Two Yellowstone County snowmobilers were killed Saturday morning in an avalanche near Cooke City.

Rescuers using dogs and probe poles spent more than four hours searching for Worden resident Michael G. Martin, 41, and Joey W. Pierce, 37, of Pompeys Pillar. Three other men in their group survived the 1,000-foot-long and 450-feet-wide avalanche, said Park County Sheriff's Deputy Scott Hamilton.

Martin and Pierce were "high-marking" on the south face of Mount Abundance when the snow let loose at about 10 a.m., Hamilton said.

The slope is in a roadless area of the Absaroka Range about 4 miles north of Cooke City. High-marking is a common practice among snowmobilers in which a run is made up a slope until the machine is slowed by the powder and must turn around.

Trent Lofing, a 35-year-old Worden resident, was also caught in the slide but was able to dig himself out, Hamilton said. Alan Balzer, 38, of Gillette, Wyo., and 38-year-old Toby Lofing, of Sheridan, Wyo., saw the avalanche but were able to avoid it.

At least one member of the group rode back to Cooke City and telephoned emergency dispatchers at 10:48 a.m.

The trapped snowmobilers did not have radio transceivers, which made finding the men in the vast debris field difficult, Hamilton said. Rescuers found Pierce near the lower reaches of the avalanche at 2:25 p.m. He was buried under 2 to 4 feet of snow.

Martin was found higher up at about 3:15 p.m. under 4 to 6 feet of snow, Hamilton said.

Neither had a pulse, but resuscitation was attempted, including using a portable defibrillator, Hamilton said. Both were pronounced dead at the scene.

The avalanche dumped more than 10 feet of snow in some areas. The snow came down with such force that it packed together like concrete, making it easy to walk on but tough to survive in, Hamilton said.

The accident underscores the need for snowmobilers and skiers to carry rescue equipment, including shovels, probe poles and transceivers, Hamilton said.

"By the time emergency rescue personnel can get on scene it's generally too late," he said. "If people are going to be up in this sort of country, it's up to them to save their own lives. All we can do in some of these cases is recover bodies."

Avalanche danger is low to moderate right now in the mountains near Cooke City, according to the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center's web site, www.mtavalanche.com. Investigators from the center are traveling to the scene to study what caused the slide.

Recent surveys have shown a buried layer of weak snow sitting atop a crust of ice on some slopes in the area. This weak layer likely caused the avalanche, according to the Avalanche Center.

Training and rescue equipment helped a 36-year-old Billings man survive an avalanche near Cooke City Jan. 27. Scott Olson was buried under 4 feet of snow and had passed out, but his radio transceiver was still alive and sending signals. Two snowmobilers from Columbus quickly honed in on Olson's signal and pulled him from the snow less than 10 minutes after the avalanche. He regained consciousness five minutes later.James Hagengruber can be reached at 65-1232 or at jhagengruber@billingsgazette.com

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