Submitted January 25, 2010

Frostbite in Yellowstone

The Mallard Creek Trail in the Old Faithful ski area is described as “7310’ to 8120’, 12 miles round trip from Old Faithful, easiest to most difficult, 800 feet elevation gain/loss.” The Park opens for guests in mid-December, inviting snow-shoers and skiers of all experience levels to enjoy some of the best cross-country ski trails in the country. For employees who work on location at Old Faithful skiing the area trails is highly encouraged in order to ensure that trails are broken and good ski-tracks are set for guests. By the second week of January, Mallard Creek Trail was still un-broken and un-skied for the winter season of ’09-’10. After consulting with experienced and seasoned skiers who had skied the trail in seasons past, Mallard Creek seemed an ambitious trip for a group of three adventurous employees eager for a good ski. The location employee recreation supervisor, Jesse, and two interpretive snow-coach drivers, Christine and Josiah, took advantage of their day off to venture out and break the Mallard Creek Trail starting from the downhill side, which would be a total distance of 8 miles back to the Old Faithful Snowlodge. They started off from the trailhead at 10:30am with clear skies and temperatures around 15 degrees Fahrenheit. Being friends with one another had caused an assumption of preparedness that was required for travel in the backcountry of Yellowstone, resulting in the topic of equipment not being discussed until after the first ¼ mile on the trail. Old Faithful was 4 miles south along the power-line trail away from the Mallard Creek Trailhead, and approximately 7.75 miles away continuing along the Mallard Creek Trail. While breaking trail in up to 2.5 feet of snow, mostly uphill, it was discovered that there were only two headlamps among the three, one roll of duct tape, adequate jackets and hand warmer packets, and plenty of water for each member. Also included: 250-piece first aid kit, extra socks and gloves, emergency blanket, knives, matches, and three cellular phones all with reception in the area. Maintaining an easy pace as dictated by the deep snow and continual uphill, at 12:20 one of the members mentioned to the others that his feet were becoming chilled and by 12:45 the group stopped for lunch on a ridge known as “china-wall”, less than 1.5 miles accomplished on the 8 mile trek. Of the 8 miles included on the trip, the last 3.3 miles was a well-broken trail called Mallard Lake, which is a long downhill along an icy and precipitous bowl. By 13:15 the group finished lunch, and the member with cold feet placed two hand warmers in his ski boots, the right boot being in disrepair with duct tape from a trip past maintaining the integrity of the duct-bill of the boot when latched into the 3-pin binding. After descending the south side of “china-wall” a steep and curved uphill began with a considerable amount of powder, causing a slow and tiring ascent. During the ascent the right ski binding began to mal-function in keeping the faulty boot attached. Along with a malfunctioning binding and faulty right boot, the skis being used were of small width and short length, causing the skier to break through the ski track being laid by the two skiers in the lead. The ascent was complete by 13:30 with the skier deciding to post-hole the remainder of the uphill and returning to his skis when a more level surface was reached about 200 yards further down the trail. At 15:30 the feet had lost all warmth and comfort and a new dry sock was placed on the right foot, but the boots being too small proved an impossible task to keep the thicker sock on. The skier began to “walk” along the trail again as the binding completely failed to keep the boots attached for more than 50 yards at a time, and the trail maintaining steady uphill to difficult uphill. At 16:20 a very steep incline along the spine of a ridge proved extremely difficult to side-step for the two leading skiers, with the “walking” skier having a hard time pushing through the 3 feet of snow. The two skiers took off their skis and began to trudge uphill to test if post-holing would be easier than side-stepping. After the incline, it was decided that post-holing was faster, but required twice as much energy as side-stepping. The sun started to reach the western ridge-line, and the group was about 2.5 miles away from the broken downhill of Mallard Lake. At the top of the plateau the orange rectangular trail-markers were becoming farther and farther apart, however, forgetting for a moment about the severity of the situation, the group took a moment to soak-up and appreciate the beauty of their surroundings. With the Grand Tetons in clear view to the south, the Gallatin Range to the northwest and the Madison Plateau to the west. The idea of calling the Old Faithful Snowlodge and giving them an update on the situation of the group was unanimous at 17:10, the message given was that the group was taking longer than expected and one member was having trouble with feet, no assistance was necessary but medical assistance may be required for frostbite when we arrived. As the sunlight began to disappear the situation took on an attitude of anxiousness to get back soon. The feet were completely numb and the legs started to cramp from the exertion of post-holing in 2 to 3.5 feet of snow. The downed skier started to become exhausted and slowed his pace significantly. One skier decided to continue to break trail while the little amount of daylight remained, but without mentioning the task to the two others. Stopping for a few minutes to eat a banana and regain some energy, the distance between the skier breaking trail and the two remaining behind grew farther apart. After a few bellowing calls across the area and no response from the leading skier, the trip became increasingly frantic. With the landscape becoming more downhill, staying in the 3-pin binding was easier, but the feet were nothing more than concrete attachments to the legs. Along with the failing light, the temperature began to drop noticeably. Knowing that the leading skier did not have a headlamp, they were prompted to try and reach them with a cell phone. The reception was not as good as it had been, after a few tries the lead skier was reached and informed the two behind that two experienced skiers had decided to start up the trail in the opposite direction that we did, in order to meet the group at the Mallard Creek and Mallard Lake Junction. The lagging two skiers increased their pace as much as possible in the dark with headlamps and downhill slopes that they had never skied before. At 19:30 a headlamp was seen by the two lagging skiers. A few hundred yards later one of the two experienced skiers that had come to check-up on the group of three met with the lagging skiers and informed that the lead skier had met up with the two experienced skiers and was at the top of the next uphill waiting with the second experienced skier. The frantic attitude dissipated with the knowledge of the extra teamwork now available to the group. Although skiing, the binding of the sub-par skis kept failing, leading to the use of duct tape to try and ensure more stability for the frozen-footed skier. However, the duct tape only provided help for about 50 yards, and the boot became loose again. So again, more duct tape was administered to the boot and binding, it lasted until the reunion of the three skiers and two rescuers at the top of the incline. The situation was assessed and a radio-call was made by one of the rescuers to inform the Search and Rescue team who had been activated and awaiting the arrival of the group at the end of the trail, that one of the skiers was in a bad predicament with a high probability of frostbite on both feet, but the 5 skiers were to descend the Mallard Lake trail to get back in a decent amount of time. The remainder of the ski trip was under starlight and headlamps, which proved to be an amusing and almost enjoyable return. At the end of the trail, an ambulance with over-snow capabilities was awaiting the possibly frostbitten feet. The skier with bad feet was driven the mile to the National Park Service Emergency Services Building, the four remaining skiers were joined by four members of the Search and Rescue team that was assembled and skied over to meet the ambulance and have a debrief of the trip. The feet of the skier were assessed and a decision was made to take him to the Hospital in Rexburg, ID for proper care. His feet were covered in blisters, with his heels a dark grey, and toes and tops of his feet being a waxy cream color, and completely frozen to his socks and boots.

Conclusion: Having inadequate ski boots, too small of skis, not an equal amount of headlamps to skiers, and taking on too ambitious of a ski trail, as well as not bringing attention to the cold feet and improper equipment before starting the trail all added up to a very dangerous situation, and having a friend in a very painful and serious predicament that could have been avoided if better communication and backcountry preparedness had been practiced.

Age of Group: 21-23 yrs of age (2 male, 1 female)
Time: 1030 – 2130 (11 hours)
Temperature: 12 – 28 (degrees fahrenheit)
Experience/Training of group members:
Wilderness First Responder: Skier with bad feet
First Aid/CPR: All members of Group
Skiing experience: 1st year, 2nd year, 8th year

Josiah from MT

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