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Doctor Caught in Avalanche Touted How the Awe of Adventure Can Make Us More Benevolent
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Dr. Terry O’Connor told those at the 2017 TEDxSun Valley how the awe of summiting Mount Everest had taken him from the summit to the slums of Calcutta to help those who needed medical care.
   
Monday, May 13, 2024
 

STORY AND PHOTOS BY KAREN BOSSICK

Dr. Terry O’Connor, who helped steer Blaine County through the COVID pandemic, died this weekend in an avalanche.

O’Connor, an avid and skilled backcountry skier, accidentally triggered an avalanche just before noon Friday while climbing down Donaldson Peak in the Lost River Range near Mackay. The peak at 12,023 feet is the eighth highest peak in Idaho.

O’Connor, 48, was descending to a place where he could begin skiing down the mountain when he triggered and was caught in a small wind slab avalanche. The avalanche was triggered at about 11,600 feet, according to a report by the Sawtooth Avalanche Center. As the slide carried him downhill, it triggered a second larger avalanche that buried O’Connor under five feet of snow that set up like concrete.

 
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Dr. Terry O’Connor told those at TEDxSunValley that Mount Everest was really about him feeling insignificant, and that prompted him to help others.
 

The longtime friend with him, who like O’Connor is an experienced backcountry skier, called for help via a satellite phone, before descending the avalanche path. She found him using a rescue transceiver and probe and used a shovel to free him from the snow. She began but he did not survive.

Search and rescue teams evacuated O’Connor.

Only 16 people perished in avalanches this past winter—about half of the average 30 people who die in snowslides each year in the United States. Spring avalanches are much rarer than wintertime avalanches, but they do happen.

But has been a treacherous spring for avalanches as multiple feet of wet heavy snow has piled on mountains from California to Colorado. Two skiers ages 23 and 32 were killed last in an avalanche in  Utah’s Lone Peak Canyon near Salt Lake City this past week when they attempted to ski 2.5 feet of freshly fallen wet heavy snow.

 
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Dr. Terry O’Connor, who steered the Wood River Valley through the pandemic, handed out “Science Matters” T-shirts to youngsters attending the dedication of the Ketchum Fire Department a few years ago.
 

A third skier survived the accident and was airlifted from the scene by a helicopter. But snow conditions were too treacherous for rescue crews to retrieve the bodies of the other two skiers right away.

O’Connor, 48, worked as an Emergency Department physician at St. Luke’s Wood River. He previously directed the Blaine County Ambulance District but stepped down about six months ago after a decade in that role, handing those duties over to ER colleague Dr. Malie Kopplin.

In March 2020 when Blaine County temporarily one of the highest rates per capita in the world for COVID forcing the hospital to close and patients to be transferred to Twin Falls and Boise, O’Connor led community leaders in deciding the best practices to deal with it.

He also joined with Dr. Tom Archie and Ketchum Fire Chief Bill McLaughlin to research the coronavirus. Dr. Deb Robertson, who worked with him in the Emergency Department, called him the Dr. Fauci of Blaine County during that time.

 
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Dr. Terry O’Connor and his girlfriend were making their way down Donaldson Peak when an avalanche buried O’Connor in five feet of packed snow. PHOTO: Sawtooth Avalanche Center
 

O’Connor won the 2022 Excellence in Patient Care Award from the Idaho Hospital Association.

“Terry was an outstanding physician and played a pivotal role in the early days of the COVID pandemic, really demonstrating the public health role of the EMS medical director within a community. His loss will be missed not only in the valley itself but throughout the entire state and region,” said a statement from the Idaho EMS physician Commission.

Extreme sports took O’Connor around the world where he often assisted those who lacked medical care in Indonesia, Nepal and India during the course of pursuing adrenaline-fueled activities.

He went to Mount Everest three times, managing base camp during his first visit. He served as the team doctor for a group that reached 24,000 feet the second time and summited the third time, standing on Earth’s highest peak on May 14, 2006.

He ran 100 miles across Idaho in 2015 to raise money for earthquake reconstruction efforts in Nepal, and later he ran a six-day ultramarathon along the spine of the Colorado Rockies to raise money for Sherpa families who had lost loved ones while working as climbing guides.

He ran the rigorous Ultra Trial du Mont Blanc in the Alps and biked the Leadville 100 MBT in Colorado. And he served as a ski patroller, a National Park Service climbing ranger and a bike guide.

O’Connor shared how his adventures made him more altruistic during a TEDxSunValley talk he gave in late 2017 titled “A Life of Adventure: Selfish or Selfless?” A packed house in the Sun Valley Opera House listened as he pondered why some are hard-wired for adventure and what positive impact It has on the way we live our lives.

O’Connor told how he summitted Mount Everest after learning by satellite phone that a good friend had perished on an avalanche on Mount Rainier. Why, after losing Charlie, am I drawn like a moth to the flame to the 29,032-foot summit, he said he asked himself.

“People see our risks and endeavors as a fool’s end, that we’re out there just to prove ourselves. But there is this internal journey, a private transcendence, that makes these peak experiences stand out from every day and makes us want to transcend again,” he said.

Our DNA contains an adventure gene named Drd4 that is postulated to be the reasons our ancestors crossed vast deserts and the Arctic tundra, he added. Man is hard-wired to want this glow of satisfaction and it turns out that this awe moment is good for the species as something magic happens when it happens.

The altruism of awe has become subject of academic study that shows that the awe we get when seeing a total solar eclipse or an image of Earth taken from the moon binds us to others and causes us to help others, he said.

“Individuals who experience this more frequently in daily life also are more likely to sacrifice and give resources to others,” he said. “In adventure we find awe…Go on an adventure…Whether you find your awe looking up at the trees in the night sky or in the mountains, these moments will always be oxygen for our soul.”

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