Avalanche death raises backcountry safety awareness




Posted on January 24, 2010 at 1:46 PM

KETCHUM -- It's devastating news in the Wood River Valley after a Ketchum man was killed in an avalanche while skiing on Bald Mountain.

Timothy Michaels, 55, was skiing in an off-trail area, but within bounds of the ski resort when he was buried under five feet of snow.

The avalanche was 40 to 50 feet wide and about 200 vertical feet.

Rescue crews were able to find Michaels and dig him out within 15 minutes because he was wearing a beacon, but despite their efforts Michaels died.

Avalanche danger is extremely high right now, that according to officials with the Sawtooth National Forrest Avalanche Control Center. We're told that both in bounds and out of bounds can be dangerous right now.

"This year is a particularly bad snow year for avalanche danger,” said Janet Kellam, the director of the Sawtooth Avalanche Center. “We had early snow and then it sat in very cold temperatures and that's created a very weak base to the snow pack."

On Friday afternoon, that bad snow pack gave way, killing Michaels.

Kellam couldn’t talk about this particular accident, but she knows the effort and work it takes to keep avalanches from happening more often.

"Snow control work has been going on just about everyday extensively at the ski area,” Kellam said. “There's no avalanche control in the back country, and so that's what we like to emphasize to people, is out of bounds at a ski area, you should not be there right now. It's very dangerous."

But despite their best efforts there's always a chance accidents like this can happen.

"You can never make it zero,” Kellam said. “We have extremely challenging snow packs the last few years, and they do a great job."

Yesterday's death in an area considered in bounds doesn't happen very often, but it can happen, as proven in this recent tragic accident.

Kellam said that around 6 p.m. Saturday, there was another avalanche east of the Wood River on Mind Bender ridge just outside of Hailey.

She said avalanches occur there each year under certain conditions and are expected.

Kellam said this wasn't a big cycle but the weak snow pack has made for an "unusual winter."

If you plan on skiing, boarding, snowmobiling or doing any sort of activity in the back country, there are some things you should keep your eyes open for. 

Here's what the the Forest Service National Avalanche Center recommends:

-Be ready to change your plans when conditions change.

-Make sure everyone in the group is on the same page.

-Ski or board one person at a time.