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Skier caught in Essex avalanche

by MATT BALDWIN
Daily Inter Lake | February 21, 2024 2:00 AM

A skier was air-lifted from backcountry terrain near Essex on Saturday after they were seriously injured in a large avalanche set off by their partner from the slopes above.

The Two Bear Air rescue helicopter extracted the partially-buried skier, who was swept by the avalanche more than 50 yards though a group of trees. Two Bear crews met the ALERT air ambulance at Hungry Horse Reservoir, and the skier was later hospitalized at Logan Health Medical Center in Kalispell with non life-threatening injuries.

The accident occurred at about 4:30 p.m. in the Marion Lake area of the Flathead Range south of Glacier National Park at the tail end of a long day of backcountry skiing, according to a preliminary incident report from the Flathead Avalanche Center. The party of two had skied more than 7,000 vertical feet earlier in the day, including a descent of 7,690-foot Mount Adams. 

On their ascent of Adams, the duo met up with another twosome and skied the mountain’s east face as a group. They then climbed out of the basin to the south ridge of Pt. 7798 above Marion Lake, near an area known as Peanut Butter Bowl. On the ridge, the group split back into the two original parties and decided to ski different aspects.

The avalanche occurred on a northeast face with a steep, convex entry. The first skier made it to the bottom without incident and stopped below the run, but the slope gave way after their partner started the descent. Debris from the avalanche knocked the skis off the victim, buried their legs, and caused injuries to their arm, chest and back.

One skier with the other group stayed on the ridge where there was cell service, while the other two skied down to the buried victim. After determining a self-rescue was too dangerous, the group alerted the rescue response at about 4:50 p.m., by using an InReach satellite communicator and their cell phone.

The avalanche danger for Saturday was rated as moderate and the weather was mostly sunny. Preliminary reports show the slab avalanche likely failed on old snow, and released at roughly 7,100 feet on a convex and shaded slope. Members of both groups were equipped with avalanche safety gear and radios.

In reporting the incident to the avalanche center, members of the group cited complacency and fatigue as factors, and said they were caught off guard after having skied from the top of Mount Adams earlier in the day.

The center’s incident report noted the party appropriately descended the slope one at a time, although the skier caught in the avalanche did not stop in a safe zone. Otherwise, the center said their rescue response “was exemplary.”

“For the skier caught and carried, it was extremely fortunate to have ski partners who acted quickly and thoughtfully,” avalanche forecaster Sarah Williams wrote in the Monday forecast. “Two Bear Air and ALERT Air Ambulance were invaluable resources that evacuated and transported the victim to the hospital for overnight care.”

Two other close calls with avalanches occurred nearby the same day, the center warned. Flathead Avalanche forecasters planned to visit the accident site Monday and file a complete report later in the week.

According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, there have been eight avalanche fatalities in the U.S. so far this season, with none occurring in Montana.