Two Snowboarders Killed in Separate Incidents in Flathead Valley

Tree-well fatality at Whitefish Mountain Resort and cliff-jumping death near Blacktail make for tragic holiday weekend

By Tristan Scott
Tree well warning signs at Whitefish Mountain Resort. Beacon File Photo

Tragedy struck this holiday weekend when two snowboarders were killed Dec. 30 in separate incidents on opposite ends of the Flathead Valley, their deaths occurring near Blacktail Mountain in Lakeside and at Whitefish Mountain Resort on Big Mountain.

According to the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office, the first death occurred near Blacktail Road in Lakeside Saturday afternoon, out of bounds and some distance from the ski resort. The victim and his friend had been snowboarding at the resort and were on their way down the road when they spotted a cliff feature. The victim intentionally attempted a jump off the cliff on his snowboard and fatally injured himself, Flathead County Sheriff Chuck Curry said.

The victim, Conner Heidegger, 22, of Rollins, was pronounced dead on scene from injuries suffered due to blunt force trauma.

Volunteers from Flathead Search and Rescue, Somers Lakeside Fire Department and Blacktail Ski Patrol recovered Heidegger’s body the afternoon of Dec. 30.

In a second, unrelated incident, a 28-year-old Alberta man died in a snowboarding accident on Whitefish Mountain Resort. He was snowboarding with friends in the “Sling Shot” area of Hellroaring Basin, a gladed run within the resort boundaries, when the group became separated from the victim near the top of the run.

When the man failed to meet his friends at the bottom of the run, they reported him missing.

Crews initiated a search, with Whitefish Mountain Resort Ski Patrol, Flathead Search and Rescue and Two Bear Air helicopter taking the lead. Searchers from Flathead Search and Rescue located the victim about 2 a.m. Sunday morning. He was upside down in a tree well and was pronounced dead on scene.

Curry identified the victim as Scott Robert Hornstra, 28, of Alberta.

Curry encouraged skiers and riders to pay close attention to the conditions and stay together, especially in densely forested terrain.

Hazards like tree wells are an inherent risk to the sports of skiing and snowboarding, and there is no practical way to eliminate it.

With the most recent death, there have been six fatalities in tree wells at Whitefish Mountain Resort since 1978. Signs posted around the mountain warn skiers and snowboarders of the hazards of tree wells, which are characterized as deep, bough-covered pits that can gather loose, unconsolidated snow capable of burying a fallen skier.

On average, 38 people die in skiing-related accidents each year in the United States — about the same average number of people who are attacked by sharks annually — with causes ranging from head trauma (most frequent) to suffocation, according to the National Ski Areas Association.

In another incident, search and rescue teams also responded to reports of three missing skiers in Haskill Basin on Big Mountain Sunday evening. In that incident, two skiers and a snowboarder were airlifted by Two Bear Air to safety, but were cold and exhausted.

“We just encourage people to ski inbounds and be safe,” Curry said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated search and rescue teams rescued two skiers and a snowboarder from Hellroaring Basin rather than Haskill Basin.