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Kootenay Pass avalanche fatality latest in spike of bad news

An avalanche in the West Cabinet Mountains near the Idaho-Montana border killed snowmobiler Bryan William Harlow, 49, of Libby. (courtesy)
An avalanche in the West Cabinet Mountains near the Idaho-Montana border killed snowmobiler Bryan William Harlow, 49, of Libby. (courtesy)

WINTER SPORTS -- Several blog posts last week as well as my Sunday Outdoors section report about recent storms, unstable snow conditions and a spike in avalanche fatalities were both prophetic and out of date.

At least two more snow-goers died in Inland Northwest avalanches over the weekend:

  • A snowmobiler was killed Saturday near the Montana-Idaho border in the West Cabinet Range.
  • A backcountry skier was killed Sunday near Kootenay Pass, a popular British Columbia skiing and snowshoeing destination between Salmo and Creston.

The Kootenay Pass fatality involved a many in a party of four from Nelson. They were backcountry skiing in the Lightning Strike area, southwest of the highways yard at the top of the pass. 

In both fatal accidents, other members of the parties were partially buried by the slides but were rescued.

The Idaho Panhandle Avalanche Center had posted a forecast on Friday rating the avalanche hazard in the Selkirks-Cabinet region as considerable ranging to high in wind-loaded aspects.  The report noted that a human-triggered avalanche had been reported on Tuesday with no injuries. 

The Canadian Avalanche Centre had issued a special warning for British Columbia last week, as a result of an extended dry period in late January and early February.

“That long drought left the surface of the snowpack in very bad shape,” said the centre's Karl Klassen. “Now the new snow is sitting on one of the worst weak layers we’ve seen in a few years.”

The weakness is one to two meters deep, resulting in very large avalanches when triggered, Klassen said.

Click continue reading to read the sheriff's report on the Saturday, Feb. 22, avalanche near the Montana-Idaho border that killed Bryan William Harlow, age 49, of Libby.

Lincoln County -

On Saturday, February 22, 2014, at about 2:04 P.M., Lincoln County Sheriff’s Dispatch Center received a transferred 911 cell phone call from Bonner County Idaho. The caller, Nathan Schwegel, of Libby, said that he was with a party of three other adult male snowmobilers about two miles north of Spar Peak. Spar Peak is about 17 miles southwest of Troy, Montana, in the West Cabinet Range near the Montana/Idaho border. Schwegel said that two of the four snowmobilers in the party had been caught in a backcountry avalanche. One of the two avalanche victims was recovered ok. The other was recovered but was not breathing and the other two men were performing CPR. Schwegel said that he had to ride his snowmobile about two miles from the avalanche site to obtain cell phone reception to make the call. The cell phone signal was used to assist with pinpointing the location of the incident.

David Thompson Search and Rescue was called out to respond. The ALERT helicopter out of Kalispell responded. The Air-One helicopter from Two Bear Air out of Kalispell also responded. Sheriff’s Office Detective Scofield responded along with Kootenai National Forest Avalanche Specialist Jon Jeresek of Libby, representing the Flathead Avalanche Center. USFS law enforcement officers also responded. All responders met at a staging and parking area well away from the remote avalanche site.

The ALERT helicopter arrived at the actual avalanche site first and reported that there was no location to land near the area. The Air-One rescue helicopter arrived next, at about 4:00 pm, and was able to conduct a vertical lift extraction of the victim. The victim, Bryan William Harlow, age 49, of Libby, was pronounced dead and was flown to the staging area to be release to Coroner Steve Schnackenberg. The Air-One rescue helicopter then stayed on scene to assist the investigators. The three other avalanche victims then rode their machines out of the avalanche area to the staging area and did not need medical treatment.

Investigators learned that the snowmobilers had stopped in a low lying area within trees and were not moving at the time that the avalanche occurred. The men attempted to move clear of the avalanche, but two men were caught in the avalanche: Todd Byington, age 47 of Libby, and Bryan Harlow, age 49, of Libby. The other two men present were not caught by the avalanche: Nathan Schwegel, age 33, of Libby, and Jesse Mugford, age 27, of Libby. When the avalanche ceased, Schwegel and Mugford were able to hear Byington yelling, found him buried with only his face exposed, and dug him out. They all then used Byington’s avalanche beacon to locate

Harlow’s avalanche beacon signal. They dug down and found Harlow buried under about four to

six feet of compacted snow, but Harlow was not breathing. Byington and Mugford began CPR as Schwegel rode his snowmobile out of the area to find a cell phone signal. Byington and Mugford were not able to revive Harlow with CPR.

An on-site investigation will not be possible because of the high avalanche hazard in the area. Investigators conducted an aerial survey of the scene aboard the Air-One helicopter. Jeresek classified the avalanche as a D3 sized avalanche (SS-Amr-D3-R4-O) which means that it was a soft slab avalanche that was remotely snowmobile triggered; of a size that could destroy a car, damage a truck, destroy a wood frame house, or break a few trees; was large relative to the path; and was released within old snow.

The snowmobilers were aware of the current high avalanche danger and were taking precautions.

Rich Landers
Rich Landers joined The Spokesman-Review in 1977. He is the Outdoors editor for the Sports Department writing and photographing stories about hiking, hunting, fishing, boating, conservation, nature and wildlife and related topics.

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