Recovery brings into focus efforts of local search and rescue

By Tyler Allen EBS Managing Editor

BIG SKY – The news of the country’s first avalanche fatality of the season, in Big Sky’s backyard, sent shockwaves around the world.

A slide on Imp Peak in the southern Madison Range, on Saturday, Oct. 7, claimed the life of 23-year-old Inge Perkins of Bozeman. Her boyfriend Hayden Kennedy, 27, was also caught and partially buried.

Inge Perkins and Hayden Kennedy on the summit of Ross Peak
in the Bridger Mountains in September. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE KENNEDY FAMILY

According to a statement released by the Kennedy family, “Hayden survived the avalanche but not the unbearable loss of his partner in life. He chose to end his life.” Kennedy, from Carbondale, Colorado, was considered one of the preeminent American alpinists and had recently moved to Bozeman to work on his EMT certification.

News of the elite athletes’ deaths swept social media beginning Monday night, and by Wednesday morning feature stories appeared on national media outlets including Adventure Journal, Outside, Powder and Climbing, where Hayden’s father Michael Kennedy served for decades as editor-in-chief.

Hayden Kennedy was an accomplished rock climber before he took his talent to the world’s high peaks, completing astonishing ascents from Patagonia to the Himalayas. Perkins was an avid climber and skier, and had been building her own impressive resume in the mountains before her death.

Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center forecasters Doug Chabot and Alex Marienthal conducted the investigation Monday, and released a statement Tuesday describing the incident:

On Saturday, Kennedy and Perkins hiked 6 miles from the Upper Taylor Fork trailhead to Imp Peak. Near the bottom of the mountain’s north couloir, around 10,000 feet, they triggered an avalanche while ascending on skis with skins.

The avalanche was 1 to 2 feet deep at the crown, approximately 150 feet wide, and 300 feet long. The slope where the avalanche released was 38 to 45 degrees with a north-northeast aspect.

This area had received approximately 1 foot of snow since Oct. 1, which collected on top of 3 to 4 feet of dense snow that had fallen since Sept. 15. The avalanche was a hard slab of wind-drifted snow that collapsed on a layer of soft old snow underneath, and slid on the old snow from late September.

According to Chabot, Perkins had an avalanche transceiver with her, but it was in her backpack and turned off at the time of the accident.

Chabot said they’ll never know why she wasn’t wearing her beacon. “Our only hope is wearing it,” Chabot said, referencing survival odds in an avalanche. “It wasn’t an enormous avalanche, but it was deep enough to bury someone, and being a hard slab it’s that much more deadly.”

This was the second-earliest avalanche fatality in the U.S. since 1970, according to information provided to Chabot from Dale Atkins, one of the world’s foremost avalanche experts. Atkins spent nearly two decades as the lead forecaster of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

Before this accident, the earliest avalanche fatality in the GNFAC forecasting region of southwest Montana was Oct. 30, 2004, when a climber was partially buried and killed on Sphinx Mountain, also in the southern Madison Range. Aside from that incident, the earliest fatality in southwest Montana was around Thanksgiving, according to Chabot.

The Recovery

Big Sky Search and Rescue member Andy Dreisbach received the call at 5 a.m. Monday morning. By 10:30 a.m. he was loading his gear in a helicopter at the intersection of Taylor Fork and Wapiti Creek roads. When he arrived at the scene, Chabot and other SAR responders, who’d been shuttled in during the first two flights, were probing the avalanche debris.

Perkins’ body was found underneath 3 feet of snow, according to Dreisbach. Responders loaded her body into a cargo net, which was long-lined from the scene by helicopter. Perkins likely died of trauma.

Dreisbach has volunteered for Big Sky Search and Rescue—a division of Gallatin County Search and Rescue—for seven years and started his SAR career as an 18-year-old on New Hampshire’s Mount Washington. Yet he still became emotional recounting this recent recovery and the questions he fielded from his 7-year-old son Tor.

“‘Dad, did you get ‘em?’ Yeah. ‘Are they alright?’ I’ve had better days. I’ve had better days, bud,” Dreisbach recalled. “You know, he’s 7. He’s not a boy in a bubble—but suicide. That’s a whole different creature to come home with.

“And I don’t think about it much, because I’ve been doing search and rescue for a while and I [ski] patrolled for a long time,” he said. “When it gets hotter you gotta get cooler. You don’t have time to get emotional about it, you just have to go through the motions and what you’re trained to do.”

Jason Jarrett is a captain with the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office and has been commander of Gallatin County Search and Rescue for two decades. He said it’s difficult to get SAR responders to talk about what they do, calling it “quiet competence.” They are “team over self,” who don’t readily open up to outsiders about the difficult work they do, he says.

“The bottom line of it is that the people that are in search and rescue—and we have world class members because that’s who lives here—unanimously do this for their support of the active outdoor lifestyle,” Jarrett said. “And when things go bad, these are the people you want coming to look for you.”

Jarrett says that, like Perkins and Kennedy, the vast majority of people rescued by SAR teams are skilled individuals that have a bad day in a remote setting.

“When you blow your knee out in Taylor Fork, there are good people that are willing to come get you. Because we would rather have you hiking Taylor Fork than hiding out in your basement eating Twinkies.”

“We all do what we can, and this is something I can do,” Dreisbach said. “I don’t want to put it above the person who’s volunteering at the library—I can’t do the Dewey Decimal system, but I can do this.”

Winter weather has come early to southwest Montana and that means snow enthusiasts are heading into the high peaks unusually early. But the excitement of early season skiing comes with caveats, especially given the potential structure of the snowpack this winter.

“Historically when we have early season snow that sticks around it turns to facets,” said Chabot, referring to large grain crystals like depth hoar that can be a persistent concern throughout the winter. “It causes me heartburn—I want to be proven wrong.

“We want to state the obvious: any time we have fresh snow and wind we have to think about avalanches,” he said. “And we have to treat the early season like the middle of the season—carry a beacon, shovel and probe.”

Visit mtavalanche.com for more information on the Oct. 7 accident, or to sign up for the daily advisory email.

Editor’s note: EBS Managing Editor Tyler Allen also serves on the board of the Friends of the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center.