Detailed Accident Report
Submitted By: GNFAC
Place: Centennial Mountains
Summary: 3 backcountry skiers caught, 1 severely injured, 1 killed
CENTENNIAL MOUNTAINS AVALANCHE FATALITY
January 1, 2005
Written by: Doug Chabot, Director
Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center
On Saturday, January 1, 2005, five backcountry skiers were on a slope behind the Hellroaring Ski Adventures hut in the Centennial Mountains of Southwest Montana. One person descending triggered an avalanche that caught three of them. One was uninjured, one had a severely broken tib/fib fracture and the third died of trauma in the slide. The avalanche released on a southwest aspect (210 degrees) at 8,300 feet. The avalanche was 2.5 to 4 feet deep and ran 800 feet long, 500 feet vertical and 120 feet wide. The victim triggered the slide near the crown and was found face down in the debris with his pack sticking out. The slope angle at the crown averaged 34 degrees with the steepest pitch reaching 44 degrees. The alpha angle of the slide was 30 degrees. The US Classification of the slide is SS-AS-D3-R3-O.
GPS Coordinates of Crown Line:
GPS Coordinates of Avalanche Debris (victim):
While I do not have detailed weather information for this specific spot, I do have data from the Lionhead area outside West Yellowstone that lies 15 miles to the northeast of the accident site. After investigating the scene I believe the data is comparable.
Starting on Wednesday, December 29, and continuing through Saturday, January 1, over 2 feet of snow fell in these mountains. In terms of snowpack loading, two inches of snow water equivalency was measured at the Carrot Basin and Madison Plateau Snotel sites. This snow fell onto a variety of faceted snow surfaces. Winds at the onset of the storm were west to southwest at 20-40 mph, but dropped to 15-25 mph by Saturday. Many natural and human triggered avalanches were noted on Friday. Because of continued snow Friday night we issued an Avalanche Warning on Saturday for the southern Mountains including the Lionhead area. A Warning denotes a High avalanche danger on all slopes.
On Monday, January 3rd,I snowmobiled and skied into the accident site with Mark Petroni of the Beaverhead?Deerlodge National Forest and Rich King of the BLM. Tim, owner of Hellroaring Ski Adventures and Dan, a local skier and friend of Tim?s, met us at the hut along with the others involved in the accident. Tim and Dan came up the day before, Sunday, to assist in the rescue. Other members of the party were J, M, C, and S who was injured. B was the victim and was still at the avalanche site.
I skied to the debris with J, M, C and Tim. After taking photos and measurements J, Tim and I skied up to the crown and further investigated the slide. Besides collecting data I interviewed J, M and C on the events leading up to the avalanche.
B, M C and S arrived at the hut on Thursday evening, December 30th. They read the Avalanche Advisory for Thursday morning, which rated the avalanche danger Considerable in our southern mountains 15 miles away. They stated they were concerned about avalanches especially since the departing party from the hut stated the avalanche danger was ?As bad as it gets?. They had one collapse, or ?whumph? of the snowpack as they skied in that afternoon. Friday was uneventful and J arrived that evening. The next morning, Saturday, they skinned up behind the hut to an area known as the Pyramid.
Everyone had rescue gear, years of backcountry skiing experience and avalanche education. B did graduate work at MSU on snow recrystallization, C had taken the MSU Avalanche Awareness Class, M had a 1 day avalanche class, J was a professional ski patroller and S?s education is unknown.
They saw no obvious signs of instability and they did not dig any snowpits. However, everyone expressed concern about the possibility of slides. They did successive runs on the slope pushing the track higher up the hill each time.
They skied one at a time, had rescue gear and a general sense of safe travel procedures. As B started his ski descent M was safely off to the side of the slope, J was safely tucked behind a stand of large trees; C and S were 1/3 to ? way down the slope on the uphill sides of trees. A few turns into his run, further ?skiers right? than they had previously gone, B yelled to M, ?It feels pretty slabby. You should come over here.? M responded, ?Don?t stop, keep going?. B asked, ?Where are you going to go?? M said, ?Left of you.? B then made two turns and the slope fractured. J yelled, ?Avalanche!?
The slide peeled C and S off their stances severely breaking S?s leg in the process. Both of them, plus B, were carried to the bottom. All were visible on the snow surface and C was luckily unhurt. They located B who was face down with his backpack sticking out of the snow. They extricated him in 8.5 minutes after the slide occurred and determined that he was dead from obvious injuries. The time was approximately 4pm.
The slope failed on a layer of small-grained facets and surface hoar that was sitting on a thin ice crust 75 cm under the snow surface. A one-finger harness slab sat on top of this weak layer. I dug my snowpit (www.mtavalanche.com ) at the crown, which details the crystal types and hardness. The Avalanche Advisory and Warning for Saturday (www.mtavalanche.com ) outlines our general concerns in this area the day of the accident. Even though the Centennials lie outside our advisory area, the snowpack 15 miles away was generally representative.
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January 4, 2005
Experienced backcountry skiers caught in avalanche
By KAYLEY MENDENHALL, Chronicle Staff Writer
The area of the Centennial Mountains where Blake Morstad, 24, died in an avalanche over the weekend was not new territory to the experienced backcountry skier from Billings.
He had rented a hut from HellRoaring Ski Adventures last spring and spent a day with owner Tim Bennett learning about the remote terrain.
Morstad returned with four friends to the hut last week for a backcountry ski weekend, Bennett said Tuesday.
The group was skiing a slope directly behind the hut when Morstad triggered the avalanche.
"It wasn't a terribly steep slope but it was exposed and it was rocky," he said. "I tell people it has specific qualities that make it dangerous. I tell everybody."
Saturday afternoon's slide in the mountains more than 100 miles southwest of Bozeman killed Morstad and injured another member of the group. The injured man is reportedly from Bozeman but his name has not been released. Rescuers worked for two days to reach him and to recover Morstad's body.
All five members of the group had avalanche training and at least two of them were emergency medical technicians. Bennett requires several certifications for self-guided trips and he requires first-time users of the hut to spend a day with him before they can rent the place on their own.
"In this group the deceased, actually, hired me as a day guide last year," Bennett said.
The skiers started out low on the slope and with each run would move a little higher, said Doug Chabot of the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center. Chabot participated in the rescue effort Monday.
"When you move to a different spot on a slope or a different slope entirely, the snowpack changes," Chabot said. "As they got higher and onto steeper terrain, the snowpack changed for the worse."
Two skiers were standing near some trees downhill from Morstad in what they thought was a safe spot, Chabot said.
But when the avalanche hit, all three were caught in it.
"The one guy broke his leg very badly," Chabot said. "The guy who died was partially buried, his backpack was sticking out of the snow."
The uninjured skiers managed to reach Morstad within eight minutes, Chabot said, but they quickly determined he was dead.
Beaverhead County Coroner Ron Briggs confirmed Tuesday the cause of death was blunt force trauma.
Last week when Morstad and his friends checked in with Bennett on their way to the hut, he said he only saw them for about five minutes. But he warned them the snow in the area was unstable.
"I told him that the snow is absolutely not safe and to be careful," Bennett said.
After the slide, the three uninjured skiers dragged the injured man back to the hut for the night. Sunday morning, two skied out for help, while one of the EMTs stayed to tend to the man with the broken leg.
At the trailhead, the two found a group of snowmobilers with a cell phone and called Bennett, who in turn called search and rescue.
Then Bennett took the weary men to his house, and left them to man the phones while he skied into the hut.
Because of severe weather conditions, a rescue helicopter couldn't land near the hut until Monday afternoon. Crews were then able to transport the injured man to Bozeman Deaconess Hospital for treatment.
"It's really a pretty unfortunate thing ... It's a major risk of the business," Bennett said. "Those guys were certainly qualified enough to know what they were doing."