Deadly Avalanches Sweep the West

By Beacon Staff

An avalanche north of Whitefish Mountain Resort on Jan. 13 capped off a deadly week of avalanche activity throughout western United States and Canada in which at least 10 people died.

Two men, Anthony Kollmann, 19, of Kalispell, and David Gogolak, 36, of Whitefish, were confirmed dead following an avalanche at a popular out-of-bounds ski area on the backside of Whitefish Mountain Resort, according to Flathead County Sheriff Mike Meehan. But as many as 100 search and rescue volunteers continued to scour Fiberglass Hill on Monday looking for two other possible victims.

As of this writing, search teams hadn’t found anyone.

Kollmann and Gogolak were the ninth and 10th avalanche deaths in a one-week period in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Oregon, British Columbia and Alberta, according to www.avalanche.org. They were the first avalanche fatalities in Montana this winter. Last season, six people died in avalanches in Montana.

Twenty-one avalanche deaths have been confirmed nationwide this winter, already one more than the total from last year’s avalanche season, which generally ends around April.

Snowmobilers who reported the avalanche around noon on Sunday said that in addition to the two men killed in the slide, and a third man who was able to dig himself out, they saw two other skiers caught in the avalanche lower down in the canyon. But no missing person reports had yet been filed.

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

Local authorities spent Monday morning checking with owners of cars that were parked overnight at the ski area and the Canyon Creek trailhead, a popular access point to a wide network of snowmobile trails five miles north of Columbia Falls. Meanwhile, up to 100 rescue personnel, including a U.S. Customs helicopter, resumed search efforts after teams blasted away a dangerous overhanging mass of snow, allowing searchers to safely use probe poles and canine teams at the site.

The avalanche filled the canyon bottom and ran partway up the north-facing slope on the opposite side, snapping trees and leaving some spots buried under 30 feet of snow and debris. Depths in several areas exceeded the length of the probing poles, so rescuers used dogs to determine points of interest before digging.

According to witnesses, Kollmann had started to descend the south-facing Fiberglass Hill, on the north side of the Canyon Creek drainage, when he triggered the avalanche. He was uncovered within minutes of the slide, alive, but died almost immediately from severe trauma.

Gogolak and his brother-in-law were hiking up the trail, back toward Whitefish Mountain Resort, when the avalanche began. The brother-in-law was only partially buried and able to dig himself out. But Gogolak was found dead nearly four hours later buried under around three feet of snow and debris. He wasn’t wearing an avalanche beacon.

Fiberglass Hill, an area notorious for avalanches, is named after snowmobile parts left behind by earlier accidents and slides. It’s a popular backcountry powder cache for skiers, accessed either off the backside of Big Mountain or by the Canyon Creek trailhead. On Dec. 19, the hill was the site of the state’s first avalanche of the season, when a Kalispell snowmobiler sustained a broken femur in a slide. The following day, another snowmobiler lost his sled in the same area to yet another avalanche.

As locals lamented the deaths, several voiced hopes that the tragedy would lead to heightened avalanche awareness and education. Denise Germann, Flathead National Forest public affairs officer, recommended that all backcountry travelers let someone know where they’ll be and what time they plan on returning. They should also carry a shovel, beacon and probe.

“People need to have the gear, know how to use it, and always go with a buddy who’s also prepared,” Germann said.

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.

A schedule of free avalanche classes held throughout the season, an online avalanche class and avalanche advisories are available on the Glacier Country Avalanche Center Web site, www.glacieravalanche.org.

The Associated Press contributed to this report