Rescuers believe a Colbert man killed in an avalanche Friday afternoon while snowmobiling with his teenage stepson lost his way or was disoriented when he rode off a nearly vertical slope that immediately gave way beneath him.
William Robert Smith, 43, had been riding with his 16-year-old stepson in the popular Trapper Creek drainage north of Priest Lake around 1 p.m. on Friday. After the slide buried his stepfather, the boy, who is from Spokane, found a safe way down and went for help, said Mike Nielsen, commander of the nonprofit Priest Lake Search and Rescue Team. A group of six snowmobilers riding nearby returned with the boy to the slide site, Nielsen said.
“Our best riders would not have dropped off that high ridge route,” said Nielsen, whose rescue team recovered the body Saturday morning. The team works under the jurisdiction of the Bonner County Sheriff’s Office, which confirmed Smith’s identity. “If he was familiar with it, it was not the place you would have normally gone.”
The rescuers saw a snowmobile ski protruding from the snow and used avalanche probes to find Smith’s body buried in 3to 5 feet of snow, his snowmobile on top of him. They found the man’s body around 3 p.m., Nielsen said. Neither the boy nor his stepfather was wearing an avalanche transceiver, he said.
Rescuers dug Smith out and checked for a pulse, but found none. The group returned with the boy to the Priest Lake resort, where they all happened to be staying, and the resort’s owner contacted Nielsen.
The boy told the rescuers his stepfather had started out on the slope, then stopped and tried to put his machine in reverse, but was too late. The entire slope gave way underneath him.
The slide cut loose on a north-facing slope, starting at approximately 5,400 vertical feet and ending at about 5,055 feet, Nielsen said. The slide was about 250 yards wide by 250 yards long, he said.
The U.S. Forest Service’s Idaho Panhandle Avalanche Center issued an advisory Friday saying avalanche danger was “considerable” on north- and east-facing slopes above 4,500 feet, said Kevin Davis, the center’s director.
Nielsen said there are three routes into the area where the pair were riding Friday – two on the valley floor and one on the high ridge where Smith went off.
“He possibly got confused,” Nielsen said. “It’s just clearly not a regular route. For whatever reason, he went down a near-vertical cliff, well in excess of 45 degrees.”