Weather Limits Search for Possible Victims of Whitefish Avalanche

By Beacon Staff

HELENA (AP) – A steady snowfall and the possibility of another avalanche forced authorities to scale back their search Tuesday at the site of a large snow slide that killed two backcountry skiers near the Whitefish Mountain Resort in northwestern Montana.

A day after some 100 volunteers looked for two other people reported buried by the slide, about 20 people used long poles to search in a small area that drew the attention of dog teams Monday.

“No new information was garnered during this afternoon’s search,” Flathead County Undersheriff Pete Wingert said in an e-mail Tuesday evening.

Authorities do not have any verified missing person reports, but witnesses said they saw two other skiers caught in the slide. After searching the resort’s parking lot, authorities determined all car owners have been accounted for, Wingert said.

“It certainly doesn’t mean there aren’t people up there,” Wingert said. “They could have taken a shuttle bus from a hotel. It’s difficult to say.”

A storm moved through the area Monday night into Tuesday, bringing another 8 inches of snow, high winds and high avalanche danger. However, avalanche experts determined the route to the search area was stable, and teams were on the scene for about four hours starting at 12:30 p.m.

Groomers scraped 5 to 7 feet of snow from much of the search area, but the 12-foot poles were still not reaching the ground in some places, authorities said.

Sheriff Mike Meehan said he decided to scale back the search due to weather. More snow was expected Wednesday night.

“I haven’t called it off, but I’m not going to risk the lives of searchers, so it’s going to remain a somewhat cut-down search,” Meehan told KOFI radio in Kalispell.

The search is taking place on Fiberglass Hill, a popular area on a ridge near the Whitefish resort. Officials have not said what triggered the slide that killed Anthony Kollmann, 19, of Kalispell and David Gogolak, 36, of Whitefish.

Kollmann graduated from Kalispell’s Flathead High School in 2006, and family friends said he skied nearly every day.

Gogolak, who moved to Whitefish only recently, lived previously in San Francisco and Darien, Conn. He spent a number of years in the bar and restaurant business in San Francisco, co-founding Hobson’s Choice and Asqew Grill Restaurant Co. He is survived by his wife, Nicole, and their two children, Graylin and Johnny.

In Wyoming, three men were killed in an avalanche while snowmobiling Saturday in the Star Valley south of Jackson. Authorities have said they do not believe the men triggered that slide.

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.