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Early season avalanche accident near Bozeman first in U.S.

By Lauren Maschmedt, KTVM Anchor, lmaschmedt@ktvm.com
Published On: Oct 30 2012 09:05:39 AM MDT
Hollywood Basin avalanche

Photo courtesy Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center

BOZEMAN, Mont. -

Three back country skiers were dragged over 500 feet of rocky terrain in a Sunday slide, nearly burying them.

It happened in the late morning in an area of the Bridger Mountains known as Hollywood Basin, on the east side between Fairy and Frasier Lakes.

The group was skinning up a slope- climbing up the incline on skis- when the snow broke loose above them.

Doug Chabot, one of the crew members who responded to the scene, told us the three skiers were buried up to their chest. Only one suffered injuries.

Since they weren't completely buried, the skiers were able to dig themselves out.
There is cell service near the ridge, so the group called for help.

Chabot, who's an avalanche specialist with the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center, said early season, shallow snow can be surprisingly violent.

"In the early season, it's easy to think that avalanches can't happen because we see a lot of grass sticking out of the snow- it doesn't seem very deep" Chabot said. "But every year, we get people triggering avalanches when there's only a few feet of snow on the ground, and typically they get hurt."

He said the skiers weren't following the proper precautions of allowing only one person at a time on a slope. But he said conditions initially seemed okay.

"Unfortunately for them, as they were going up, the snow was looking good" with no signs of instability, Chabot said "But they were travelling very close together- so when an avalanche did happen, it caught all three of them."

There was only about two feet of snow, and it made for a rougher ride down the rocky slope.

Chabot said the slide still had potential to completely bury the skiers- meaning they're lucky they survived.

To stay safe in the back country- especially in early season conditions- Chabot said skiers need to pay attention to slopes, especially the more attractive "wind-loaded" areas, which have the deepest snow. Those can often be unstable.

And, he said, less snow can mean more injuries in a slide down rough terrain.

Back country enthusiasts should always have proper rescue gear, like a beacon, probe and shovel.

Only one person should hike or ski a slope at a time.

And the Avalanche Center said skiers and snowboarders aren't the only ones at risk.

Ice climbers and hunters should always stay aware of the conditions around them, and take appropriate precautions.