Two skiers die in backcountry avalanche in Grand Teton National Park

The bodies of two Wyoming skiers were recovered Thursday from an avalanche debris field visible in Waterfalls Canyon in Grand Teton National Park. (NPS photo - click to enlarge)

By Ruffin Prevost

CODY, WYO. — Rescuers recovered the bodies Thursday of two skiers who died in a backcountry avalanche in the mountains of Grand Teton National Park.

Chris Onufer, 42, of Teton Village and Steve Romeo, 40, of Jackson had failed to return as expected Wednesday evening from their trip to the Ranger Peak area, in the northern Teton Range, according to Jackie Skaggs, spokeswoman for Grand Teton National Park.

Skaggs said that both men were expert backcountry skiers and well-known local figures around Jackson. Romeo operated a popular backcountry skiing website.

“The tragic loss of Steve and Chris is deeply felt by everyone in Grand Teton National Park,” said Superintendent Mary Gibson Scott. “These two individuals have touched so many in the park and in our community. Our sincere condolences are extended to the family and friends of Steve and Chris. Hopefully all who loved them can find a measure solace knowing they died doing what they both loved—skiing.”

The skiers’ vehicle was found at 11:15 p.m. Wednesday at a trailhead parking lot 10 miles north of Moran Junction. Grand Teton National Park rangers and Teton County Search and Rescue initiated a search at dawn on Thursday morning.

A search and rescue helicopter located a large avalanche debris field on the slope of Ranger Peak and at 8:48 Thursday morning, and picked up signals from two avalanche beacons. Backcountry skiers often wear transmitters to aid in their location and rescue in the event of an avalanche.

Just before 11 a.m. Thursday, a team of seven rangers was flown to Waterfalls Canyon near the toe of the avalanche where they began a probe search of the debris. By 11:45 a.m. the bodies of Onufer and Romeo had been located and removed from the debris.

Romeo and Onufer were in a steep, narry gully, or couloir, on a ridge that forms the north wall of Waterfalls Canyon. Based on evidence at the scene, park rangers believe the pair was ascending with skins on their skis when a large soft slab avalanche released sending them over 2,000 feet down the couloir. The crown, or top of the avalanche, broke at about 10,300 feet in elevation and the toe of the avalanche terminated around 7,100 feet in elevation. The crown was estimated to be approximately 600 feet long with a depth of about 3 feet. The debris field that reached into Waterfalls Canyon had an estimated average snow depth of 6 feet.

Romeo was found about 150 feet from the avalanche’s toe and Onufer was found about 1500 feet above Romeo. Teton County Coroner Kiley Campbell determined the cause of death to be blunt force trauma. Both Romeo and Onufer were located near the surface of the debris.

Avalanche danger in the region was listed as moderate on Wednesday afternoon, and low on Thursday morning, according to the Bridger-Teton National Forest avalanche center.

On Wednesday in Washington D.C., Interior Secretary Ken Salazar presented seven Grand Teton National Park rangers with the Department of the Interior  Valor Award for their actions during July 2010 search and rescue efforts to aid 17 climbers caught in a powerful lightning storm on the Grand Teton.

A Teton County Search and Rescue volunteer was killed last month in a helicopter crash that also killed a snowmobiler who rescuers were assisting. The circumstances of that crash are under investigation.

Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9818 or [email protected].

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