Editor’s Note: This story has been updated, May 20, 2015.
Zahan Billimoria is considered one of the top ski mountaineers in Wyoming’s Teton Range. He has been skiing the Tetons for 13 years, and has worked as a guide for the last 10, recently completing his AMGA certification for both rock and ski. Due to his easy-going and cheerful demeanor, he is regularly hired by Teton Gravity Research to guide athletes and film crews in the high peaks. He has experienced both the beauty and dark side of the mountains, having lost numerous close friends to avalanches.
But after his friend and skiing partner Luke Lynch was killed by a small slide on Sunday while their group of four ascended a steep couloir in Grand Teton National Park, Billimoria, 37, was left in disbelief. About halfway up the Sickle Couloir, an exposed and committed line on the northwest face of Mount Moran, the group stopped for a break. They’d already taken a boat across Jackson Lake in the pre-dawn hours to the base of Moran, hiked more than 1,000 vertical feet through forest before ascending another 2,000 vertical feet on snow. At the bottom of the Sickle, Billimoria said the group had discovered a large pile of fresh avalanche debris, an indication that the couloir had already shed the fresh snow that had fallen in recent days. Had they seen anything to the contrary, he said they would’ve re-evaluated their plans. “It had already produced a full track avalanche,” he said. “Our concerns would’ve been sloughs had more snow accumulation been present.” Instead, conditions in the couloir were relatively firm, which he described as being “first knuckle in depth,” meaning you could poke your index finger into the snow up to your first knuckle.
Shortly after they stopped to rest, Billimoria, who was in the lead on crampons, looked up to see a shallow slide cascading down on them. He took one step to the left, and as the snow went by him, it knocked his three partners off their feet. According to the accident report from the National Park Service, the three skiers, who were not roped up, fell roughly 500 feet over rocks and ice. Lynch, a 38-year-old father of three who made an indelible mark in the land conservation community in Jackson Hole and beyond, did not survive. Also in the group were Jackson residents Brook Yeomans, 37, and Stephen P. Adamson, Jr., 42. Adamson sustained life-threatening injuries and was airlifted to the Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center, in Idaho Falls. According to his wife’s Facebook page, he succumbed to those injuries Tuesday evening. He leaves behind two young daughters.
Billimoria said the slide was merely centimeters deep.
“The impression that sticks to me the strongest is how little snow it takes to cause so much human damage,” said a shaken Billimoria on Monday. “It was so quiet that none of us saw it until it was a small stream of snow 30 feet above us. The snow hit my right boot, and as I watched it, I noticed that it didn’t even go over my boot top. It was a steep place—maybe 38-40 degrees—and we were perched on our crampons. Sometimes it doesn’t take much more than a snowball to knock you off your feet in a steep place. But it’s amazing how little snow it takes to cause injury to a human being or kill you, if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong moment.”
Billimoria provided the following account of the accident to Powder.com. It is intended to keep the facts straight, and so that others might learn from it. Please be respectful as you assess this tragedy.
“Our group of four—Stephen Adamson, Zahan Billimoria, Luke Lynch, Brook Yeomans—left Moran Bay at approximately 6:15 a.m. Our objective was Mount Moran’s Sickle Couloir. We walked through the forest to roughly 7,500 feet, where we encountered snow and began skinning. We observed and discussed evidence of natural avalanche activity in the Sickle Basin, indicating the slopes above had already avalanched. We ascended very firm (knife hardness) bed surface in crampons. Snowfall was nil to less than 1 centimeter per hour and we observed no snow movement. In the couloir, snow conditions were firm, with 1-2 centimeters of new snow on top of the bed surface. We took a short break where the slope angle decreased, at around 9,900 feet. We were there for approximately 30 seconds when we heard a dull sound coming from above. Thirty feet above us we saw a small stream of snow coming down, a relatively minor slough. I moved one step to the left, while the other three were knocked down the slope and over an ice bulge below them. I immediately switched my avalanche transceiver to ‘search,’ started down the slope, and soon made contact with Brook, who had identified one person to his left. I arrived and found both Luke and Stephen unresponsive on the snow surface next to each other, at approximately 9,350 feet. Stephen exhibited labored, regular breathing, with a thready pulse. Luke was not breathing, and did not have a pulse. Brook called 911 and I began chest compressions on Luke, while attempting to insulate Stephen from the cold. Brook, who had sustained leg, chest, and hand injuries, began crawling to us and eventually took over chest compressions on Luke.
“Snowfall continued and small sloughs ensued and compromised the unresponsive patients’ airways. Brook continued chest compressions, re-checked Luke’s pulse, and found no signs of life. I decided to move Stephen to a more stable site, and re-located him to approximately 8,900 feet. I climbed back up to where Brook was working on Luke. Loose sloughs continued to threaten the stability of their location, and Luke showed no signs of life. Approximately 30 minutes had now elapsed since the avalanche. After speaking with the climbing rangers about Luke’s condition, I instructed Brook to follow me down to Stephen’s location. Stephen was placed in a recumbent position (which seemed to ease his breathing) with packs under him and wrapped in several layers of down clothing. Brook and I monitored vitals and l laid on Stephen to keep him warm, clearing his airway repeatedly. Meanwhile, Brook and I continued to communicate and coordinate helicopter rescue with the rangers. At approximately 11:40 a.m., rangers arrived in the basin below and made their way up to our position. We packaged Stephen and he was short hauled from that location. Other rescuers were dispatched to Luke’s location above. He was found and his body was evacuated via helicopter. Rescuers and I helped Brook down to the basin. Brook and I were flown by helicopter to the Rescue Cache at Jenny Lake.”