Search Delayed by Hazardous Weather

By Beacon Staff

UPDATE: Tuesday 9:30 a.m.

Another day of searching begins with uncertainty this morning, as heavy snow and high winds in the Canyon Creek area are likely to delay efforts to locate two reported victims of Sunday’s avalanche north of Whitefish Mountain Resort.

Snow has been falling since about 6 a.m., and U.S. Forest Service avalanche experts and the Nordic Ski Patrol say avalanche danger at the site of the recovery effort is “high.” As of 9 a.m., winds at the summit of Big Mountain ranged from 30 to 50 miles per hour.

“At this point, it’s a situation where we need to protect the rescuers,” said Steve Burglund of Nordic Ski Patrol, reached at the summit of Big Mountain as rescue teams waited to descend into the scene of the slide. “It’s a real complex, difficult search.”

Once conditions are deemed safe enough for rescuers to enter the area, fresh search dog teams have been brought in from Helena, probe lines will resume and groomers will continue to peel back layers of snow – which Burglund estimates is anywhere from 16 to 30 feet deep in many areas. Flathead County Sheriff’s Department is trying to locate a metal detector, Burglund said, which may help locate buried skis and equipment.

Burglund commended all the volunteers and agencies involved in search efforts, but emphasized the complicated, dangerous nature of finding the two remaining victims.

“It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack, literally.”

– Dan Testa

UPDATE Monday 5:40 p.m.

As darkness fell on the Canyon Creek trailhead, search and rescue teams continued to return from a site on Fiberglass Hill where they are searching for two additional victims from a Sunday avalanche that already has two confirmed deaths. They haven’t found anything.

On a couple of occasions search dogs zeroed in on isolated areas in the dense snow, said Flathead County Sheriff Mike Meehan. But other than that, search teams had little to work with. About 100 volunteers scoured the avalanche site throughout the course of the day, probing the ground with 10- to 12-foot poles.

Meehan said the remaining searchers will wrap up the day around 7 p.m. and teams will start up again at daylight tomorrow morning. Meehan is trying to get a team of dogs tomorrow from Fernie, British Columbia that is trained specifically for avalanche rescues. Currently, volunteers have four dogs.

Officials still don’t know for sure if there is anybody else out there and no missing person reports have been filed, Meehan said.

“We don’t have verification that anybody’s missing,” he said. “We’re going to keep searching and follow up on every lead we can.”

-Myers Reece

UPDATE Monday 4:15 p.m.

Volunteers continue to comb the Fiberglass Hill area in Canyon Creek for two additional victims of a Sunday avalanche that killed two skiers. Some have been here all day; others just recently showed up, checked in and joined in the search effort. So far, they haven’t found anything.

The Canyon Creek trail is roped off 13 miles from the avalanche site. Snow is so deep –more than 30 feet in some areas – that groomers have been called in to shave it down.

While people who haven’t heard from friends or family have called the Sheriff’s Department, no official missing persons reports have been filed for the two skiers that witnesses say got caught in an avalanche lower down in the canyon, said Jordan White, search and rescue coordinator for Flathead County.

The search will continue today until 8 or 9 p.m.

-Myers Reece

UPDATE 2:10 p.m.

The two men killed in Sunday’s avalanche were identified as Anthony Kollman, 19, of Kalispell, and David Gogolak, 36, of Whitefish, according to the Flathead County Sheriff Mike Meehan.

Up to 100 people are still on the scene using probe poles and canine teams in an attempt to locate any other victims. A U.S. Customs helicopter has also joined in the search, according to the sheriff.

Search efforts will continue through the evening hours, weather permitting. High winds and up to 8 inches of snow are expected after midnight tonight, according to the National Weather Service.

UPDATE 11:30 a.m.

Blasting in the area of the avalanche was successful, releasing a small portion of unsafe snow mass, according to a press release from Flathead County Sheriff Mike Meehan.

The blasting team is exiting the area and, when the scene is safe, about 60 trained responders from several area search rescue organizations will resume searching for the two missing skiers.

UPDATE 9:30 a.m.

WHITEFISH – Rescue personnel continued Monday morning to search for two possible victims of a huge Sunday avalanche that killed two backcountry skiers near here.

A team began blasting on Fiberglass Hill, so search efforts could continue safely in the area, according to Flathead County Sheriff Mike Meehan.

Emergency responders were alerted around noon Sunday to the avalanche at a popular recreation area on the opposite side of Whitefish Mountain Resort. More than 100 search and rescue people were quickly called to the scene.

The search was called off overnight because of encroaching fog and an overhanging ridge of snow that still hadn’t cut loose and could be dangerous to the rescue teams, Meehan said.

The snowmobilers who reported the avalanche said they saw two victims killed in the slide, as well as two other skiers caught in the snow lower down in the canyon.

Meehan told the Missoulian newspaper that the snowmobilers were “adamant” they saw the additional skiers in the massive slide area. But no one else has been reported missing.

Deputies have been busy checking with the owners of cars parked overnight at the ski area to make sure they made it back to their hotels. At the same time, 60 to 70 searchers will continue probing the huge slide area.

“When the mountain came down into this basin, it’s about 25 to 30 feet deep in places with a lot of downed trees,” Meehan said.

He said searchers are first probing, then removing layers of snow until they work through the slide area.

“We are waiting to hear of anyone else missing, or exactly what we’ve got,” Meehan said.

Meehan said the names of the two victims are not being released until they can notify relatives.

The slide occurred about 210 miles northwest of Helena on U.S. Forest Service land outside the boundaries of the Whitefish Mountain Resort, said resort spokesman Donnie Clap.

“We set off explosions to mitigate the (avalanche) risk within our boundaries,” he said. “When you ski out of bounds, you are really taking your life in your own hands.”

“We’re just distraught over this tragedy,” he said. “It’s been really hard on all of us.”

In Wyoming, three men were killed Saturday when they were caught in an avalanche while snowmobiling in the Star Valley south of Jackson.

The Star Valley Search and Rescue team found the men’s bodies in the Cottonwood Lake area later Saturday. Authorities say Scott Bennett, Alan Jensen and Kim Steed were all from the Afton area.

Avalanches have killed at least 21 people across the West since Dec. 2, according to the National Avalanche Center. The national annual average for avalanche deaths is about 25. Thirty-five people were killed nationwide in avalanches in the 2001-2002 season, the most on record, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

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