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Two killed in backcountry avalanches this week

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Five Montana fatalities since Jan. 1

By Tyler Allen Explore Big Sky Associate Editor

An 18-year-old man from Lake Lillian, Minn. died in an avalanche Tuesday afternoon near Cooke City, Mont. The victim was on the northwest slope of Crown Butte when another snowmobiler in his party likely triggered the slide, possibly remotely.

Cooke City Search and Rescue recovered the victim’s body at 5:10 p.m. beneath six feet of snow at the toe of the slide, according to the Park County Sheriff’s Department. The avalanche was estimated to be 500 feet wide and 600 feet long. Neither the victim, nor anyone in his party, was wearing an avalanche beacon.

This was the second avalanche fatality in western Montana in three days, and the fifth since Jan 1.

On Sunday afternoon, Bozeman native Peter Maxwell, 27, was killed in an avalanche near Philipsburg, outside of the GNFAC forecast area. Maxwell lived in Missoula and was a children’s ski coach at Discovery Basin Ski Area in Anaconda. He was skiing in a remote area near Altoona Lakes when he likely triggered the slide, according to the Granite County Sheriff Scott Dunkerson. Search and rescue, the sheriffs department and local volunteers responded to the scene.

Since Jan. 1, there have been five avalanche fatalities in Montana. Two of those occurred in the GNFAC advisory area, both during avalanche warnings.

“Our snowpack is worse than last year,” GNFAC Director Doug Chabot told EBS on March 12 about avalanche conditions in the advisory area, noting there wasn’t a single Montana avalanche fatality last season. “We formed some weak layers early in the season, and the second factor is we’ve had lots of snow.”

The center has issued five separate avalanche warnings this season, more than during any of the last 10 years, Chabot said. It has issued five separate warnings so far this year.

Cooke City is an area of particular concern in southwest Montana, he added because of the easy access snowmobilers have to dangerous terrain.

“One of the hardest things for people to understand is that places like Cooke City, if you leave the groomed trail you’re almost always in avalanche terrain,” Chabot said. “You leave that groomed trail and all bets are off.”

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