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Sports >  Outdoors

Dangerous cornice: Six years ago dog falls nearly 800 feet off Engle Peak

UPDATED: Thu., Feb. 18, 2021

When Jason Keen read Sunday’s story in The Spokesman-Review about a dramatic rescue on Montana’s Engle Peak, he could relate to the story, physically and emotionally.

And not because the writing was overly skillful.

Instead, it was familiar to him because six years ago his dog Kona broke through a cornice - an overhanging mass of snow or ice - and fell nearly 800 feet in roughly the same spot as Edward Moellmer, the Bonners Ferry man featured in the Sunday story.

“Totally different. Not another human being,” Keen said. “But I still can visualize, I can still see it.

“I can feel the percussion in my chest from when that whole ridge line ripped. It’s unbelievable.”

This is what happened: In March 2015, Keen, his skiing partner Jason Hershey and Kona, the dog, advanced up Engle Peak.

It was an overcast day and there was bad weather on the way, although it wasn’t whiteout conditions. They reached the top without incident, staying well clear of a cornice that hangs over the peak’s northeast aspect.

“We were doing everything right with that cornice,” he said.

Keen and Hershey were unaware of a second cornice hanging over the southeastern aspect. As they prepared to ski down, Kona walked away from Keen toward the ridge. Keen, an experienced backcountry skier, didn’t have time to call Kona back, plus he wasn’t all that worried. After all, they were far away from the cornice of concern.

Or so they thought.

That’s when the entire cornice collapsed.

“I watched my dog spread his legs out and his toes out like a cat in free fall,” he said. “I’m in tears. I thought I witnessed my longtime ski partner die. That dog has gone everywhere with me and summited all these mountains.”

Kona, who was 8 at the time, tumbled off the cliff at roughly the same spot Moellmer did on Feb. 6. Moellmer fell about 800 feet, according to his GPS device, including a 200-foot free fall.

Keen is quick to emphasize that he’s not equating the two accidents. One involved a father and daughter and a dramatic, near-death, rescue.

Still, watching his dog fall through space sent him to his knees in grief. Meanwhile, Keen’s skiing partner, Hershey, nearly fell through the cornice, too. Shaken, the two regrouped.

Keen was convinced Kona died, buried in an avalanche or crushed on rocks. Still, he couldn’t just give up on him. He had to see for himself. The duo skied down, using a mapping device to find a way into the drainage Kona fell toward.

Once below the ridgeline, they skied up the drainage weaving through trees. Not that long after starting to ski up, Keen saw a black dot moving through the snow upslope. He yelled, “Kona, Kona!”

Sure enough, the lab-terrier-mutt mix had survived an 800-foot fall over cliff bands. Kona was clearly in shock and struggling through deep snow, but otherwise unharmed.

“I’m feeding him. And I’m just loving on him,” Keen said. “I’m still in tears. This has been this huge emotional roller coaster ride. Eventually, he starts wagging his tail … we turn around and follow the skin track back up and he’s back to being himself. He doesn’t look hurt at all.”

Keen still kicks himself years later for not paying better attention to where the cornice had formed.

He knew the wind blew predominantly from the southwest, meaning it would push snow over any eastern-facing aspect. And yet, he didn’t even think to be wary of that concern.

Keen is a certified American Institute for Avalanche Research instructor and a guide for Selkirk Powder, a backcountry skiing service in Idaho Selkirk Mountains.

Cornices are a danger that have to be considered when recreating in the winter backcountry, he said. While an avalanche forecast can give adventurers a sense of snow strength and conditions, it’s up to the individuals to know which way the wind normally blows and terrain features that could lead to the formation of a cornice.

After reading Sunday’s S-R story, Keen reached out to Moellmer and told him his story.

“And I thought I could claim a first descent of the east face on Engle Peak, but it turns out a dog beat me to it,” Moellmer said after hearing the news.

Years later, Keen is convinced that Kona inadvertently saved his life.

“If my dog hadn’t fallen, I bet Jason and I would have fallen,” he said.

Kona and Keen are still skiing together to this day. 

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