Mother Nature’s Fatal Appeal

By Beacon Staff

Jim Theys, his daughter and son-in-law were the first snowmobilers to unload in the parking lot near the Lost Johnny Creek drainage by Hungry Horse Reservoir. It was Presidents Day and fresh snow blanketed the Swan Range. It was, at first glance, a perfect day to be in the backcountry.

By the time Theys’ party headed out, the parking lot was already crowded, even for a holiday. Anxious riders had waited patiently during the mild early months of winter and a good snowfall had finally arrived.

Not far in, Theys’ party reached a natural bridge of snow crossing a creek. As he made his way across, Theys turned his sled slightly and tapped into the short sidewall of snow. Like glass, the layer cracked almost 40 feet. The surface caved in about a foot and jolted Theys.

He turned to his son-in-law and daughter and said, “This is not a good sign.”

Almost two months earlier in the same area, an avalanche buried his friend underneath a foot of snow. Luckily the sled had lightly toppled over the man and kept his air path clear. It took Theys about 15 minutes of digging before his friend was rescued, shaken but unharmed.

Now with his family on the morning of Feb. 20, Theys was uneasy as he pushed forward into the backcountry to a site called Gas Can Hill. The group slowed to a stop. Theys made an announcement. It doesn’t feel safe out here, he said. We’re heading back.

“The snow was the best we’ve ever seen it. It would have been the best day of the whole season,” Theys says. “We were really tempted to stay out there.”

Theys and his son-in-law drove forward to turn around while his daughter maneuvered backward and waited. Less than 50 yards in, the two men climbed upslope when two small avalanches broke. Then those slides triggered another one nearby. One of the slides grabbed Theys’ son-in-law and carried his sled on a wave of snow toward a patch of trees. He fought to stay on the surface and hit the gas, powering away from the trees. The two men’s attention turned to Theys’ daughter, who was standing on top of her sled as it was overcome by another avalanche.

In a 150-yard span, there were five slides at once. The men rushed back just as another group of snowmobilers approached from the south. The avalanches eventually settled. Theys’ daughter’s sled was half buried but still functioning.

“We were really worried,” Theys says. “I looked around and told everyone, ‘I would not go in there if I were you. This is not safe. I’ve never seen it like this in here.’”

After digging out his daughter’s sled, Theys led the group, including the other snowmobilers, back toward the parking lot. By the time he returned, Theys estimates he warned about 16 people.

A forestry truck was parked in the crowded lot. Theys jumped off his snowmobile and found the man associated with the vehicle, whom he declined to identify.

“I pulled him aside,” Theys says, “and I told him, ‘You might want to really warn people about this. This is the worst I’ve seen it and somebody is going to die here today.’”


Later that day, Charles John Dundon III, 33, of Connell, Wash., was killed in an avalanche in the Lost Johnny Creek drainage. According to an early report by Stan Bones, an avalanche specialist with Flathead National Forest, Dundon and a friend were riding on a side-hill near the bottom of a mountain slope when a buried surface layer collapsed and turned loose a wave of upslope snow. Both riders were caught in the slide, but only Dundon was completely engulfed. He was wearing an avalanche transceiver but the survivor was not, Bones said.

Rescuers found Dundon’s body later that night.

“It’s a sad thing. I’m bummed,” Theys says. “I tried to forewarn everybody I saw that day.”

Conditions remained conducive to sliding through the week and the U.S. Forest Service and other organizations sent out advisories and issued special statewide warnings, asking recreationists to stay away from avalanche terrain because conditions were “very dangerous.” Similar warnings were issued across the region after snowpack conditions worsened because of erratic weather.

Two days after the death in Lost Johnny, another snowmobiler died north of Cooke City in an avalanche. Another person riding a snow bike was killed near Marias Pass on Feb. 25, capping one of the deadliest weeks in recent years in the backcountry. Between Feb. 19-25, slides killed eight people in the U.S., raising the death toll this winter to 21 with roughly two months remaining in the season, according to the American Avalanche Association. Over the last decade, on average, about 29 people die in avalanches each year. In 2009-10, avalanches killed a total of 36 recreationists, including 17 after March 1.

The recent string of fatalities illustrates a growing predicament in backcountry recreating. Every year the likelihood for tragedy increases with more people entering the high-country. But inexperience or lack of awareness is not always to blame. A death in the Jewel Basin on Feb. 1 is the latest example. Ferndale resident Mark Albee, a skilled backcountry skier with all the proper gear and education, was killed after an overhanging edge of snow, or cornice, broke underneath his feet and unleashed a massive avalanche. Albee, 42, was carried over 500 feet down slope. In Washington, three experienced backcountry skiers triggered an avalanche near Stevens Pass and died.

“Education isn’t necessarily the end all. There are a lot of factors that equate to the situations like we’ve had,” says Greg Fortin, a longtime Nordic advisor for the Northern Division of the National Ski Patrol and the avalanche advisor for the Flathead Nordic Backcountry Ski Patrol.

Still, the recent fatalities are alarming to Fortin. Several close calls have accompanied the news of avalanche deaths this winter. He said efforts are currently being made to hold another safety course in the valley in the near future to remind people of backcountry dangers.

“I think we need to at least open it back up to people and look at just getting people the basics again – what equipment to have when you’re out there, how to choose a safe route, and how to travel safely,” Fortin says.

Another factor contributing to fatality rates is the temptation for thrills that can sometimes overcome the high risks, as evidenced in several deaths this winter that have come amid loud warnings. Special avalanche warnings were released all last week warning recreationists to stay out of the high-country.

“It’s really hard to pull the reins back and recognize some of the signs,” Fortin says.

Tony Willits, a longtime avalanche specialist with Flathead National Forest, says warnings only go so far. Helping people make good decisions is the key, he says.

“We’re not going to prevent somebody from being in an avalanche just because we wrote an advisory,” he says. “Through education, through gaining knowledge, (people are) going to know the warning signs they’re seeing and know what they mean and decide if it’s a situation where they need to leave.”


Snowmobilers are increasingly becoming victims of slides. In the last five winters, 66 of the 165 deaths have involved snowmobilers, according to the American Avalanche Association.

Brock Bolin, the safety director for the Flathead Snowmobile Association, a nonprofit group with over 100 registered local members, says the high fatality rate has grabbed the attention of the riding community.

“There is a major shift toward avalanche awareness,” he says.

More riders are taking avalanche classes and investing in more safety equipment, like avalanche airbags, than ever before, according to Bolin.

“The technology for these machines continues to advance and it’s incredible. (Snowmobiles) are taking people further and further into the backcountry but they’re getting themselves in great danger,” Bolin says. “Even if their riding skills have advanced, their avalanche safety skills may not have advanced.”


Whitefish resident Todd Wharton clearly remembers the avalanche that nearly killed him four years ago. He was skiing with his brother-in-law David Gogolak on Fiberglass Hill near Whitefish Mountain Resort in January 2008. The pair had unbuckled their bindings and were about to hike back to Big Mountain when a slide broke and submerged both men. Wharton fought his way to the surface and escaped safely, but Gogolak was nowhere to be found. Only the treetops peaked above the new surface of snow. Wharton dug furiously, screaming his brother-in-law’s name. It took rescuers hours to find the bodies of 36-year-old Gogolak and another skier, 19-year-old Anthony Kollman of Kalispell.

Last month, on Jan. 13, the four-year anniversary of the deadly avalanche, Wharton and a small group made an annual hike to Flower Point, an open mountaintop sitting directly across from Fiberglass. The group tied up a string of prayer flags on a tree and celebrated Gogolak’s life.

These days Wharton rarely skis in the backcountry. Instead he sticks with his young son and daughter who are now learning the sport. Still, Wharton speaks at avalanche classes in the valley, warning people about Mother Nature’s fatal appeal. He brought his two children to one of the classes for the first time this year. Even though they probably did not grasp the event’s meaning, he still wanted them there.

“You really look and see how powerful Mother Nature can be and how quickly it can change your life,” Wharton says. “That’s really something I experienced first hand and I don’t want anybody else to experience it.”

Wharton tells people to be educated when they enter the backcountry, and to recognize when it’s time to turn around. But in the end, heeding that realization and not giving into temptation is the deciding factor.

“I think the bottom line is knowing when to say it’s not safe to ski and it’s not worth it,” he says.

Theys has now become a spokesman for the same advice. He heard about the death in Lost Johnny Creek after he returned home that evening. His heart sunk.

“I wish I could tell everyone they’re never going to be in an avalanche, but I can’t,” he says. “I can tell everyone that it’s dangerous and take all precautions. (On Presidents Day) we made the right decision. We really didn’t feel at first that we did. The snow was so good, we were really tempted to stay. But we made the choice to go home and it was good for us. I’d tell everyone, ‘Live to ride another day.’”