|By Nate Brown
From Wilson, Wy
Feb 24, 2010
|An Account of the tragic events of February 21, 2010 and the two weeks leading up to that day. Nate Brown 2/25/2010
I met Wray at the first Heather Paul Memorial up-hill ski race. It was February 11, 2010. Wray and Cary Smith had finished the race a good 3 or 4 minutes ahead of everyone else in a 30-to-40 minute race. I have come to learn that this was normal for Wray—to crush the competition at a cardio-event. I am new to racing and introduced myself to Wray. We talked for a few and right away I could tell that Wray was a really great guy. Wray had a quiet, kind, and keen demeanor.
A few days later, my wife Kristeen and I were cross country skiing in the Teton Park and finished the day at Dornan’s. I saw Greg Collins across the room and stopped by to say hello on our way out. I was hoping I could convince Greg to go do the North Ridge rock route up the Grand the following weekend. So I went over there. I recognized Wray at the table and said, hello.
I asked Greg, “are you available next weekend?”
Greg says “sorry, I’ve got to go guiding all weekend.” Greg suggests Wray and I get out together. Then Greg says, “Wray is the ultimate trailbreaker”.
I answer, “Yeah, he totally crushed everybody at the rando-race last week”.
Wray is blushing at this point, obviously not comfortable with anything but humility in this regard.
I asked Wray, “Do you like to go rock-climbing?”
Wray answers coyly and humbly, “Yeah, I do. Let’s talk about getting out next weekend.”—I did not know then what a giant Wray was in the mountains. …his after work grand runs and son on.
The next time I saw Wray we were at the second Heather Paul Rando-Race the following Thursday. I was late again for registration and barely made it to the start line in time to go running up the hill. Wray was there and we chatted for a minute. Just before the race began, Wray said to me, “I’ll see you in a minute.” –I say with a wry smile, “No you won’t Wray” Knowing Wray would take off like a rocket… and he did.
After the race, we started talking about doing a day in the Tetons. I was still keen to go rock-climbing but as always, open to other ideas. Wray was psyched to go skiing. After talking about a few options, Wray suggests we ski The Grand, The Middle, and the South Teton in the same day. I got excited and could tell I’d really be in for a big one. We tried to recruit Cary but to no avail.
Saturday afternoon I spoke with Wray about the plans for the following day. Wray said that he was still feeling a little under the weather and that our previous plan may be too much for the weekend. Wray’s good friend Brady Johnston was on board to go on Sunday. I was looking forward to meeting Brady. I had heard his name a few times and knew that he was a very strong athlete as well. We settled on meeting at Wray’s apartment at 5:00am Sunday and finalizing a plan that morning.
At the trailhead, We were getting our stuff together and we settled on skiing the Amora Vida couloir on the South Teton and maybe go over and ski Buck Mountain after that. This would be an impossible itinerary for some, but no big deal for Wray. At 6:00am, we left the parking lot at a fast pace (slow for Wray) and kept that pace the whole morning. Wray was out front the whole way. I now know that being ahead of Wray was next to impossible.
We reached the summit of the South Teton at 10:45. Wray had his down coat on almost the entire time. He was such a fit guy that this pace seemed slow for him. We spent about 15 minutes on the summit eating food, drinking water, and as is customary, I called my Wife to let her know how the day is going. We talked about our options, the southeast couloir, the Amora Vida, or the South Face. We all skied up to the South East couloir and had a look. Decided to move along to ski the Amora Vida instead.
Brady skied the upper pitch—a 50-degree access slope to the larger, hanging face. He skied it hard, trying to make it slide. He then skied under the rocks to the safety zone at the Amora entrance #1 Jumping up and down on the slope trying to make it slide along the way to the zone. I skied next. Wray skied up to us last.
The next pitch puts you out on the hanging face for about 12 turns before you get to the entrance to the Amora Vida. Brady skied first. Wray yelled down to Brady, “Are you sure that is the entrance, I think this is it.” Brady yelled up, “Yeah, this is it for sure.” Without any hesitation or conversation, Wray began skiing to Brady. I was in a “safe” spot watching Wray ski. After Wray made about 4 turns, I felt the earth move under my feet. Then I was on my hip on a moving block of semi-hard snow. I luckily stepped off, on to the bed surface and tried to watch Wray. I could see the class V River of snow flowing toward Brady and I yelled to Brady, “AVALANCHE”.
I knew right then that Wray had very slim chances of making it. A two-foot deep blanket of snow that covered the whole hanging South Face of the South Teton had just slid off the cliff band at the bottom of the face and Wray was swept up in the madness. I immediately skied down to Brady and he already had his beacon out. We skied back and forth searching the bed surface hoping desperately that we would find Wray above the cliff band. About 100 feet above the brink we found Wray’s ski. Still no beacon signal. Brady and I stopped on the edge of the cliff, took our skis off and looked over the edge.
I said to Brady, “I think Wray is dead.” As we were scanning the debris on the snow 1500 feet below us, we both thought we could see Wray. Arms outstretched, silent, still.
At this point, Brady and I were standing at the lower toe of what is like a massive altar in the sky in a place that surely no skier has ever thought to go. The direct line to Wray would involve 1500 feet of rapelling with a rack and a rope. We had neither. Our only way to get to Wray was back up to the entrances of two couloirs going either east or west off the massive altar.
I called the Teton County Sheriff’s Department dispatch and asked to be transferred to the National Park for a Rescue. Almost immediately I was explaining the facts to a park ranger who would be the ground man for the rescue. I told him our plan to get to the Amora Vida and get to Wray. He told me to be patient, and that they were on their way.
We stood there trying to grasp the gravity of the last 5 minutes. The horror was there but this was not the time to loose our cool. Immediately we started formulating a plan. Right away we hastily decided that we would boot pack back up the 1000 vertical feet to the Amora Vida and get to Wray. We both had a burning desire to get to Wray.
We began the climb back up the face at this point the only way off was up. I am grateful we had the time to think while climbing. I was pondering our options and concerned about skiing a similar aspect at a similar elevation after the massive avalanche that had just wiped this huge face clean. We arrive at the entrance of the Amora Vida.
I said to Brady, “I really don’t think it is a good idea to just ski in to this thing.” Brady seemed to be thinking the same thing. “What should we do with Wray’s ski?” I asked. Brady said, with tears in his eyes, “I really want to leave it here. I’ll come back and leave a plaque with it”. He jammed the now-useless ski in to a pile of rocks—high in the sky. We decided to continue another 700 vertical feet to the summit and wait for the Helicopter to arrive before contacting the SAR ranger again. More climbing, more reflection. A phone call to my wife explaining our situation and the tragic news. While we were hiking, I asked Brady about Wray’s family. Such loss. Such tragedy. I could not help feeling complicit. I still can’t help it.
Just below the summit, we could hear a helicopter far off to the west. The SAR team was close. A few minutes later, they were hovering a few hundred feet away. Brady gave the hand-on-the-head “we are ok” signal and they were pointing to the North. A soon as they flew away, I called the Park SAR ground man. He told me that the SAR wanted us to go down Garnet Canyon and clear the upper face so that they could do some control work.
I was both relieved and disturbed to know that we would not be descending in to Avalanche Canyon. We ate some food, drank some water and started skiing back down Garnet. Two hours later, we were at the car. I called The SAR Ranger again, he spoke with Brady and I and we agreed to meet the following day to discuss the event. I knew it would be a long time…if ever…
|By Jim Davidson
From Fort Collins, Colorado
Feb 24, 2010
|I am so sorry to read about this sad situation. I do not know any of you, but I share your sadness. Thanks for bravely sharing this story.
|By Norm Larson
From Wilson, Wy.
Feb 25, 2010
|Nate thanks for writing this event up. So often when somene dies in the mountains we don't get to hear the whole story but I feel it's important for others to come to terms with it and for others to maybe learn something from it.
Unfortunately it all comes down to the fact that mountaineering is a high stakes game we play and that occasionally someone pays a high price for their participation. It doesn't even slightly enter into it how good of a climber or even how good of a person you are. People die. Though I didn't know Wray personally it sounds like he was especially gifted as an athelete and more importantly a truly great person, a huge loss to our Teton community.
It sounds trite but don't be to hard on yourself, things happen and can't be changed. In my 40 years of climbing I can't even count anymore all the friends and acquantances that have died in the mountains. In the mountains as in life people die. Its our job to carry on in their spirit. Carry on with Wray in your heart.
|By Phillip Morris
From Flavor Country
Feb 25, 2010
|Thanks for posting this, a rather gripping read.
My condolences to you, Wray Landon's family, and the Teton community. From all the comments on tetonat.com it looks like Wray was a very well liked individual.
|By lynne wolfe
Feb 26, 2010
|Thanks Nate for writing up your story. I sent you a note about checking my info for The Avalanche Review. Let me know if you don't get it, please.
See you Sunday.
Feb 26, 2010
|Damn Nate...SO sorry to read this. My condolences to all involved, and those touched by this tragic loss. shit.
From Boise, ID
Feb 26, 2010
|Wow thanks for sharing your heart-wrenching story. My condolences to all involved.
|By Brian in SLC
Feb 26, 2010
|Tough read, man.
Condolences and all the best to you and yours (and his).
-Brian in SLC
|By John P.
Feb 26, 2010
|Very sad. My Condolences to his family and friends
|By Brady Johnston
Mar 3, 2010
Location: South Teton, South Face
Date: February 21, 2010
Time: 11:30 a.m
Party: Wray Landon, Nate Brown, and Brady Johnston
• Sunny and Clear
• No wind
• Temperature: 8 degrees Fahrenheit
• SS, D2, R3
• Max crown height: 20-35cm
• Width: 30 -40M
• Crown to staunch wall distance: 30M
• Interface: Facets underneath old wind crust.
• 2-4 mm pensile hard sun crust
• 15-30cm 4 finger new snow
• Old nearly vaporized wind crust
• Facets 15-30cm
• Max Snow Depth 55cm
• Bed Surface Under Slab Depth: 10-25cm
• Bed Surface Lower Track Depth: 30-50cm
2-10cm new snow observed on the way up with sun crust on the SE-SW aspects.
Middle Teton skier and snow observations:
• 2+ day old tracks in the Elingwood and Chouinard couloir
• 1 party ascending the Ellingwood couloir
South Teton NW coular
• 2-4cm new snow over old tracks on Middle Teton
• 2-4 cm in 3 day old skin track headed up the NW couloir on the south
11:15 Begin Decent
Summit –SE couloir –Raised tracks from 3 day’s prior
• 10-15 cm max snow depth
Some control work on the SE couloir
• No results
• With a little more control work this looked like a good ski
• No surface crust
Decided to ski more S facing-
• Surface sun crust
• Visible tracks from 3 day’s prior
• Less new snow and warmer temperatures thought old wind slab should be more vaporized
SE couloir to the upper west flank of crown line
• Run Order: Brady, Nate, and Wray
• Vertical Distance: 75M
• Max snow depth 55 cm
• 2 visible ski tracks from 3 days prior with 2-4cm new snow with 2-4mm of pensile hard surface sun crust.
• Noticed deeper snow at crown line, with 2-4mm of pensile hard surface sun crust.
• All skiers; ski cut upper face and crown line
• All skiers re group on a rock outcropping with a max snow under foot depth of 15 cm.
Upper west flank of crown line to Amora Vida entrance
• Run Order: Brady, Wray, Nate
• Vertical Distance: 50M
• Max snow depth 65 cm
• Previous skier tracks not visible
• Brady skies to Amora Vida entrance (12-14 turns), clears and is standing on rock
• Nate is located on the upper west corner of the crown line on rock outcropping
• Wray skies 20-30M (6-8 turns) before triggering the slide
o Point of relies locations was in the middle of the slope, near a mid slope rock and close to the staunch wall
o Note: He was the 4th track to ski on the surface that failed in the past 3 days.
• Many charges were released (maybe 12) by the Search and Rescue Team on the slope. No further avalanche activity resulted.