An avalanche south of Cooke City carried three skiers down Republic Mountain, two were injured in the avalanche. One had to be evacuated by helicopter and another was temporarily unconscious and not breathing, according to a report.
“It’s super serious avalanche terrain,” said Doug Chabot, director of the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center.
In many ways, the skiers had done everything right. All six were carrying beacons and had rescue gear. They had radios to summons help.
Skiers checked with a 6 foot deep snowpit
However, they did not check the snowpack in the place they decided to ascend the mountain, Chabot said. They had dug a snowpit 2 meters deep to check the likelihood of an avalanche. “A hundred feet off to the side the snowpack changed,” he said, to an area with much less snow, only three feet.
“In terrain like that you have to be 100 percent sure” that the snowpack has no instabilities, Chabot added. All week long in its daily reports, the avalanche center had warned the snowpack was unstable and avalanches had been remotely triggered on even low-angle slopes. However, the Cooke City area had been standing out as a relatively more stable snowpack compared to other areas.
The avalanche broke about 1.5 to 2 feet deep approximately 250 feet above the skiers.
Recovery of the two injured in the avalanche
Three of the skiers were swept downhill. The avalanche was 200 feet wide and ran 700 feet down the mountain. It was a large avalanche, and it went through some ugly terrain.
One skier deployed his airbag to keep from being buried. He was not injured in the avalanche. He quickly got up and began searching for his partners. One of the other skiers was found buried head down with his mouth packed full of snow. He freed that skier and cleared the airway so he was able to breathe on his own. That victim was able to ski out despite a leg injury.
Meanwhile, the three skiers who were not caught or injured in the avalanche found the third victim. He was buried higher on the mountain after being dragged across rocks. The trip caused injuries to his ribs and a collapsed lung.
The skiers had two-way radios and were able to notify Park County Search and Rescue. Cellphones do not work in the remote area between Yellowstone National Park and the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness.
Two members of the search and rescue arrived and ascended 1200 feet then descended 400 to the avalanche zone. They brought medical and survival gear in case they had to spend the night.
The rescuers helped stabilize the injured skier and made a fire to stay warm while awaiting a helicopter to arrive from Jackson, Wyoming since Bozeman was too fogged in to fly.
The avalanche had occurred about noon. About 4 p.m. the helicopter arrived and long-lined the victim out. He was then flown to a regional hospital for care.
Snowpack is not improving
“It’s not going to get better anytime soon,” Chabot warned, because a weak layer of snow still sits underneath. As more snow falls that layer has a higher chance of failing under the increased weight.
“It’s different this year because it’s not taking a lot of snow”, Chabot said. “That makes it a little scarier.”
Monday is a holiday, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. This might mean more people in the backcountry.
“Our fingers are crossed that people will continue to get lucky,” Chabot said. “But it’s a bit of a losing battle if you’re relying on luck.”
Chabot added that it will take time before the snowpack is stable, because right now even under moderate conditions people are triggering avalanches.
“You have to be really careful about where you’re headed,” Chabot said. “It’s a bit of a minefield.”