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Peter Maxwell

Peter Maxwell of Missoula is pictured on the right in this photo courtesy of Discovery Ski Team coach Kenny Manchester. Maxwell, age 27, died in an avalanche northeast of Philipsburg on Monday.

MISSOULA — Peter Maxwell of Missoula was doing what avalanche experts advise backcountry recreationists to do – gather as much information as possible about the snowpack before committing to an activity – when he triggered the avalanche northeast of Philipsburg that killed him last week.

That’s what people from the West Central Montana Avalanche Center who were asked to assist in investigating the incident have concluded.

Director Steve Karkanen said Monday that Maxwell, 27, was digging snow pits to attempt to determine whether the snowpack was safe to ski on.

Maxwell and half a dozen other people were in a remote area near Altoona Lakes, and hadn’t observed any obvious signs of avalanche danger, Karkanen said.

“There are a lot of mountain ranges out there, and there are a lot in Montana that are not covered by avalanche centers,” Karkanen said.

“Peter was performing stability tests when this happened,” he said. “He was gathering information before he committed to an activity, which is what we encourage everyone who goes into the backcountry to do.”

Maxwell was skiing from one snow pit to another when the avalanche was triggered.

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Karkanen called the efforts of the six people who were with Maxwell “heroic.”

“The terrain was gnarly, and it was very difficult for them to get to where he was buried,” Karkanen said. “Yet they got there rapidly, and not without great risk to themselves.”

Their efforts to revive Maxwell after digging him out of the snow were unsuccessful.

The Pintler Ranger District asked the avalanche center to assist in the investigation, Karkanen said, and the center sent Dudley Improta and Tim Laroche to the site.

They also interviewed people who were with Maxwell.

Karkanen estimated the snow pits Maxwell had dug to be 3 to 4 feet deep.

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“When you dig a snow pit you’re trying to figure out any weaknesses in the snowpack,” Karkanen said. “We look at a variety of things when we do it, but the simple thing is to look for a weak layer with a slab on top – something a skier or snowmobiler could get to pull out.”

The area of the avalanche that killed Maxwell is unlike many areas of west-central Montana, Karkanen continued.

“It’s a much higher elevation, and colder and dryer,” he said. “This winter, the lower part of the snowpack got rotten, and here it persisted.”

That means sugary, unconsolidated snow that can’t support weight, Karkanen explained.

Maxwell was the owner and operator of Garden City Recycling in Missoula and well known in the skiing community.

A celebration of his life is Tuesday at 4 p.m. at Caras Park in Missoula.

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