche that killed Benson was smaller. The crown stretched about 130 feet and the snow ran 165 feet, said Steve Smith, Sublette County Sheriff Department spokesman.
Benson had been skiing with four friends, including Dr. James DeMetriou, who practices in Pinedale, and her boyfriend Jason Ray, an administrator with Sublette County’s Tip Top Search and Rescue.
The group used snow machines to reach the Clause Creek area, starting from the Cliff Creek trailhead. They were skiing on a ridge about a mile northeast of the peak when the slide occurred.
The Sublette County Sheriff’s Department released few details, saying the investigation is continuing.
Benson’s sister, Adrienne Benson, said DeMetriou relayed the following account to the family.
Sunday afternoon, Benson, DeMetriou and Ray prepared to make their third lap. Ray descended first and waited below to watch Liza
Benson, Adrienne Benson said. DeMetriou could not quite see her start. She apparently sliced a hard turn and the snow broke above her, Adrienne said.
The Avalanche Center reported Tuesday that the avalanche was skier-triggered and began on a 41-degree to 45-degree slope at about 9,200 feet.
It was classified as a soft slab avalanche of small size with a low potential for damage or injury. The snow that collapsed was on top of sun crust, the center said.
The long dry spell that preceded last weekend’s snowfall led to slick surfaces in many places, avalanche forecaster Springer said.
“When you have that and put new snow on it, it slides fast and easy,” he said. “If you run into something or fall into a terrain trap, you don’t really need much to get you in trouble.”
Search and rescue team members reported the terrain at the slide site was steep, Smith said. It included a wind-loaded slope with a cornice above, he said.
Benson skied on top of the slough much of the way until she lost her balance, Ray told Adrienne Benson.
The slide took her about 120 feet and slammed her into a tree, resulting in chest and head trauma.
Ray skied down to her in about 30 seconds.
She was unconscious and had a hard time breathing when he took her in his arms.
The Sublette County Sheriff’s Department received a call at about 3:25 p.m. from the group.
The initial report was that a skier had been injured. But during the course of the call DeMetriou, after performing CPR, determined that Benson had died.
She breathed her last in Ray’s arms.
He wasn’t ready to talk about the tragedy Tuesday night, only about his love and admiration for Benson.
“We were skiing and doing what we loved together when the tragedy struck,” Ray said.
Sublette County’s Tip Top Search and Rescue could not send a team Sunday because it was too late in the day, Smith said.
The remaining four in the group were able to make it out of the backcountry late Sunday afternoon by skiing down to their snow machines, he said. A deputy met them at the trailhead.
Early Monday morning rescuers left to retrieve Benson’s body. They were able to get within 875 yards of the avalanche field on snow machines and covered the rest of the distance on foot.
They were out of the backcountry with Benson’s body by nightfall.
The avalanche deaths were the first in Jackson Hole since Steve Romeo and Chris Onufer died last March after being swept nearly 3,000 vertical feet down a slope near Ranger Peak.
As she was poised to graduate with a physician’s assistant degree and settle down in Pinedale with the love of her life, Elizabeth “Liza” Gray Benson’s life was cut short Sunday.
After a small snow slide carried her into a tree in the backcountry south of Jackson, the 28-year-old died in the arms of her boyfriend, Jason Ray, her sister, Adrienne Benson, said.
“I know she died happy and with someone she loved so much,” Benson said. “And it was really fast.”
Friends and family members painted a picture Tuesday of an adventurous athlete and compassionate health care worker with an infectious smile.
After graduating in December 2007 with a degree in biology from Colby College in Waterville, Maine, Benson moved to Jackson Hole, where she had taken ski vacations with her family throughout high school and college, her sister said.
In the spring of 2008, she got a job as a medical assistant at Teton Orthopaedics. During the four years she worked there off and on, office manager Kenlyn Long said the doctors and staff “all grew so fond of her.”
“She’s always been so passionate about her family, her career and her sports,” Long said.
Nurse practitioner co-worker and friend Krista Novak called her “a superstar.”
“She was a wonderful person with a good heart,” Novak said. “All the doors were opening up for her. Her life was taking off.”
Every weekend, Novak said, Benson was in the mountains skiing or hiking.
Set to graduate this summer from the University of Washington’s physician’s assistant program, Benson was completing a residency at Pinedale Medical Clinic, her sister said, and she had hoped to be offered a job there upon graduation.
Just 15 months younger than her sister, Benson was a strong, gifted athlete. Growing up in Upper Arlington, Ohio, Benson played soccer competitively and on a traveling team from an early age. She played goalie for three years at Upper Arlington High School before transferring to play two years at Lawrence Academy in Groton, Mass. She continued playing soccer through her four years at Colby, and at one point was ranked 19th in the country, her sister said.
Even off the pitch, Benson excelled: sailing, scuba diving, mountain biking and cliff jumping.
“She just was willing to try anything,” Adrienne Benson said. “She was so brave. One time she did a 40-foot cliff jump into a teeny little hole” in a river near Independence Pass, Colo.
During their childhood, the Benson girls, younger brother Cole and their parents summered in Blue Hill, Maine, where they sailed and scuba dived. During Christmas vacations, they took ski trips to Colorado and, since 2000, to Jackson Hole. The family was close.
“She understood the importance of family more than anyone I’ve ever, ever met,” Adrienne Benson said.
Even in adulthood, the Bensons chose to live close to one another. Cole and Adrienne also live in Jackson, and their mother, Liz, widowed since 2006, splits her time between Jackson Hole and Vero Beach, Fla.
In October, Benson moved from Jackson to Pinedale, where she was starting work at the clinic. On Dec. 23, she met Ray, and they “were so immediately madly in love,” her sister said.
“Liza told me a week later: I met my soul mate,” Adrienne Benson said. “She was definitely the happiest she’d ever been.”
While skiing on Saturday and Sunday, Ray told Benson, he put warming packets in Liza’s boots.
“Liza hated being cold,” Adrienne Benson said. “She said, ‘I haven’t been cold skiing for two days. This is the best ski day of my life.’”
Ray, so choked up Tuesday he could hardly speak, called Benson his “one and only true love.” He had given her a small ring, he said, and they had made plans to get married.
“She was definitely the most honest and sweetest and caring person I had ever met,” Ray said.
“We spent every day we could backcountry skiing and ice fishing,” he said. “Everything was just perfect. We were two peas in a pod.”
It’s also possible he would have been scaling the side of a mountain or clearing a park trail with a chain saw, trekking the backcountry in search of morel mushrooms or strumming a guitar or juggling.
If you knew Gillespie, friends said, then you knew he was a dedicated trail crew leader and compassionate friend with the ability to motivate others. He was a loving son to his parents, Jim and Alison Gillespie, and a good brother to his sister, Heidi Gillespie, friends said. He was quick to lend a hand, kind in spirit and jazzed to experience every day.
Nickolas Gillespie died Jan. 27 when he was caught in an avalanche while skiing the southeast slopes of Survey Peak in Grand Teton National Park with his sister, girlfriend Elizabeth Koutrelakos and friend Chance Burleson.
The mountains had claimed another great person, Gillespie’s roommate and friend Justin Walters said. Gillespie was 30.
Gillespie arrived in Jackson six years ago from his hometown of Eugene, Oregon. He had been working in forestry since 2003 in California, Hawaii and Colorado. During a stint in Rocky Mountain National Park, he was a part of the Alpine Hotshots fire crew.
Co-workers described Gillespie as diligent, patient and organized. He took on the hardest jobs with an infectious zest, a quality that stood out to his supervisor, Stacy Myer. Gillespie’s hard work and positive attitude earned him a promotion to assistant supervisor of the crew.
“He could get other people enthusiastic about giving things their all,” Myer said. “He was always out to get more of [life].”
Brock Foster worked “asses and elbows” on trails alongside Gillespie for years, and Paul Franzeim built bridges, erected stone walls and carved out trails in the national park with Gillespie for three seasons. Both described Gillespie as the type of man who could tackle any challenge and do it well.
Gillespie spearheaded the effort to renovate a stone retaining wall up the south fork of Cascade Canyon and was instrumental in building the String Lake bridge, Franzeim said.
Gillespie immersed himself in the environment of the Tetons, Franzeim and Foster said, and made backbreaking work fun with a lighthearted, warm attitude.
“If Nick asked you to do something, you had to go,” Foster said, “because it was going to be the best thing you’d do all week.”
Gillespie was tight with his family. He made a best friend out of everyone, his roommate Walters said.
It was never a burden for Gillespie to be there for his friends, Franzeim said, “even it if wasn’t an easy time.”
Gillespie and Koutrelakos became friends about seven years ago when she worked on the trail crew. They met in Paintbrush Canyon and instantly connected. After about five years of friendship, they coupled up.
The two enjoyed marathon huckleberry-picking stints, some epic climbs in the Wind River Mountains and camping, Koutrelakos said.
Gillespie was known for his cooking. Koutrelakos recalls his snack wraps, smoothies and hot chocolate concoctions as being some of his best work.
Making up goofy rhymes, songs and dances was another one of Gillespie’s specialties. Walters recalled a song called “Pajamas” that Gillespie made up to the tune of Bob Marley’s “Jammin’.” Gillespie sang and danced while working on trails and while on his searches for record-size morels.
“He had a lot of heart for the mountains and the oceans,” Walters said.
On the day of the avalanche, Gillespie hadn’t set out for danger. His No. 1 priority was safety whether working on trails or negotiating the backcountry, Franzeim said.
The group looked for a safe line up the 9,277-foot peak on a day of what was supposed to be “fun powder,” Koutrelakos said.
Gillespie went back for another round and triggered a slide. His companions did everything they could to save his life, but he was gone.
Koutrelakos, looking back on last winter when an avalanche killed another friend, Chris Onufer, remembered Gillespie’s encouragement. Gillespie told her to take what Onufer had taught her and move on because Onufer would not have wanted her to live in grief.
“That’s what I’m going to do with Nick,” she said. “I literally met him in the mountains and I lost him there. It was proper.”