Yellowstone Club ski patroller and avalanche expert, Darren Johnson, triggered an avalanche near Cedar Basin that swept him to his death. Johnson was in a 4-member group doing avalanche research on 19 January in the southwestern Montana area near Big Sky. Having concluded 23 stability tests over 4 hours of research that late morning and early afternoon, Johnson was well aware of the risk of jumping onto what the group had determined was an unstable wind-loaded slope with a “Considerable” rating for avalanche risk, but for some reason he made a decision to do it anyway.
According to the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center (GNFAC) incident report, Johnson, 34, and another on-duty Yellowstone Club (YC) Ski Patroller (21) in their first year patrolling were helping two Montana State University (MSU) grad students – a 35-year-old male, Chris Bilbray, and a 30-year old female, collect snow science research data. Bilbray is a former patroller that worked for 10 years on Wolf Creek’s ski patrol and as an assistant snow safety technician there.
Bilbray also currently serves as an avalanche safety instructor for the Friends of the GNFAC, a nonprofit dedicated to avalanche education and awareness in southwestern Montana. No member of the party was wearing a helmet. The group was on private land within the Yellowstone Club in an uncontrolled backcountry area when the slide occurred. They departed the MSU study plot at 14:32 and were skiing back in-bounds to the YC ski area. The group headed to a ridge that the two MSU grad students had skied underneath two weeks before.
The ridge in question was corniced and the slope below was wind-loaded. All four in the party discussed descending the safe, lower-angled shoulder at the end of the ridge in question. They even decided not to ski on the shaded slopes to the east because of the instability they had found. The aspect of the wind-loaded slope below the ridge where the incident occurred had the same level of proven instability as their study plot.
The first skier, Bilbray, descended on the shoulder and called from the flats for Johnson to proceed. They were in view of each other. But rather than follow the proven safe route of Bilbray down the shoulder, Johnson jumped the cornice and landed on the 39-42° slope after getting 5-7 feet of air, fracturing it on his second turn.
The slide carried Johnson through a terrain trap of thick trees. When it came to rest, he was partially buried 300 vertical feet below in the toe of the debris at 9,159 feet. The other group members were able to reach him within three minutes, but the trauma Johnson experienced in the avalanche was significant, and his injuries were fatal.
In terms of the timeline, Johnson’s ski patrol colleague informed YC dispatch of the accident at 14:52 and CPR was initiated at 14:55 by the female MSU grad student after it was determined that Johnson did not have a pulse. YC dispatch notified Summit Air Ambulance in Bozeman at 14:54. A YC lift mechanic riding a mountain sled arrived on scene at 15:05, with a trauma pack, rescue toboggan and defibrillator, but Johnson did not have a shockable rhythm. Other patrollers arrived on scene and the transport with Johnson reached the bottom of Lake Lift at 15:37, where Summit Air Ambulance landed at 15:45. It was determined that Johnson was unresponsive at that point and CPR was stopped before he was brought to Big Sky Medical Center by YC Fire.
January is typically the month with the most US avalanche fatalities. According to data since 1951 from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, 21.9% of all avalanche deaths occur in January, followed by 21.6% in February and 17.7% in March. Montana is the state with the second most fatalities since the 05-06 season, 39, behind Colorado’s 62 deaths. There have been 14 avalanche fatalities this season to-date in the US, with half of them skiers or riders. That is two more than all of last season. Three were killed in Montana and three in Wyoming. Colorado, Washington and Alaska have each had two fatalities so far, and the states of Utah and California have each had one avalanche fatality this season.
Johnson was a member of the National Ski Patrol and had patrolled at the Yellowstone Club since 2010. A copy of the GNFAC incident report can be downloaded here. The GNFAC investigation was conducted by report author and Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Specialist, Doug Chabot; MSU Assistant Professor of Geography and Director of Snow and Avalanche Laboratory, Dr. Jordy Hendrikx; Assistant YC ski patrol director, Doug McCabe; and Yellowstone Club ski patroller Dewey Neighbor.