avalanche kills skier on Pucker Face

By Jim Stanford on December 26, 2013

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Crown of the avalanche on Pucker Face. Click to enlarge.

A massive avalanche on a cliff face killed skier Mike Kazanjy today just south of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort.

Kazanjy, 29, who recently came to Jackson from California, triggered the slide at about 1 p.m. on Pucker Face, according to the News&Guide. Several members of his party helped dig him out, and rescuers tried to revive him with CPR, to no avail, the paper reported.

The slide comes after a fast-moving storm deposited more than a foot of snow in the Tetons before Christmas. High winds topping 70 mph buffeted the peaks, creating dangerous conditions.

Today’s Bridger-Teton avalanche advisory warned, “At the mid and upper elevations, backcountry travelers could trigger recently developed wind slabs up to 30 inches deep in steep, wind-loaded terrain.”

A friend who skied in Grand Teton National Park yesterday dug a pit to test stability and found numerous troublesome layers, including sugary-like snow at the base of the snowpack. Today’s avalanche appears to have run all the way to the rock on the cliff.

The Bridger-Teton advisory further warned, “Faceted snow persists throughout the snowpack, and failure could also occur on these deeper layers with slab depths up to four feet. If skies are mostly clear and temperatures are inverted, these slides may become more susceptible to failure in the afternoon on sunlit aspects at the upper elevations.”

Pucker Face approaches 45 degrees in steepness. In early 2012, a snowboarder survived a slide there in an incident caught on video (since deleted). Skiers must leave the resort boundary via a gate and hike a short distance to reach the slope.

Kazanjy was an expert skier and strong athlete who posted about his exploits on social media. A graduate of Cal-Berkeley, he formerly worked for Hotwire.com and was active in the tech industry.

Update: In its evening advisory, the Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center said Kazanjy was buried 4 to 5 feet deep. The crown measured 48 inches.

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Posted under Deaths, Environment, Ski Resorts, Sports

26 Comments so far

  1. bettie December 26, 2013 8:13 pm

    Mike, you were a go getter. You will be missed.

  2. Patty December 27, 2013 6:47 am

    I find it hard to believe that someone thought that slope was safe to ski given all the snow, & avi data.

    Were they trying to trigger a slide or testing the slope before skiing? Three people got caught in that slide. Could have been a lot worse.

    Were the JHMR Ski Guides heading out to ski that too? It sounds like a lot of skiers were in the resort’s backcountry according to the news report.

    I’m surprised that greater precautions weren’t taken by the group.

  3. Jim Stanford December 27, 2013 9:00 am

    I wouldn’t say for sure that three people were caught in the slide. A commenter on the N&G site is pretty adamant Kazanjy was the only skier on the slope: http://www.jhnewsandguide.com/news/out-of-bounds-slide-kills-jackson-man/article_9a405eb5-3d85-5ab1-9f9f-e94b684c16c1.html#user-comment-area

    There was some misinformation in early reports. A snowboarder was one of the first to respond; he rode down to the edge of the cliff, tossed his board over and downclimbed to reach the debris pile, from what I heard. Somehow this got twisted into a snowboarder being the slide victim. It was a couple of resort guides who dug him out.

    There are always a lot of skiers in the resort’s backcountry er, sidecountry. I doubt guides would take clients down Pucker Face in those conditions.

    Also, via ABC News, Kazanjy’s family released a statement in which his brother, Peter, said: “Mike lived life with a full heart for those around him, and they for him. He loved his family, his Cal Bears, his skiing buddies and San Francisco. My parents were lucky enough to spend this Christmas with Mike in Jackson this past week, and are grateful for it. This tragic loss at a time of year when families draw close to each other is a reminder to cherish the time we have with our loved ones. Reach out to yours and tell them you love them.”

  4. Mike's Friend December 27, 2013 9:59 am

    As a close friend of all that were a part of the incident, yes, they did try to test the slab. After dropping cornices on it and ski cutting it without any movement, they opted to ski it. Only Mike was caught. It has been a sad day for all of us. There are a lot of confusing emotions attached to the decision to ski the face. Thank you all for the prayers, thoughts and phone calls to support the friends and the family of Mike Kazanjy, he will be deeply missed.

  5. David December 27, 2013 11:39 am

    Too much misinformation. And too common with our local news media & PR people. N&G did report that 2 others were caught in the slide. And it was reported to be a snowboarder early on.

    Risk is part of any skiing adventure. They weren’t idiots unless they thought this was risk free.

    I would have given the slope a greater than 70 percent chance of running given that its neighbor ran naturally, and given the conditions but it’s always a guess even if you’re on sight.

  6. The Demon Gregorio December 27, 2013 6:18 pm

    Pucker sloughed below me in that same area many years ago, it’s an unfortunate tragedy. My condolences to his family, friends, and the JH community.

  7. Another backcountry traveller December 27, 2013 6:33 pm

    This is a sad mountaineering incident. In Mike’s passing, friends and strangers can gain the benefit of being in close proximity to him while he did what he loved. Learning from one anothers triumphs as well as tragedies should be the practice amongst mountaineers. Whatever direction of country you call it, sidecountry is still the mountains and the mountains are full of potential dangers. Mountaineers should know that concept activities like skier controlled, cornice dropping and skier cuts do not prevent or help predict avalanches on a given slope, it will only help make said slope safer to ski descend if the snow slides during one of these activities. These are activities that you can opt to do if your assessment criteria lead you to believe a slope is safe to ski. And the evidence of natural slide activity on the chosen assessed slope could have been an indicator that the slope wasn’t safe. Unfortunately to those with historical knowledge of the slope, the snow on pucker face looked more like hangfire than a skiable slope. My heart goes out to all the ski mountaineers involved in this tragic incident.

  8. mike wood December 27, 2013 8:06 pm

    Known mike since he was a boy terrorizing my daughter and the whole neighborhood…. extremely intelligent and athletic (wrestling, cycling and skiing….) he was an adventurer above all, and he danced to a very different drummer than most young adults today. His outlook on life always impressed me. Skiing was mike’s greatest love, he recently skiied in japan. he was very competent, competitive (several races…captain of the berkeley ski team). That is (probably) why he was leading the party….
    A tragic loss… mike was one-of-a-kind. My deepest sympathy to his family…… and his friends. Such a shock…..

  9. tom b December 27, 2013 8:09 pm

    Hindsight is interesting but as a skier for the past 48 yrs and father of a hard charging 22 yr old I just want to say one thing. Everyone just needs to step back and turn it down a notch or two. The things that are possible now with modern equipment are so tempting that it’s hard to turn away sometimes. As a father, I grieve over this loss and ask that we all try to be reasonable with our route selection and back off if it doesn’t feel 100% OK. Hug your kids everyday too.

  10. JD December 27, 2013 8:32 pm

    Mountaineer ? I’m sorry but that’s not what this is. They wandered over to Pucker took a look and said let’s go. They put themselves and the people who came to help them at risk of death. Let’s be real here folks. If you don’t know then don’t fucking go

  11. scott December 27, 2013 9:10 pm

    This is a terrible tragedy, and my prayers are with the friends and family involved. In light of this, I hope people can learn from the mistakes made and perhaps make better decisions themselves. I see too many people in the backcountry these days who have never taken an avalanche course, or are new to the area and do not know the terrain. I, myself, wonder if I have become complacent with the lines we all ski so often. I apologize for being an armchair critique, but there were several red flags were clearly not taken into account in the decision making process.
    1. Shallow, early season snowpack. This is not the first time pucker has slid early season, nor will it be the last.
    2. Lots of recent snowfall, on top of a persistent weak layer
    3. High winds with the recent snowfall
    4. Natural avalanche activity on No Shadows
    5. Natural avalanche activity below pucker face that left the slope unsupported, just as the above contributor states.
    Please, friends, inform yourselves of the danger signs if you choose to ski the backcountry. Also, speak up when in groups. It sounds as if there may have been hesitation about whether to ski the slope. I imagine it would have only taken one person in their party to say, “no, not today.” Live to ski.

  12. Another backcountry traveller December 27, 2013 10:50 pm

    JD, first, I agree with you about the boldness of the decision. But when you go into the mountains to have an angled adventure, by default you are a mountaineer, whether you just got there, had a NOLS coronation, or were born in the wild to wolves. Experience or not you are throwing yourself in the deep end. The more experienced usually check the depth, but not always and maybe not often. The mountains are a great equalizer. I know plenty of experienced mountaineers that are lucky to be alive and some really great ones that have passed. This incident is important because of the many red flags that were overlooked, and it should be discussed in depth. Judgement, group dynamic, and other aspects of human behavior that come into decision making often have nothing to do with experience. So what really makes someone a mountaineer anyway? Sponsorship or notoriety, the chip on the shoulder, or failed relationships, alive after 80? It is true, an experienced mountaineer probably wouldn’t have even gone over to Cody, at least to ski that side. But how many experienced ski mountaineers have been flushed while choosing to ski into granite? The mountains are a great equalizer, no matter where you’ve been before, or where you plan on going.

  13. D December 27, 2013 11:34 pm

    JD knows what a true mountaineer is just ask him….

    Sad sad deal no matter the reasons or facts. He paid the ultimate price, we don’t need to put him on blast. Learn all you can from it and hope it never happens to you. Everyone knows the right answer about yesterday, but the question is what about tomorrow.

  14. JD December 28, 2013 8:33 am

    Traveler, I guess we will disagree on the definition of “mountaineer.” I do not believe walking into the mountains makes one. And I certainly would not characterize the decision to ski Cody that day as “bold”. I call it reckless. This discussion will change when a responder dies trying to help someone who has gone unprepared. It will happen. It’s time to start thinking about the risk that they take. Look at the parking lot on the pass after a big storm. You know who you are, Go pro on your head and a cell for when it all goes wrong.

  15. Bill December 28, 2013 1:00 pm

    My thoughts, prayers, and positive energy go out to Mike, friends and family.
    Here is a relevant article that may be helpful for some:
    http://sportgevity.com/article/changing-culture-shame-0

  16. scotty December 29, 2013 2:42 am

    #10 Comment.. GUY, your a Kook for saying That. See you under a Slide Soon!

  17. BG December 29, 2013 10:16 am

    JD, I completely understand and agree with your perception of young adrenalin junkies who have more balls and skiing talent than knowledge of snow pack and risk assessment abilities. I have been back country skiing in the Wasatch range for fifteen years. I started out as a young adrenalin junkie myself and have learned to be more conservative as time goes on.
    However, even with all the knowledge and education, when skiing a big line, even when things have all the signs of stability, you are still rolling the dice a little. Every one of us who dance with the dragon have a chance of getting burned. You should think about and remember a time when you were going for it without knowledge and education, or a more current time when you know you are putting yourself out there a little bit. It is in bad taste to come off hateful when some people are experiencing deep loss. Try to be more instructive rather than trash talking.

  18. Gringo December 30, 2013 3:40 am

    Peace and love to all Mikes people. You have a difficult road ahead on the way to healing.
    To those that wish to discuss: it is unfortunate that in a situation like this it is virtually impossible to point out examples that others could learn from without stepping on toes and aknowledging faults.
    It would seem a new-to-town fellow ought better ‘wait and see’ in high consequence terrain instead of ending up like poor Mike. Unfortunately in this era of social media, I think being cautious is the old mans folly.

    Unrelated side note: the term mountaineer is quite overused here for some
    reason ….maybe someone needs to check the dictionary?

  19. KB December 30, 2013 10:04 am

    KB’s corollary,
    Is that line worth never, ever getting laid again? If not, don’t ski it. Be honest.

  20. Truth December 30, 2013 12:25 pm

    Anyone shaming a dead skier for missing “signs” is only trying to assuage their own deeply buried guilt.

    You got away with it once, but you may not the next time.

    You have less control than you think.

  21. BG December 30, 2013 6:13 pm

    Gringo,
    This tragedy could certainly help others learn and save lives in the future. Every one of us in the back country, I do not care who you are, are guilty of bad decisions. The goal should be to make better decisions as time goes on and listen to veterans who try to teach. However, to trash talk someone who paid the ultimate price is in bad taste. Veterans should be kind and educate at a time like this. Do not ever forget, if you spend a lot of time in the mountains, it could be you. A true mountaineer knows that mother can kill you even when things are relatively safe. I know I would not want may loved ones to read a bunch of hate mail if I make a mistake.

  22. himay December 30, 2013 10:59 pm

    writing from afar.heard about the avalanche and am just so sorry.to all of mike,s family and friends my deepest condolences and heartfelt sorrow.mike were thinking of you!rest in peace.see you when i get there.

  23. Gringo December 31, 2013 12:55 am

    KB may be on to something….

    To be clear. I do not aim to shame or judge, simply wanted to point out that the learning / discussions are also difficult. I have paid my dues during my years in the hills, i have lost loved ones and nearly lost my own life as a result of a bad decision. I have also endured the public scrutiny after a high profile accident. None of which were fun, but each one made me a bit better person.

    As I said in my first post: much love to Mikes people……..

  24. BG December 31, 2013 2:13 pm

    Well said Gringo!
    Again, those of us who have spent a long time in the back country have made mistakes ourselves.
    To those who are trying to learn as a result of this, when you have a slab over early season facets, slopes over 30 degrees, or adjacent or connected to slopes over 30 degrees have a potential for large deep avalanches. With this kind of weakness,in general, one can identify by probing the snow with your pole. If the snow is stubborn to to penetrate and hallow below, slab avalanches are possible. You can also dig a pit and feel the layers with your hand.
    I remember a time when I thought small soft slabs were avalanches. If I ski cut a slope and no slide, I thought it was safe. Slope cut testing does not usually work for deep slabs. Deep slabs like to come out above you, not at the your feet. Numerous tracks on a slope do not equal a stable slope if a persistent slab is present. I have seen many hard slabs triggered on slopes with lots of ski tracks.
    If what I just suggested is completely new and foreign, you should back off the back country and go to avalanche school.

  25. Hector December 31, 2013 2:42 pm

    There are old skiers and there are bold skiers, but old bold skiers are almost non-existent.

  26. Mom/wife of backcountry skiers January 1, 2014 2:51 pm

    My husband and son were the second responders to this avalanche, sadly. Dave Miller and all the JHMR Backcountry guides/patrols are to be thanked and commended for their heroic efforts on this day-and many other days. My husband and sons also have Dave to thank for their first lessons in snow safety/avalanche and back country awareness. They have gone on to take more classes in avalanche and snow safety, but still, every day when they ski out there, they are taking a risk.
    Even the best “mountaineer” makes mistakes. Look at Coombs.
    I am most thankful that after they stopped that day, talking with Mike and his friends, considering skiing Pucker Face, my boys decided it did not look safe to them and they continued on. In fact, it was Mike that suggested the safer run, that they DID ski, which led them 20 minutes later to the scene of the avalanche. Both my husband and son commented that the group had sounded very experienced.
    What I DO know, is that we all have the ability and choice to learn from other’s mistakes. I know for a fact that my boys will be more guarded and less willing to take risks out there, now that they have lived the reality of such a tragic loss of life. It scared the hell out of them, rightly so. I hope many people will be more cautious and speak up more readily if they think something doesn’t look/sound safe in the future. It would be a positive way to honor Mike…

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