Five killed in Avalanche

Five killed in Avalanche 1


By William Simonsen

Bigfork, Mont. — Five people died Friday afternoon when an avalanche hit a party of snowmobilers about 10 miles northeast of Bigfork. Two snowmobile riders were also injured by the avalanche.

“I never saw nothing until that big wall of snow,” said Jim Pierce of Bigfork, who was riding his snowmobile at the front of the group.

“I went first. I turned around and looked and saw all this snow coming down the mountain,” said Pierce.

“I yelled at everybody and the went back across the top of the avalanche and there was no one there,” he said. 

The first few snowmobiles in the group were the ones who made it out.

Killed in the avalanche  were Pat Buls, 46, Kalispell; Kendall Smith, 41, Hill Spring, Alberta; Miles Merrill, 7, Cardston, Alberta; and Bart Nelson, 35, and Gordon Sherman, 46, both of Jefferson, Alberta, said Flathead County Sheriff Jim Dupont. The two injured were Jamie Merrill and Sandra Sherman, both of Cardston.

Sandra Sherman was rescued after being buried to her waist in the snow, she had several broken ribs, but was otherwise unhurt, said Dupont.

ˇShe was stopped on her snowmobile only about three feet from her husband when the avalanche hit the group.

Gordon Sherman, was found dead about 4 p.m. several hundred feet downslope from the area where she was found. Efforts to revive him failed.

Jamie Merrill was found by searchers using probe poles after being buried for about two hours. Dupont said Jamie Merrill was able to survive so long buried in the snow because he was trapped between two snowmobiles which created an airspace allowing him to breathe. He was buried under about three feet of snow. He was treated for hypothermia by rescue personnel and remained at the scene throughout the night to help search for his son, Miles. Miles Merrill was standing next to his father when the avalanche hit. His body was not found for almost 24 hours after he was trapped under the snow. Miles Merrill’s mother was at the family home in Cardston at the time of the avalanche. Dupont said he was buried under twelve feet of snow about 30 feet away from his father.

Buls was a fireman with the Kalispell Fire Dept.

Gordon Sherman and Smith were ranchers. Nelson ran a salt business in his hometown.

Larry Brazda of Kalispell, said he and several others had joined Pierce’s party of snowmobilers, making a total of 14 people in the group.

Dupont said there were 13 snowmobiles in the group.

Brazda said he was the first person over a ridge after they stopped for a break. Brazda said the group had been riding in the area where the avalanche occurred, in one to two feet of new snow, for several hours before the tragedy struck. Advisories issued for Friday said avalanche danger was moderate in the area, said Dupont.

Brazda said the snow showed no signs of the imminent danger that was present.

Pierce said he has ridden in the area for years and had never seen an avalanche where the party was struck.

Some of the riders in the ill-fated group with larger, more powerful machines had been taking turns breaking a trail over the top of a ridge shortly before the snow broke loose, said Brazda. He said the avalanche covered an area about 75 feet wide and 400-500 feet long. Avalanches can move at speeds of up to 200 mph.

Brazda said he and several other members of the party immediately tried to rescue those trapped in the snow. But because the snow was so deep and packed so hard by the avalanche they had no luck with their attempted rescues. Brazda said he dug in the snow with his bare hands to uncover one snowmobile, but could not find it’s rider.

Brazda said he and Pierce then rode down the mountain to Pierce’s truck, then used his cellular phone to call for help. Brazda said he and others in the party broke branches off nearby tress and attempted to probe in the snow for the others, but the snow was too deep and they couldn’t find branches long enough to reach through it

Dupont later said the digging through the snow was like “shoveling wet concrete.”

The call from Pierce came into the Flathead County Sheriffs Office at 12:52 p.m.

Initial reports to the search crews said eight people were feared buried in the avalanche.

The sheriff’s office immediately dispatched members and equipment from  Bigfork QRU, East Valley QRU, Creston Fire Dept., Flathead Search and Rescue, and the ALERT helicopter to the scene.

The biggest problem encountered by rescuers was simply getting personnel to the site of the avalanche, said Dupont. The snowmobilers were buried at an elevation of 5,600 feet about five miles off the nearest plowed road. A command post was set up at the intersection of Peters Ridge Road and Foothills Road. A county road department snow plow was sent to Peters Ridge Road. It cleared more than two miles of road so Flathead Search and Rescue, Bigfork QRU and other four wheel drive vehicles could get to an upper staging area at the end of the road. Snow was several feet deep at the staging area. From the staging area, searchers were ferried to the site of the avalanche by snowmobiles, or walked.

Undersheriff Chuck Curry said it took searchers about one hour to get from the staging area to the scene of the avalanche. Searchers used long metal poles to probe the avalanche area in a grid pattern. Metal detectors were also used during the search.

Pierce said two of the people buried in the avalanche had “peepers”, small radio transmitters designed to help searchers locate people buried in the snow. But one of the units was left in the car by its owner, and the other unit was turned off when the avalanche hit, he said.

During the afternoon other volunteer groups were called to the scene to help in the search and rescue operation. Trained dogs were brought into the search – two from the Kalispell Police Dept. and one from a private citizen.

Two Kalispell Ambulance units stood by at the command post to ferry victims to area hospitals.

The Nordic Ski Patrol, South Kalispell Fire Dept. and North Valley Search and Rescue also joined in the rescue effort.

A private helicopter also joined the rescue party, but was unable to help ferry rescuers to the site due to inclement weather conditions.

By mid-afternoon, more than 100 people had joined the search. As temperatures dropped Friday afternoon, the site of the avalanche was “in a cloud,” said Dupont. He said the weather conditions hampered the rescue of the remaining victims.

At 4:45 p.m., while Sandra Sherman was being transported down the mountain, Dupont said three additional people had been found and CPR was being administered to them.

By 10 p.m. another body had been found by rescuers. All of the victims found Friday were found by searchers using probe poles.

Dupont said four of the victims were pronounced dead at the scene at 1:49 a.m. Saturday.

Dupont temporarily called off the rescue at 4 a.m. Saturday without having found Miles Merrill.

Dupont said he asked for assistance from search and rescue teams in Missoula, Lincoln and Lake counties in the early hours of Saturday morning because the local rescue teams were worn out. He also asked for assistance from the Swan Search and Rescue team.

Searchers were back on the scene as soon as it got light.  Heavy snow fell and weather conditions deteriorated Saturday morning. Dupont said 14 inches of new snow fell at the site from 8 a.m. to noon when he met with two avalanche experts from the U.S. Forest Service who advised him conditions were becoming hazardous to the searchers. He stopped the search at 1 p.m.. Minutes before the end, the body of Miles Merrill was found by searchers. His body was found under about 12 feet of snow in an area previously probed by searchers. A trained dog from the Missoula County Search and Rescue team kept returning again and again to the area above the boy. Dupont said one of the probe poles had passed within inches of the boy, apparantly providing enough scent for the dog to pinpoint the area. Miles Merrill’s body was dug out of the snow and he was rpomounced dead at 1:56 p.m. Dupont said searchers were relieved that the family could take the boy’s body home with them. He said all six of the snowmobiles had been recovered from the scene by Monday morning.

About one hour after the avalanche on Peters Ridge was reported, a report was made to the sheriffs office of a snowmobiler buried in an avalanche in the Lost Johnny area of the South Fork drainage, just over the ridge from Peters Ridge. Glen Flaget, 32, Kalispell, was hit by an avalanche, but managed to free one arm and raise it above the snow. His companions dug him out within about 30 minutes. Flaget said he suffered only bruises from the experience.

The tragedy on Peters Ridge is the worst avalanche related accident in Northwest Montana since Dec. 1969 when five mountain climbers were killed during a winter ascent of Mt. Cleveland in Glacier National Park, said Steve Frye, chief park ranger. James Anderson, 18, Bigfork, was one of the victims in the Mt. Cleveland avalanche.

Five Killed In Avalanche 2


 By William Simonsen

Bigfork, Mont. — An unauthorized system of trails leading into the Peters Ridge and  Krause Basin areas where an avalanche killed five people New Years Eve, was reported to Forest Service employees more than one year ago, said a representative of the Montana Wilderness Association. The Forest Service is currently conducting an investigation of the avalanche and the trails which led snowmobile riders into danger.

Steve Thompson, Kalispell field representative for MWA said Friday that members of his organization gave photographs of unauthorized trails Iin the area of the avalanche to Forest Service employees late last summer. He said concerned members discovered a blazed and cleared trail system on Peters Ridge and in Krause Basin and photographed damage done by motorcycles and other off-road vehicles in the area.

ˇReports about the unauthorized trails were made to the Forest Service more than one year ago, he said.

Thompson said he never got any response from the Forest Service.

Chuck Harris, Bigfork district ranger for the Flathead National Forest, said the trail construction in the area was never authorized by the Forest Service.

“We would not have put a trail into an avalanche area,” said Harris.

“The (unauthorized) trails lead people into an unsafe area,” he said.

A permit is required to build a trail on its lands, he said. No permit was issued.

“To go build a trail (without a permit) is illegal,” he said. But the entire area around Peters Ridge and Krause Basin is laced with old skid roads and trails, said Harris. The blazes on trees marking the trails were not made by the Forest Service, he said.

Harris said fallen trees and brush were removed when the unauthorized trail was cleared, but that no grading of the ground was done. An investigation of the fatalities was started immediately after the accident. Under Forest Service policy, a routine investigation is conducted whenever a fatal accident occurs on its land. When the blazes were discovered the investigation was expanded to cover the construction of the unauthorized trail, Harris said.

Results of the investigation will be available in about two weeks.

Harris said he suspects that the blazes were made by off-road vehicle riders who use the area. He said the same people probably cleared trees and brush from the trails to provide better access for their vehicles. Harris said Forest Service employees made an initial investigation of the report from MWA last summer which found some damage caused by motorcycles riding around snow banks during the summer. But there was no way to determine exactly when the tracks were made, he said.

The entire area, not just the trails, is closed to motor vehicle use for two periods each year. Harris said under a 1988 Forest Service decision the area is closed between April 1 and July 1 because it is prime spring grizzly bear habitat. It is closed again from Sept. 1 until Nov. 30 to protect big game animals.

The remainder of the year the area is open to motor vehicle use. The trails leading to the avalanche area are inside the closure area, he said. Keith Hammer of Swan View Coalition, another conservation organization, said there are two separate issues at stake when unauthorized trails are allowed on public land. One is the issue of public safety. He said Forest Service regulations do not allow trails to be built in unsafe areas. The second issue is that of unauthorized trails.

Thompson said the Forest Service needs to take strong action against people who build unauthorized trails or violate trail closures. “The Forest Service has always winked and nodded at these things (unauthorized trails),” he said.

“This is serious. This led to five people’s deaths.” He said the photographs showed evidence of “rogue off-road vehicle riders turning alpine meadows into a motocross track.”

Motocross races were held in the area during the 1970s and some new trails were cut at that time, Harris said.

Hammer said he was told about the blazes on trees and the unauthorized trail by a Forest Service employee more than one year ago.

Thompson said a proposal to use the basin as an off-road vehicle area was made by some local groups last week.

The Krause Basin and Peters Ridge areas were included in the proposed Jewel Basin Wilderness Area as part of the Montana wilderness bill which was introduced in Congress last year. Thompson said he wrote Rep. Pat Wiliiams, D-Mont., last fall to warn him of the incursion by off-road vehicle users into the wilderness. A group of local snowmobile clubs, Montanans for Multiple Use and groups of off-road motorcycle riders proposed last week that the area be removed from the list of proposed wilderness areas. The groups wrote Williams and asked him to sponsor the change for the area. They suggested that the recreation area be named after Pat Buls of Kalispell, who was killed in the New Years Eve avalanche.

Thompson said he feels the request by the groups is “inappropriate.”

He said, “We deeply regret that Montanans for Multiple Use is trying to use this tragedy for political gain.”

But Harris said if the classification of the area is changed to a recreation area, the current motor vehicle closures will still be in effect. If it becomes designated as wilderness area, motor vehicles would be ­prohibited completely.

Harris said the Forest Service is reluctant to close areas due to the possibility of avalanches. “If we close one then we start the perception that we are looking out for avalanches. If we miss one then our liability is increased.”

“If people find their way in there, then they are accepting the risk of their sport.”

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