Reports give insights into 2 avalanche deaths

2012-01-05T18:30:00Z 2012-01-06T00:55:16Z Reports give insights into 2 avalanche deathsBy BRETT FRENCH Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette
January 05, 2012 6:30 pm  • 

Despite a warning from skiers who had turned back after triggering an avalanche south of Cooke City on Saturday, a Bozeman backcountry skier and his wife pressed on and eventually triggered a slide that killed 44-year-old Dave Gaillard.

The warning came to light in the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center's fatality report, released Thursday afternoon.

The report also noted that although Gaillard and his wife, Terry, possessed avalanche transceivers, which are used to locate a buried avalanche victim, Kerry's unit was not working well, possibly because it was old and the batteries were weak.

After the slide, which occurred around 2:20 p.m., Kerry Gaillard worked desperately until about 5 p.m. trying to locate her husband before skiing to Cooke City at twilight to report the incident to Cooke City Search and Rescue.

"We see it time and time again," said Mark Staples of the center. "It's rare that things are subtle. We see the clues, but we choose to ignore them. I've been guilty of it, too."

A 22-year veteran of backcountry skiing, Gaillard had taken an introductory field course on avalanche danger, so he was somewhat familiar with the risks. Terry was a novice. The two were using an out-of-print guide book to choose their route and looking for a place to have lunch when the avalanche occurred.

The center issued a warning Friday of high avalanche danger in the area after 3 feet of snow fell in 72 hours. When the slide released, it broke 1 to 4 feet deep across an 800-foot-wide fracture line and ran 250 vertical feet downhill.

Earlier on the same day, snowmobiler Jody Ray Verhasselt, 46, of Sidney, was buried in an avalanche on a northeast-facing slope in Fisher Creek. Although Verhasselt was dug out within 10 to 12 minutes, he did not survive.

Eric Knoff, of the Avalanche Center, saw that avalanche occur and wrote the fatality report. The slide broke 1 to 4 feet deep across 300 to 400 feet and ran 1,000 feet downhill. The slide happened when Verhasselt blazed a trail up the side of Mount Henderson, an area with which he was familiar. When the slide broke, Verhasselt turned his machine downhill and attempted to outrun it.

The slide caught Verhasselt and carried him an estimated 500 to 600 vertical feet, burying his snowmobile except for one ski and burying him, except for his boot. While one member of Verhasselt's party went for help, his son worked to dig him out. Verhasselt's head was buried 2 to 3 feet deep. Although he was uncovered in 10 to 12 minutes, he was unconscious and had no pulse. CPR was attempted for 20 to 25 minutes, but Verhasselt could not be revived.

A third man also was killed in an avalanche over the weekend. Jasen Kellogg, 20, of Butte was snowmobiling east of Red Lion, near Georgetown Lake, on Sunday when he was buried.

Snowpack remains weak across southern Montana following heavy snows last week that led to the deaths of the three men.

"It would be easy to think that it's so warm that it's making the snowpack better, helping it bond," said Mark Staples of the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center in Bozeman. "But anything other than direct sunlight on a south-facing slope, it was still powder."

Staples said the warm weather will help in the long run, but unfortunately there's no way to predict how long it could take for conditions to become more stable.

"Overall the message is: We could be dealing with these instabilities for the rest of the season," he said.

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