Heli-skier dies in Camas avalanche

By Kristan Kennedy
Wood River Journal
February 14, 1996

A Hailey man was killed in an avalanche Saturday while guiding a helicopter ski tour in the Smoky Mountains.

Killed was James Ray Otteson, age 42, a guide for Sun Valley Heli-Ski and long-time valley resident. He was leading a party of four backcountry skiers across Paradise Peak when he was caught in an avalanche that slid about 1,800 vertical feet, according to Kim Jacobs of Sun Valley Heli-Ski.

Otteson was an experienced guide for Sun Valley Heli-Ski and a member of the Sun Valley Ski patrol. The guided tour was skiing in the remote Paradise Peak area, near the South Fork of Emma Creek in the Smoky Mountains.

The accident occurred in Camas County, about four miles west of the Blaine County line. The snow slide broke loose at about 3 pm on a west facing slope at an elevation of about 9,200 feet. A search was initiated immediately by two fellow guides and 10 skiers.

"They did everything perfect," said Jacobs regarding the rescue attempt.

He was located 48 inches below the surface by the transmission from his avalanche beacon. According to Jacob, the crew recovered Otteson in about 15 minutes.

"It's one of those things, nothing could have been done," said Jacobs. "He had his beacon on, we found him fast... The guides that were in charge of the search were really good."

Jacobs said that Otteson was wearing fat-powder skis, and he was guiding one of four groups. He had four people in his group. He was skiing a run that had been skied all day long by other members of the group.

"He was doing just what five other people had just done. He didn't do anything wrong."

CPR was administered at once and continued while he was transported by helicopter to Baker Creek, where an ambulance with three emergency medical technicians were waiting. Otteson was then transported to Moritz Hospital in Sun Valley, where he was pronounced dead on arrival.

Ketchum Ranger District winter sports specialist Doug Abromeit said that the avalanche danger is extremely high in the backcountry, and his office issued a severe warning for the backcountry this week.

Abromeit said there were actually three draws (or sections of snow) that slid at the same time. They had all been skied prior to the avalanche, he said. The skiers were making their way from one draw to the next.

Abromeit said that the conditions are not typical of spring avalanches, despite the warm temperatures.

"These are still brittle slab failures," said Abromeit. "We call these dry slab avalanches."

Camas County Sheriff Harold Lee said that Otteson had told the rest of his group to wait while he skied across the slope. "That's when it happened," said Lee. "He was in the upper third of the slide, buried in about four feet of snow...

"They uncovered his face and started life support. They never could get any response. He was never conscious."

Otteson's death marks the third avalanche fatality this year. Two others - Peter Hall, age 19 of Ketchum and Richard Reece, age 20, were killed near Galena Summit when an avalanche buried the two snowboarders Jan. 5.

Prior to that, there had not been a backcountry avalanche fatality in over 20 years. Abromeit said hazardous conditions are being caused by a weak layer of frost deposits trapped beneath slabs of snow.

"It's like a layer cake with one layer made out of potato chips and another made out of bricks," he said. "It doesn't take much to tip the balance."

Otteson had been guiding for Sun Valley Heli-Ski for nine years. He was also a licensed Idaho hunting, fishing and river guide. He was instrumental in the recovery of victims Hall and Reece when they were killed in an avalanche last month.

Funeral services for Jim Otteson were held last night at Our Lady of the Snows Catholic Church.

Additional Report

A huge avalanche claimed the life of helicopter skiing guide Jim Otteson in the Smoky Mountains SW of Ketcham Idaho. Otteson instructed his group to wait while he decended to another group waiting below in a safe spot and then they were to follow him. He crossed a thin spot in the snowpack with grass sticking through on a 28 degree slope and then was engulfed in the avalanche when he crossed 30-32 degree slope adjacent to it. He was carried about 1400 vertical feet and buried about 4 feet deep. The other guides with the help of clients located him quickly but it still required considerable digging to get air to him. The total burial time was about 15 minutes. He did not respond to CPR.

It's not clear whether he started the slide. The helicopter pilot, on the ground near the base of the slope, noticed debris exiting from a slope two drainages away, next, he noticed debris exiting the bottom of the slope adjacent to the accident. Then, finally, he noticed the slope with the guide had debris exiting from the bottom. So it could have been a natural trigger which propogated a long distance and caught the guide, or the guide may have triggered the slope from the thin spot on the ridge where he started and it propogated into the other slopes. We will never know. It took out many other tracks from their previous runs they had taken there that day.

The avalanche broke 4-5 feet deep on a Christmas surface hoar layer which had been causing large and scarry avalanches throughout Idaho and Wyoming for the previous weeks. The slide was 3/8 of a mile wide (encompassing all three drainages which ran at the same time). There was very little snow in the previous week but there was some wind in previous days and slight warming had occurred. A very frightening accident indeed.