Ski group sees its leader swept off mountain by avalanche, Grand Teton officials say

A group of skiers were taking turns entering a narrow area of Grand Teton National Park on Monday when an avalanche started sweeping through the mountain, park officials said.

The group of three local Wyoming residents were skiing the Broken Thumb Couloir, a narrow and dangerous part of the mountainside that winds through cliffs. They were entering the area one at a time, park officials said.

“Matthew Brien, a 33-year-old Jackson, Wyoming resident, was leading the group, entering the narrow area of the couloir above the rappels when an avalanche occurred,” park officials said in a news release. “The avalanche was up to two feet deep and fractured 50 to 100 feet above Brien, sweeping him over the rappel and downslope for approximately 1,000 feet.”

Brien’s nearby friends called for help and reported the incident to the Teton Interagency Dispatch Center, park officials said. The skiers also called two friends who were skiing nearby.

The group searched for Brien and found him partially buried. They were able to remove him from the snow and debris to give him CPR, park officials said.

“The Teton County Search and Rescue helicopter with park rangers immediately responded with aerial reconnaissance to determine if a short-haul rescue would be an option,” park officials said. “Due to gusty winds, short-haul was not feasible. The helicopter landed on Taggart Lake and rescue personnel skied to the scene.”

Rescue officials determined Brien was dead at the scene after suffering significant trauma. His body was taken to the Teton County Coroner.

The other skiers were able to safely ski out of the area, park officials said.

“The Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center issued a considerable avalanche danger rating for elevations above 7,500 feet today for the Teton area,” park officials said on Monday. “Recent snow and wind events have created dangerous backcountry conditions. Very cautious route finding and expert snowpack evaluation skills are a requirement for safe travel in avalanche terrain.”

In a typical year, avalanches kill between 25 and 30 people each winter in the U.S., the American Avalanche Association said.

During the 2020-2021 season, at least 32 people have died from avalanches since December, according to the American Avalanche Association. Nearly 25 of those people have died in avalanches in February.

“Some days are dangerous and some days are not,” the Avalanche Association said on its website. “Learning about avalanches will help you decide when, where, and how to visit the backcountry.”

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