Detailed Accident Report

Back to accidents page

Date: 2001-01-17
Submitted By: Angus M. Thuermer-JH News
Place: Northwest of Jackson
State: MT
Country: USA
Fatalities: 1
Summary: 1 snowmobiler caught,buried and killed

From the Montana Standard - Butte

Well-known snowmobilier feared dead

JACKSON -- An avalanche occurred northwest of Jackson Wednesday and a widely known snowmobile hillclimber was missing and feared dead.

Beaverhead County officials, including the coroner, were called to the scene and unavailable to confirm whether David Shepherd, 37, survived. Shepherd operates Shepherd's Garage in Jackson.

Unofficial sources at the scene said Shepherd was with a group of other snowmobilers, but no other injuries were reported.

The avalanche occurred in the Beaverhead Mountains of the West Big Hole near Rock Creek, north west of Jackson.

Shepherd has earned numerous titles in sanctioned snowmobile hill climbing competition over the years, according to the Web site of snow mobile manufacturer Polaris.

From the Montana Standard 1/19/01

Avalanche claims top snowmobile rider

By Perry Backus, of The Montana Standard

WISDOM -- Among the tight core of snowmobilers who travel around the West

each year to see who can reach the top of a hill

first, David Shepherd was known to be among the best.

The office of the Shepherd's Garage in Jackson is filled with plenty of

huge trophies that proved his prowess in the snowmobile

world. He'd earned presti gious sponsorships from com panies like Polaris

with demonstrations of skill and courage racing up steep


On Wednesday, deep in the backcountry of the West Big Hole, Shepherd's

luck ran out. He triggered an avalanche near the top of

the Montana Idaho divide in the Rock Creek drainage, northwest of

Jackson, and despite what officials called a `` picture-per fect

rescue effort,'' the 36year-old Shepherd died.

Shepherd was snowmobil ing with six others Wednesday afternoon. The party

had split in two -- four men were behind the lead

group that included Shepherd. The men decided to take a run up a ridge at

the end of the drainage.

`` Everyone in that group had gone up that same route dozens of times,''

said Beaverhead County sheriff's deputy Jake Heinecke.

Heinecke was the first law enforcement officer to reach the scene.

One at a time, the men made the run. Shepherd was the third -- `` they

told me he wasn't even working very hard '85 he was about

seven-eighths of the way up when the avalanche broke,'' said Heinecke.

When the snow on the slope sheered off, Shepherd's snowmobile sank to the

ice-covered ground and began sliding backward down

the hill. Heinecke said the men watched as Shepherd grabbed hold of the

machine and slid down with it.

The men kept track of Shepherd as long as possible. They then quickly

flipped their avalanche beacons to `` receive'' -- to receive

transmissions from Shepherd's beacon -- and started a search.

Heinecke said it took a minute or so to find the signal from Shepherd's

bea con. Two or three minutes later, the men had located

the snowmobile with probe poles. And 20 minutes later, `` at the most,''

the men found Shepherd buried under about six feet of

snow, he said.

`` They found the sled first and then they discovered his helmet,'' he said.

While one man tried to resuscitate Shepherd, the others worked to enlarge

the hole that would allow them to pull him from under

the snow. Another man rode up a nearby ridge and used his cellular phone

to call for help.

`` As far as I can tell, this group did absolutely nothing wrong,''

Heinecke said. `` It was a picture-perfect avalanche search and

rescue '85 if David had been buried under two or three feet of snow he

might be alive today.''

Heinecke said the men with Shepherd on Wednesday are experi enced riders

who know the area well.

`` David had the name and fame, but this whole group was made up of very

strong riders,'' Heinecke said. `` It was n't like he went

riding in there with six people who didn't know what they were getting

themselves into.''

The men were not `` high marking'' when the avalanche broke, said

Heinecke. High marking is the practice of roaring up a hillside

and turning around just as the snowmobile starts to bog down. The contest

is to see how high one can climb before retreating.

`` In my mind, they were just going up and park on the ridge to get a

view,'' he said.

Heinecke, who worked for a time in the Big Hole and had snowmobiled with

Shepherd, believes almost all of the people who

snowmobile into the rugged backcountry of the West Big Hole take

avalanche beacons, shovels and probes.

`` Most people who ride back in there go prepared,'' he said.

But this year, the snowpack `` is the worst I've ever seen it,'' said


Early snow melted and turned to ice. What came later never developed a

base and remains loose and unbonded on top of that ice

layer, he said.

`` This is one of those winters when people should run their dogs or

maybe go cross country skiing in the flats somewhere. That's

about it,'' said Beaverhead County Undersheriff Jay Hansen. `` The snow

conditions are just going to get worse.''

Heinecke said the slab avalanche was probably 200 yards wide and per haps

the same distance long.

`` It was the biggest one that I've ever seen,'' he said.

For people like Corey Markovich of Butte, the idea that an avalanche

could catch a rider like Shepherd is almost unbelievable.

Shepherd had helped Markovich get started on the hillclimbing circuit

years ago, and he remembers Shepherd's office filled `` with

trophies nearly as tall as I am.''

`` My first reaction to the news was '85 no way. Something had to be

wrong,'' Markovich said. `` In so many cases, it's riders who

don't know enough or can't ride hard enough or some other excuse.''

`` With David, there are no excuses,'' he said. `` He was a good a rider

as I've ever known. He was an awesome rider '85 who's done

this all his life. He was a well-respected and great hillclimber.''

`` The scary thing is does this mean there are no more excuses?'' said

Markovich. `` It finally caught up with him. Does that mean

it's going to catch up with all of us?''

Services for Shepherd are 1 p.m. Sunday in the B.W. Lodge gym at

Beaverhead County High School in Dillon.