A new Teton County Search and Rescue program, Backcountry Zero, has a lofty goal:
zero fatalities in the valley’s backcountry.
By Caroline Markowitz
IT WAS A crisp Saturday morning on August 22, 2015. Smoke from the forest fires burning in the Pacific Northwest and California poured into the valley. The Tetons’ drastic lines grew sharper against the sky as Catherine Nix, twenty-eight, Tyler Strandberg, twenty-seven, and Rebecca Anderson, twenty-six, scrambled up Teewinot. At 12,325 feet tall, it is the sixth-highest peak in the Teton Range. The trio had lived in Jackson for a combined fifteen years.
Derived from the Shoshone word meaning “many pinnacles,” Teewinot is infamous for tricky route-finding. While it is not a technical climb, neither is it a regular hike. From the Lupine Meadows parking area, the trail switchbacks eighteen times (or so) until reaching the top of the “Apex,” about 3,000 feet above the valley floor and at tree line. It is from here that things get difficult: The “trail” comes and goes through loose rocks as it passes beneath the Worshipper and Idol. (If you study the south side of Teewinot’s east face, these rock formations can be seen from the valley floor.) Above the Worshipper and Idol, it gets even more difficult, as the route disappears and the peak’s “many pinnacles” are liable to dupe you.
Nix had previously summited Teewinot, but Strandberg and Anderson had not. In the couple of months before the three headed up Teewinot together, Nix summited Disappointment Peak, the Middle Teton, South Teton, Gannett Peak, and Mount St. John, some of which require more skill than Teewinot. She had also attempted Mount Moran but turned back due to timing. Strandberg, Nix’s frequent climbing partner and coworker at C-V Ranch, a residential school and treatment facility for disabled and emotionally disturbed youth, was alongside Nix for most of these outings. When not working or climbing, the two spent their days running in the Tetons and racing (and placing) in area trail-running competitions.
Anderson had summited the Grand in 2014, and her goal for summer 2015 was to climb more. She had already gone out several times with Nix. Because it was Nix’s last summer in the Tetons (the New York native was leaving for graduate school at the end of August), she wanted to make the most of it. Each adventure Nix posted to Instagram was marked #victorylap and #bucketlist.
The scramble up Teewinot was going well for the three until about 800 feet below the summit. Nearly 2,000 feet above the Worshipper and Idol, they, like many groups before them, lost the route. This part of the peak is like a maze, but made from granite and near-vertical. Before noon, Nix and Strandberg had both fallen 200 feet and were dead.
THREE YEARS BEFORE Nix and Strandberg died on Teewinot, Stephanie Thomas, executive director of the Teton County Search and Rescue Foundation (TCSARF) and a team member since 2007, convened the group’s executive board to brainstorm ways to reduce backcountry deaths. In November 2015, the group introduced Backcountry Zero, a program Thomas hopes will get the valley’s outdoor community—retailers, guides, and those who play in the backcountry—talking and thinking about backcountry safety and education. The idea is that this thinking and talking will then lead to fewer people, both locals and visitors, dying on the valley’s rivers and trails and in our mountains. The program aims to engage all backcountry users, from mountain bikers to boaters, snowmobilers, skiers, climbers, mountaineers, anglers, and hunters.
Thomas says to imagine three circles that are small, medium, and large. The large circle is filled with the “five-minute crowd.” These are the visitors to the valley and novices that Backcountry Zero has five minutes to impact, with simple and bluntly worded materials—look for them at the airport, tram dock, and popular trailheads. The second circle, the middle size, includes experienced recreators that have educated themselves about the backcountry and likely know people who have been in backcountry accidents. The smallest circle consists of outdoor professionals and guides. Thomas sees Backcountry Zero’s role as a starting point in each circle: Sometimes the initiative imparts knowledge and information; other times, it encourages open discussion and thought. The goal is the same for each group, though—to empower the people in it to make better backcountry decisions.
Backcountry Zero engages the large circle through three planned videos with Teton Gravity Research (TGR), bus advertisements, a “Don’t Know, Don’t Go” Instagram contest, and handouts in shops, rental places, and ranger stations. In the summer of 2015, Thomas and her team also began working on a program, Education Through Partners, in which they’re creating a curriculum based around the motto “Prepared, Practiced, Present.” Rangers, guides, and retail workers use this to explain Backcountry Zero to customers.
To reach the other circles—the middle and small ones—Backcountry Zero is launching a number of programs this year, including introducing Backcountry Zero Ambassadors, a series of podcasts and blogs, the Wyoming Snow and Avalanche Workshop (WYSAW), friends and family avalanche awareness days, a companion rescue refresher course, and a speaker series.
And then there are signs, which reach all three groups. But signs are a conundrum—do people actually read them? “You hear all the time that people never saw the signs telling them that they were going out of bounds [at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort], or [in Grand Teton National Park] they never saw the bear warnings,” Thomas says. So Thomas and her team are exploring different takes on signage. “Public art is one option I’m exploring for this winter,” she says. “Would someone notice a public art piece at a trailhead more than a poster with words?”
If people are more willing to share their close calls so others may learn, if people have an increasing willingness to engage their fellow recreationists in conversation when they witness unsafe activities, and if people start saying, ‘I act differently now because of Backcountry Zero,’ then I think it has been a success.”
– Scott Guenther, Jenny Lake District Ranger
WHILE NO ONE argues with Backcountry Zero’s goal, there is debate about the initiative’s name. Merriam-Webster defines “zero” as “the arithmetical symbol 0 or 0 denoting the absence of all magnitude or quantity.” So, on its face, the name Backcountry Zero suggests the absence of fatalities. But risk is inherent in adventuring in the wilderness, and in life. Snowshoe around Taggart Lake and you’re exposing yourself to risk. Sit on the couch watching reruns of Law & Order and a plane could fall from the sky, or a burglar could shoot you, or you could choke on a Cheeto. There’s no way to avoid risk. You can increase the riskiness of something with the choices you make, but not all risky choices are mistakes and not all fatalities are the result of choices you’ve made. Accidents just happen.
“We will never reduce risk to zero,” says Zahan Billimoria, a native of the Alps, an Exum Mountain Guide for seven years, and the lead Tetons guide for TGR. “If you suggest that zero exists, then we start to create a culture in which people believe they can be masters over the mountains. And that leads to arrogance and overconfidence. It suggests that if people are smart enough, they won’t have accidents; they will reduce their exposure to zero. And so, instead of instilling this deep respect for the mountains and for the risks inherent in them, we minimize it. We act as if it’s controllable by man. It does the opposite of what we’re trying to do.”
Jenny Lake District Ranger Scott Guenther says, “While zero may be an unrealistic goal in the big picture, it is not unrealistic at the personal level. If every time you go out, you go prepared, practiced, and present, you recognize your limitations, and you set an added margin of safety in your activity, [then] you are more likely to come home.” Meredith Edwards, thirty-one, an accomplished ultrarunner and ski mountaineer who has skied numerous challenging peaks including the Grand, Middle, and South Teton and was a mentor, friend, and adventure partner to both Nix and Strandberg, has experienced this.
Of course, “[Nix and Strandberg’s] accident really changed my perspective,” Edwards says. “They left me with a gift of mindfulness in the mountains. In my earlier years, I was naive. I was always aware of the risks, but now they’re superheightened for me. It wasn’t like they died doing the most extreme thing, and that’s where it gets hard. Out of the three of us, how am I still alive and they’re dead? I take a lot more risks than they [ever] did.” Seeing Backcountry Zero’s message concurrently with thinking about her friends has been impactful for Edwards. Last winter, Edwards says she felt “bombarded—positively—with information on social media,” from videos of the snowpack to information on avalanche conditions. She attributes the fact that the majority of fatalities in the 2015-16 winter season involved nonlocals, in part, to Backcountry Zero’s surplus of information and the respect locals gave it. “The more you see [Backcountry Zero’s social media posts and outreach], whether or not you’re aware of it, it’s getting into your head,” she says.
And that’s what Guenther thinks the point is. “Even if we went the next three years with no fatalities in the backcountry, it wouldn’t necessarily be a direct result of Backcountry Zero. I think the better, though more subjective, metric will be a noticeable culture shift within the community,” he says. “If people are more willing to share their close calls so others may learn, if people have an increasing willingness to engage their fellow recreationists in conversation when they witness unsafe activities, and if people start saying, ‘I act differently now because of Backcountry Zero,’ then I think it has been a success.”
If You Don’t Know, Don’t Go
“If you’re planning to leave the resort into the backcountry today, please make sure you have the proper equipment, knowledge, partner, and a plan. … If you don’t know, don’t go.” This addition to Jackson Hole Mountain Resort’s (JHMR) tram announcement started in early February 2015. Two people had recently died in backcountry areas accessed from the ski resort. The first time I heard the new announcement, I looked to the tram riders around me and we exchanged impressed words of, “Wow, that’s a great addition.” It felt powerful.
Jon Bishop, the risk manager at JHMR for ten years, explains that the resort is currently working to support and improve the Backcountry Zero initiative. “Jackson Hole Mountain Resort has changed our stance on backcountry travel,” Bishop says. “Instead of not encouraging or discouraging backcountry access, we will not encourage but occasionally [will] discourage it if we identify individuals who are clearly unprepared for that kind of endeavor.” This is an impactful step. “Some of the worst choices I have ever seen in the mountains resulted in no accident, and everybody came home completely safe,” says ski mountaineer Zahan Billimoria. “Good choices don’t always result in good outcomes and poor choices don’t always result in bad outcomes. Decision-making, information gathering and personal judgment are not an exact science. Anyone who spends time in the mountains should [understand] the reality that there are no guarantees, and we will never remove all the risk.”
As the 2015-16 season progressed, the tram announcer began saying, “If you don’t know … ” waiting for those on the tram to sing, “Don’t go!” Since the addition to the tram announcement, there have been no deaths in the JHMR backcountry. “Don’t Know, Don’t Go” has since become the tagline for Backcountry Zero. “[It] can be used in so many ways,” says Stephanie Thomas of Teton County Search and Rescue. “Don’t know your gear? Don’t go. Don’t know the avy conditions? Don’t go. Don’t know the river you’re floating? Don’t go. Don’t know if you’re up for turning around if necessary? Don’t go.”