SPAR PEAK AVALANCHE INCIDENT REPORT
Idaho Panhandle National Forest, Montana
Date of Avalanche: 22 February 2014
Investigation Team: Jon Jeresek with assistance from Erich Peitzsch and Seth Carbonari
Flathead Avalanche Center
Sandpoint Ranger District East Fork Creek, West Cabinet Range
Idaho Panhandle National Forest – Region 1 Elevation 6,175 feet – 5,640 feet
Lincoln County, Montana Lat. 48’ 15’ 09”, Long. 116’ 0’ 23”
- 49 Year old, Male Snowmobile Rider, Caught, Completely Buried, Fatality
- 47 Year old, Male Snowmobile Rider, Caught, Almost Completely Buried (face exposed), Uninjured
- 2 Snowmobiles buried, 1 recovered operational, 1 remains buried on site
On Saturday, February 22, 2014, a group of four snowmobilers were playing in the trees in the headwaters of East Fork Creek, two air miles north of Spar Peak, Montana. Around 1315, two members of the party were caught by an avalanche that released above them while the other two members of the party were not caught. One fully buried rider was extracted, but tragically CPR efforts were unsuccessful. The other nearly fully buried rider (only face exposed) was extracted without injuries and participated in rescue efforts. One snowmobile was buried and remains on site, location unknown. Another snowmobile was buried except for a ski loop sticking out of the snow and was extracted and used to return to the trailhead. While CPR efforts were ongoing, one rider drove two miles to a site with known cell phone coverage to call 911. The ALERT helicopter from Kalispell arrived on scene but could not find a safe landing spot and dropped a hand held radio to the party. The snowmobile party told ALERT they had discontinued CPR and never had attained a pulse or any other response from the victim. The Flathead County Sheriff’s Office Helicopter with hoist capabilities was ordered and successfully retrieved the victim. The three remaining party members snowmobiled approximately 11 miles to the trailhead.
The following information was developed from video taken by the Flathead County Sherriff’s Office Helicopter as it transferred people to/from the site and circled the avalanche area. The avalanche crown measured approximately 1,200 feet across the top of a ridge that trends north to south and downward from 6,175 feet to 6,025 feet. The south flank of the avalanche measured approximately 1,000 feet. The north flank of the avalanche measured approximately 750 feet to the burial location at 5,685 feet elevation. The avalanche occurred on an east aspect and involved mostly soft slab and loose snow material. It is evident from the photographs that immediately below the ridgeline for a distance of 100’ – 150’ is a hard slab wind deposit that was also released (Figure 4). Crown depths of this wind deposit vary from 30” to 50”. Victims of this party were transported a very short distance due to their original location in the run out zone. US classification of the avalanche is SS-AMr-R4/D3-I, which denotes a (SS) Soft Slab avalanche- (AMr) artificially triggered by snowmobile remotely-(R4)the avalanche was large relative to the path-(D3) the avalanche was large enough to bury and destroy a car, large truck, destroy a wood frame house, or break a few trees-(I) the avalanche released at the new snow/old snow interface.
Weather and Snowpack: Weather information was collected from the Bear Mountain SNOTEL Station that is located approximately 5 miles NW of the accident site at 5400 feet. This site showed the average snow water equivalent to be 72% of median, and the precipitation to be 83% of average at the time of the accident. The entire Northern Panhandle Region was 90% of median for snow water equivalent and 74% of average precipitation at that time.
Beginning February 1, 2014, an arctic air mass dominated the region until around February 10, 2014. Prior to February 1, a melt freeze crust formed in many areas across the advisory area. Small accumulations of snow occurred periodically and fell on this crust. During the cold air outbreak, the surface and near surface snow became weak and faceted causing weak layers to form on top of the melt freeze crust. The next notable precipitation commenced the afternoon of February 10, 2014 and snow accumulated incrementally through February 22, 2014 (date of incident) (Figure 2). The snowpack increased by approximately 40 inches through that time period with a correlating 13 inch increase in Snow Water Equivalent. During that arctic outbreak, mountain temperatures reached below -25 °C /-15°F(Figure 3). When the cold air mass exited the region, temperatures rose with new snowfall throughout the advisory area. This pattern created an upside down snowpack where heavier, dense snow fell on top of less dense, weaker snow. This new snow was accompanied by moderate to strong winds adding to the growth of cornices and wind pillows on the lee slopes. On Friday, February 21, 2014, the avalanche advisory for the Kootenai National Forest was issued with a hazard rating of HIGH. The advisory stated “We have abundant soft snow available for wind transport. Southwest winds Tuesday and Wednesday transported MUCH snow. Wind slabs and pillows formed on northeast and east aspects near ridgetops. These locations should be identified and avoided.”
Avalanche Specialists were not able to visit the accident site because of continued avalanche danger. Observations were made in the area the days leading up to the accident. Idaho Panhandle Avalanche Center staff were at nearby Moose Lake (8 miles NW of the accident site) on February 20, two days prior to the accident. They identified the weak layers and crusts noted above, but found it took hard force to get those weak layers to shear, whereas they were able to get other weak layers to fail closer to the surface with moderate force (Figure 5). They did not notice any other signs of instability but did note strong winds creating windslabs on east and northeast aspects.
Unstable conditions existed throughout the region. The KNF Avalanche Specialist was investigating three other human triggered incidents with no injuries from February 16 and 17 that failed on the same melt freeze crust/ facet layer. The day before the accident, on February 21, the Bottom Line for the avalanche advisory read:
“The avalanche hazard in the West Cabinets, East Cabinets and Purcell Range is HIGH. This means that very dangerous avalanche conditions exist on many terrain features, such as steep semi open slopes. Natural avalanches are likely, and human triggered avalanches are very likely. Backcountry travel in avalanche terrain is NOT recommended.
SPECIAL NOTE: The Kootenai Region has received heavy storm loading since our last advisory (Tuesday 2-18-2014). On Tuesday-Wednesday 2-18/19-2014, we experienced wind transport at all locations.”
At the time of the accident the skies were clear, winds calm and temperatures in the low 20’s F.
The Flathead Avalanche Center avalanche advisory for the Kootenai Region for February 21st read: “The avalanche hazard in the West Cabinets, East Cabinets, and Purcell Range is HIGH. This means that very dangerous avalanche conditions exist on many terrain features, such as steep semi open slopes. Natural avalanches are likely, and human triggered avalanche are very likely. Backcountry travel in avalanche terrain is NOT recommended.”
A member of the snowmobile party who was not buried provided valuable information regarding the accident site and all of the events of the day of the incident. The snowmobiler is from the local area and visited the exact site two weeks earlier. The events of 02/22/2014 started as two separate parties of two riders at the Spar Lake snowmobile trailhead (Figure 6). At 0900, snowmobiler A and B arrived, unloaded and prepared for a trip to Whoopee Basin to play in the trees.
At 0930, as they were departing the trailhead, snowmobiler C and D arrived. Up the trail, snowmobiler A forgot something at his truck and returned to the trailhead to get it. At this time snowmobiler A, C, and D visited and decided to ride together for the day. The now party of four traveled up the Spar Lake Road to the Spruce Lake junction, then to the Whoopee Basin Road (Figure 6). At the end of Road 4623, they traveled cross country to the ridge west of Whoopee Basin. Weather here was clear, cool (20°F), and calm. At this point they played on a short open face known as the “vent area” that frames Whoopee Basin. Not finding obvious signs of snowpack instability, they decide to proceed south and west along the ridge and drop into the head of East Fork Creek . On this ridge, Rider A and Rider D made cell phone contact with their wives.
At 1200 hours, the party played in the trees for approximately an hour before heading west to a “lunch knoll” (Figure 7) that provided a full view of “Fiberglass Hill”. Rider B made a couple low loops on the open slope just above the trees. At 1310, riders C and D are parked on the knoll, machines off, digging in their packs for lunch. Rider C has been sick all day and needed rest. Rider A had become stuck 50 feet away after sinking a ski sideways against a tree. This area is a swale terrain trap that fills to a depth of 15’-20’, nearly level with the lunch knoll to the south.
Rider B approached rider A and parked behind him facing uphill, engine off. As rider B was unbuckling his helmet, he saw the avalanche approaching and yelled “avalanche, gotta go”. Rider A yelled “run, run, run”. Rider D (at the lunch knoll) successfully started his machine with one pull and departed a distance of 60 feet downslope. Rider C pulled three times to try to start his machine, turned and ran 15 feet downslope. Rider C described the avalanche noise as a tree top jet coming down on them. The avalanche never reached rider C or D, or the lunch knoll. In the deep snow, riders A and B did not get far before being overtaken by the avalanche. Rider A stopped after running 30 yards to look back for Rider B and was swept face first into the edge of a 12” alpine fir’s six foot tree well. He was completely buried except for his face. He was on his stomach with his feet uphill and 3-4 feet below the surface.
Avalanche Specialists have classified the avalanche as being remotely triggered by the riders. This determination was based on the location of the riders, the timing of the avalanche release in conjunction with the movement of the snowmobilers and the other incidents of remotely triggered avalanches recently in the area. If the riders did remotely trigger the avalanche, it would take a couple of seconds or more for the failure to reach the ridge where the avalanche released. It is likely that the riders remotely triggered the avalanche; however, there is a possibility that this avalanche was not triggered by the riders.
At approximately 1315, Riders C and D gathered their shovels and probe poles and started yelling for victims. Rider C was 20 feet from Rider A when he heard him yell for help. Rider C and D dug Rider A out in approximately 10 minutes (Figure 10).
Rider A was wearing a transceiver that they used to locate Rider B, who was completely buried. Rider B was located approximately 25 feet northwest of a snowmobile ski tip that was protruding out of the avalanche debris. In their digging efforts, Riders A, C and D realized that there was a tree buried in the snow between their initial hole and Rider B. Rider D used the transceiver to search again and got a signal at 1.3 meters on the other side of the tree. They dug 10 minutes before they abandoned the initial hole (Figure 10). At their new location, they reached Rider B in 5 – 7 minutes. They encountered his right hand first at two feet deep. Rider B’s face was uncovered at three feet, his helmet was gone. His feet were angled down to a depth greater than six feet. As soon as the face was uncovered Rider A gave several “rescue breaths” and initiated CPR as soon as the chest was exposed.
By the time the victim was extracted from the burial site, over 30 minutes had elapsed. Rider A and C continued CPR on the victim. Rider D was sent two miles to make cell phone contact with 911.
At 1404, Rider D contacted Bonner County Sheriff’s Office. He informed them of the avalanche incident, victim status, location and requested a helicopter. BCSO responded that he is in “no man’s land” and they cannot respond, but will notify Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office. The LCSO used cell phone coordinates to locate the incident and dispatched the ALERT Helicopter to the scene from Kalispell. Approximately 45 minutes of CPR efforts continued until 1430 without response. Rider D returned from the cell phone site at approximately 1500. The party extracted Rider A’s 2013 SkiDoo 162, which started immediately with only the windshield was missing.
The ALERT Helicopter arrived from Kalispell but was unable to locate a safe landing spot near the incident. The ALERT Helicopter was able to drop the party a hand held radio.
At approximately 1600, Flathead County Sheriff’s Office Air – 1 Helicopter with hoist capabilities arrived on scene. A crew member and litter were lowered to the site for removal of the victim. The ship circled the avalanche area while Riders A, C, D, and the helicopter crewmember prepped the body for transit and moved it to the lunch knoll. The Air – 1 Helicopter returned and hoisted the litter into the ship, then returned to the helispot on the Mine road near the snowmobile trailhead.
The Air – 1 Helicopter returned to the scene to retrieve the helicopter crewmember, brought him back to the trailhead and then Nate Scofield, (LCSO Deputy) and Jon Jeresek (Kootenai National Forest Avalanche Specialist) boarded Air – 1 to examine and video the avalanche site.
During the flight, three snowmobilers on standby at the trailhead, with no affiliation to David Thompson Search and Rescue, self-dispatched themselves to the incident scene. Riders A, C, and D left the site of the accident and met the three “resource riders” just west of the ridge dividing Whoopee Basin from the East Fork basin. All six riders returned to the trailhead at approximately 1800. Rider B’s 2008 Artic Cat M1000 remains at the scene buried at an unknown location.
LCSO Deputy Nate Scofield interviewed each rider (A,C,D) individually in his patrol truck. While at the trailhead, Kootenai National Forest Avalanche Specialist Jon Jeresek was able to visit informally with each of the survivors after their interview with Deputy Scofield.
Search and Rescue:
David Thompson Search and Rescue was called out shortly after the 1404 call to 911. Kootenai National Forest Avalanche Specialist Jon Jeresek was called at 1545 and asked to meet and advise DTSAR regarding a ground based rescue or recovery. Jeresek is very familiar with the terrain accessing the incident site and advised against a ground based operation. Four sections of avalanche terrain would need to be crossed twice to safely carry out such an operation. It was agreed that the use of the Air – 1 Helicopter with hoist capabilities was the safest option to meet operational objectives.
The snowmobile party’s efforts at self-rescue are described in the narrative above.
-Rider A is an advanced rider with advanced first aid skills and intermediate avalanche skills. He was wearing a transceiver that was Rider B’s only chance to be found. His shovel was in his snowmobile which was buried. We do not know if he carried a probe.
-Rider B was an expert rider with intermediate avalanche skills. He was wearing a transceiver which allowed him to be found. We do not know if he carried a shovel/probe in a backpack or on his snowmobile.
-Rider C is an advanced rider with advanced first aid skills and intermediate avalanche skills. He had a shovel in a backpack, but no probe or transceiver.
-Rider D is an advanced rider with advanced first aid skills and unknown avalanche skills. He carried a shovel and a probe on him, but had no transceiver.
We wish to extend our condolences to the friends and family of the victim in this accident. We would also like to thank the other members of the victim’s party for their willingness to share this important, detailed, and personal information. This information helps all of us learn in the context of a real situation, and helps promote sound backcountry decision making. The Idaho Panhandle Avalanche Center and Flathead and Lincoln County Sherriff’s Offices should be thanked for their assistance as well as Two Bear Aviation for providing the video and photography.
All formal notation and recording guidelines can be found in:
Greene, Ethan M., D. Atkins, K. Birkeland, K. Elder, C. Landry, B. Lazar, I. McCammon, M. Moore, D. Sharaf, C. Sterbenz, B. Tremper, and K. Williams, 2010. Snow, Weather, and Avalanches: Observational Guidelines for Avalanche Programs in the United States. American Avalanche Association, Pagosa Springs, CO: Second Printing Fall 2010, 152 pp.
The video below is a flyover investigation of the avalanche accident site. We thank Two Bear Aviation, Flathead County Sheriff, Lincoln County Sheriff, and the Kootenai National Forest for their efforts and providing us with video footage. We have edited down over 1 hour of video for preliminary information. More detailed weather, snowpack, and incident information will be provided in a full report by the Kootenai National Forest.
Updated information 2/23/2014-the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department released additional details on the accident.
The following is a press release from the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department with more information:
On Saturday, February 22, 2014, at about 2:04 P.M., Lincoln County Sheriff’s Dispatch Center received a transferred 911 cell phone call from Bonner County Idaho.
The caller, Nathan Schwegel, of Libby, said that he was with a party of three other adult male snowmobilers about two miles north of Spar Peak. Spar Peak is about 17 miles southwest of Troy, Montana, in the West Cabinet Range near the Montana/Idaho border.
Schwegel said that two of the four snowmobilers in the party had been caught in a backcountry avalanche. One of the two avalanche victims was recovered ok. The other was recovered but was not breathing and the other two men were performing CPR.
Schwegel said that he had to ride his snowmobile about two miles from the avalanche site to obtain cell phone reception to make the call. The cell phone signal was used to assist with pinpointing the location of the incident.
David Thompson Search and Rescue was called out to respond. The ALERT helicopter out of Kalispell responded. The Air-One helicopter from Two Bear Air out of Kalispell also responded. Sheriff’s Office Detective Scofield responded along with Kootenai National Forest Avalanche Specialist Jon Jeresek of Libby, representing the Flathead Avalanche Center. USFS law enforcement officers also responded. All responders met at a staging and parking area well away from the remote avalanche site.
The ALERT helicopter arrived at the actual avalanche site first and reported that there was no location to land near the area. The Air-One rescue helicopter arrived next, at about 4:00 pm, and was able to conduct a vertical lift extraction of the victim.
The victim, Bryan William Harlow, age 49, of Libby, was pronounced dead and was flown to the staging area to be release to Coroner Steve Schnackenberg. The Air-One rescue helicopter then stayed on scene to assist the investigators. The three other avalanche victims then rode their machines out of the avalanche area to the staging area and did not need medical treatment.
Investigators learned that the snowmobilers had stopped in a low lying area within trees and were not moving at the time that the avalanche occurred. The men attempted to move clear of the avalanche, but two men were caught in the avalanche: Todd Byington, age 47 of Libby, and Bryan Harlow, age 49, of Libby. The other two men present were not caught by the avalanche: Nathan Schwegel, age 33, of Libby, and Jesse Mugford, age 27, of Libby. When the avalanche ceased, Schwegel and Mugford were able to hear Byington yelling, found him buried with only his face exposed, and dug him out. They all then used Byington’s avalanche beacon to locate Harlow’s avalanche beacon signal. They dug down and found Harlow buried under about four to six feet of compacted snow, but Harlow was not breathing. Byington and Mugford began CPR as Schwegel rode his snowmobile out of the area to find a cell phone signal. Byington and Mugford were not able to revive Harlow with CPR.
An on-site investigation will not be possible because of the high avalanche hazard in the area. Investigators conducted an aerial survey of the scene aboard the Air-One helicopter. Jeresek classified the avalanche as a D3 sized avalanche (SS-Amr-D3-R4-O) which means that it was a soft slab avalanche that was remotely snowmobile triggered; of a size that could destroy a car, damage a truck, destroy a wood frame house, or break a few trees; was large relative to the path; and was released within old snow.
The snowmobilers were aware of the current high avalanche danger and were taking precautions.
The Flathead Avalanche Center will assist avalanche specialists with the Kootenai National Forest as needed to develop an incident report.
We have received preliminary information of an avalanche fatality in the West Cabinets this afternoon.
The fatality occurred at approximately 1:15 PM 2/22/2014 in the West Cabinet Range near Savage Mountain and the Idaho/Montana Border. Approximately 15 miles SW of Troy. The incident occurred within the Kootenai National Forest advisory area.
Out of a group of four snowmobilers, two were caught and buried by an avalanche. One was buried with only his face exposed and was dug out with no injuries. The other was fully buried and resulted in a fatality. Preliminary reports classify the avalanche: SS-AMr-D3-R4-O. Soft Slab-Snowmobile triggered remotely-Could bury or destroy a car-large relative to the path-Released within old snow.
Additional information will be shared as it is available from the Kootenai National Forest.