Location: Jackson, Wyoming
Date: January 11, 1988
On January 11th, 1988, in the Grand Teton mountains near Jackson, Wyoming, a series of snowstorms earlier that year had created hazardous conditions on Highway 22 in Teton Pass, which connects Idaho and Wyoming, and can be dangerous to drive in winter because of the avalanche conditions.
As the violent winter storm blanketed the area, Wyoming Highway Department dispatched snow plow operator Don Fisher to clear the roads. Supervisor Jack Oakley decided to closed down Teton Pass because of the threat of the avalanche. As plow driver Ernie Potter was helping to close the road, Don, who had been plowing Teton Pass for 15 years and had a lot of experience of it, was going to check a stranded motorist he had spotted earlier. As he was coming to Glory Bowl, the most dangerous stretch of road run and an area that is prone to avalanches, he stopped to look at the area to make sure it was safe to pass. As he thought it was, an avalanche suddenly came down on his plow. The strong slide of snow pushed it within 65 feet of the avalanche path and buried it with him trapped inside.
Minutes later at their home base, Don's coworkers heard nothing from him and were increasing worried that something happened to him. Radio technician Chuck Kankalish and driver Russ Moses volunteered to drive up the mountain. "I knew Don for 20 plus years now. He's a great guy. He's kind of a father of the bunch around here. He's just a good leader and a good friend. I kind of knew in my mind what the problem was and I thought it was scary. I just got a sick feeling and I was just...hoping for the best," Russ stated.
When they arrived just close to Glory Bowl and couldn't cross due the slide of the avalanche, Russ radioed dispatch in need of assistance to clear the road while Chuck went on foot and looked around. He looked at the downhill side of it and found the front bumper and the lug nuts of Don's plow, realizing he was inside it. He dug down to find the door frame and get orientated to start digging down the passenger side window, but the snow was packed in tight. As he dug out Don's right hand, it came out and shook his hand. He tried to dig faster to get Don's head uncovered, afraid that hypothermia would beat him.
When Ernie arrived in the rotary plow after Glory Bowl had slid, he was unaware that Don was trapped until he looked to his left and Chuck yelled out to get help. Ernie called to Oakley on the radio and told about Don's situation. Emergency response teams and volunteers from Teton County were immediately dispatched to the scene.
Chuck had uncovered Don's face from the snow by the time Ernie and Russ arrived. He was conscious, but was out of it because he couldn't say much. His color was gray and his eyes were glassy. Then when Oakley arrived, he was howled to get something like a short shovel. He only had a three pound coffee can which he tossed to them. They noticed that Don had a little room so he could breathe and his body heat melted the snow away from him enough for him to have a little oxygen. As they continued to extricate him from the snow-packed plow, they were able to open the passenger side door to get more room to get him free.
Two hours after Don was buried by the avalanche, members of the Teton County Sheriff's Department arrived, under the direction of Sheriff Roger Millard. As Millard knew that snow sets up like cement and was compressing tighter on Don, he was worried that his ability to breathe and move was slim. As everyone was seeing hypothermia setting in on him, the Volunteer Fire Department arrived, led by Ralph Belden. Belden was trying to talk to Don to keep him alert, but he didn't know his name or where he was and couldn't talk clearly because he was disoriented due to the avalanche. As Volunteer firefighter Jim Tucker, who had never worked in avalanche rescue before, and others continue to extricate him, he realized that the victim was his neighbor after hearing Don's name. "I seemed like to shift gears. I just went faster. The whole thing got to me a little bit because I knew we couldn't get him out. I got so tired. Everybody was just getting so tired and couldn't shovel anymore, but we knew we had to keep going," Tucker stated.
"It had been four hours since Don was buried in the snow and we had to dig down to his ankles before we can get him free. Once your body temperature is 80 degrees, recovery is a lot harder," Belden stated.
As they got Don out, he was immediately loaded into the ambulance. His body temperature had dropped below 85 degrees and the rewarming process began immediately. He was taken to St. John's Hospital. Dr. Brett Blue knew he was in a severe state of hypothermia and thought he would have problems afterward, including cardiac arrest. He was transferred to the ICU where the slow process of rewarming continued. His wife, Colleen, and daughter, Julie, stayed by his bedside through the night. He was fully warmed up to normal temperature within 24 hours. Amazingly, he didn't have any apparent injuries despite that he was thrown in his truck by the avalanche.
One week after the accident, Don went back to the job of plowing Teton Pass. Despite being bothered by the memories of his accident a couple times driving up to Glory Bowl, he was able to get over it and continued plowing on there since then. Three years later, Don couldn't forget his coworkers and the rescue team who saved his life. "I know Don for eight years. He gave me the shirt off his back. He didn't say much. He just shook my hand," Chuck stated.
"Yes, it just wasn't my time to go. That's the only thing I can say. There's a lot of people who were involved in it. There aren't words to describe how you feel. It's just something else," Don admitted.