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Report: Mont. avalanche victim ignored warning

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) – Two Montana men killed in avalanches near Cooke City last weekend knew the avalanche danger in the area was high, and one didn’t heed a warning from two other skiers who had turned back after triggering a snow slide that buried one of them up to their waist, investigators said.

“We see it time and again,” said Mark Staples with the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center. “It’s rare that things are subtle. We see the clues, but we choose to ignore them. I’ve been guilty of it, too.”

The center’s investigation also found a snowmobiler who died triggered an avalanche as he climbed up the northeast face of Henderson Mountain, The Billings Gazette ( reported Friday.

The avalanche center said 3 feet of snow had fallen in the area over the previous 72 hours, with winds gusting up to 70 mph, creating unstable conditions.

The report on the death of Dave Gaillard, 44, of Bozeman, said he and his wife, Kerry, had followed the tracks of two other backcountry skiers out of Cooke City on the morning of Dec. 31. About 1.5 miles into their trip, the Gaillards encountered the other skiers who said they turned around at the Wyoming border after triggering a slide on a steep hill.

The Gaillards continued to the end of the other skiers’ tracks at the border, where they turned on their avalanche transceivers.

Kerry Corcoran Gaillard told investigators they were nervous because the snow kept collapsing as they skied, the report said. She said they were looking for a place to eat lunch when the avalanche hit at 2:20 p.m., burying her husband.

Kerry Gaillard turned her transceiver to “receive,” but the unit’s batteries were weak and she was unable to locate him. She went back to Cooke City to report the avalanche at about 5 p.m.

The couple’s Welsh corgi, Ole, also was buried by the slide, but was somehow able to dig himself out and return to Cooke City on Wednesday, the report said.

Just before noon Saturday, Jody Ray Verhasselt, 46, of Sidney, triggered an avalanche while riding up the side of a mountain. He was able to turn around but was caught as he descended the slope.

Erik Knoff with the avalanche center said he witnessed the slide from about a mile away and used his hand-held radio to call search and rescue before skiing to the scene.

Verhasselt’s son and another rider were able to find Verhasselt and dig him out within 10 to 12 minutes but were unable to revive him.

All three were experienced in mountain snowmobiling, had ridden in the area before and knew how to use the rescue gear they carried, the report said.

The snowpack remains weak across southern Montana following the heavy snows last week.

“It would be easy to think that it’s so warm that it’s making the snowpack better, helping it bond,” Staples said. “But anything other than direct sunlight on a south-facing slope, it was still powder.”

The instability could remain for the rest of the winter, he said.

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)