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7 Lessons I Learned From Surviving An Avalanche

Editor's Note: This marks the first article of TGR's "Safety Week". In honor the International Pro-Rider's Workshop starting today in Jackson Hole TGR will be publishing articles about traveling safe in the backcountry. So check back daily at TetonGravity.com for more safety tips, advice, and stories safety in the backcountry.

Today marks the start of TGR's International Pro-Riders Workshop, or IPRW for short. IPRW is a chance for all of TGR's production crew and athletes to spend three days in the classroom and backcountry reviewing both avalanche safety and wilderness first aid skills and practices. The man behind IPRW is TGR's Head of Physical Production, Greg Epstein. Last March, Greg was injured in an avalanche while skiing the backcountry in Granite Canyon off of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. As an avalanche survivor and well traveled backcountry skier, we sat down with Greg to share with us some of lessons he learned from his experience surviving a harrowing avalanche, breaking his leg and pelvis in the process, and surviving the hours-long rescue. 

#1: Life is Short & Not Risk Free

Mark Epstein captures his brother Greg recovering well in Jackson's St. John's Hospital last March.

You really have to think about the choices that you make when out in the mountains or doing anything that is dangerous. Being in a winter or avalanche environment definitely adds another element. You can do every test and take every precaution available, but that does not mean there is no risk. You have to be thinking in the back of your mind...what if something goes wrong?

What risks are you willing to take? On the day of my avalanche, I wasn’t going out there to push it. I wasn’t trying to prove anything to anyone.  I think that happens with most people in our community. They are not going out to try and impress anyone. Point being is that you should be as prepared as possible before an accident, as you are going to be better off if something bad happens, which there is always a chance of in avalanche terrain.

#2: Travel With the Right People & Choose the Right Crew

Greg Epstein skiing at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. Chris Figenshau photo.

In the group I was traveling with, two out of the three people besides myself had taken first aid classes, snow safety classes, and had some experience on how to perform a rescue. A lot of that came through the TGR's IPRW program that I have organized for the past eight years. I definitely choose my ski partners based on their ability to get things done if someone gets hurt.

When you are choosing ski partners, look for people who not only have the passion for what you do, but also have the skills to ski competently, and the ability to handle emergency situations. I think it is critical to ski with people who have those three things, and to have people who are willing to carry the equipment necessary to make a rescue.

It is going to make for a better experience and for the ability to save somebody’s life. We love doing these things, but we also have to have contingency plans in the back of our head if things go bad.

#3: If Possible, Complete A Self-Evaluation

Greg Epstein, center, with Griffin Post (left) and wife Mira Lee (right). Mira Lee photo.

After the avalanche, I had already done a self-evaluation before anyone had gotten down to me. To be able to do this if you are conscious is critical. If you can run your hand down in your pants, feel where your injuries are, and see if there is blood, this will go a long way. That is something you can tell your rescuers and it can potentially save time and your life.  

#4: Know Post Accident Execution

After the slide, I think Max Hammer just felt comfortable being on the first aid side of things and continued to take my vitals during the whole ordeal. Josh Nielson started to deal with the rescue, trying to get the ski patrol in the right place, and getting all the parties down there, which is critical. It would have been really tricky to do if it was just Max. I was lucky to have extra guys who knew how to execute a rescue and divy up the tasks necessary to get me out of there.

#5: Three to Four People is the Ideal Group Size

The perfect crew size–Angel Collinson, Ian McIntosh, Dana Flahr, & Sage.

I would say three to four people is an ideal party. Anything beyond that is too big. Two is okay if you are both really skilled. One…no fucking way. I know a lot of people who dip into the backcountry alone and think that everything is cool. Shit can happen; you don’t necessarily have to be in an avalanche, you could hit a tree or ding your knee, and be totally helpless in getting yourself to safety.

#6: Know What Is In Your Pack

It is so important. I know so many people that are running these tiny potato chip-sized packs.  You need to be carrying more stuff in the backcountry. Things like a puffy jacket, Leatherman, headlamp, hand warmers, a dry base layer, extra gloves, and a bivy sack that you can pull up around your body. This stuff does not weight that much. Do you have a saw, lighter, and matches? There is so many little things that you should have in your pack. It will be a game changer if you have to spend the night or wait for someone to come rescue you. It is really about being prepared; some people say extra gear makes their packs too heavy… shit is five pounds really worth dying for? Sean Zimmerman-Wall set out a good list of what to pack for a piece for Powder.com you can read here.

#7: Know Where You Are

The author at the top of Teton Pass for an early morning skin. Tyler Griffin photo.

There are so many people who roll into Jackson with such little experience. One day they might try to ski something off Glory, and all of the sudden they have no idea where they are. My advice is know where you are and get your bearings. Where is town? Idaho? Have the right peoples' numbers in your phone–the local search and rescue outfit. Let people know where you are. Some folks are just too proud to admit that they don’t know that much. I think a lot of skiers and riders come here who are talented but don’t realize how different it is from their mountains back East. 


Stay tuned for more backcountry education pieces during the entirety of Safety Week at the same time as our athletes and cinematographers are learning the same stuff up on the mountain here in Jackson Hole. To read the full report on Greg's avalanche and the events surrounding it, click here.

From The Column: Safety Week 2014

Awesome piece guys - this is no-nonsense good advice for any and all backcountry users. #6 is particularly important, I think - any time you’re going out you should have enough stuff with you to survive a night outside - water, extra layers, etc. I’m amazed how many people don’t even have that stuff IN THEIR CARS. And you drive around Wyoming like that? Easy things to do differently.

Really awesome piece! Well done! And I agree with Olaus, it is shocking how people aren’t prepared if they get stuck over night. I learned the hard way hunting, and now I never go into the backcountry in any situation (winter or summer) without being prepared to stay the night.

Really enjoyed this read. Keep it up.

Thanks for sharing Epo… never easy but we all benefit, no matter how awkward it might be. Thanks again!

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