Detailed Accident Report

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Date: 1999-01-01
Submitted By: Steve Karkanen
Place: Beaverhead Mountains above Rock Island Lake
State: MT
Country: USA
Summary: 2 snowmobilers caught, not buried, not injured. very lucky.

Tuesday, January 5, 1999

Jackson man survives avalanche

By PERRY BACKUS Lee Montana Newspapers

JACKSON - It's going to be awhile before David Shepherd ventures back into the snow-covered mountains around the

Big Hole Valley.

Last Friday, Shepherd was enjoying a day of snowmobiling in the remote Beaverhead Mountains above Rock Island

Lake with seven others. He veered off and began to climb a hillside when he saw a crack in the snow suddenly appear in his path.

"I saw it, but it took me a little bit to understand what I was seeing," the Jackson resident said in an interview Monday.

By the time he reached the crack it had grown 20 feet wide. It was part of a slab avalanche starting its descent under his snow machine. Shepherd decided his only option was to try to jump the growing crack. He gunned the engine.

"I flew off my machine and did a face-plant into the other side of the crack," Shepherd said. "It must of knocked me out or something because the next thing I knew I was 100 feet down the hill lying next to my sled."

Unhurt, Shepherd said he immediately began hollering for his wife, who was on another snowmobile. A friend yelled that everyone was all right.

Another snowmobiler was caught in the slide, but managed to stay on top of the snow by "making himself big, like a snow angel and swimming," said Shepherd. "He didn't wind up sliding very far."

The avalanche left a 200-foot-long, 12-foot-high "fracture line" or slump in the snow. The snow ran 200 yards and piled up 30 feet at the bottom of the avalanche.

Shepherd said the accident could have easily turned deadly. The rest of the party initially had considered building a warming fire below the hillside that slid, but M.D. Peterson warned against it. Peterson had taken avalanche awareness training.

It was a near-miss, said Dennis Havig, the Forest Service ranger in Wisdom.

"It was dangerous slide," Havig said. "The slope apparently had been loaded with wind-blown snow."

The decision to not build the fire in that location probably saved their lives, Havig said. That spot was buried 30 feet when the avalanche stopped, he said.

Paul Olson, another Forest Service employee, on Sunday found weak, granular layers of snow 14 inches into the snowpack.

"The snow conditions are great right now for getting around on skis or snowmobiles, but the snowpack seems very unstable," Olson said.

Officials urged back-country travelers to travel in valley bottoms, away from slopes, to stay off of slopes of more than 30 degrees, and to be especially wary if they hear "whumping noises" in the snowpack or see signs of recent avalanches.

Shepherd said he had been snowmobiling in the same area about two weeks ago and there wasn't much snowpack. That initial snowpack is "hard as concrete" now and the new snow on top hasn't bonded to the older layer, he said.

"When it slid, it slid right down to the old snow," said Shepherd.

"I've had three or four people call and ask if I want to go again," he said. "I've been telling them it ain't good right now. ... I know I'm definitely not going to go up there for a while."

Perry Packus is a reporter for the Montana Standard in Butte.

For details on area snowpack conditions, contact any Forest Service office. The Internet also offers sites with area avalanche information. Consider the following:

* Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center in Bozeman. It provides daily avalanche conditions for that area, including the Madison Range. Although it doesn't extend to extreme southwestern Montana, some of the weather and snow conditions may apply. The address:

* Westwide Avalanche Network lists avalanche centers throughout the United States and Canada: The address: www.

* Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center focuses mostly on the northwestern United States, but you can find conditions for extreme western Montana. The address:

Tuesday - 1/5/99