Detailed Accident Report

Back to accidents page

Date: 2010-03-30
Submitted By: USGS/Glacier NP
Place: Peak 6996 near Marias Pass, Glacier NP
State: MT
Country: USA
Fatalities: 1
Summary: 1 snowboarder caught and killed

*** OFFICIAL REPORT ***

View full report with photos and map: www.avalanche.org

SYNOPSIS

On Wednesday, March 31, 2010, a lone snowboarder riding on Peak 6996 (locally known as Palindrome Peak, Little Shields, or False Shields) near Marias Pass in Glacier National Park, MT, was caught in an avalanche and sustained fatal injuries. Rescuers were called to the scene at approximately 1400 on Thursday, April 1, 2010. The avalanche investigation took place on Friday, April 2, 2010. The avalanche occurred on a northeast facing slope just off the summit of Peak 6996 and funneled into a narrow gully. The average slope angle of the starting zone was approximately 33 degrees and the runout angle was 26 degrees. The crown face was an average of 1.7 feet deep and the slide was approximately 220 feet wide and ran approximately 1800 vertical feet. US classification of the avalanche is SS-ARu-R2-D2.5-O (Greene et al., 2004).

GPS Coordinates:

Crown: 48.285 ˚N, 113.48 ˚W

Victim Location: 48.288 ˚N, 113.473 ˚W

Toe of Debris: 48.290 ˚N, 113.470 ˚W

Elevation of Crown: 6860’ a.s.l.

WEATHER AND SNOWPACK

Weather data are from the USGS/BNSF/GNP Shed 7 weather station (48.3˚N, 113.5˚W; 6363 ft.), Pike Creek SNOTEL site (48.3˚N, 113.3˚W; 5930 ft.) and Flattop Mountain SNOTEL site (48.8˚N, 113.9˚W; 6300 ft.). At the time of the accident, the winter of 2009-10 was characterized by below average precipitation and above average temperatures. Total Snow Water Equivalence (SWE) for the Flathead River Basin was hovering around 70% of average, but Pike Creek SNOTEL was around 33% of average.

Beginning on March 28, 2010 a moist Pacific storm entered the region. From this day to March 31, snowfall amounts at Shed 7 totaled approximately 15 inches during the storm with wind gusts to 75 m.p.h on March 29. Pike Creek SNOTEL, located approximately 8 miles E of the accident site, recorded 1 inche of SWE. Flattop Mountain SNOTEL, located 40 miles NW of the site, recorded 3.2 inches of SWE and approximately 18 inches of snow.

The snowpack in the area was a below average, shallow snowpack for the region. Observations in mid-March adjacent to the Shed 7 avalanche path above the railway showed avalanche activity limited to the new/old snow interface after a small storm deposited approximately 6 inches of snow. Collapsing of the snowpack occurred on northerly aspects around 7000 feet. After that, relatively dry conditions persisted until the March 28 storm. The general nature of the surface snowpack varied by aspect with melt-freeze crusts on solar-exposed aspects, and soft surface snow on shaded aspects. Shaded aspects harbored small-grained facets near the surface, and even buried surface hoar in certain locations within the region.

The avalanche site was investigated on Friday, April 2, 2010. We climbed a preexisting ski uptrack along the SSE ridge of Peak 6996 to the top. Along the way, we saw a very small natural avalanche at approximately 5500 feet on a small southerly facing slope, but no other obvious natural activity that day. The NPS personnel reported seeing no natural avalanche activity on their flight to and from the accident scene. However, some natural activity in the region was observed on Mt. Cannon along the Going-to-the-Sun Road corridor in Glacier National Park. Upon summiting, we experienced collapsing (“whumpfing”) of the snowpack. A snow profile completed on the crown of the avalanche showed the storm-deposited snow sitting on a layer of mixed-form faceted crystals over a layer of larger, softer, mixed-form faceted crystals (Figure 1). The bed surface of the avalanche was the larger, softer layer of mixed-form faceted crystals. This layer was an average of 34 inches above the ground. As the avalanche progressed downhill it entrained wet, heavier snow. The bed surface was easily penetrable, and, in some cases, very soft and “sugary”. Stability tests and a full profile of the crown were completed (Figure 1).

The Glacier Country Avalanche Center most recent avalanche advisory (issued March 26, 2010) previous to the avalanche accident read:

“During periods of thaw between the elevations of 5,000 and 7,500 ft. we rate the wet snow avalanche danger CONSIDERABLE. The dry snow avalanche danger between the elevations of 5,000 and 7,500 ft. is currently being rated MODERATE on all large, steep, open slopes lacking vegetative and terrain anchors. As well during dry snow periods, on anchored slopes below 7,500 ft. and all slopes, all aspects, below 5,000 ft., we're rating the avalanche danger as LOW. These danger ratings expire at midnight, Friday, March 26th. The outlook is for the avalanche danger to remain at current levels through the weekend.”

AVALANCHE

Prior to the investigation, Glacier National Park released a press release that read,

“The fatality was reported to park rangers around 2 p.m. on Thursday, April 1. The reporting party told rangers they had last heard from [the victim] at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, March 30 when [the victim] texted friends that he was on Mt. Shields (elev. 7131 ft.). When friends did not receive responses to subsequent text messages on Wednesday, they grew concerned. Thursday, a friend located [the victim’s] vehicle at the Fielding Ranger Station trailhead and skied up to Mt. Shields where [the victim’s] body was spotted high in a gully within the slide path of a recent avalanche. The backcountry party skied out and called park headquarters to report the avalanche and fatality.”

Details of the actual avalanche event are non-existent because the victim was alone. According to friends, the victim was very familiar with the area and snowboarded there quite often. Friends believed that that the victim had an avalanche transceiver, but neither his transceiver nor backpack were found.

Based on the investigation, evidence suggests that the victim completed two descents on the SSE ridge adjacent to the ski uptrack before beginning his descent down the NE slope (avalanche site) from the summit of Peak 6996. The victim’s tracks intersect the avalanche debris from skier’s right approximately 390 vertical feet from the summit below a short, steep convexity (elev. 6610 ft.). This entry point was approximately 250 feet below the highest point of the crown. Another 533 feet below that point, blood-stained snow was found among sapling sized trees (elev. 6077 ft.). Just below this point and to the skier's left, snowboard tracks exited the debris and descended to where the victim’s snowboard was found at 5868 feet. These tracks appear to be the tracks of the victim and the tracks that the reporting party stated he had seen when he found the victim. The victim’s snowboard was located by the reporting party and placed vertical in the snow at the location where it was found. Investigators located the snowboard approximately 210 feet below the exit track (elev. 5868 ft). The victim was found an additional 441 feet below the snowboard (elev. 5427 ft.). The victim was located face down on top of the avalanche debris with his head in the uphill direction. The toe of the debris was at an elevation of approximately 5080 feet and measured approximately 15-20 feet in depth. Based on the above evidence and measurements, it appears the victim arrested at around 6080 feet, traversed and descended on his snowboard skier’s left across the slope to 5868 feet where he left his snowboard, and then descended the path on foot to his final point of rest at 5,427 feet.

The map and images below illustrate the aforementioned observations (Figures 2-6). Again, because specific event details are unknown these observations are from evidence gathered during the investigation only.

SEARCH AND RESCUE

Glacier National Park rangers were notified of an avalanche fatality around 1400 on Thursday, April 1. National Park Service personnel were dispatched on the ground initially and skied into the site. Additional National Park Service rescuers were flown to the site via helicopter to recover the victim and arrived first on scene.

This report was written to ensure accurate information is available and to assist others who may encounter themselves in similar situations in the future. This document will supplement an official report completed by Glacier National Park, and will become part of a database of avalanche accidents.

Direct any questions regarding this report to either epeitzsch@usgs.gov or tedshred@centurytel.net or 406-888-7925.

*** MEDIA REPORT ***

From the Missoulian: www.missoulian.com

Snowboarder survived Glacier avalanche, died while hiking out

By MICHAEL JAMISON of the Missoulian | Posted: Tuesday, April 20, 2010 11:45 pm

WEST GLACIER - A solo snowboarder, killed by an avalanche last month in Glacier National Park, appears to have survived the slide only to succumb to injuries while trying to hike out.

The body of Brian Curtis Wright, 37, was recovered on April 1 on the northeast face of Peak 6996, near Mount Shields. An investigative report of his death was released Tuesday.

According to that report, a three-day winter storm had blown into the mountains on March 28, delivering between one and two feet of wet snow amid winds gusting to 75 mph.

A warm and dry winter, punctuated by snowstorms and periods of melt, had left the underlying snowpack layered and highly variable. Investigators, who combed the scene beginninng April 2, noted a small avalanche nearby that had triggered naturally.

"Upon summiting," investigators wrote, "we experienced collapsing (‘whumpfing') of the snowpack." New snow, they said, was sitting atop a layer of unstable crystals, all over yet another layer.

Tracks indicate Wright - who was an experienced backcountry boarder familiar with the area - completed two descents on the south-southeast ridge, climbing back up to begin yet another run, down the mountain's northeast slope.

His tracks intersected the avalanche run about 390 vertical feet below the summit, immediately below a steep pitch. Some 533 feet below that, "blood-stained snow was found among sapling-sized trees."

A snowboard track lead out of the avalanche path at that point, descending the mountain to 5,868 feet, where Wright's snowboard was found.

Wright's body was discovered another 441 feet down mountain, face down on top of the avalanche debris with his head facing uphill.

"Based on the above evidence and measurements," investigators wrote, "it appears the victim arrested at around 6,080 feet, traversed and descended on his snowboard skier's left across the slope to 5,868 feet where he left his snowboard, and then descended the path on foot to his final point of rest at 5,427 feet."

The death was reported to park rangers at about 2 p.m. on April 1, after friends - alarmed that they couldn't contact Wright - searched the mountainside. They had last heard from Wright two days before, when he sent them a text message from the summit of Mount Shields.

It is thought he triggered the slide on March 31, shortly after calling his mother from the summit via cell phone.

Wright - who lived in East Glacier and Whitefish - was known to travel with an avalanche transceiver, but neither his transceiver nor his backpack have been found.

*** PRESS RELEASE FROM GLACIER NATIONAL PARK ***

Rangers at Glacier National Park are continuing their investigation into the death of Brian Curtis Wright, 37, of East Glacier, Montana, whose body was recovered in avalanche debris on the northeast face of Mt. Shields late Thursday afternoon, April 1. Rangers believe Wright triggered a large slab avalanche while snowboarding on Mt. Shields at approximately 1 p.m. Wednesday March 31 shortly after talking to his mother via cell phone from the summit of Mt. Shields. Mt. Shields is located in the southern most portion of Glacier National Park within a few miles of U.S. Highway 2. The Mt. Shields area is popular with backcountry ski and snowboard enthusiasts.

The fatality was reported to park rangers around 2 p.m. on Thursday, April 1. The reporting party told rangers they had last heard from Wright at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, March 30 when Wright texted friends that he was on Mt.Shields (elev. 7131 ft.). When friends did not receive responses to subsequent text messages on Wednesday, they grew concerned. Thursday, a friend located Wright’s vehicle at the Fielding Ranger Station trailhead and skied up to Mt. Shields where Wright’s body was spotted high in a gully within the slide path of a recent avalanche. The backcountry party skied out and called park headquarters to report the avalanche and fatality.

Park personnel were dispatched to the trailhead Thursday afternoon. Rangers skied up the northeast face of Mt. Shields to where they located Wright’s body and confirmed the fatality at 5:45 p.m. Additional park personnel were also dispatched and were on hand to respond as needed. A total of 20 NPS employees and a helicopter from Minuteman Aviation of West Glacier were involved in the park’s overall response to the incident.

At the scene, rangers found tracks that suggested Wright had made two trips up the face of Mt. Shields. One set of tracks was located in an open area with few trees. Field personnel observed a two-foot deep fracture in the snow pack just below the summit of Mt. Shields on its northeast face. Rangers believe this route most likely triggered the avalanche which ran about 2,000 vertical feet; the overall reach of the avalanche was approximately 2,500 to 3,000 feet. The avalanche was approximately 150 yards wide and narrowed as it ran down a narrow gully. Wright’s body was about 200-300 yards above the end (toe) of the avalanche slide path.Investigating rangers believe he tumbled approximately 2,000 feet before his body came to rest at an elevation of 5,427 feet. Avalanche debris in the vicinity of Wright’s body was measured at 20-30 feet deep; however, his body was only partially covered in the avalanche debris.

Wright was an avid outdoorsman and knowledgeable backcountry traveler. Friends believed that Wright had an avalanche transceiver, but thus far, neither Wright’s backpack nor his transceiver have been located.

Park officials are saddened by this tragic death; however, they stress that all backcountry travelers are urged to be familiar with current avalanche conditions and heed avalanche warnings when venturing into avalanche prone backcountry areas as well as to have appropriate avalanche equipment (avalanche transceivers/beacons, probes and sturdy shovels). Backcountry enthusiasts are also urged not to travel alone, to have and know how to operate avalanche transceivers/beacons and to let someone know their itinerary and expected return date and approximate time.