"It’s thought that they decided to contour high across the slope in order to reach the top of their desired ski descent on the southern aspect of the mountain. Had they continued switch-backing up along the eastern edge of the avalanche path to reach the saddle at 10,200’ feet, it’s likely they would have reached that saddle without incident."A local newspaper article also has some commentary from the park rangers:
The route they chose took them from the edge of an avalanche path into its starting zone, which was the ideal steepness for slides, rangers said.
“They chose to go up a known avalanche path ascending into an avalanche starting zone,” Jenny Lake Ranger Rich Baerwald said.
While Romeo skied radical terrain with elan, he also posted several videos and wrote stories about getting caught in or nearly missed by avalanches.
“I don’t know if he was taking that to heart,” Harder said. “He had more [encounters] in the last few years than I’ve had in my lifetime,” the 30-year Teton veteran said.
“I feel pretty strongly a lot can be learned by this,” Harder said.
Climbing the avalanche path with skins on their skis, Romeo and Onufer initially made the best of hostile country, Baerewald said.
They stuck to the climber’s right, near where cliffs form the edge of the slope.
At an elevation of about 9,700 feet, they made a critical decision.
“They start making their way away from the edge of the avalanche path on into the avalanche track and into the starting zone,” Baerwald said.
Added Harder, “If they were heading to that [pencil-thin] couloir, they probably short-cut over to it.”
An alternative would have been to continue up the right side of the slope, rangers said. This route was less steep and led to a ridge.
“The ridge would have been a safer route,” Baerwald said. Ridge safety is a basic concept, he said.
“The message with regard to route-finding is, it’s super important terrain be considered,” he said.
Once the skiers provoked the slide, nothing could have saved them, rangers said. The avalanche ran a linear mile over cliffs and rocks.
It likely propelled them at speeds between 60 and 80 mph, rangers said. It ripped off one skier’s pack, another’s boot, all four skis.
Searchers found the base layers of one ski ripped from its top plate, its climbing skin still attached.
“The ski was completely delaminated, separated,” Harder said. “Speaking to force, that says a lot right there.”
The chaos likely tore Romeo’s helmet off his pack, and it “sustained a lot of damage,” Harder said.
Romeo had an Avalung pack — a device designed to allow avalanche victims to breathe if buried. Its mouthpiece was deployed, but rangers couldn’t tell whether he had it gripped in his teeth during the slide, they said.
Friends of the two have asked whether avalanche airbags could have saved them, rangers said. Airbags are stowed in backpacks and deploy instantly with the pull of a toggle. They help suspend a skier high in flowing snow and help prevent burial.
But neither skier was really buried, rangers said.
“Chris probably could have sat up,” had he been alert or alive, Harder said. “Steve probably could have wrestled an arm out.
The Teton County Coroner ruled the cause of death was blunt-force trauma.
Buffalo Fork Sub-District Ranger Rick Guerrieri said no gear could have helped.
“One piece of equipment wasn’t going to have any effect on injuries,” he said.
Added Harder, “The best tool they had with them, they weren’t using the most. That was their brain.”
Rangers discounted other skiers’ sentiments about the pair being in “the wrong place at the wrong time.” Such phrases are best reserved for victims of meteorite strikes, they said.
“This [event] had factors in it that [include] decision-making,” Harder said of the avalanche. Rangers are uncertain to what extent the pair took into account the snow and winds.