Another person has died in an avalanche in the western United States, this time a snowmobiler in the West Cabinet Mountain range 17 miles southwest of Troy, Montana. Forty-nine-year-old Bryan Harlow of Libby, Montana, was found dead after the avalanche Saturday afternoon that occurred in the back country on the Montana and Idaho border. Harlow becomes the 16th person killed in avalanches in the U.S. western region this season, compared to nine last year during the same period.
According to authorities there were four men in Harlow’s group, all from Libby, who had stopped in a low-lying area in the trees when the avalanche occurred. Two of the men were able to get away but two others were caught in the slide. Trapped along with Harlow was 47-year-old Todd Byington. The two men who escaped were identified as Nathan Schwegel, 33, and Jesse Mugford. When the avalanche eased, Schwegel and Mugford were able to hear the calls for help from Byington, who was buried face up in the snow. With the help of an avalanche beacon, they then located Harlow, who had been buried under four to six feet of snow.
Upon finding that Harlow was not breathing, Byington and Schwegel administered CPR while Mugford used his snowmobile to drive two miles to an area where he could use his cell phone. Rescuers then used Mugford’s cell phone to help pinpoint the location of the emergency. Helicopters sent to the site of the avalanche ran into more trouble, however, as they could not find a place to land in the rugged terrain. A rescue helicopter was able to perform a vertical extraction, but it was too late. The three other men drove out of the avalanche area in their snowmobiles to a staging area set up by the search and rescue team, but they did not need medical attention.
This has been a particularly deadly season for avalanches. Experts credit this to the dense and wet snows that came after an unusually dry spell had weakened the snow base in the western mountain region. According to law enforcement officers on the scene of the latest avalanche death in Montana, the four snowmobilers were aware of avalanche warnings in the area and were taking precautions. Because the avalanche hazard in the area remained high, investigators were not immediately able to inspect the accident on site. Inspectors examining the site by air called it a “soft slab” avalanche that could have been triggered by a snowmobile. The slide was given a D3 classification, which means the avalanche had the potential to bury and destroy a car or wood frame house, damage a truck or break trees.
The death of the Montana snowmobiler is the latest in a list of avalanche fatalities that have risen alarmingly in the United States in the past two decades. The reason for the increase, authorities say, is the increase in winter sports equipment which have made steep terrain and back country trails accessible to more winter enthusiasts with less experience. Another factor in the escalation of the mortality rate is simply the numbers of winter sports enthusiasts now, and the rise in popularity of relatively new winter sports such as snowboarding and snowmobiling.
By Chuck Podhaisky