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Park County Search and Rescue's response to a Jan. 17 avalanche near Cooke City in which a Bozeman snowmobiler died has strained relations between the county and the town's rescuers.

The incident sparked an emotional letter that Cooke City resident Susan Jack posted on a snowmobiling forum, drawing attention from county officials, who have defended their decisions and actions.

"For me, it was an issue of too much bureaucracy," Jack said.

The posting on SnoWest forum was prompted by the search for avalanche victim Travis Engstrom, 35, a Bozeman snowmobiler.

According to a Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center report on the slide, Engstrom was riding with four people in the mountains near Cooke City when his snowmobile got stuck while climbing a steep slope on the side of Crown Butte Mountain. While trying to get his snowmobile unstuck, the sled tumbled down the slope and hit a boulder, which may have triggered the avalanche at about 5:30 p.m.

The snow fractured 75 feet above Engstrom, creating an avalanche that was estimated at 300 feet wide and plunged 1,000 vertical feet. Although his fellow snowmobilers immediately began looking for Engstrom, they could not detect an avalanche beacon signal. One of the riders activated an emergency locator beacon that eventually alerted regional search and rescue personnel.

Cooke City's Hasty Team was dispatched at around 6:15 p.m., said Jack, who is in charge of alerting the rescuers from her job at the town's Exxon station. By 7 p.m. the team, which was by then on site, called for additional help to probe the large base of the slide.

"They (Park County Search and Rescue) wouldn't allow anyone up on the hill," said Rick Sommers, the leader of Cooke City's Hasty Team. "I was pissed."

According to Jack, other volunteers were waiting in Cooke City to help. But they weren't allowed because it was dark, the risk of another avalanche was unknown and the county's people had not yet arrived to assess the situation. Cooke City is about two hours from Livingston, the county seat. County personnel didn't arrive until about 10 p.m., Jack said.

Park County Sheriff's Sgt. Tom Totland, who coordinated the initial search efforts by phone, said it was his decision to not put additional people at risk since it was unknown whether another avalanche might occur.

"I made the decisions based on what I knew from the phone," he said. "Safety is the main concern."

At 10:30 p.m., after Park County personnel had arrived, the Hasty Team and other snowmobilers who were lending assistance were ordered off the mountain. The search resumed the next day, and Engstrom's body was found by a search dog, buried under about 4 feet of snow. The avalanche transceiver he had been wearing was not turned on.

"It's always a concern that someone else could get caught in an avalanche," said Mark Staples, who helped investigate the slide for the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center. "If you have one avalanche, it's a sign that you could trigger another slope."

Although everyone agrees that the initial response and search were well done, the difference of opinion boils down to whether bureaucracy, disagreements over who is in charge and liability concerns got in the way of putting more searchers immediately on the slope.

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"In the event of a crisis like that, whoever the bureaucrats are, they need to listen to and trust the people up on the hill," Jack said. "When you dispatch a Hasty Team, it should not be ignored."

Totland said protocols are preset for incidents such as the avalanche to ensure a quick response in the Cooke City area. He said the procedures are working fine and nothing needs to be changed. But he added that he is open to suggestions if there are ways to make the system better and more efficient.

But Jack and Sommers said this isn't the first instance where the county frustrated search-and-rescue efforts in the remote mountain town.

"I see some of the damnedest things, and they just kill me," Sommers said.

Part of the irritation may be due to Cooke City residents' remote and rugged location in the mountains of southwest Montana. They are by necessity a self-sufficient bunch. It is also this distance from the county seat that makes for a slow response by search-and-rescue response.

But Sommers said the problems started about 10 years ago when Park County took over coordination of search and rescue efforts for Cooke City, which prior to that had its own, separate search-and-rescue team.

"Once the county stepped in, they wanted our money and control over us," Sommers said. "I like the idea that I'm covered by insurance when I'm out on a search-and-rescue call. But in a crisis situation, you use anybody you can to run a probe pole."

Contact Brett French at french@billingsgazette.com or at 657-1387.

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