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More Details Emerge in Death of Backcountry Skiers

Photo and Graphic by Chris Harder/Grand Teton National Park

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News Release Date: March 9, 2012
Contact: Public Affairs Office, 307.739.3393

A team of Grand Teton National Park rangers, Teton Interagency personnel, Teton County Search and Rescue members and the Teton County contract helicopter recovered the bodies of Chris Onufer, 42, of Teton Village, Wyoming and Steve Romeo, 40, of Jackson, Wyoming in avalanche debris just before noon on Thursday, March 8, 2012. The accident is under investigation.

The Teton County Search and Rescue contract helicopter, with two Grand Teton National Park rangers on board, located the avalanche at 8:40 a.m. Thursday on a ridge that forms the north flank of Waterfalls Canyon. The helicopter searched the avalanche debris with a transceiver hanging below the ship in an attempt to pick up any signals from avalanche beacons. At 8:48 a.m. the transceiver had two positive beacon hits.

The helicopter proceeded to a landing zone in the Colter Bay area on the east side of Jackson Lake. Just before 11 a.m., 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. A helicopter flew the bodies to the west side of Jackson Lake. From there, rangers on snowmobiles transported Romeo and Onufer to the east side of Jackson Lake where they were met by the Teton County Coroner.

Romeo and Onufer were in a 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.

Onufer was reported missing to the Teton County Sheriff's Office at 10:36 p.m. on Wednesday, March 7. Sheriff Deputies began a missing persons investigation on Wednesday night after Onufer failed to pick up his father from the Jackson Hole Airport at 7 p.m. At 10:47 p.m. it was learned that Onufer had intended to go skiing in Grand Teton National Park Wednesday morning with a friend.

At 11:16 p.m. a Grand Teton National Park ranger began sweeping trailheads popular for backcountry skiers in the park's south district. As more information became available a ranger in the Colter Bay area began sweeping the areas in the north district of Grand Teton National Park. Onufer's vehicle was located near the Colter Bay swim beach just after 12:30 a.m. Thursday.

With the support of Teton County Sheriff's Office Dispatch, park rangers worked throughout the night to notify rescuers and establish a search plan. On Thursday at 2:23 a.m. the incident commander requested the Teton County Search and Rescue contract helicopter be made available at first light for the search efforts. A morning briefing was held at 6:00 a.m. at Colter Bay while two park rangers responded to the county search and rescue hanger to meet the helicopter.

"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 of solace knowing they died doing what they both loved-skiing."

Did You Know?

Tetons from Hurricane Pass, KF

Did you know that Grand Teton National Park was established in both 1929 and 1950? The original 1929 park protected the mountain peaks and the lakes near the base. The boundaries were later expanded in 1950 to include much of the adjacent valley floor.