Following recent snowfall across the Western U.S. there has been high avalanche activity throughout the Rockies. In the past two days, two people were killed in unrelated incidents near Missoula and Cooke City, Montana.
Skier Caught and Killed near Missoula | 3/10/14
On Monday March 10, Peter Maxwell of Missoula was caught and buried in a slide in the Altoona Lakes area outside of Philipsburg, MT. Maxwell was staying at the nearby Altoona Ridge Lodge and was skiing with six friends at the time of the incident. Maxwell was the only individual caught in the slide. Despite the efforts of his companions to locate and recover Maxwell, they were unable to recover him before he died of asphyxiation. An in-depth investigation of the conditions by the West Central Montana Avalanche Center is still ongoing, and no more specific information is available at this time.
The previous avalanche forecast for the Missoula area, issued March 7 predicted considerable avalanche risk following 4-8 inches of snow. The Altoona region is approximately halfway between Missoula and Butte Montana. After the 7th the region received more heavy wet snow, exacerbating unstable avalanche conditions.
The Altoona Lakes area is around 1 1/2 hours outside of Missoula, and apparently has some pretty impressive terrain. photo: Altoona Ridge Lodge
Snowmobiler Buried and Killed Near Cooke City | 3/11/14
The following day in Cooke City, MT, a zone well-known for having incredible sledding and skiing terrain, an year old Minnesotan man was buried and killed by a slide. The party of seven was snowmobiling on the South East face of Crested Butte when the slide occurred. The victim was approximately halfway up the slope then the slide was remotely triggered near the peak by two party members travelling on the slope above him
The tragic part of this incident is that none of the party of seven had any avalanche gear on them, and had to wait until five members of the Cooke City Search and Rescue team arrived on the scene to begin any search efforts. The Search and Rescue team arrived approximately 5:15 and located the victim with a probe strike an hour later. At this point the victim had been buried for 2 hours and could not be revived with CPR or AED resuscitation. Another party member was injured when he was thrown from his sled while outrunning the avalanche.
Crown Butte slide path, the hole in the foreground is where the victim was dug out. photo: Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center
No official report has been published by Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center (GNFAC), which issues forecasts for the Cooke City area. GNFAC experts are investigating the scene today and a detailed report will be published later this week.
While no official reports have been filed, Montana is currently experiencing a multitude of factors that contribute to large slides. Recent snowfall totals have approached two feet of heavy snow combined with variable wind loading resulting on activity from a facet layer formed in January. The break in the storm cycle has seen temperatures rise in temperatures raising the possibilities of wet slides, like those that have plagued Washington in the past few days. While it’s too early to say for the Altoona slide, it looks like the Crown Butte slide did not rip to ground, and may have released on a layer of faceted snow preserved from cold clear conditions in January.
These two deaths have brought the North American avalanche fatalities to 23 for the season. The 2012/2013 season saw 24 fatalities. With over 1 1/2 months left in the 2013/2014 season it remains to be seen what happens. Make sure to check your local avalanche bulletins before getting after it!