Jackson snowboarder survives overnight in backcountry

JACKSON — After taking a wrong turn on his snowboard in a whiteout, Pierre Bergman ended up stranded alone in the backcountry where the only way out was up.

“When I realized how lost I was I thought I should start hiking back up toward the tram,” Bergman said.

Losing his way Thursday afternoon, the 26-year-old Jackson man weathered the winter elements for 19 hours before rescuers reached him Friday morning. He had no injuries to speak of.

“I just kept moving to keep warm,” Bergman said.

The temperature fell to about 7 degrees in the hours before he was found.

Bergman, who works in lift operations for Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, was following two friends out gate two at the top of Rendezvous Bowl around 2 p.m. for a second lap in Rock Springs Bowl. But he became disoriented.

Facing 40 mph winds the snowboarder couldn’t keep up on the traverse with his two buddies, who were in front of him, so he told them to go ahead.

“I kept going down and I thought I was in Rock Springs, but I was on the backside,” he said.

Bergman didn’t realize he was lost until he reached the bottom near Granite Creek.

“For the first few hours my goal was to just keep going down, but I got to this drainage and there were mountains all around me,” he said.

Bergman pulled out his phone but didn’t have any service. He was sending out messages on his two-way radio but couldn’t pick up anything despite clicking through channels.

“There was a snow bridge I tried to cross, but it collapsed on me and I fell into the creek,” he said. “So my feet got wet.”

Bergman had to abandon his snowboard to walk in the creek to a point where the snow walls were short enough for him to climb out.

When Bergman tried to get his snowboard, the sun was setting and he launched into survival mode.

“I dug my first pit at 6:30,” he said. “I dug all the way to the ground, where it was 32 degrees, and put my emergency blanket over my head.”

Bergman had a backcountry pack with him, which included a lighter. But the only kindling he had was a pair of board shorts he planned to wear in the hot tub that night.

“It wouldn’t burn because they’re polyester,” he said.

Bergman stayed in the pit for almost three hours. He briefly closed his eyes.

“I was just going with the flow and thinking if my body wants to sleep I will fall asleep and just hope I don’t freeze,” he said.

Around 9 p.m. Bergman decided to start hiking.

In waist-to-chest-deep snow Bergman used his snowboard like a plank to help him hike up the steep incline.

“I would not have survived without the board,” he said. “I had to use it the whole way.”

Bergman continued hiking all night, stopping only twice to dig pits and rest.

His thoughts turned to May Gezzi, his girlfriend, and his dog Giselle.

“I just kept thinking about my girlfriend and my dog,” he said.

Bergman’s day started early that morning. He ate a bagel at 8:55 a.m. and skied all day. He and his partners hiked the White Spider bootpack behind the top of the Bridger Gondola twice, did a Rock Springs run and were returning to do another — their last — when he became stranded.

He hadn’t eaten since the bagel and didn’t have any food in his pack. He had a little tea but no water.

“I didn’t drink the tea until sunrise,” he said. “I was pretty beat, I won’t lie. But I didn’t feel thirsty or hungry throughout the night.”

Determined to survive, he said he thinks his body’s adrenaline helped.

Teton County Search and Rescue was called by Gezzi at 10:15 p.m. Thursday.

“Emotionally I think it was much tougher for my friends and family than it was for me,” Bergman said. “For me it was ‘just keep walking.’”

Bergman’s ski partners didn’t think to check with him to make sure he made it out.

“I don’t blame them,” Bergman said. “I know it’s not a great excuse, but it’s the way we ride.”

His friends went straight to work after their last run and didn’t think anything of it when they didn’t hear from Bergman.

“In their head they probably thought I went to the hot tub and passed out after a really long day,” he said.

But Gezzi was worried and decided to report him missing.

Search and Rescue tried to make contact with a radio but couldn’t fly the helicopter until sunrise.

Bergman didn’t know if anyone had reported his absence to the authorities.

He said he tried not to check the time and tried not to let his mind wander too much while he was hiking.

“I was trying not to freak out,” he said. “I knew that would be unproductive. Keeping my spirits high was keeping me going. I just wanted to keep going.”

Bergman had been hiking for at least seven hours when the chopper flew over him at 7:40 a.m. Friday. He had gained 1,600 feet in elevation overnight.

A rescue ski team made up of Teton County Search and Rescue volunteers, Grand Teton National Park rangers and Jackson Hole Mountain Resort ski patrollers reached Bergman at 9 a.m. between Cardiac Ridge and Targhee Woods.

They skied to a flat spot where the helicopter could land.

“I got one more run in with patrol around me,” Bergman said. “I knew then I was safe.”

The helicopter took Bergman to the Ranch Lot, where he declined an ambulance ride.

“I was super happy to be out,” he said. “I just wanted to get warm.”

Although Bergman hadn’t slept, his adrenaline kept him up until 11 p.m. Friday.

His father and brother flew in from California and Colorado to make sure he was OK.

On Monday, Bergman had his friends over for pizza and a heart-to-heart.

“This whole experience is going to change the way we ride,” he said. “We’re going to do a ‘what’s in your pack?’ thing with our friends.”

Had Bergman’s friends reported him missing when they finished skiing, Search and Rescue might have been able to get to him before nightfall, Chief Advisor Cody Lockhart said.

“I can appreciate that’s how they ride,” Lockhart said. “These are a bunch of guys out doing their thing, and they aren’t baby-sitting each other.”

But partners are a key to safety.

“It is the responsibility of a backcountry user to keep track of your partner,” Lockhart said. “When you start to go out of bounds it’s so important. Had they reported this at 4:30 we likely would have got him out.”

When Bergman made it back to Jackson he immediately bought a two-way radio for his backcountry pack and some packable snowshoes.

“Snowshoes would have made my hike way easier,” he said.

Bergman said in hindsight that he should have stopped when he lost his partners and checked his GPS to make sure he wasn’t going in the wrong direction.

“I learned a lot of lessons,” he said. “The backcountry is an animal. It’s not inbounds. I need to be a little more careful out there.”